Gore Vidal Named Honorary President of American Humanist Association April 21, 2009

Gore Vidal Named Honorary President of American Humanist Association

This guest post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the American Humanist Association. He usually blogs at Rant & Reason.

Read this exchange and tell me who you think the speaker is:

Question: “Immanuel Kant said that without the afterlife morality couldn’t survive. What’s your response to that idea?”

“God is blackmailer. God is warden of the prison. He created us all in his image — probably a mistake — and then allows us to run wild and punishes us or rewards us with his beaming vision of himself. This is no god I really want to have any traffic with at all. I mean, the idea that good behavior only depends upon your fear of what will happen to you after you die, that you will be punished excludes all of philosophy. It excludes Plato, it excludes the mystery cults of Greece, it excludes the Roman idea of what is a good man. There goes Marcus Aurelius, there goes Epictetus, there go the stoics. These are all better thinkers than anything that the Christian church has come up with in 2,000 years.”

You might guess Christopher Hitchens after his first glass of scotch. You might also guess Richard Dawkins. But no, it’s Gore Vidal (video set to start at 2:30):

Why was I looking up videos of Vidal? Because he just accepted the title of Honorary President of my organization, the American Humanist Association.

We certainly haven’t shied away from controversial figures recently, featuring Hitchens as the keynote speaker at our last annual conference and picking PZ Myers as our 2009 Humanist of the Year. I’m glad that Gore Vidal is joining our movement.

Here’s another exchange I particular liked between Vidal and Rev. Keith Ward:

Vidal: How do you explain the goodness of Marcus Aurelius several thousand years before Christianity?

Ward: I would say what Justin Martin said… The way he put it was that there have always been Christians but they have not always been called such.

Vidal: That’s one way of getting around it, isn’t it? (Audience laughs)

But what made clear that Gore Vidal is a humanist in his heart came at the very end of the clip, as he said quietly: “She is not being a good Christian, Mr. Ward. She is being a good human being.”

An important distinction. Welcome to the American Humanist Association, Mr. Vidal.

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  • Claudia

    and I’m left to ask, much as I do whenever videos of such discussions arise and are invariably from British TV, how different would the American landscape be if it were these discussions that were broadcast throughout the US instead of cutsie church stories by the latest “Faith correspondent”?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    How do you explain the goodness of Marcus Aurelius several thousand years before Christianity?

    Is that an accurate transcript? Because Wikipedia says that Marcus Aurelius lived ~ 121 – 180 CE.

  • Reginald Selkirk – You’re right, I might have left out a word.

    Perhaps it should read: “How do you explain the goodness of Marcus Aurelius, of several thousand years before Christianity?”

    The question comes at 4:30 or so. Can anyone else figure out what’s going on there?

  • As long as we’re revising the transcription, I think he is saying “as” and not “is” in his opening sentences. “God as blackmailer. God as warden of the prison.”

    It certainly makes more sense in context that way. Someone as thoughtful and articulate as Vidal would likely not start off an explanation of why God isn’t by saying “God is” twice.

    Of course, then he goes into his “created us all” thing, and although he clearly means it sarcastically, it could fit with “is” in the previous statements. But I still think he said “as.” Listen again, compare it to how he pronounces “is” in “this is no god,” and see what you think.

  • llewelly

    Is that an accurate transcript? Because Wikipedia says that Marcus Aurelius lived ~ 121 – 180 CE.

    Which Marcus Aurelius were they referring to? There were actually several Romans named Marcus Aurelius. (In fact – there are very few important historical figures of ancient Rome who do not share their names with other important historical figures. )

  • Mathew Wilder

    I think it’s pretty obvious he’s referring to the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, seeing as he’s named with Epictetus (and that he’s undoubtedly the most widely known person to bear that name. Indeed, I consider myself fairly well-educated, and while my degree is in philosophy, and not history, I couldn’t name another famous Marcus Aurelius.)

    Anyway, I also think “God as” would make more sense. I haven’t watched the video yet, though, as I’m surfing on my Pearl.

  • Infinite Monkey

    I think the most important point here, is one that was never said, but implied by Vidal. Basically, religion is a way for humans to cope with death.

  • Larry Huffman

    I do not really think it matters who they are referring to. They could have just as easily used the phrase “a universally accepted good person who lived hundreds…or thousands of years before christianity”

    The point being made stands with or without a known historical figure, actually.

  • Ryan

    Does anyone have a transcript of the video?

  • Congrats to Mr. Vidal. I’m a huge fan, and he does our movement a great service.
    Oh, and guess what creationist, complex organic molecules have been found in space!


  • Would libertarians or economic conservatives be comfortable in the American Humanist Association?

  • Jason

    Sabio, I think the only entry requirement for being in the American Humanist Association is being a humanist. Sure, many atheists/humanists are liberals, but often that is simply because we have felt the hammer of oppression from the theist majority, and wish for better rights for everyone. Liberalism ties in with this, but as do the more egalitarian/socialistic views. A libertarian would definitely fit in, I think.

  • I see several comments have already mentioned the jarring historical misstatement about Roman emperor and occasional philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

    More to the point that this MUST be an error, at least a slip of the tongue, is that there isn’t any proper history of anything, anywhere, more than 3,000 years before Christianity, because that’s all the longer that there has been writing, the source of primary historical material. Before Sumerian script, there was no writing, and no history.

    Rome began less than 1,000 years before Christianity began,


    as anyone with a moderate acquaintance with history should know.

  • Loren Petrich

    I’d say that Rome’s reliable history goes back even less than that — to at most around 500 BCE. One gets before that some romanticized kings like Numa Pompilius, and ultimately the story of Romulus and Remus, who were supposedly sons of a god and a virgin. Now where have we heard of that before?

  • Marc

    After seeing his recent appearance on Bill Maher’s show I read one of his books (The Golden Age) that had been catching dust at home for a while and watched some other interviews online.

    I had always known “of” him, in the same way that one knows of Norman Mailer (big personal rival of his) and other great authors but never much looked into his work.

    That was a mistake. I may not agree with all of his opinions (for example his strong isolationist stance regarding WWII) but he is a brilliant and very entertaining man.

    Just like Hitchens (the two of them parted ways over Iraq) he can be rather bracing and unkind when he wants to but, damnit, if anyone deserves to be arrogant then it is Gore Vidal.

    The man is a legend. A great novelist and essayist, a man who has lived through it all, from WWII to today, who personally (and sometimes intimately 🙂 ) knew many of the great names of the 20st century, be it in the arena of politics or culture… I have nothing but admiration for him.

    While one should always be cautious of the “appeal to authority” fallacy I think there is nothing wrong with admitting that seeing people I greatly admire, such as Gore Vidal, hold the same beliefs as I do gives me a great deal of personal satisfaction.

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