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Kurt Vonnegut, Humanist, 1922-2007
Apr. 18, 2007

The humanist community lost one of its most renowned and colorful champions with the death of Kurt Vonnegut last Wednesday.

The author of Slaughterhouse Five was the 1992 Humanist of the Year and honorary president of the American Humanist Association (AHA).

"Kurt Vonnegut was important to the humanist movement because his celebrity status helped popularize our humanist worldview," said Larry Jones, president of the Institute for Humanist Studies. "We will greatly miss him."

Both Jones and Kurt Vonnegut worked at General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y. But their paths didn't cross until a humorous encounter in June 2005, when Jones and three other humanist leaders scheduled a strategic dinner meeting at a New York restaurant to discuss the future of humanism with Vonnegut. On their first attempt the two parties sat at different tables and ate their meals separately, each wondering why the other party never showed. It was so absurd that it could have been a scene straight out of a Vonnegut novel, noted Jones with a laugh.

"We humanists are freethinkers. So there's a saying that trying to get humanists to cooperate is like trying to herd cats. Well we couldn't even coordinate a lunch meeting in the same restaurant!" Jones joked.

Luckily for Jones, his second attempt to meet with Vonnegut was successful, and the humanist leaders were able to discuss lobbying, bioethics and humanist educational programs.

"Vonnegut had a unique position on things," Jones said about meeting the author in person. "He had a wry sense of humor that he could deliver with a poker face.

Vonnegut's special brand of wit can be seen in his 1992 Humanist of the Year award acceptance speech entitled "Why My Dog Is Not a Humanist," in which he said:

I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, 'Isaac is up in heaven now.' It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists... And if I should die, God forbid, I hope you will say, 'Kurt is up in heaven now.' That's my favorite joke.

"Kurt will be remembered for his direct personal approach; he will also be remembered for his acerbic wit and humor and his unflagging support for humanist concerns," stated Roy Speckhardt, AHA executive director.

While Vonnegut's sarcasm was often viewed as cynicism, he believed in the potential of people to rise above their circumstances, as he had done throughout his life. While Vonnegut often wrote about war and disaster, his work also expressed hope and optimism for those struggling in a troubled world. He said the villains in his books were never individuals, but culture, society and history, which he said were making a mess of the planet.

Vonnegut grew up in a family of German-American freethinkers. Vonnegut's great-grandfather was the first president of the Freethinkers Society of Indianapolis and Vonnegut maintained the family tradition of rejecting religious dogma in favor of humanism.
The sarcastic tone of Vonnegut's work came from major traumas including his mother's suicide early in his life. As a humanist in a foxhole, he witnessed the 1945 bombing of Dresden, Germany while a prisoner of war.

Despite such experiences, Vonnegut never felt the need to fall back on irrational beliefs to explain irrational actions. He maintained his belief in a humanist worldview throughout his life.

"I am a humanist," Vonnegut wrote in a letter to AHA members, "which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead."

He will be sorely missed.

Elaine Friedman is the editor of Humanist Network News, the weekly e-zine of the Institute for Humanist Studies.
Editor's Note: Read the next story to see IHS commenting on the death of Kurt Vonnegut in the media.

Appignani Bioethics Center