Threading the Freethought Lives of Hitchens and Sagan

“Humans have limitations, and no one knows this better than scientists. But a multitude of aspects of the natural world that were considered miraculous only a few generations ago are now thoroughly understood in terms of physics and chemistry. At least some of the mysteries of today will be comprehensively solved by our descendants. The fact that we cannot now produce a detailed understanding of, say, altered states of consciousness in terms of brain chemistry no more implies the existence of a “spirit world” than a sunflower following the Sun in its course across the sky was evidence of a literal miracle before we knew about phototropism and plant hormones.”

—Carl Sagan, 1995

December is a time for remembrance. We connect to others while simultaneously taking stock of another year gone by. A turn of the calendar. Perhaps some more wrinkles and a few more gray hairs. We scroll though celebrity deaths, ongoing political shenanigans, follow the latest natural disaster, or crisis, or war with angst for the future. Maybe we also focus on love and kindness if we’re eternal optimists as many in our humanist camp tend to be. We may glitter and glow from new relationships or mourn the loss of friends and family. One thing is for certain, change is constant both in terms of deprivation and the gains we make across the many social worlds we all inhabit.

For those in the freethought movement, December is also a time to recall two modern secular leaders who stand in silent vigilance for both science and reason. Men who gave of themselves and were rightfully recognized in their time for the value of their good work, ideas and their actions. In the view of so many, not only are they pillars of science education and critical thought, but their advocacy elevated the freethought movement. Offering meaningful direction and purpose to millions of people, then as they do now.

As the title of this essay notes and as the astute reader (I hope) will be intrigued to further bridge, here within are the connected freethought lives of both Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens. Although there is no record of them ever meeting, both men held a great deal in common. They were both born to Jewish mothers. Carl Sagan’s family had embraced their culture and faith. While Hitchens did not know of his Jewish heritage until he was nearly forty, and only after discovering his roots did he identify as “Jewish.” But both Sagan and Hitchens were nominal jews. Neither believed in a Hebrew god, and even with their acknowledged ethno-religious history both men were committed nonbelievers and remained freethinkers till their deaths.

Each of Hitchens’ and Sagan’s final moments took place in hospital surrounded by loved ones and both men’s deaths are connected to the final month of the year. Carl Sagan passed away in December of 1996, while Hitchens died in December of 2011. Both passed away at the age of sixty-two, and both sadly were felled by forms of cancer. Sagan’s genteel last words as told by his wife Ann Druyan, was a simple, “Goodbye.” For the intellectual pugilist Hitchens, some his final written thoughts were, “I’m not fighting cancer, it is fighting me.”

Both were in the late prime of their lives when they died and could have still given decades of their energies, time and insights had they not taken ill and died so relatively young. At the time of their deaths, Sagan and Hitchens had become world-renowned speakers, best-selling authors, and recognized intellectuals. To this day both are fondly remembered and deeply missed by millions of people around the globe.

Carl Sagan was the scientist and educator of the two. He was THE ambassador of public science for generations of lay people. He was a mentor to students who took his classes, and a sage for those who read his books or watched the original Cosmos series. He was an intriguing orator to those who had the opportunity to hear him speak locally in venues large and small or in the halls of Congress. Sagan was also a showman who could enthrall the nation when interviewed on the Johnny Carson show.

Most of all, Sagan was a thinker and advocate who challenged us to be bigger, better and kinder to one another. He often noted, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”  He imagined and shared the benefits and possibilities of great space exploration. He expressed an admiration for the intellectual liberation science and reason bring to our thoughts and to our lives. Sagan was an early prophet regarding his concern of the Earth’s climate and he also spoke out against the nuclear arms race. He equally waxed a kind of scientific poetry for the love of our connected evolution and an inclusive humanity.

When Sagan reminded us that we are all “star stuff” he was speaking about our connection to each other and the universe. An idea that demands we rethink every “us and them” scenario. Every drop of spilled blood over the eons in hate. Every war for resources and territory that have plagued and continues to plague our species on this small blue dot of a planet.

Conversely, Christopher Hitchens was tonally very different from Sagan. Hitchens was a born fighter, a journalist and a provocateur. He could cut an adversary down to bits and pieces by pointing out their biases and their illogic. To those who would challenge Hitchens on any topic, especially on the value and meaning of organized religion, there would be no salvation. Hitchens had a voracious intellect, and was so well read and well-rounded, that in hindsight one could almost pity an adversary who thought they could get the better of him on the debate stage.

I often think of Hitchens as a swashbuckling mix of awareness and bravado, whose sense of humor and timing meant he didn’t suffer fools lightly. Hitchens will rightly be remembered as  a leader of the freethought movement who won EVERY debate with apologists from all faith traditions that challenged him.

Even as his victories were often wrapped in a sort of intellectual urgency and directness, they usually pointed not at the person making foolish biblical claims, but to their poor and questionable ideas. “Organized religion poisons everything!” “Mother Teresa was a fanatic and a fraud,” and “that which could be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence” All of these provable Hitchens’ tropes made him an outspoken star. It also made him a lightning rod for the religious and evangelical elite whose exposed theological fallacies, their double-talk and apologetics always failed to land a punch when they challenged Hitch.

Both Sagan and Hitchens had fantastic “bullshit meters”. They each could spot poor and salacious arguments. They confronted bad ideas as they germinated throughout history as well as at the lectern. They countered scholars and lay folks in Q&A sessions who frequently thought themselves equal adversaries but were in fact fodder to be corrected.

On the debate stage both men revered great thinkers who would help coalesce their own arguments and attempts to synthesize rational thought as well as modern science. Ptolemy, Galileo, Einstein, Darwin, Hume, Spinoza—and so many more—served as intellectual links in a chain that made the minds of Sagan and Hitchens steel traps on subjects like history, evolution, cosmology, secular democracy, freethought and our very modernity.

Sagan and Hitchens also warned us of the threats posed by our all too human hubris. They spoke with authority about the dangers of human overuse and abuse to the environment. As leaders of the humanist and freethought zeitgeist, they abhorred the tribalism of organized religion. Especially when faith caused religious violence and religious wars. Or when the politics of faith led to ethno-religious genocides, violence against women and children, or the denial of science. And they also targeted their intellects on the ignorance and harm done by secular actors like vaccine deniers, government bureaucracies, conspiracy theorists or when our human tendences turned towards the cruel or the superstitious.

But let’s end this essay on hope. Let’s end it on the simple and beautiful idea that the lives Sagan and Hitchens have left behind include a rich history for each of us to grow in our own gardens and humane actions. While Sagan and Hitchens both spoke out about our predilection towards ignorance, callousness and violence, they never really gave in to the idea that we couldn’t overcome these tendencies. And their very legacies offer enough fodder to create a better, safer and kinder world, if we learn to heed their life’s works.

Both men could realistically see a future that was bright for our species. Especially if we could put away our ancient fears and lean towards the acceptance of the material and natural world. Both men saw the rational possibilities of our inter-connected humanity. Neither felt that our future required any religious indoctrination and superstition to get us to the stars or to be good to each other on Earth.

Perhaps in December 2023, Sagan and Hitchens would both agree that our species still has much potential to build something wonderous and beautiful. Personally, I think they would be saddened, though not surprised, to see the ongoing waste and damage we continue to perpetrate on each other and the planet. So perhaps, in their names, and for our mutual survival, let’s build towards a better December 2024.