“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here.
There’s only one rule I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
– from God Bless You Mr. Rosewater
Kurt Vonnegut was a hero to non-believers everywhere – yes, a hero…but probably not in the strictest sense of the term. To be a hero, he would have had to have left a secure, static position in his society, voluntarily left that security to take his chances with the dangers of the unknown, then return to that society with some sort of boon, knowledge or hard-earned wisdom that brought benefit to his fellow travelers in life. The truth is that the Vonnegut family were traditionally Freethinkers, his grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, even wrote a well-known manifesto on Freethinkers after immigrating to the United State from Germany. All young Kurt had to do was listen to his elders…which isn’t always the easiest thing to do. He often included the following statement in public speaking engagements:
“About belief or lack of belief in an afterlife: some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort. I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishment after I’m dead.
And, after the success of “Slaughterhouse Five” Vonnegut became one of the most in-demand speakers at university commencements, and remained so during the 1980s and into the 1990s. He had one theme, which is pretty well summed up by the quote from “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater,” and several stock examples of his disappointment in the behavior of his fellow human beings. One was the irony of his birthday, November 11, Armistice Day, which evolved into Veterens Day, which he saw as a shift away from reverence for the end of a senseless slaughter to a glorification of death, along with military air shows, parades, and other displays of the machinery of death. He wrote in “Slaughterhouse Five” that:
“I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres or enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.”
Is it possible for human beings not to take part in massacres, not to feel satisfied or gleeful about the massacre of enemies, or work for the companies that treat massacres as business opportunities? Sadly, I doubt it. Kurt Vonnegut did think so, and he stated that his personal sadness at his failure to change our world enough to make him quit trying through his writing.
Is it possible for human beings to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishment after they die? I think so…I see it every day, and attempt to do so myself. Kurt Vonnegut thought so, too. Good for him.