Christopher Eric Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, on April 13, 1949. His father was a career navy officer who became an accountant at a prep school.
His mother had social aspirations for her two sons and once said, “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it.”
The family scrimped to send him to a private boarding school, and he became the first member of his family to attend a university, graduating from Oxford’s Balliol College in 1970. He wasn’t a stellar student, but he had a gift for friendship and a hearty appetite for argumentation and debate.
He formed close friendships with the novelist Martin Amis and other members of the London literary elite and, in the 1970s, was a mainstay at London’s New Statesman magazine. He quickly became almost as well known for his speaking appearances as for his writing. Pudgy and disheveled, he approached the lectern as if unhappily awoken from a hangover.
When he opened his mouth, however, Mr. Hitchens unfailingly proved to be an eloquent and persuasive orator. Fully formed, tightly argued sentences poured from his lips in a precise, well-modulated baritone. He could summon forth literary references, historical analogies and vivid descriptions without a moment’s pause.
“It all seems instantly, neurologically available: everything he’s ever read, everyone he’s ever met, every story he’s ever heard,” novelist Ian McEwan, a longtime friend, told the New Yorker.
In 1973, Mr. Hitchens’s mother and her new paramour, “a defrocked former vicar,” died in a suicide pact in an Athens hotel room. While attending to arrangements for his mother, the 24-year-old Mr. Hitchens dutifully filed dispatches about the political situation in Greece.
Fifteen years later, he learned from his grandmother that his mother had deliberately concealed a central fact of life: her Jewish parentage.
“On hearing the tidings, I was pleased that I was pleased,” Mr. Hitchens wrote in an essay, but he did not otherwise embrace Judaism or any other faith.
He wrote relatively little about his atheism and disdain for religion until his 2007 bestseller “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”
He attributed many of the world’s most serious problems to religion, from ethnic cleansing to the subjugation of women to the denial of scientific progress. He criticized religious faith as nothing more than a fatuous belief in magic, fables and nonsense, calling it “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
The book became a rallying cry for religious skeptics, and Mr. Hitchens was in steady demand to debate representatives of many faiths.
For years, he maintained a crowded schedule of traveling, writing, lecturing and teaching at various colleges. In 1980, he was married to Eleni Meleagrou and moved to the United States, settling in Washington two years later. He became a U.S. citizen in 2007.
After a divorce, Mr. Hitchens married Carol Blue in 1989. She survives, along with their daughter, Antonia Hitchens of Washington; two children from his first marriage, Alexander Hitchens and Sophia Hitchens; and his brother, Peter Hitchens, a conservative British columnist, who in 2010 published a book subtitled “How Atheism Led Me to Faith.”
On Oct. 12, 2010, after the effects of Mr. Hitchens’s cancer were obvious, he faced his brother in a 90-minute debate in Washington on the existence of God.
“Despite his clearly frail physical condition,” The Washington Post reported, “Christopher’s acerbic tongue and quick wit seemed undiminished.”
Mr. Hitchens was fully aware that some people believed his cancer was the result of divine retribution for his seeming apostasy. Others gathered to pray for his recovery and, in many cases, for his eventual conversion to the faith of their choice.
He was grateful for their kind wishes, but he reserved special disgust for those who thought he might recant his atheistic beliefs in the face of cancer.
“I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire,” Mr. Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair in October 2010, “who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.”