Roger Ebert’s religion

Roger Ebert, the legendary film reviewer, has died at age 70 of cancer. His decade-long battle with papillary thyroid cancer began in 2002 and ultimately robbed him of his ability to speak, eat or drink.

Despite the life altering setback, Ebert worked tirelessly through the disease. He continued to write prolifically, regularly publishing his beloved and trusted movie reviews and even made high profile speaking appearances — including a popular TED talk — made possible through the use of cutting-edge voice technology. In 2010, he told Esquire magazine, “When I am writing, my problems become invisible, and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be.”

But despite his dogged optimism, things had seemed especially ominous of late, as when earlier this week, he announced on his Website that because of declining health, he would be cutting back on movie reviewing. Even that admission of decline, though held a hint of promise, and included a business announcement that he had planned to purchase his website from the Sun-Times and relaunch it.

In his 2011 presentation at the TED conference, “Remaking my voice” Ebert described in painful detail the deprivations that resulted from his cancer battle and the astonishing technologies that had helped him cope. You can watch the video (which has nearly 400,000 views) here:


Ebert rose to prominence with his sidekick and sparring partner, fellow movie buff Gene Siskel, with whom he could make or break a movie's fortunes with the flex of a thumb. Their trademark “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” movie reviews were for many years a staple in the cultural lexicon. 

Though Ebert was Catholic, Siskel was Jewish, and just after Siskel died in 1999, Ebert eulogized him for the Chicago Sun-Times, recounting a conversation they had after a speaking appearance at the Harvard Law School Film Society:

That night we had dinner together in a hotel in Cambridge, and had our longest and deepest philosophical discussion. We talked about life and death, the cosmos, our place in the grand scheme of things, the meaning of it all. There was a reason Gene studied philosophy: He was a natural.

He spoke about his Judaism, which he took very seriously. His parents had started one of the early synagogues on the North Shore after World War II. “I had a lot of long talks with my father about our religion,” Gene told me. “He said it wasn't necessary to think too much about an afterlife. What was important was this life, how we live it, what we contribute, our families, and the memories we leave.” Gene said, “The importance of Judaism isn't simply theological, or, in the minds of some Jews, necessarily theological at all. It is that we have stayed together and respected these things for thousands of years, and so it is important that we continue.” In a few words, this was one of the most touching descriptions of Judaism I had ever heard.

Ebert also wrote with great sensitivity about his Catholic school upbringing and his struggle with faith in God. Despite his skeptical beliefs, religion was an object of fascination for him, a class he considered a “favorite subject.”

In a personal essay for the Chicago Sun-Times, “How I Believe in God,” he pontificated about his religious and spiritual beliefs, elucidating the moral code he adopted from the Church (and, really, the Hebrew Bible). “Catholicism made me a humanist before I knew the word,” he wrote. 

[O]ur theology was often very practical: All men are created equal. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. The Ten Commandments, which we studied at length, except for adultery, “which you children don't have to worry about.” A fair day's work for a fair day's wage. A good government should help make sure everyone has a roof over their head, a job, and three meals a day. The cardinal acts of mercy. Ethical behavior. The sisters didn't especially seem to think that a woman's place was in the home, as theirs certainly was not. You should “pray for your vocation.” My mother prayed for mine; she wanted me to become a priest. “Every Catholic mother hopes she can give a son to the priesthood,” she said, and spoke of one mother at St. Patrick's, who had given two, as if she were a lottery winner.

His so-called secular humanism — though he eschewed labels — made him comfortable with religious behavioral principles but not theological ones.  “I believed in the basic Church teachings because I thought they were correct, not because God wanted me to.” Throughout his life, he stubbornly struggled with the existence of God, explaining his personal theology in a way that lay plain his confusion: “If I were to say I don't believe God exists, that wouldn't mean I believe God doesn't exist. Nor does it mean I don't know, which implies that I could know.”

Despite his identification with Catholic teachings, however, he resisted religious conformity and was honest about his contradictory impulses. He admitted to spending “hours and hours in churches all over the world” not to engage in prayer, of course, but to “nudge [his] thoughts toward wonder and awe.”  The angels of his religious nature ultimately won out, since he clearly had a spiritual bent but he also felt a substantial degree of institutional disillusionment. “I have no interest in megachurches with jocular millionaire pastors,” he wrote. “I think what happens in them is socio-political, not spiritual.” Still, when recounting a childhood tale of a priest who comforted a young Ebert by holding him in his lap, he reassured readers “no priest or nun ever treated me with other than love and care.”

In the end, though, his ultimate spiritual principle strikes as deeply Jewish:

“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.”