Roger Ebert: ‘There is Nothing on the Other Side of Death to Fear’

Roger Ebert passed away today at the age of 70 after a long battle with cancer. I can’t begin to express how disappointed I was to hear the news… besides being a hometown legend, he was someone whose perspective I only began to appreciate a few years ago when he began writing essays on his website. After that, I wouldn’t watch a movie without following it up by seeing what Ebert had written about it.

Ebert grew up a Roman Catholic — he was even an altar boy — but he later stopped believing in God. Still, he never used the label “atheist” to describe himself:

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.

The following month, he wrote about what death meant to him. Religion never came into play:

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. 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.

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?

I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés, that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and happily torturing people with my jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all eventually die as well, but so it goes.

“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.

If you can’t access the Chicago Sun-Times‘ website right now, here’s an archived copy of that essay.

I have no doubt that, in coming days, political cartoonists will draw images of Ebert in Heaven… probably giving God a “thumbs up” sign. But it’s not what Ebert believed in and presumably not what he would have wanted. If anything, go watch a movie in his honor and learn something about yourself. His introspection and willingness to open himself up to the public in the last years of his life will be a legacy that’ll live on for a long time alongside his reviews.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • DeviousSoybeans

    Beautiful, Hemant.

  • Matt

    #singletear :(

  • nkendall

    d (^__^) b

  • nkendall

    I was really sad to hear the news, but for him it was probably a release more than anything else. Today has been a very introspective day. I’ve had several conversations even before hearing the news about life after death on the web, but talking about the passing of a major member (even if not in name) of our community has now brought up the idea of who controls your image after you can no longer control yourself.

    Didn’t want people to think I was thumbs upping his death…. at work… making rash posting decisions.

  • Fargofan1

    I’m so sorry to read this as I really admired Roger Ebert, his writing and his perspective. He was a deep thinker with a fantastic sense of humor. He’ll be greatly missed.

  • Sarah Moglia

    Even though he was an atheist, he called himself a Catholic (as recently as last month). He thinks atheism is “too certain.” He also doesn’t support a woman’s right to control her own body.

  • Amy

    If you’re looking for a good movie to watch in his memory, I recommend Dark City, with Ebert’s commentary. It’s one of the best movie commentaries I’ve ever listened to.

  • Art_Vandelay

    He thinks atheism is “too certain.”

    So he went with “Catholic” instead? That’s a hell of a leap.

  • Rogier van Bakel

    Well said, Hemant. By you and by Roger.

  • icecreamassassin

    The world is officially a worse place.

    Last year at Ebertfest he showed Citizen Kane with his commentary – it was a way for him to sneak his voice into the Virginia Theatre.

    The last film that he saw at his film fest was one of his favorite films with his own voice echoing the entire theater. I dunno…just waxing idiotic at this point. I’m bummed out.

  • Todd

    I was so sad to hear that he had died. I too didn’t fully appreciate him until he started his online journal, and from then on I was always impressed with him.

  • Miranda Celeste Hale

    Thank you for this lovely & moving post, Hemant. ♡ It’s beautifully written & comforting on a sad day like today. Jerry’s also posted something similarly moving:

  • mon

    What a beautiful person.

  • Chris B

    I’m not very familiar with his work, but what I have read about him today has made me much more interested. His philosophy on death seems very Epicurean to me. Epicurus said something along the lines of “When I am, death is not. When death is, I am not.” No reason to worry about our own death because we do not coexist with it.

  • The Captain

    His book Your Movie Sucks makes me laugh the entire time I read it.

  • Miss_Beara

    i liked his reviews where he tore bad movies to shreds.

    Of course there will be cartoons of Ebert meeting Siskel in heaven, giving each other the thumbs up.

    I will miss reading his work. :(

  • Rain

    I was so glad when he panned Les Misérables (2012). It was then when I realized I haven’t completely lost my mind. But then he liked Argo (2012), and I said to myself, “Are you people in the same freaking universe as I am?”, and then wondered if I lost my mind again.

  • unclemike

    Different people liking different movies? The horror!

  • LesterBallard

    With William Hurt? That was a wonderfully weird movie. Never heard Ebert’s commentary. I’ll have to try that. Thanks.

  • LesterBallard

    Ah, the internet . . .

  • ruth

    I am bummed about his view on abortion. Wonder if if felt so strongly the minute after an egg is fertilized. Or a week. Or a month.

  • Carmelita Spats

    Ebert is grotesque…He believes that rape is just another method of conception as stated in his quote, “A child conceived through incest or rape is innocent and deserves the right to be born.” Sick fu)k…He would have legally obligated a nine-year-old rape victim in Brazil go through a pregnancy and C-section…This is exactly Todd Aiken’s stance…,8599,1883598,00.html

  • Mark Heil

    Some of the comments on his Facebook page are offensive. “Only God knew what was in his heart at the end…” Bleccch…

  • 3lemenope

    At least get your tenses right.

  • Sinfanti

    I’ve read a number of his reviews and blog articles. The thing that always impressed me the most were his replies in the comments sections. It seems rare for a writer, especially one with so many demands on their time as him, to be so actively engaged with readers. I will miss him.

  • David S.

    It is, if nothing else, logically consistent. People who were conceived by incest or rape are still people; if you accept that fetuses are people, then treating them differently is unconscionable. I find the number of people who assert that fetuses are people, abortion
    is murder, and yet certain fetuses deserve to die for the actions of
    their parents to be quite scary.

  • blasphemnous_kansan

    One of my favorite movies of all time.
    I know what I’m doing this weekend

  • DMa

    A person can hold a personal belief without the need to impose that belief on others. To each their own, but a personal belief about abortion does not make one grotesque in my opinion. He never said rape or incest were good, just that when they make a baby he, personally, would not support an abortion. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t think a woman has a right to make her own decision.

    I, personally, do not support abortion. But I would never presume to decide that for another person.