This is a guest post by Mark Kolsen. He resides in Chicago and is a regular contributor to American Atheist Magazine.
Why do evangelical Christians, whose Commandments include “Thou shalt not lie,” continue spreading lies about deceased atheist luminaries?
Most recently, in 2016, evangelist Larry Taunton published a highly publicized and much reviewed book claiming that while Christopher Hitchens “was railing about God from the rostrum, he was secretly negotiating with him.” Taunton clearly implied that Hitchens had converted to Christianity on his deathbed, if not before. Given overwhelming evidence to the contrary — including testimony from Hitchens’ son and others present at his death — Taunton’s claim was preposterous and ridiculed by numerous commentators, including some Christians. Criticism was so scathing that Taunton has attempted to back away from his claims.
Taunton’s book was nothing new. As one commentator has noted, “There is a long tradition of religious proselytizers spreading tales of infidels who run into the bosom of Abraham at the sight of the abyss, and an accompanying literary genre (mostly fiction) of deathbed conversion narratives.” Thomas Paine, David Hume, Charles Darwin, and Robert Ingersoll, among many other luminaries, have elicited fairy tale conversions in the minds of evangelicals. Almost all tales were created by those who were not present at the deathbeds, and almost all tales were refuted by those who were present. An elderly priest once said, “In all my years as a priest, I have yet to see even one deathbed conversion.”
Why, despite their lack of evidence, do evangelicals continue to weave tales about deathbed conversions?
As Lawrence Krauss recently observed, the motive for these allegations is fairly obvious: If evangelicals “can claim that people they admire as intellects — Darwin, Wilde, Hitchens, etc. — ultimately agree with them, it validates their own faith.” Or so they think. In their desperate attempt to identify dying atheist converts, evangelicals unwittingly embarrass themselves since, Krauss notes, “converting the deceased suggests only that they can’t convince those who can argue back.”
Atheist deathbed conversion myths also deflect attention from the large number of Christian converts to atheism, or the fact that “Today, young adults are more likely to know an atheist than an evangelical Christian.”
Despite the paucity of evidence for atheist deathbed conversions, the claim has intrigued people who should know better. Taunton’s character assassination of Hitchens was praised by the likes of Chris Matthews and David Horowitz; it also received a favorable review in the New York Times.
Academics have conducted experiments testing the strength of atheists’ beliefs. University of Otago (New Zealand) Professor Jonathan Jong conducted an implicit association test in which 71 students were presented a series of nouns and instructed to categorize them as “real” or “imaginary” as quickly as possible. When non-believers were asked to think about their mortality, they were relatively slow “to label concepts as ‘god’ and ‘heaven’ as imaginary.” Jong concluded that atheists facing death are more likely to doubt their beliefs. His conclusion was challenged by University of Missouri researcher Kenneth Vail, who, with several associates, conducted several experiments that distinguished between Agnostics and atheists, and concluded that “the notion of death did not increase atheists’ very low levels of religiosity or belief in a higher power.” Vail believes that if there is a “psychological problem with death,” atheists seem to know how to cope with it.
Of course, some have convincingly argued that even if atheist deathbed conversions do exist, they don’t mean much. For example, reiterating arguments made by Hitchens and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, Damon Linker says, “… the terrified irrational effusions of a man facing his own extinction are no more to be trusted than a blind man’s account of a crime scene: each witness lacks the capacity to perceive, make sense of, and accurately judge the essential facts. Far more reliable are the sober, critical reflections of a man in good health, protected from danger, insulated from threats of his well-being.” In other words, one should give no more credence to a deathbed conversion than to a POW’s alleged confessions of treason.
