Death of atheist Dr Oliver Sacks

Death of atheist Dr Oliver Sacks

Readers of the weekly Freethinker bulletin may recall that, on July 9 of this year, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks was the subject of our  “Born on this day” feature.

Sadly, today we learned that Sacks, an atheist who was branded by his mother as an “abomination” because he was gay, has died at the age of 82.

According to Why Evolution is True, Sacks died of cancer this morning in New York.

He documented his terminal condition (a melanoma in his eye that eventually metastasized to his brain) and his thoughts on mortality in a series of poignant pieces.

Today’s arts section of The New York Times contains a postmortem appraisal, “Oliver Sacks, casting light on the interconnectedness of life.”

The WEIT tribute said:

He was a delightful guy, much admired and loved, and, at the end, finally came out as a gay man. How sad that he found true love only at the end of a closeted life! But at least he had that experience, short as it was.

Sacks’s last piece in the NY Times, “Sabbath“, appeared just two weeks ago, and ended this way:

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself.

I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Sacks was born in London, England, to a Jewish couple: Samuel Sacks, a medical general practitioner, and Muriel Elsie Landau, one of England’s first female surgeons.

He earned his medical degree at Oxford University (Queen’s College), and did residencies and fellowship work at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco and at UCLA.

Since 1965, he  lived in New York, where he was a practicing neurologist, while maintaining his British citizenship. In July of 2007, he was appointed Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, and he was also designated the university’s first Columbia University Artist.

Dr Sacks, dubbed  “the poet laureate of medicine,” by the The New York Times, considered himself a popular scientist in the tradition of Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan. He is the best-selling author of many books about the mysteries and marvels of the human mind.

Sacks was the subject of a 1990 movie, Awakenings, a drama based on Oliver Sacks’ 1973 memoir of the same title. It tells the true story of Sacks, fictionalised as American Malcolm Sayer and portrayed by the late Robin William.

Hallucinations, his 12th, explores the various ways in which we may viscerally experience worlds that, ultimately, do not exist. He wrote:

One must wonder to what extent hallucinatory experiences have given rise to our art, folklore, and even religion.

In 2013 Sacks, who was an honorary director of the US Freedom From Religion Foundation, said:

I have no belief in (or desire for) any post-mortem existence, other than in the memories of friends and the hope that some of my books may still ‘speak’ to people after my death.

Atheism came at a tender age to Sacks. When he was a lad he planted two rows of radishes in the vegetable garden at his boarding school. He prayed for God to bless one or curse the other, whichever He thought best. When the two rows grew up to be identical, Sacks gave up belief in any reality beyond that which could be proved rationally by science.

Hat tip BarrieJohn

27 responses to “Death of atheist Dr Oliver Sacks”

  1. AgentCormac says:

    A very sad loss, but what a great story to end the article on – clearly god doesn’t give two hoots about radishes!

  2. AgentCormac says:

    BTW, sorry for going OT, but in the past couple of articles here in the FT I have been amused and irritated in equal measure by some of the terms that those lovely god-botherers dream up to describe their hateful, bigoted, interfering actions which, being religion-based, everyone seems to accept as ‘normal’. I’m talking about terms such as ‘faith-based sex and porn addiction clinic’ and ‘pro-life outreach’. They sound so serious, mainstream and, above all, helpful. While in reality these are clever spins – misdirections designed to conceal their true intent.

    So, I wondered what an appropriate collective noun for people spewing superstitious bile at frightened women trying to end an unwanted pregnancy might be. I would offer up ‘a tyranny’ of anti-abortionists, follwed by ‘a hypocricy’ of christian sexual clinical staff .

    Anyone got anything better?

  3. TrickyDicky says:

    AgentCormac says:
    Sun 30 Aug at 9:17 pm

    “Anyone got anything better?”

    Bunch of self-righteous wankers.

    Back on topic –

  4. barriejohn says:

    What a man; what a loss. “Consulting physician for the Hell’s Angels” – wouldn’t we all love to have that on our CV?

    Even the Daily Mail carries a gushing full-page eulogy today:

    “I cannot pretend that I am without fear, but my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written.

    “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and pleasure.”

    Amen to that.

  5. barriejohn says:

    If you wonder why we are so in need of informed,rational voices like that of Sacks, just listen for a few minutes to the garbage being spewed out by Dr John Whitcomb in the following video:

    I just happened to be listening to Whitcomb and a bunch of other “experts” on a programme called “God of Wonders” on TBN UK last night, and was wondering at the naivety of their arguments: “God designed this” and “God planned that” (no evidence presented whatsoever; just enormous presumptions made). How can intelligent people be so stupid, and how are we ever going to make any progress when minds (particularly young minds) are infected with this sort of rubbish?

