Conversions: the good, the bad and the dubious

When Christian writer Larry Taunton wrote a memoir of his friendship with Christopher Hitchens, one of the ‘four horsemen’ of new atheism, and called it The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, knowingly or unknowingly he had written a book spoiling for a fight. Hitchens famously said, shortly before his death from cancer in 2011, that if he ever made a religious confession it would be because the cancer had gone to his brain.

Taunton’s book did not overtly claim that Hitchens had found faith, but it reported a road trip shared by the two men during which they spent several hours reading passages from the Gospel of John. That and the book’s rather misleading title was enough to draw outrage from Richard Dawkins, among others. Dawkins called Taunton ‘a vulture’ and quoted Taunton’s suggestion that Hitchens’ public persona was not the real Hitchens. Taunton talks about his book in this interview with Christianity magazine.

For the avoidance of doubt, in 2012, Hitchens’ wife, Carol Blue, definitively stated that Hitchens had not experienced a deathbed conversion. ‘He lived by his principles until the end,’ she said. ‘To be honest, the subject of God didn’t come up.’

Conversions to the Christian faith go back to the original Damascus Road experience, when Saul (later Paul, the apostle), was struck down outside Damascus and became a fervent follower of Jesus Christ. Although there have been spurious claims of deathbed conversions in the past – such as for Charles Darwin – there have been many stories of genuine conversion by people who were very much alive. Here are four conversion stories from the 20th and 21st centuries:

CS Lewis was a convinced atheist in his late teens and 20s. At the age of 17 he wrote to a friend: ‘I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.’ But at Oxford, through his reading of authors such as George MacDonald and GK Chesterton, and through conversations with his friend and fellow-writer JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis became a Christian. It was a slow process, and Lewis was a highly reluctant convert, ‘kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape’, as he later described it. CS Lewis’ Journey to Faith gives the reasons for his conversion, and see this post on The Tolkien Letters for more on the relationship of Lewis and Tolkien.

Anthony Flew was a rationalist philosopher who was famously an atheist for the majority of his life. But in 2004, at the age of 81, he announced that he had finally been convinced by the case for God, partly because he believed that the ‘unbelievable complexity of the arrangements needed to produce life’ meant that intelligence must have been involved. The book about his conversion, There is a God, which is subtitled, How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, was published in 2007. Flew died in 2010. His obituary tells the story of his conversion, and for a more philosophical account, see A Change of Mind for Antony Flew by Peter S Williams.

Holly Ordway, a professor of English in Texas, became convinced there was no God, and no spiritual reality behind the physical universe, by her mid-20s. ‘I thought I was just an intelligent animal, and that when I died, my consciousness would simply blink out.’ Her journey to faith came about not through philosophical argument or reading the Bible, but through the imagination. Reading the poetry of John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the novels of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, she came to see her atheist view of the world as ‘narrow and flat; it could not explain why I was moved by beauty and cared about truth’. Read an interview with Holly Ordway and see her book, Not God’s Type.

AN Wilson, the English author and columnist, was, ironically enough, converted to atheism after he had written a biography of CS Lewis. His story is worth reading for its accounts of conversion both from and to the Christian faith. Writing about his first conversion, he says: ‘I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me…the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world.’ His return to faith was ‘slow, hesitant, doubting’. Read Wilson’s own account of his two conversions in Why I believe again.

Image: The conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus, Cathedral of St Paul, Liege, France