Behaving Decently: Kurt Vonnegut’s Humanism


In Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has become “unstuck in time,” moving uncontrollably between various periods and places in his life—primarily three: his stretch as a captive of the Germans in World War II, living through the Allied firebombing of Dresden; his life as an optometrist in Ilium, New York, married to a wealthy but overbearing wife and having two disappointing children; and his alien abduction resulting in his becoming a zoo specimen on the planet Tralfamadore, caged with a nude Hollywood starlet. This latter is what primarily helps him understand the meaning of the rest.

If this doesn’t sound like a typical storyline for the great American novel, add the fact that Vonnegut’s writing style—idiosyncratic but also plain and journalistic with numerous digressions into history and backstory—isn’t typical either. Nor are the ideas expressed—including the humanist ones.

What was true for Vonnegut’s novels was often true of his public speaking as well. In a 1990 lecture at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, he acknowledged that “many people find my speeches, and probably my books, too, hopelessly ambiguous.”

Hence nobody needs to feel bad if they could use some help navigating the life and work of one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century.

But of special note is the fact that Kurt Vonnegut was named honorary president of the American Humanist Association in 1992. And he held that position through the last fifteen years of his life, lending his name and occasional written comments to the humanist cause. Therefore, understanding what he was up to in his various writings, and figuring out where and in what ways he expressed his humanism, and what sort of humanism that was, can be of special significance to humanists. Until now, however, there has been no place to turn in order to comprehensively find all that out.

Fortunately, help has arrived in the form of Behaving Decently: Kurt Vonnegut’s Humanism by Wayne Laufert, a book just published by Humanist Press. It analyzes the man’s literary output with special emphasis on his intellectual ideas.

And it begins in an accessible place, with an explanation of humanism in Chapter 1. While explaining humanism, it also gives the reader the first taste of Vonnegut’s version of this outlook, quoted from his introduction to God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (1999), a slender compilation of his short radio scripts.

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 punishments after I’m dead. My German-American ancestors, the earliest of whom settled in our Middle West about the time of our Civil War, called themselves “Freethinkers,” which is the same sort of thing.

But Laufert is quick to elaborate, saying, “There’s more to humanism than being good without believing in an afterlife. Vonnegut acknowledges as much with the qualifier in part. He knows that a full explanation cannot be achieved in just a few words.”

After fleshing humanism out a bit, Laufert moves on in the next chapter to a discussion of Vonnegut’s views on war. The centerpiece is the novelist’s personal experience as a POW in World War II during the destruction of Dresden. How did he feel about that? Then and later?

In a postwar essay, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets,” repeatedly rejected by the major magazines he submitted it to, Vonnegut wrote:

World War II was fought for near-Holy motives. But I stand convinced that the brand of justice in which we dealt, wholesale bombings of civilian populations, was blasphemous. That the enemy did it first has nothing to do with the moral problem.

Moving on to the subject of religion in Chapter 3, Laufert continues this way.

As a student of anthropology, Kurt Vonnegut was interested in the cultural impact of religion more than its theological soundness. He wondered what religion does for people.

Then he adds that Vonnegut’s “most enduring contribution to religious studies is his fourth novel, Cat’s Cradle, from 1963.” He even submitted it to the University of Chicago as his master’s thesis, resulting in him earning a master’s degree in anthropology.

In this novel, Vonnegut’s protagonist puts together a made-up religion, a self-described pack of lies, called Bokononism. “And beneath the satirical surface is a philosophical foundation:” writes Laufert. “The universe is senseless, so we lie to ourselves in our quest for meaning.”

Bokonon teaches his followers that, if you’re going to believe lies, then believe lies that make you happy. Vonnegut tells us to be careful when pretending…He realized that unfounded notions also can be harmful. In Galápagos, opinions are “hobgoblins,” and they help lead to the demise of humankind as we know it.

Which leads us to Chapter 4, wherein Laufert explores Vonnegut’s opinions about evolution, human nature, and even whether the existence of human beings is a good thing. Two years before his death Vonnegut wrote, “Evolution can go to hell as far as I am concerned. What a mistake we are.”

It takes a hardy humanist to seriously consider such a counterintuitive viewpoint. But humanists don’t worship humanity, they look at it honestly. From a human perspective, to be sure, but honestly—which can take people outside their comfort zones. Which it should. And which Vonnegut was bold enough to tackle.

From such a consideration it’s natural to wonder what the best humanist response to life might be: optimism or pessimism? Chapter 5 takes that matter up in detail, finding humor to be the best navigational tool. In his Palm Sunday sermon at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in 1980, Vonnegut declared:

Jokes can be noble. Laughs are exactly as honorable as tears. Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward—and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner.

Subsequent chapters step a bit outside of philosophy to delve deeply into Vonnegut’s views on journalism, science and technology, politics, human dignity, art, the power of stories, the idea of Jesus, and Vonnegut’s enigmatic fictional character Kilgore Trout.

Specific to the subject of science and technology, Vonnegut told the American Physical Society in 1969:

A virtuous physicist is a humanistic physicist…What does a humanistic physicist do? Why, he watches people, listens to them, thinks about them, wishes them and their planet well. He wouldn’t knowingly hurt people. He wouldn’t knowingly help politicians or soldiers hurt people. If he comes across a technique that would obviously hurt people, he keeps it to himself. He knows that a scientist can be an accessory to murder most foul. That’s simple enough, surely.

On the theocratic politics of the religious right, Laufert relates Vonnegut’s striking observation made in “Cold Turkey,” an essay first published in In These Times magazine on May 10, 2004, and reprinted in A Man without a Country, his final work, published in 2005:

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

“Blessed are the merciful” posted in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!

On the subject of Christian love, Vonnegut offered an insightful doctrinal improvement in Chapter XVI of Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s (1991). He pointed out that calling on believers to love their neighbors and enemies was asking too much and thus setting Christians up for moral failure. The ideal of love should therefore be replaced with respect. That modified goal would not only be achievable but often quite sufficient. Indeed, if we could just get more respect from Christians, more recognition of our dignity, Vonnegut projected, their religion might become “a little less homicidal.”

Laufert’s book is full of other trenchant insights as he draws from a far-reaching range of the ways Vonnegut expressed himself—not just in his novels but short stories, journalistic reports, speeches and sermons, letters, illustrations, interviews, rejected and unpublished works, and casual remarks. Laufert also draws from various analyses and commentaries by others.

But beyond all these, the reader is also treated to Vonnegut cartoons, a list of Vonnegut quotes, a list of “harmless untruths,” a descriptive catalog of those individuals Vonnegut considered “saints,” reprints of both the Sermon on the Mount and Humanist Manifesto III, a condensed chronology of Vonnegut’s life, extensive (but hard to use) notes, and a detailed bibliography.

Given all that’s here, Wayne Laufert’s Behaving Decently is a necessary companion for those Vonnegut fans seeking to understand the man’s humanism and those humanists seeking to understand the man’s works.