Stricken with cancer and fragile from chemotherapy, author and outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens sits in an armchair before an audience and waits for the only question that can come first at such a time. “How’s your health?” asks Larry Taunton, a friend who heads an Alabama-based group dedicated to defending Christianity. “Well, I’m dying, since you asked, but so are you. I’m only doing it more rapidly,” replies Hitchens, his grin faint and his voice weak and raspy. Only wisps of his dark hair remain; clothes hang on his frame. The writer best known to believers for his 2007 book “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” has esophageal cancer, the same disease that killed his father. He is fighting it, but the 62-year-old Hitchens is realistic: At the very best, he says, his life will be shortened.

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