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Gerald A. Larue dies at 98; former minister debunked biblical stories

Gerald A. Larue dies at 98; former minister debunked biblical stories
Gerald A. Larue was a longtime professor of religion and gerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology. (Los Angeles Times)

Gerald A. Larue — an ordained minister who became an agnostic, archeologist, religious scholar and debunker of claims such as Lazarus rising from the dead and the discovery of Noah's ark — has died. He was 98.

The longtime USC professor of religion and gerontology died Wednesday in Newport Beach after a stroke, said his son, David.

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"He was an inspirational thinker, and that's an oxymoron, especially in religion," said USC professor of gerontology Vern Bengtson. "You find people who are an inspiration and people who are thinkers; they often do not go together. But Gerry was able to do that."

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FOR THE RECORD:

Gerald A. Larue: In the Sept. 22 LATExtra section, the obituary of USC religious scholar Gerald A. Larue referred to archaeological digs in Palestine. The digs occurred in Israel and the West Bank. —

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During an academic career spanning five decades, Larue became a widely cited expert on topics including Satanism, visions of Mary, and death and dying. He wrote or co-wrote a dozen books, including the provocatively titled "Sex and the Bible" (1983) and "Playing God: Fifty Religions' Views on Your Right to Die" (1996).

In 1980 he became founding president of the Hemlock Society, conceived by "Final Exit" author and right-to-die movement pioneer Derek Humphry to provide information to the terminally ill and legalize physician-assisted suicide.

"He stepped up to the plate when others were afraid," Humphry said Saturday. "He presided over Hemlock with great diplomacy when it was highly sensitive and controversial —  when America was just beginning to address the subject of the hot-button topic of the right to choose to die when at life's end."

The USC professor also was at the center of a controversy over a 1993 documentary aired on CBS titled "The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark," which made a case for the existence of Noah's ark as described in the Bible. The centerpiece of the film were the claims of a man who said he had discovered the ark on Mt. Ararat in Turkey and had brought back a piece of wood from the vessel.

Larue exposed the claims as a hoax — and himself as an advisor to the hoaxer — in an interview with Time magazine after the broadcast.

"Carbon-14 testing would have revealed that the wood was a modern forgery," Larue, who co-founded the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, told Time.

Over the years he addressed many other biblical stories. He hypothesized, for instance, that an earthquake, not God, caused Jericho's walls to collapse, and that Lazarus did not rise from the dead but awoke from a coma.

He once told a woman whose silver rosary turned to gold during a pilgrimage to a Marian apparition site to dip the rosary in tarnish remover. She declined, but Larue persisted in his battles against what he called "magical thinking."

Larue "had a strong regard for truth and limited patience for obscurantism. He had one foot in the real world and one foot in the ivory tower," said Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, where Larue's articulate critiques of religious dogma, supernaturalism and pseudoscience made him one of the most prominent in the field.

Flynn said Larue, along with Paul Kurtz and Vern Bullough, were "the globe-hopping brain trust of secular humanism."

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The son of a salesman, Larue was born in Calgary, Canada, on June 20, 1916. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Alberta in 1943 and was ordained in the United Church of Canada in 1945.

Over the next eight years he led congregations in Canada and California while completing his theological studies. In 1953 he earned a doctorate from Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, where he also studied archaeology.

Even then he questioned religious dogma. "His professors called him 'Heretic Larue,'" his son David said. "He was treating religious studies more as historical or scientific fact you can challenge."

He gave up the pulpit in 1953 because, he later told the Orange County Register, "while I was doing good things in society, there was no intellectual growth for me." He regarded the existence of God as "an open question."

In 1958 Larue joined USC's faculty as a professor of biblical history and archaeology. In the 1960s he took part in digs in Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and other parts of the Middle East, returning with artifacts preserved in a USC archaeological collection. "The archaeology put the reality into religion," his son said.

Larue gradually turned his attention to topics such as the Bible's views of sex and gender and ancient practices surrounding death and dying.

In 1980 he attended a meeting in Los Angeles organized by Humphry, a British-born journalist and author who had written a book about his terminally ill wife's planned suicide in 1975. Of the 20 people present, Larue was the only one willing to become a member of the group Humphry proposed to advocate for assisted suicide, so Humphry asked him to become president. Larue served for eight years, until Humphry moved the Hemlock Society to Oregon in 1988.

He wrote "Euthanasia and Religion" (1985), which Humphry said was "the very first book which described how the world's religions addressed right to die."

Larue taught popular courses on death and dying for four decades, starting when he was in religious studies and continuing through his 25 years in the USC Davis School of Gerontology. The courses were cathartic for many students, especially when Larue asked them to reflect on losses they had experienced.

"You are never so aware of the importance of pursuing life until you accept death," he told the Register.

To make the subject real, he passed around a bottle filled with the ashes of a dear colleague, who had given Larue permission to use his remains as a teaching tool before he died.

After retiring from USC in 2006, Larue devoted much of his time to playing with his grandchildren, of whom two survive him, along with his son.

"He would say, 'We don't live in days or years — we live in moments,'" said his former wife Emily Perkins, who taught the death-and-dying class with him. "He lived the concepts he taught. He was very connected to life."

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