Roger Ebert died yesterday. When I heard the news, I was a lot sadder than I usually am when I learn someone famous has died.
Ebert meant a lot to me, though I never saw him in person. He was a noted movie reviewer here in the United States. For many years watching "Siskel and Ebert" every week was a TV must.
Back in those pre-Internet days this was how I learned what movies were worth watching and which weren't. Their "two thumbs up" was all I needed to buy a ticket when a film came to town.
Ever since, Roger Ebert has been the movie reviewer I read first among the "top critics" on a Rotten Tomatoes listing. (Gene Siskel, died in 1999.) I always enjoyed how Ebert wrote reviews with such thoughtfulness and sensitivity.
He died in the same way, apparently.
“We were getting ready to go home today for hospice care, when he looked at us, smiled, and passed away,” said his wife, Chaz Ebert. “No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition.”
Ebert was a noted secular humanist. Yet he didn't call himself an atheist, or even an agnostic. He didn't want any label attached to him.
Over the high school years, my belief in the likelihood of a God continued to lessen. I kept this to myself...
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'texist. Nor does it mean I don't know, which implies that I could know.
Let me rule out at once any God who has personally spoken to anyone or issued instructions to men. That some men believe they have been spoken to by God, I am certain. I do not believe Moses came down from the mountain with any tablets he did not go up with. I believe mankind in general evidently has a need to believe in higher powers and an existence not limited to the physical duration of the body. But these needs are hopes, and believing them doesn't make them true. I believe mankind feels a need to gather in churches, whether physical or social.
...No, I am not a Buddhist. I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am still awake at night, asking how? I am more content with the question than I would be with an answer.
I really like Ebert's "I do not fear death" essay. Read the whole thing. It isn't very long. Ebert was (he wouldn't want me to say is) one fine wonderfully-human man. Some excerpts:
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. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, 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.
...Many readers have informed me that 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. The concept frightens me. I am 69, have had cancer, will die sooner than most of those reading this. That is in the nature of things. In my plans for life after death, I say, again with Whitman:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
And with Will, the brother in Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” I say, “Look for me in the weather reports.”
...Someday I will no longer call out, and there will be no heartbeat. I will be dead. What happens then? From my point of view, nothing. Absolutely nothing. All the same, as I wrote to Monica Eng, whom I have known since she was six, “You’d better cry at my memorial service.”