Roger Ebert: Secular Humanist? Maybe…

February 16, 2010

roger-ebertEsquire has a moving piece on Chicago luminary Roger Ebert. In it, he discusses his battle with cancer and muses on his impending death. It contains this spectacular bit:

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.

This was the first time I had heard anything of Ebert’s philosophies on death and dying, but it is not the first time he has written on them. After coming across the Esquire piece I did some research and found that he’s actually been quite prolific on the subject. In a blog published in April of last year, Ebert discussed his views on religion and God, speaking from what is, to me, a clearly Secular Humanistic perspective. Yet in the blog Ebert articulated his challenge with identifying as such (though in the following selection he does claim to be a Secular Humanist):

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. Chaz, who has a firm faith, leaves me to my beliefs. “But you know you’re one or the other,” she says. “I have never told you that,” I say. “Maybe not in so many words, but you are,” she says.

But I persist in believing I am not. 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. If I were to say I don’t believe God exists, that wouldn’t mean I believe God doesn’t exist. Nor does it I don’t know, which implies that I could know.

Ebert’s perspective resonates strongly with my own life experience. Our camp — home to Secular Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics, Freethinkers and many more — is a disjointed and ambiguous one. I decided to plant my stakes in Secular Humanism. One tent over there is someone who holds a worldview that echoes my own but who calls herself an Atheist, which I do not. And this trouble with terminology is not just limited to our little patch of earth — across the lake, there are people who call themselves Christians but see things pretty much the same way I do. And so it goes.

Some of us elect to cast our allegiance to a particular label. I resisted doing so for a long time until I decided that it made sense for me. Ebert continues to resist and, while I applaud him for doing so, I will also claim him as “one of us.” My reasons for doing so may be selfish, but something tells me he might not actually mind all that much. Label the man what you will; his writings are well worth reading and we are lucky to have him contributing to our canon.

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