On this date in 1910, Sir Alfred Jules Ayer was born in London into a wealthy family. His father was a Swiss Calvinist and his mother was of Dutch-Jewish ancestry. Ayer attended Eton preparatory school and studied philosophy and Greek at Oxford University. From 1946 to 1959, he taught philosophy at University College London. He then became Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. Ayer was knighted in 1970. Included among his many works are The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge (1940), The Problem of Knowledge (1956), The Origins of Pragmatism (1968), Metaphysics and Common Sense (1969), Bertrand Russell (1972) and Hume (1980), about philosopher David Hume. In his still-popular book Language, Truth and Logic (1936), Ayer rejected the term “atheism” on the grounds that the existence of god as a hypothesis could never be proven. To argue that no god exists, to Ayer, was as meaningless as saying that one did exist. Later in life, Ayer frequently identified himself as an atheist and became active in humanist causes. He was the first vice president of the British Humanist Association and served as its president from 1965 to 1970. He was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association from 1947 until his death. He was also an honorary member of the Bertrand Russell Society. In 1988, Ayer had a near-death experience in the United States after choking on salmon and subsequently losing consciousness. He wrote of his experience in “That Undiscovered Country” (New Humanist, May 1989): “My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no god. I trust that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the British Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society.” He died shortly after at age 78 in London. D. 1989.
Sir Alfred Jules Ayer
"I do not believe in God. It seems to me that theists of all kinds have very largely failed to make their concept of a deity intelligible; and to the extent that they have made it intelligible, they have given us no reason to think that anything answers to it."
—A.J. Ayer in "What I Believe," The Humanist, August 1966, p. 226.
Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch; Photo in the Public Domain
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