While Linker’s point is well taken, it seems to me that atheists have let Taunton — and other evangelical storytellers — off the hook too easily. The Guardian‘s Nick Cohen minces no words when he says evangelicals like Taunton “move from the extremely seedy to the outright creepy: from vultures to vampires.” But he omits mention of the effects these “vampires” have on families and friends of the deceased. Evangelicals need to be excoriated not just for their lack of evidence or self-serving fantasies but also from their blatant insensitivity of the survivors of the deceased. Krauss says, “Let the dead rest in peace.” True, but what about the living, especially living family members? If atheists began spinning fairy tales about dead evangelists, you can bet that evangelicals would argue that atheists not only lack evidence, but have no respect for, and are inflicting pain upon, the deceased families.
Consider the case of Charles Darwin. In his definitive history of Darwin’s alleged conversion, James Moore describes how, after Darwin’s death, his family was “sensitive to the slightest stain on Darwin’s reputation.” They debated what correspondence should be included in his posthumous autobiography, Life and Letters, and went to great pains to depict Darwin as a “modest, hesitant agnostic who reluctantly gave up Christianity for lack of historical evidence.” They wanted the book to preserve Darwin’s honor in a predominantly theist society.
In 1915, evangelist Elizabeth Cotton — aka “Lady Hope” —
began spinning her tale about Darwin’s alleged deathbed conversion, a tale that spread like wildfire among evangelists, and, according to Moore, “still flourishes in evangelical books, tracts and magazines — and even occasionally on television.” Moore marshals evidence that refutes Lady Hope’s tale, a tale which, in his words, shows “how credulous even educated people can be.” But while Moore documents how the family was “aggrieved,” “very angry,” and “incensed,” he only says that their reaction was “understandable” and expresses no moral outrage at the evangelicals’ effects on them. Instead, he argues that the family was “too complacent,” allowed Fundamentalists to set the terms of the debate,” and “merely promoted their own sanitized portrait of Darwin.”
But was it really the family’s responsibility to counter fairy tales? Would it not be more fitting for Moore to step back from “the debate” and question not only the motives but also the ethics of these evangelicals? And to the degree that atheists have an interest in countering these tales — lies —
which is a more effective tactic: To keep marshaling “evidence” — as the media do every time Donald Trump lies — or to challenge evangelicals’ own character and morals, as Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake have done with Trump?
Again, consider Hitchens. Although he had been sick for a while, his cancer had gone into remission, and everyone was expecting him to live longer when he caught an extremely virulent strain of pneumonia that suddenly killed him. According to Carol Blue, his wife, Hitch’s death came as “quite a shock”; she only knew he would die “about 20 hours before” he did. When she does interviews, one can sense the pain she feels in talking about her partner of 24 years.
Yet, during these interviews, no one asks “Aren’t you outraged at evangelical claims about Hitch’s ‘conversion’? What do these claims tell you about the character of evangelicals themselves? And shouldn’t we accuse them of violating their own faith?” Instead, although she has privately expressed “disgust,” the expectation is that Blue will keep a stiff upper lip, talk about Hitch, and perhaps reiterate the “evidence” if the issue arises. Among the many Taunton critics I’ve read, only one has mentioned the reference to “that bloody book” (i.e. Taunton’s book) by Alexander, Hitch’s son. And none have explored the emotional impact on Alexander or other family members.
Anticipating evangelical fairy tales does little to stop them. When asked about potential conversion tales about his death, Hitchens said, “Don’t believe them.” When David Hume died, Adam Smith, his best friend, wrote a eulogy that made clear Hume “had no need for other worldly comforts and consolations” and that, to the end, Hume defended “the possibility and morality of a life without religion.” Smith said his eulogy “brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the commercial system of Great Britain.” And Hume conversion tales exist to this day. Also hoping to forestall evangelical conversion tales, Richard Dawkins has said he intends to videotape his death.
But will even video replays inhibit the wishful thinkers of the evangelical world? I think not. And I also think that the families and friends should not be asked to turn the other cheek if “the evidence” does not silence evangelicals. It’s time for atheists to tell evangelicals that their conversion tales distress the descendants and that, consistent with their own theology, they can go to hell.
(Screenshot via YouTube)