Theological humor from a humanist

The recently deceased Kurt Vonnegut was a humanist, that is, he did not believe in God. On a number of occasions, Vonnegut riffed on his disbelief in witty and thought-provoking ways.

During one interview, Vonnegut told this story:

I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association… I succeeded Isaac Asimov as president, and we humanists try to behave as well as we can without any expectation of a reward or punishment in an after life. So since God is unknown to us, the highest abstraction to which we serve is our community. That’s as high as we can go, and we have some understanding of that. Now at a memorial service for Isaac Asimov a few years ago on the West Coast I spoke and I said, “Isaac is in heaven now,” to a crowd of humanists. It was quite awhile before order could be restored. Humanists were rolling in the aisles.

“Knowing What’s Nice” from In These Times, 6 November 2003. Link.

But in 1999, he told the story differently. This is from the book God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian:

I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great, spectacularly prolific writer and scientist, Dr. Isaac Asimov in that essentially functionless capacity. At an A.H.A. memorial service for my predecessor I said, “Isaac is up in Heaven now.” That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. It rolled them in the aisles. Mirth! Several minutes had to pass before something resemble solemnity could be restored.

I made that joke, of course, before my first near-death experience — the accidental one.

So when my own time comes to join the choir invisible or whatever, God forbid, I hope someone will say, “He’s up in Heaven now.” Who really knows? I could have dreamed all this.

My epitaph in any case? “Everything was beautiful. Nothing hurt.” I will have gotten off so light, whatever the heck it is that was going on.

(I love the way he throws in that wry “God forbid.”) In 2006, he proposed another, different epitaph for himself:

No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:


“Vonnegut’s Blues For America,” Scotland’s Sunday Herald, 5 February 2006. Link.

So of course the article isn’t really about his epitaph at all, it’s about how the rest of the world perceives the United States. A few paragraphs later, Vonnegut wrote: “Foreigners love us for our [blues]. And they don’t hate us for our purported liberty and justice for all. They hate us now for our arrogance.” The epitaph, in other words, isn’t for Vonnegut so much as for the increasingly theocratic United States.

But analyzing Vonnegut’s humor is like analyzing one of Louis Armstrong’s solos. If you gotta analyze it, you’re never gonna know.

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