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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Lynn Neary. In his lifetime, the writer Christopher Hitchens fixed his devastating gaze on the likes of Henry Kissinger, the Clintons and even Mother Teresa. When he wrote about public figures and politics, people listened. But his most lasting legacy may be his atheism. Hitchens died yesterday of esophageal cancer at age 62. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has this story about his long duel with what he considered the world's most dangerous threat: religion.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: It was not trauma or disillusion that propelled Christopher Hitchens into a life of unbelief. It was Mrs. Jean Watts, who taught nature class at Hitchens' boarding school when he was 9 years old. In a C-SPAN interview, he said Mrs. Watts explained that God had made the grass and the leaves green as a gift to mankind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: And she says, this is an excellent thing and proof of the glory of God because he could have made the vegetation orange or red or something that would really clash with our eyes, whereas green is the most restful color for our eyes. And I sat there in my little corduroy shorts, and I thought that's absolute nonsense.

HAGERTY: From that moment, Hitchens began a lifelong battle with a god he did not believe in.

PETER HITCHENS: I think deep down he understood that this was the most crucial question.

HAGERTY: Christopher Hitchens' younger brother, Peter.

HITCHENS: Is man the creation of a benevolent god in an ordered universe or is he entirely on his own? And all the things flow from that. And he'd spotted it as being the fundamental question and decided to pursue it.

HAGERTY: Over the next few years, Hitchens discovered that words could function as weapons, as he put it. He honed his skills at Oxford and later in the United States as a writer and debater. His antipathy toward religion became intensely personal in 1989, after the Ayatollah Khomeini declared that Salman Rushdie should be killed for writing his book "The Satanic Verses." Rushdie was a close friend, and Hitchens told NPR that fatwa persuaded him that Islamic fundamentalism was an urgent menace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HITCHENS: You know, it was money offered in public by a theocratic leader for - to suborn the murder of a novelist, a pretty extreme challenge to all the things that I like from all the things that I hate.

HAGERTY: It was not merely Islamic fundamentalism that worried Hitchens. He viewed all believers as deluded at best and fanatical at worst, even the saints. And so in typical Hitchens fashion, his next target was an icon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HITCHENS: What makes Teresa of Calcutta so divine?

HAGERTY: In his documentary about Mother Teresa and his 1995 book entitled "Missionary Position," Hitchens reviled the diminutive nun as an ambitious self-promoter who took money from dictators and criminals. Here's how he described her to NPR shortly after her death.

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HITCHENS: Mother Teresa is a very important figure, it seemed to me, to expose as what she was: a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud. She was someone whose net effect was to make more people more poor and more miserable and more wretched.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: You know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOLDBERG: ...a lot of us were sort of like, yeah, Mother Teresa - it's Mother Teresa, leave her alone. What are you going to do?

HAGERTY: Jeffrey Goldberg was a close friend and colleague.

GOLDBERG: When that Mother Teresa book came out, I thought, who next? The Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, God?

HAGERTY: Yes, God. With his 2007 book "God Is Not Great," Hitchens became a voice for a growing atheist movement. He delighted crowds like this one at a book signing in Washington, D.C., ridiculing believers for rejoicing in an omniscient, omnipotent god, when he said the reign of this supposed god is akin to North Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HITCHENS: An absolutely impermeable dictatorship that couldn't even be criticized, let alone overthrown, that went on forever, that supervised and invigilated your every waking moment and would not stop torturing you even after you were dead. To wish this to be true is to wish to be a slave.

HAGERTY: "God Is Not Great" became an instant bestseller and catapulted Hitchens from a highly regarded intellectual to an international sensation.

DINESH D'SOUZA: I would say that Hitchens became the most well-known atheist in America.

HAGERTY: Dinesh D'Souza, president of the evangelical King's College in New York, was one of a few religious believers who dared to debate Hitchens. By all accounts, Hitchens was a devastating debater, seizing on logical weaknesses and often dominating the conversation with his words and his Oxford accent. Listen to this exchange at the University of Colorado in 2009, when D'Souza was trying to explain the difference between Christian and Islamic views of morality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

D'SOUZA: In Christianity, you have the idea, for example, that morality is intentional. If you've contemplated to sin, Christ says in a sense you've committed it.

HITCHENS: Thoughtcrime.

D'SOUZA: One second. The (unintelligible)...

HITCHENS: Thoughtcrime. Totalitarianism again. Thoughtcrime.

D'SOUZA: Oh. Whether it is or not...

HITCHENS: We know what you're thinking, and we can punish you for it. Totalitarianism defined.

D'SOUZA: He was sort of a bomb thrower, and he relied, you know, in a sense on shoot-from-the-hip type of arguments.

HAGERTY: But D'Souza says he's debated a lot of atheists, and Hitchens was his favorite.

D'SOUZA: His joie de vivre made him stand out among atheists. He was a happy atheist. So he was able somehow to communicate both that effervescence and at the same time to convey a certain depth that underneath it all he was a serious man.

HAGERTY: But soon, that energy would begin to ebb. In June 2010, Hitchens awakened one morning barely able to breathe. Thus began his journey, as he put it, across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady. As he chronicled his cancer on the pages of Vanity Fair, Hitchens received thousands of letters and emails. Many said they were praying for him that he would recover or that he would accept God. He told television interviewer Charlie Rose that he was flattered, even though he thought the prayers were silly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HITCHENS: In the soft form it's offered to me, we pray either that you get better or that you see the light. What's the harm? It's like holy water, can't burn you.

HAGERTY: The disease marked a new stage in Christopher Hitchens' public atheism, with religious believers fervently hoping the cancer would convert him and Hitchens insisting that he was unwilling - no, incapable - of believing in the supernatural.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HITCHENS: Under no persuasion could I be made to believe that a human sacrifice several thousand years ago vicariously redeems me from sin. Nothing could persuade me that that was true - or moral, by the way. It's white noise to me.

HAGERTY: Jeffrey Goldberg says, as Hitchens' health failed, he made a preemptive strike against those who might claim he had a deathbed conversion.

GOLDBERG: One of the things he said to me and other people was: If I lose my faculties, defend my reputation as an atheist. Basically, he said, if - God forbid - I say something about believing in God, will you please go out there and say, look, this is the medication, this is dementia, this is not the Hitchens that we know?

HAGERTY: The Hitchens he knew, Goldberg says, loved wine and friendship and debating the existential questions. As to his early death, Hitchens once said, I've been dealt a good hand by the cosmos, which doesn't know I'm here and won't know when I'm gone. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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