Back in October 2010, famed atheist Christopher Hitchens and Christian author and speaker Larry Alex Taunton met at the packed Babcock Theatre in downtown Billings for a lively debate.
The two men, friends away from the debating stage, ate dinner together that night. The next day they enjoyed a seven-hour drive through Yellowstone National Park.
Fourteen months later, Hitchens died from complications related to esophageal cancer. Now Taunton has written a book about his relationship with Hitchens, their road trips together and the Billings debate, which he calls “pivotal.”
Taunton, executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation in Birmingham, Ala., will return to the Babcock stage on Thursday to speak about the his book “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist.” The talk will begin at 7 p.m., and tickets are $5 at the door.
“We thought, 'Wouldn’t it be cool to launch the book from the very stage where that debate took place?'” Taunton said in a telephone interview. “I’ll be recounting that evening, showing some clips from it and then do a Q-and-A and a book signing.”
What many people who attended the 2014 debate may not have realized is that there were a lot of gestures, comments and statements between the two men that only they understood.
“Some of it is very funny, some deadly earnest,” Taunton said. “They are references to private conversations or other things."
He will point those moments out during his talk. Even people who didn’t make it to the debate will find it interesting, he said.
“Whether you’re a Christian or a fan of Christopher Hitchens, I think you’re going to love this book, and I think you’re going to love this presentation.”
People on both sides of the Christian-atheist debate have praised the book. Well-known Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias has endorsed it, Taunton said, and Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine has been quoted as saying, “This book should be read by every atheist and theist passionate about the truth.”
Taunton, who founded Fixed Point, is in his 11th year leading the nonprofit. It came out of his increasing frustration with the way Christianity was represented in the media, “either by people who claimed to be Christians or by the mischaracterization, often in major media outlets.”
He wanted to counter negative stereotypes, like the Church Lady, portrayed by Dana Carvey on “Saturday Night Live,” or the hateful words spewed by religious organizations such as the Westboro Baptist Church.
“I wanted to see a Christianity that engaged the world, that had intellectual teeth, and do so in a way that was fair, open, thoughtful,” Taunton said. “I didn’t really know if that would resonate, but I’ve been pretty busy for the last decade.”
Taunton writes for publications including The Atlantic and USA Today, and appears on cable news outlets and on radio programs. Last year he debated with a Muslim cleric on Al Jazeera before an audience of 260 million people.
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He splits his time between the United States and Europe. Taunton has debated well-known British atheist Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” four times, and developed a friendship, as he did with Hitchens.
Maybe that’s because of the way he approaches his defense of Christianity. Taunton quotes I Peter 3:15 out of the New Testament: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
“That’s a very hard line to walk,” he said. “How do you defend your position and be gentle and respectful? That’s hard.”
The tendency among some Christians is to be all defense and no gentleness or respect, he said. Others lean toward gentleness with respect, but compromise everything they believe.
“I didn’t compromise anything on stage with Christopher, debating Christopher,” he said. “But I didn’t attack the man. I wanted to be ruthless with the ideas he held to, but respectful to the man. I cared about the man.”
The pair's history
Taunton first met Hitchens when Taunton was asked by the organizers of the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland to sponsor a debate that featured Hitchens and Oxford professor of mathematics John Lennox, a Christian apologist.
From Hitchens’ writing and TV interviews, Taunton expected to encounter a mean, hateful man. Instead Hitchens walked straight into Taunton’s hotel room, as if he were continuing a conversation the two had been previously having.
Hitchens was upset about something the archbishop of Canterbury had done. He asked Taunton, "Whatever happened to the Church of England that believed in something?”
Taunton told Hitchens he sounded like he was nostalgic for a church that took the Bible seriously.
“He turned to me and said, ‘Perhaps I am,’ " Taunton said.
Over the next several years, the two saw each other at various events, and their friendship grew. All that culminated in their debate in Billings.
Taunton plans to share his insights into Hitchens while in Billings. There’s so much more to him than the witty atheist that people saw on the stage, he said.
"You get him away from the fans and the cameras and microphones, and Christopher was a different person," Taunton said.