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Not much stirs the emotional pot like God-talk, or absence-of-God talk. Given the antagonisms of the zeitgeist, that's no surprise. In one corner, there's the threat, or perceived threat, of super-religiosity. Some fundamentalist Christians, still convinced that the end of days is at hand, are doing their utmost, if not to hasten the Rapture, not to discourage its coming. With Armageddon nigh, why worry about global warming, or species loss, or, indeed, far-off wars among the heathens?

Meanwhile, in Israel, where Jews are expected to gather so they can be either converted or obliterated come apocalypse, some among the Orthodox, convinced that God has given them the land, refuse to co-operate in vacating any of it. At the same time, members of an obscure sect, believing the very opposite -- i.e. that Israel is an injustice until God says it isn't -- hobnob with Holocaust deniers.

In India, devout Hindus and Muslims are at each others' throats. Not quite the same as decapitating your enemies, which is what some Muslims in Iraq are doing to others. And don't get me started about Islamism.

So, it's no wonder the atheists are coming out of their spider holes. One of the bestselling books of 2006 was Richard Dawkins's combative The God Delusion, a frontal assault on belief. Sam Harris's tiny but fierce Letter to a Christian Nation blasted American devotionalism. From the grave (certainly not from beyond it, he would have insisted), Carl Sagan offered The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. It's an updated version of the Gifford Lectures he gave in 1985, the same series that produced William James's mightily influential The Varieties of Religious Experience. In God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, Victor J. Stenger has undertaken -- bravely, or perhaps foolishly -- to prove the heretofore unprovable.

One of the anticipated books of the spring is already a bestseller in France, philosopher Michel Onfray's The Atheist Manifesto, an equal-opportunity attack on Christianity, Islam and Judaism. And, a recent profile of intellectual gadfly and hit man Christopher Hitchens in The New Yorker tells us that the prolific polymath is writing God Is Not Great. Hitchens doesn't much like any religion, but the title obviously aims the work squarely at Islam, the religion he feels his view of the world most threatened by.

I don't necessarily mean to lump all these books together. They proceed from different angles and from different degrees of antagonism or respect toward religion. The late Stephen J. Gould, for instance, most likely did not believe in God, but held publicly that there was no necessary conflict between science and religion, that they occupy what he called "non-overlapping magisteria." Sagan, an atheist, still believed that religion can offer valuable moral counsel. Dawkins, though, thinks that religions are responsible for most of the human-inflicted horrors in the world: wars, inquisitions and their like. He acknowledges that atheists such as Mao and Stalin have inflicted incalculable damage, but, somewhat naively, not because they are atheists. At times, he can barely keep the contempt out of his tone, as if no one but children, imbeciles or the willfully self-deluded could credit such an improbable concept.

To be sure, I can't profess much tolerance for forms of belief that would confine unbelievers, apostates, skeptics and heretics -- which takes in a lot of us -- to various forms of hell (many of them on Earth). Clearly, the claim by various religions to exclusivity of truth is untenable; at a minimum, in all cases but one. Nor is it difficult to see the challenge of the theodicy -- the attempt to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the existence of a benevolent God. I, for one, find the argument that there are moral patterns in the celestial carpet that we cannot discern unpersuasive. Even should we accept that we are here to be taught (and to what end?), need there have been quite so many evils, so many fatal and painful illnesses, such a proclivity on the part of humans to harm one another -- not to mention everything else? (The who-designed-the-designer question, by the way, does not trouble me.)

Though I enjoy a good polemic as much as the next fellow, and have spent many an enjoyably discomfited hour toiling in the science versus religion vineyard, I tend to find these books not quite filling intellectually. In their own way homiletic, they are preaching to the converted. Virtually no person of faith will be convinced to abandon his beliefs. Of course, few such persons are likely to pick up any of these books to begin with. And none deals adequately with atheism and the city, or with the persistence of ritual. As skeptical as I am of religion's claims, as dubious as I find its superstitions, as much as I think it should enjoy no special status sheltering it from criticism (or even ridicule), I remain as skeptical that the mysteries of the universe -- that it exists at all is one -- will be revealed to science any time soon, if ever.