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Christopher Hitchens Takes on God

The psalmist writes, "the fool has said in his heart, there is no God." It takes a certain sang-froid to quote this verse in a book promoting atheism, butto the journalist Christopher Hitchens it's an opportunity to remind his readers that in the iron-fisted Kingdom of Judea, "it would perhaps have been a fool who did not keep this conclusion buried deep inside." Today the risks associated with heresy are smaller, although not negligible. Just ask the novelist Salman Rushdie, who spent a decade under fatwa of death for apostasy—or Hitchens himself, who was warned of possible reprisals merely for having Rushdie stay in his apartment. After a lifetime of iconoclasm, Hitchens finally takes on, in his new book, "God Is Not Great," the Father of all icons. Now the world can judge what's in his heart.

Vitriol, of course, but the British-born Hitchens, who now lives in Washington and writes for Vanity Fair, Slate and other publications, has long been known for that. "Religion poisons everything," he expostulates (italics his)—from such minor pleasures as a slice of ham (Hitchens's mother and wife were born Jewish), up through sex, and on to the future of life on Earth, whose end is both predicted and welcomed by fundamentalists of all stripes. "Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience."

These arguments are familiar from two recent best sellers, "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins's "The God Delusion." Compared with these, "God Is Not Great" is both more political and more personal in its attacks on believers. Politically, Hitchens has a keen eye for the ways in which the godly ease the paths of the powerful, or even just celebrities: how Mother Teresa campaigned to defeat a law to allow divorce for the ordinary citizens of Ireland but approved it for her friend Princess Diana. The book comes at a time when Hitchens has alienated many of his former allies by supporting the war against Saddam Hussein—who, he writes, was not the secular leader of an Arab nation-state but "had decked out his whole rule ... as one of piety and jihad." One might naively imagine that an attack on fundamentalism would help restore his credentials on the left, but Hitchens is under no such illusion. "This book is a repudiation of left-liberal weak-mindedness," he says in an interview, in particular the tendency to see Islam as a religion of the oppressed and to excuse its radical excesses. "It will probably make [the left] hate me more. If that's possible."

In person Hitchens can be charming; he insists on roasting a chicken in his home for a reporter's lunch rather than being taken to a restaurant (albeit, because that way he can smoke with his meal). But he is fierce in argument. "I don't think Richard [Dawkins] would mind my saying that he's terribly rude to [believers]," Hitchens says, but in a debate over religion last month in London, where the two were on the same side, it was Hitchens who was caught mouthing the word "wanker" at his opponents. "God Is Not Great" leaves no major religious figure of the last hundred years unscathed. Not Gandhi (instead of "a modern secular nationalist leader [India] got a fakir and guru"). Not the Dalai Lama ("he makes absurd pronouncements about sex and diet and ... anoints major donors like Steven Seagal and Richard Gere as holy"). Not Billy Graham ("His absurd sermon [at the National Cathedral after 9/11] made the claim that all the dead were now in paradise and would not return to us if they could. I say absurd because it is impossible ... to believe that a good number of sinful citizens had not been murdered that day"). Hitchens is entitled to his judgments, but in fact Graham, on a recording of the sermon posted on his Web site, makes the distinctly less fatuous claim that "many" of the victims were in heaven.

But who's counting? Not Hitchens, who considers heaven a ridiculous and potentially dangerous fantasy in any case. His occasional posture in this book is of a mild-mannered academic drawn reluctantly to combat the gross idiocies and superstitions of the faithful. This would seem to be contradicted by the zest with which he has been known to give the middle finger to audiences who disagree with him. They get off lightly, compared with God.