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.

When Would You Rather Be Alive?
New on the Guardian: Atheists Are Diversifying
The Hidden Garden of Ex-Muslim Atheists
How Low Will It Go? The Continuing Decline of American Christianity
About Adam Lee

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


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