I was invited to speak at Greg's memorial service yesterday. I had originally written about five hundred words to read, avoiding the subject of Greg's atheism. I knew his mother was deeply religious, and didn't want to appear confrontational. But, some of the speakers before me framed Greg's life in religious terms, and I realized that it wouldn't really be Greg's funeral without an argument breaking out. So, I got up and gave a eulogy emphasising Greg's atheist values. Since it was mostly improvised, below is my attempt at recreating what I had to say:
Greg and I didn't agree on much during the years we were friends, but there was one issue on which we were in complete agreement: We were both atheists, loud and proud. Greg lived a life in which he was kind, considerate, and genuinely caring of others. No one who knew him would say he wasn't a good man, and he was good without God. He didn't show kindness to strangers because he was afraid of some afterlife punishment, or in pursuit of some afterlife reward. He was good because it was simply in his nature.
Still, the question that any atheist must face is, does life have any meaning? If there's nothing beyond this life, do our actions now really matter?
I think the answer is yes, and here's why Greg's life mattered to me:
When I met Greg in college, he didn't immediately stand out as the one friend who would stay part of my day-to-day life for the next twenty-five years. I think that a casual observer of our first few conversations might have thought that maybe we'd one day be enemies. We argued about pretty much everything. I was for nuclear power; he was against it. I thought that capitalism was fundamentally fair, he thought it was tilted to reward the greediest and most cold-hearted among us. We drew our battle lines early.
For the next two and a half decades, we kept arguing. We'd get together to play rummy, and squabble about politics as we racked up scores into the thousands. We'd get together in restaurants and debate over dinner, keep arguing until they closed for the evening, then stand in the parking lot and continue verbally sparring until two or three in the morning.
But, underneath the surface of all this fighting, there are three important things I learned about Greg, and about life.
First, Greg was a passionate defender of ideas he believed in. He'd keep fighting for them even as his political heroes proved to have feet of clay, or as the country tilted to the right. He didn't care if his beliefs were popular, or moderate his positions so that they would appeal to more people. He staked out his ground, and would defend it until the end.
Second, Greg's beliefs were underpinned by a powerful intelligence. In an age when American culture seems to grow ever dumber, Greg was unashamed to be a geek, capable of tearing down any computer and putting it back together better than ever. For a man who didn't even own a computer before he was thirty, he plunged into the world of bytes and bits with unabashed enthusiasm, devouring books about the origins of the PC, and reading biographies of the men who helped make our world digital. There was a time when he would hang motherboards and deconstructed hard drives on his wall like works of art. He never once thought he was too old to keep learning new things or tackle new challenges. In our last conversation in the Intensive Care Unit, he was already talking about his next educational goal, as he stared at all the medical equipment around him with eyes determined to tear them apart and discover what made them tick. I honestly think if he'd had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, he would have had a difficult time resisting taking apart his heart monitor to see what made it tick. (No pun intended.)
Finally, this smart, passionate man probably couldn't have been my friend if not for one thing: He had the wisdom to know that a person who disagrees with him doesn't have to be an enemy. While he could be quite ferocious in attacking political figures, one on one he would debate ideas without slipping into personal attacks. For Greg, the fact that he was talking to someone who disagreed with him was no reason to end a conversation. If anything, it was an invitation to keep the conversation going and the dialogue flowing. He could form firm friendships with people who didn't agree with him on a single thing.
In the end, we can honor Greg's memory by honoring these virtues: The passion to speak your mind, the courage to keep learning at any age, and the wisdom to engage others without malice.