Walnut Creek, Calif. — Last month at a debate in Berkeley, Christopher Hitchens ranted for the better part of two hours with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges over the value of faith.
Shouting Hedges down and hurling profanities at audience members who chided him for his support for the Iraq war, the celebrated author reached his crescendo ahead of schedule and stalked off the stage - although the sight of him puffing away backstage made one wonder whether that was one of his trademark dramaticisms or whether he couldn't hold out another minute for a smoke.
Hitchens, 58, has unleashed his mighty ego on a book tour plugging his latest opus, "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."
As the fog settled over San Francisco the next morning, another Hitchens emerged, a bit bleary of eye and considerably more accommodating.
He poured coffee for his guests and listened thoughtfully to questions. He acquiesced to a photographer's directions in the grand archway of San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel, where north light illuminated his pale blue eyes.
"This always makes me feel terribly silly," he said, posing for his close-up.
He wore the same silver suit he wore the night before, now more rumpled. Spots decked his purple shirt, and swollen red rings rimmed his eyes. Several applications of eye drops later, he gave up and put on a pair of sunglasses.
A bottle of Jim Beam shared space with a bottle of Evian on his hotel room table.
English-born and Oxford-educated, Hitchens is legendary for his ability to function on vast quantities of liquor.
Indeed, he hadn't forgotten much from the previous evening's debate. And he was still angry at Hedges, whom he called contemptible for describing Palestinian suicide bombers as driven by despair.
"(Expletive) putz," he murmured.
He quietly confirmed that he has known religious people who exemplified their faith, like the Greek bishop in Albania whom he describes as "saintly."
"I've asked myself, without religion would we be nicer?" he muses.
God, he says, is "man-made - cruel and contradictory. And so are we. It's exactly what you would expect."
Journalist Jeff Blankfort of public radio's "Connecting the Dots" has interviewed Hitchens a number of times, and the two have remained in communication.
"He is a mass of contradictions," Blankfort said, "as much a bloodthirsty armchair warrior as any East Coast neocon who would go soft in the bowels if thrust into combat - but who has no qualms in letting others do it and pay the consequences.
"And yet, he demonstrates, at times, an ability to see the contradictions in others."
The book is jumping off the shelves faster than Humpty Dumpty off the wall, but draws mixed reviews. Hitchens' hometown paper in the United Kingdom says that "in toppling one god, he replaces him with another - himself."
That sounded about right to Hedges. A call to the longtime foreign correspondent at his home in New Jersey found him still stinging.
Was that a debate?
"Ugh - no," he said. "I kept it together, but I was very angry. He was insulting and rude - and racist. The things he said about Muslims were really disturbing."
But Hitchens says he speaks as a man who has been on the wrong end of a fatwa - once for simply allowing author Salman Rushdie to bed down at Hitchens' apartment.
"I don't make anything of it because everyone in this country gets delivered a fatwa," he says.
And he is no bully.
Rather, he is a protector of innocence: "When we consider whether religion has 'done more harm that good,'" he writes in "god," "we are faced with an imponderably large question. How can we ever know how many children had their psychological and physical lives irreparably maimed by the compulsory inculcation of faith?"
Religion, with its barbed-wire playsuit of threats and admonishments, keeps children in a perpetual state of terror, Hitchens claims. They're told their loved ones will suffer the flames of hell if they have not been baptized, or baptized in the wrong faith. They're warned away from the imaginary perils of masturbation, and driven to self-loathing that comes along with tagging a healthy and necessary biological process - menses - "a curse."
Shards and scraps
Hitchens brooks no allowances for progressive denominations. That includes black churches, from which many would argue the civil rights movement sprang.
White people make the condescending assumption that "black people would prefer to be led by ministers than anyone else," leading media to seek out charlatans rather than intellectuals to speak for blacks.
"You can say Farrakhan's gang gets people off drugs. How feeble must people be? I think they would be better off on drugs."
He calls the Bible "an extremely crudely fashioned fabrication - a heap of shards and scraps.
"Like the Quran, it's piffle," he says.
That would include the Book of Revelation, added 70 years later. But Hitchens adopts the scorching prose style of Revelation to blistering effect in his own end-of-the-world scenario: the one predicted by scientists when the sun dies its natural death in 5 billion years.
"Mark your calendars," he writes. "At around that point, it will emulate millions of other suns and explosively mutate into a swollen 'red giant,' causing the earth's oceans to boil and extinguishing all possibility of life in any form. No description by any prophet or visionary has even begun to picture the awful intensity and irrevocability of that moment."
Hitchens listened as a guest reads the passage aloud, then sighed with quiet pleasure.
"I'd like to think I could outwrite St. John the Divine," he says.