Bidding farewell to a giant of the freethought movement, and looking back at his achievements and the progress he bore witness to over nine decades.

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James Haught, a giant in the freethought movement and my long-time guest contributor, died on July 23 at the age of 91. The West Virginia Gazette-Mail, the newspaper where he worked throughout his seven-decade career in journalism, posted his obituary.

James was born in 1932 in Reader, West Virginia, a rural town without electricity or paved streets. He started work as an apprentice printer and worked his way up to the newsroom. When his H.L. Mencken-esque editor assigned him to the religion beat, they had a memorable exchange:

One day he told me: “Haught, we want you to be our religion columnist.” I said, “But I haven’t been to church in twenty years.” He said, “Fine—that means you’ll be objective.”

In his long career, he covered everything from snake-handling Pentecostals, to money-grubbing televangelists, to religious swindlers and crooks, to fundamentalists who rioted against “godless” textbooks. As he put it, “My years of covering Bible Belt religion hardened my youthful skepticism into militant agnosticism.” He penned books like Holy Horrors, 2000 Years of Disbelief, and Honest Doubt.

I was in contact with Jim starting in 2011. He had a regular mailing list, which I somehow found my way onto, sending interesting articles he’d come across as well as his own thoughts. He graciously gave me permission to reprint some of his columns.

In 2018, he approached me with a proposition. He wanted to put more of his vast catalog of essays online and was seeking a home for them. At the time, my son was a baby and I was working on my book Commonwealth, both of which had cut into my writing time—so this offer couldn’t have come at a more propitious time. Over the following years, he became a reliable guest contributor, first to my blog Daylight Atheism on Patheos and now here on OnlySky.

Some of my favorites from his collection include a column on the majesty of West Virginia’s mountains, his autobiographical account of his life, and an optimistic view of the human progress he bore witness to over nine decades.

From his writing, I learned about bloody religious conflicts I’d never heard of, like the Cristero War and the Taiping Rebellion, as well as violent battles for the right to organize. Proving that age is no barrier to acceptance of moral progress, he also wrote about white privilege and sexism in the freethought movement.

Even in his old age, he retained his intellect, his restless curiosity, his optimism for the future, and his staunch humanism. I hope I live so long or age so well.

I last heard from him about a month ago. He said that he’d received some serious medical news, and that he was making an appointment with a specialist for a second opinion. I wrote back a brief note, expressing my hope for good results and asking him to keep me updated. I regret that I didn’t say more—but how do you know, how can you ever know, when you correspond with someone for the last time?

Besides, it would have been arrogant of me to presume to offer words of wisdom or comfort to someone whose life experience so far outstripped mine. In the face of death, his courageous humanism never wavered.

In his honor, I’m rerunning a column of his from a few years ago about death. It’s a powerful essay, looking back on his life and confronting his own imminent mortality without fear or qualm. Out of all his writings, it’s my favorite.

I’m quite aware that my turn is approaching. The realization hovers in my mind like a frequent companion.

My first wife died ten years ago. Dozens, hundreds, of my longtime friends and colleagues likewise came to the end of their journeys. They number so many that I keep a “Gone” list in my computer to help me remember them all. Before long, it will be my turn to join the list.

I’m 86 and still work. I feel keen and eager for life. My hair’s still dark (mostly). I have a passel of children, grandchildren and rambunctious great-grandchildren. I love sailing my beloved dinghy on our small private lake, and hiking in shady forests with my three-legged dog, and taking a gifted grandson to symphony, and seeking wisdom in our long-running Unitarian philosophy-and-science circle. I remarried an adorable woman in her 70s, and we relish our togetherness. But her health is fragile. Her turn is on the horizon too.

I have no dread. Why worry about the inescapable, the utterly unavoidable, the sure destiny of today’s seven billion? However, sometimes I feel annoyed because I will have no choice. I’m accustomed to choosing whatever course I want—but I won’t get to decide whether to take my final step. Damn!

I have no supernatural beliefs. I don’t expect to wake up in Paradise or Hades, surrounded by angels or demons. That’s fairy-tale stuff. I think my personality, my identity—me—is created by my brain, and when the brain dies, so does the psyche. Gone forever into oblivion.

I’ll admit that some reports of “near-death experiences” raise tantalizing speculation about a hereafter. But, in the end, I assume those blinding lights and out-of-body flotations are just final glimmers from oxygen deprivation. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

It takes courage to look death in the eye and feel ready. So be it. Bring it on. I won’t flinch. Do your damnedest. I’ll never whimper. However, maybe this is bluster and bravado, an attempt to feel strong in the face of what will happen regardless of how I react.

Unlike Dylan Thomas, I won’t rage, rage against the dying of the light. Instead, I plan to live as intensely as I can, while I can, and then accept the inevitable. I find solace in wisdom I’ve heard from other departees. Just before she died of ovarian cancer, one of my longtime friends, Marty Wilson, wrote:

“I often think of humankind as a long procession whose beginning and end are out of sight. We the living… have no control over when or where we enter the procession, or even how long we are part of it, but we do get to choose our marching companions. And we can all exercise some control over what direction the procession takes, what part we play, and how we play it.”

In The Fire Next Time, brilliant writer James Baldwin said:

“Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.”

Legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow wrote:

“When we fully understand the brevity of life, its fleeting joys and unavoidable pains; when we accept the fact that all men and women are approaching an inevitable doom; the consciousness of it should make us more kindly and considerate of each other. This feeling should make men and women use their best efforts to help their fellow travelers on the road, to make the path brighter and easier… for the wayfarers who must live a common life and die a common death.”

My journey on the road has been proceeding for eight decades. Actuarial tables make my future so obvious that I can’t shut my eyes to it. Life proceeds through stages, and I’m in the last scene of the last act.

I have a Pantheon of my favorite heroes: Einstein, Jefferson, Voltaire, Lincoln, Carl Sagan, Shakespeare, Martin Luther King Jr., Tolstoy, FDR, Beethoven, Epicurus, Gandhi, etc. They fill a different “Gone” list. They uplifted humanity, even transformed humanity, in their day—but their day ended, and life moved on.

My day was the 1960s, and ’70s, and ’80s, even the ’90s. I was a Whirling Dervish in the thick of everything. Life was a fascinating carnival. But it slides into the past so deftly you hardly notice.

While my clock ticks away, I’ll pursue every minute. Carpe diem. Make hay while the sun shines. And then I’m ready for nature’s blackout, with no regrets.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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