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.