A Profile in Nonbelief: Roger Ebert

Most Americans have heard of the movie critic and writer Roger Ebert. But what most people probably didn’t know – what I didn’t know – is that he hasn’t been able to eat, drink or speak since 2006. That was the year when most of his jaw had to be surgically removed, the result of complications from thyroid cancer that nearly cost him his life. This information comes via a surprisingly moving article in Esquire by Chris Jones, which describes how Ebert’s life has been altered by his illness. And the reason I bring it up is this:

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear, he writes in a journal entry titled “Go Gently into That Good Night.” I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

Despite losing his voice, Ebert has penned an eloquent and articulate stream of thoughts on his own blog, which is now his primary window on the world. Even while he refuses to accept the usual labels, he defines himself in lucid and beautiful terms that any secular humanist would recognize immediately:

I wrote an entry about the way I believe in God, which is to say that I do not. Not, at least, in the God that most people mean when they say God. I grant you that if the universe was Caused, there might have been a Causer. But that entity, or force, must by definition be outside space and time; beyond all categories of thought, or non-thought; transcending existence, or non-existence. What is the utility of arguing our “beliefs” about it? What about the awesome possibility that there was no Cause? What if everything…just happened?

…But certainly, some readers have informed me, it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don’t feel that way. “Faith” is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever.

…”Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Though Ebert isn’t in imminent danger of death, his illness has brought him to recognize more clearly that we all must die eventually, and that what matters most about our lives is what we did with them – whether we cultivated happiness in ourselves, as well as in others. Even in spite of our misfortunes, we can still find reason for joy:

There is no need to pity me, he writes on a scrap of paper one afternoon after someone parting looks at him a little sadly. Look how happy I am.

Ebert’s thoughts, and the Esquire article, are written with a gentle, luminous courage that I’ve rarely seen. This is true spirituality: not clinging to the false comfort of myths interpreted literally, but solace in human kindness, memories of the good things in life, and accepting frailty and mortality with quiet resolve. It’s the kind of powerful and moving affirmation of secular humanism that I wish everyone could see more often.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    Wow, I didn’t know Ebert was a non-believer! Sounds like he’s managed to come to terms with his illness, and has done so with courage. I wish him the best of luck.

  • Valhar2000

    I’ll have to read some of his writings; sounds like he knows his way around a pen and a sheet of paper.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    Two thumbs up!

    (I know, I couldn’t resist)

  • http://dsimon.typepad.com/ DSimon

    I can give Ebert’s writing in general the highest recommendation I can give anyone’s writing: Even though I completely disagree with him on many things, he’s still absolutely worth reading.

  • jason

    “This is true spirituality: not clinging to the false comfort of myths interpreted literally…”

    in other words…his worldview conforms to my own and therefore its praiseworthy.

  • http://theperplexedobserver.blogspot.com TPO

    I look forward to reading the Esquire article. I’ve disagreed with Ebert on several occasions over the years like when he reviewed the Passion of the Christ but I agree that he is a fellow humanist who shares many of my values.

    I really enjoyed his How I believe in God piece he wrote for the Sun Times back in April of 2009.

    “Catholicism made me a humanist before I knew the word. When people rail against “secular humanism,” I want to ask them if humanism itself would be okay with them. Over the high school years, my belief in the likelihood of a God continued to lessen. I kept this to myself. I never discussed it with my parents. My father in any event was a non-practicing Lutheran, until a death bed conversion which rather disappointed me. I’m sure he agreed to it for my mother’s sake.

    Did I start calling myself an agnostic or an atheist? No, and I still don’t. I avoid that because I don’t want to provide a category for people to apply to me. I would not want my convictions reduced to a word…During in all the endless discussions on several threads of this blog about evolution, intelligent design, God and the afterworld, now numbering altogether around 3,500 comments, I have never said, although readers have freely informed me I am an atheist, an agnostic, or at the very least a secular humanist–which I am.”

    I look forward to reading his blog.

  • http://theperplexedobserver.blogspot.com TPO

    I also got a laugh out of his response to this readers comment to the piece above. Quoting Studs Terkel, Ebert says “I’m an agnostic. That’s a cowardly atheist.”

  • http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com/ Erika

    To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts.

    This is worthy of being an email signature quote. (Okay, not that much of an honor, but it’s what I can do.)

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Very nice post. I’ll have to read the Esquire piece. I’ve added Ebert's blog to my blogroll and will make my way through his writings. The bits I've read already are beautifully written.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    I’ve been a fan of Ebert’s reviews for some time, and admired him personally since PZ first linked to his blog post “Go Gentle…” some time ago.

    However, I prefer the full line of the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” (as well as “Rage, rage against the dying of the light). I understand the Epicurean idea that death is nothing to be feared, and non-existence after death is the same as non-existence before birth, and have at times been attracted to a Stoic acceptance of death as a natural part of life, but Camus’ influence on me is too strong. No matter how inevitable death is, I cannot help but internally (at the very least) rebel against it.

  • Katie M

    Mathew-I’m with ya, buddy. I guess that’s why I like the idea of transhumanism. I may not believe in heaven or hell, but I’d still rather not die. I want to stick around and see what humanity achieves in the eons to come. Of course, I don’t know for sure that this will come to pass, but it’s a possibility.

    A potential side effect-if humans can manage to eliminate death, there goes the foundation of most (if not all) religions.

  • exrelayman

    SuperHappyJen – I am so happy you could not resist!

    Katie M – Fear of death being foundational to religion. Believers not contemplating what would be the nature of an immortal being that would choose to create mortal beings who must die, most painfully (think about it).

  • Caiphen

    Prior to my deconversion I thought I could not live without god and the eternal life she offers. Now I realise it’s all just nonsense my life has improved considerably. I’m happier without the burden of religion and no longer fear death. It’s amazing how our ancestors battle for survival has prepared us for the limitation of our existence.

  • http://www.skepticaloccultism.com/ pendens proditor

    An atheist in a foxhole. How about that.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Hey, Caiphen — e-mail me at thumpalumpacus@yahoo.com, no?

  • Katie M
  • Caiphen

    pendens proditor

    Why are you so surprised? I can see/ feel/ whatever no evidence of a God shaped hole.

    I just realise this, to use a brilliant quotation of Katharine Hepburn’s
    “I’m an atheist, and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for people.”

    Roger Ebert seems to realise the same thing.

  • Stutz

    I’ve been a fan of Ebert’s reviews for many years, but since I discovered his blog, he has absolutely become one of my role models. I hope to possess even a fraction of his intellect, insight, and courage when I am facing the twilight of my life. Most admirably in my opinion, he is an optimist at heart and a lover of life, but never at the expense of acknowledging and bravely embracing hard truths. This is a man who exemplifies living the “life of the mind.” All that, plus he’s an outspoken non-believer and a movie lover? I think he may be my intellectual hero.


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