    BTW Whitcomb’s credentials: “He studied historical geology and paleontology for a year and graduated in 1948 with honors in ancient and European history. Thereafter he enrolled at Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana, where he earned a B.D. degree in 1951, and remained at the seminary, teaching Old Testament and Hebrew along with Gap Creationism.”(Wikipedia) Yes – and he’s taken as an authority on evolution and other scientific matters by the Christian community!

  6. AgentCormac says:

    Works for me.

  7. Barry Duke says:

    From this report: “When his mother, a pioneering female surgeon, learned that he was gay, she reacted by shrieking: ‘You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born’. Sacks added poignantly: ‘The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.”

  8. Cali Ron says:

    @AentCormac: Faith-based Haters Outreach.

  9. Cali Ron says:

    The world is a little bit less today without Dr. Sacks. His humanity and intellect will be missed, but at least some of his wisdom will live on in his writings.

  10. dennis says:

    barriejohn could not get past his insulting of TEXAS. we have seen his kind before and want to be free of them! Make them eat radishes! Mr Sacks a life well lived, Sir.
    AgentCormac, they remind me of advertising people a shiftiness of language that helps them cover up the failings of the product, Just sell it.

  11. barriejohn says:

    I LOVE radishes: ravishing, radical, rational radishes, and riotously rejoice over their reemergent radicles (but you MUST grow your own as the supermarket ones have no taste, much like many of the god botherers!).

  12. AgentCormac says:

    Were you the inspiration for Uncle Monty by any chance? The only person I’ve ever seen to wear a radish as a badge. Apart from that, ‘Withnail and I’ just happens to be the second funniest British movie ever (the first IMHO being ‘The Life of Brian’).

  13. Cali Ron says:

    barriejohn: You do seem to relish those radishes.

    As for Whitcomb, and his degree from Grace Theological Seminary, how do you study christianity or the bible without ever applying any science, logic or clear thinking to the massive contradictions or lack of ability to establish authorship. The courses must all begin with bold statements without any foundation like “the bible is god’s word” or “the earth’s is 6,000 years old” and you must accept that.

    Do you know why they call it “gap creationism”? Because you have to have a huge gap in your logic to believe it. Funny how even the christians can’t decide on which theory is true, but by god, it is because god! “The shoe, the shoe! No, it’s the gourd, the gourd!”.

  14. 1859 says:

    From this report: “When his mother, a pioneering female surgeon, learned that he was gay, she reacted by shrieking: ‘You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born’. Sacks added poignantly: ‘The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.”

    And O how we are seeing this very ‘capacity’ today, everyday, being sprawled, almost celebrated, across our TV screens. There’s probably not a country in the world in which religious cruelty and bigotry is either constantly bubbling below the surface or openly vomiting its nonsense into people’s throats.

    Oliver Sacks – lovely man, rational, patient and kind. He always felt like a faraway uncle. And yes, barriejohn, we need more like him – but where are they!! Hitchens, Sacks, Sagan – all gone. Monty Python crew defunct. And when Dawkins snuffs it….oh shit….whistle, whistle, whistle, Always look on the bright side of death’ Whistle, whistle, Whistle……………

  15. barriejohn says:

    Cali Ron: Whitcomb co-authored an enormous tome entitled The Genesis Flood with Henry M Morris for his PhD thesis, though Morris (yes – a hydraulic engineer!) contributed all the scientific stuff. It was an enormously influential work – did you possess a copy, as I certainly did? I think we believed it all because we WANTED it to be true. Sadly, the book was “ignored by university scientists and liberal Christians”. The bastards!

  16. barriejohn says:

    1859: I am very pessimistic about the future. I have tried to energize younger friends and internet contacts, and point them in the direction of sites like The Freethinker, but with little success. Though generally liberal and progressive in their own views, they seem to see us as a bunch of superannuated fuddy-duddies, trapped in a time-warp and obsessed with the dangers of religion, which we exaggerate. I have been repeatedly accused of having a warped outlook due to my atypical experiences with the Plymouth Brethren, and they seem oblivious to the dangers of religion and superstition, and even worryingly complacent about the erosion of civil liberties generally. I definitely get the impression that students in particular are much more introverted and – dare I say it – materialistic than we were in the Swinging Sixties, and it does concern me a lot. Have others found this – particularly in the USA?

  17. 1859 says:

    Barriejohn: I tend to vacillate between pessimism and wilful ignorance. Although relatives tried to bring me up as an RC, they were too late as I had begun to think for myself, so I never experienced any of the trauma you seemed to have suffered with the P-Brothers. I don’t try and spread the atheist word with the same blind devotion that is so characteristic of religious believers. And whenever I have dug my nails into a religious scalp or two, I invariably noticed it had the opposite effect – instead of making them think and reject their belief system , my attack only seemed to drive them deeper into their superstition. I guess they were doing the obvious – going into defence mode, seeking refuge beneath and clinging even tighter to their duvet of mumbo jumbo. I am a teacher in a school that is secular yet tolerant of individual student’s different faiths and everyday I see a lot of young people, and, believe me, they are very, very savvy about what is irrational crap and what isn’t. The only ones who ‘come out’ as avowedly religious are those with devout parents – so these kids have had no chance to think for themselves. Students are materialistic but I don’t think this destroys their innate critical abilities when it comes to believing or not believing in creationist fairy tales. My impression is that most teenagers couldn’t give two tits if god existed or not – to them it’s just not important. But if someone tries to push god on them this someone would more than likely be told to fuck off and lick a cat’s arse. Young people generally tend to see proselytising types as sad nutjobs who are best avoided.

  18. barriejohn says:

    1859: That’s an encouraging report. My own experience of young people is now very much out of date, I fear, apart from family members and internet contacts. I do realize that one’s outlook must necessarily be greatly influenced by one’s personal experiences, but I always defend those like Prof. Dawkins when they are accused of “evangelical zeal” or worse in their struggle against irrationality. After all, he has been immersed in the world of academia all his life, which must have shaped his thinking a lot. It is also encouraging to notice the wild applause that Stephen Fry attracts whenever he lays into religion on QI, but his audience might not be typical. Derren Brown also does a very good job of exposing fraud and fakery, and seems equally popular, and David Attenborough seems universally respected but seldom makes even a passing reference to creationism, giving it all the disrespect that it so richly deserves, so maybe we are not without hope!

  19. barriejohn says:

    PS I knew evangelical Christians who adored David Attenborough, and often wondered how they squared that with their own literalist views. I can only imagine that they did what I did when teaching science, and compartmentalized their mind, so that the conflicting theories never actually came into contact with one another. I realize now that I never dared confront the question of what the truth actually was; it varied according to which hat I was wearing . What very strange way to carry on!

    PPS I referred to students as “more introverted” when I meant “more introspective”, of course, but was too late to amend that. We certainly seemed more interested in philosophy and politics than today’s lot, but maybe I am going to be put right yet again!

  20. Rob Andrews says:

    “One must wonder to what extent hallucinatory experiences have given rise to our art, folklore, and even religion.”

    The psychedelic drugs, like peyote, offers a ‘spirtitual or religious ‘expierence that blows-away prayer or meditation. I’m a long time user of these aids to spirituality. This proves that “it’s all in our minds”. And offers a modern way for all people to expierence what people like St. Teresa of Avila had, w/o belief in god(s).

    “Philosophy has questions that can’t be answered; religion has answers that can’t be questioned”.–

  21. Cali Ron says:

    Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum near Cincinnati, credited The Genesis Flood for “really launch[ing] the modern creationist movement around the world.” So we have Whitcomb to thank for the whole stupid shit like the creation museum. He’s a pox on society.

    barriejohn: I have 2 kids who are young adults now. They don’t belong to any religion or have any real believe in god, but don’t call themselves atheists. Like you have found, they seem rather ambivalent about the whole god issue. They and most of their friends are too busy with their phones, social media and video games to have time for anything else. They get annoyed at me for bringing up religious issues and don’t understand my bitterness or fear of religion, but then they didn’t have to put up with the indoctrination we did. In general in the USA the younger generation seem to be less inclined to care or be involved with religion. They definitely are much more opened minded about LBGT and personal freedom issues which tends to drive them away from organized religion. Overall, I’d say they are less religious, which is good, but also seem to care less about social/political/ religious issues. Too busy on facebook and Xbox.

    Traditional religions seem to be waning, but I fear the door is open for some crazy new, techno religion to take them by storm. I try to warn them to be vigilant against the evil that is religion, but I can’t push too hard without alienating them.

  22. barriejohn says:

    Cali Ron: I think you’ve just about summed it up!

  23. Rob Andrews says:

    @Cali Ron:

    Yeah, that was a good read.You get a lot of cults popping up. But they die pretty quickly. The exception being Scientology. But the problem is–of course–the spread of Islam. This is why apethy in the young is dangerous.

  24. Cali Ron says:

    Rob Andrews: You must be familiar with the only “saint” I recognize: San mezcalito, patron saint of all who dig and indulge in psychedelics. Used to have an awesome black light poster of his imminence surrounded by glowing mushrooms and cacti on my wall back in the day.

  25. barriejohn says:

    Rob Andrews: I know that I am not alone in worrying that in the event of some sort of breakdown in the fabric of society – a REAL financial crash, or a pandemic, for example – some totalitarian philosophy like Islam or Scientology could really take over, just as Nazism did in pre-War Germany, and, once again, easy-going, liberal-minded people would be ill-equipped to deal with it.

  26. Cali Ron says:

    I also fear some sort of a totalitarian, religious corporatocracy . The power of propaganda is greater than ever with the internet and corporations with their deep pockets are a powerful interest, coupled with religious ferver could be very dangerous.