Why am I an atheist? My answer is simple as the sun, as obvious as the nose on your face.

I came into the world an atheist. So did every one of you! Yes, every single infant born on Planet Earth is born an atheist. Atheist simply means "without theism." A, the Greek prefix ‘a’ means ‘without’ as in asexual - devoid of sexuality, as in asexual relationship. Atheism means without a notion of or a belief in gods.

So atheist is not a dirty word. It simply indicates that an individual is without a notion, an idea, and therefore without a belief in god or gods. A few months ago June and I were down in Los Angeles where June’s niece Francesca gave birth to a baby girl. We saw the infant in the hospital when it was three hours old. Did that newborn babe have in its little head any idea of a god? Why, that tiny infant had not yet any thoughts in its head – it had no language. Technically that child was an atheist. Are we calling that little baby a dirty name? No, we are simply using ‘atheist’ as a technical term.

Or look at it this way. Suppose you were a feral child; imagine that you were raised in the wild by wolves. Would you have an idea of a god or gods? If you walked out of the woods into civilization would you know what people were talking about when they prattled about gods? Atheism in its true and literal definition is simply an absence of any notion of a god or gods.

And so we all start out as atheists. But how far we stray from the innocence of our infancy! 

My miseducation began when my parents took me by the hand (I was only six years old) to a Hebrew school in Bridgeport, Connecticut. For eight years I went to yeshiva full time! I never saw the inside of a public school, but with long sideburns and yarmulke I was a full-time yeshiva boy. Such a good rabbinical student was I that I was given a scholarship to the big yeshiva in Brooklyn!

This was a very large yeshiva and I remember sitting up in a huge room with scores of other scholars studying Talmud and Torah. (I especially recall that at recess we ran down to the sidewalk to buy knishes from men with pushcarts. Hot kasha and potato knishes! Hmmm...)

Now this yeshiva was a boarding school, but for some reason the dormitories closed down on weekends. All of us young Torah scholars had to find some other place to sleep on Friday and Saturday nights. Most of my classmates lived in New York and so went home. But my home was in Bridgeport and so I was farmed out to a family in the vicinity – a different family every weekend.

After a pleasant stay with one particularly nice family I thanked the members and attempted to shake the hand of the mother. She drew her hand away from me as if stung by a hornet! I was not supposed to touch her, you see, for she was menstruating and therefore "unclean." Yes, a woman having a period is impure, and a twelve year old boy cannot even touch her.

“Blessed be God King of the universe that Thou hast not made me a woman.” Such is the prayer Orthodox men recite to this day upon rising in the morning. And orthodox men wear a girdle around their waist to separate the "upper, pure, clean, holy" part of their body from the "lower, filthy, disgusting, animal part." These are some of my strongest impressions from my childhood religious upbringing.

At thirteen I became an atheist. How? Well, even before the age of thirteen most young people no longer believe that a Jack Frost comes in winter to turn our window panes all to ice. Santa Claus I guess I never believed in, Jewish boy that I was. I realized that I didn’t really believe in elves, fairies, devils, and angels either. But with god I went through a terribly difficult struggle.

God was all-powerful Lord of the Universe, implacable, merciless and pitiless. How could I disobey Him? But the old man with a white beard was a fantasy - no more real than a ghost or goblin! Why should I fear this, this... – and yet how could I defy this ancient deity who held my father and so many rabbis in awe?

Fortunately, at that tender age I somehow met the most important person of my life: I found “The Immortal Infidel” Robert G. Ingersoll. I read his book entitled Some Mistakes of Moses. To this day I remember the profound liberating effect this work had on my mind, my heart, my spirit!

The upshot was I refused to have a bar-mitzvah. The rabbis were pleading and my parents were crying but I said “Get away from me! I don’t believe in it any more!”

I finally got to see a public school when I entered high school in Bridgeport. But again I did something a nice Jewish boy does not do: I quit high school and joined the Navy. During my four years in the U.S. Navy I refused to go to a temple even though they marched me to one. Yes, in boot camp they marched our entire company - 100 skinny sailors with shaven heads (all of us seventeen years old) - to a large compound with churches all around: “COMPANY HALT! All Catholics two steps forward – HUT” And fifty new recruits stepped forward. “All Protestants two steps to the rear - HUT!” And fifty sailors spun around taking two steps back. Guess what pimply-faced kid was standing all alone? But not as a Jew - as an atheist!

Yes, I told the whole world I was an atheist. And yet I knew not what I was talking about until I met a materialist.

Yes, it was in Bridgeport too that I met a man who introduced me to the philosophy of materialism. Materialism is a way of looking at the world that goes all the way back to the Greeks. Thales, first scientist and first philosopher: he predicted the eclipse of the sun which occurred on 28 May 585 BCE. Anaximander who said the universe is a conflict of opposite forces... Heraclitus who said that all things constantly change... Democritus who gave us the atom... And the sublime Epicurus who taught us not to fear gods or death... – these were all materialist philosophers.

Thanks to them I feel in my feet, in my bones, in my heart that the ground I stand on is a planet spinning around a burning star which around its galaxy goes - the Milky Way galaxy in turn wheeling about its super-galaxy and so on and on for ever and ever, matter in motion for ever and ever...

Yes, in the microcosm too – into the inexhaustible atom - for ever and ever with no beginning and no end. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed – isn’t that a law of science, of nature? You can see I’m no fan of the ‘big bang’ - not when it is taken to mean that something came out of nothing. No, something always comes from something; NOTHING comes from nothing. Actually, for some people the ‘big bang’ is a way of sneaking in a god by way of a back door. What was the Big Bang? God FARTED and that was the Big Bang.

Seriously, we do not need a god to understand the universe. It’s as simple as this: something always comes from something. We came from our parents, and they from theirs, and so on and so forth... Take this all the way through evolution down to the single-celled amoeba. Go beyond that to chemicals and molecules. Back and back... – something always comes from something.

But long before this point some people will become uncomfortable. “Wait!” they will say. “Let’s stop it here. Let’s cut it off at this point and say God started it all.” For an infinite regression of cause and effect they would substitute a mystery. From a process entirely natural they would take an unwarranted leap to the supernatural. But if something always comes from something, where does this god of theirs come from? “Why, He’s always been there!”

But if you can imagine a god that was always there isn’t it just as easy to imagine a material universe that was always here? The one is as easy - or as hard - to conceive as the other. But truthfully, is it not easier and more natural to visualize an endless material universe than an everlasting god or ghost? As to why is it all here in the first place... well, THAT is the mystery! But why not! All or nothing – it could have been either way. But the universe IS here, we live in it, and that’s enough.

It was enough for one of the greatest minds ever to live on our Planet Earth: Einstein. “It was, of course, a lie’” Einstein wrote, “what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

And so like Einstein, like so many other materialists, I prefer the natural, the scientific way of understanding the immensity of it all. Yes, I am a philosophical, a scientific materialist. That’s why I’m an atheist.
  

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Comment by Gene Gordon on March 22, 2014 at 11:54am

Ah, now you have watched the first of my videos and enjoyed it. Yes, this IS going to be fun, for here is...

CHAPTER II 
        U.S. Navy 
 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aehS4lJdyM 

Comment by Gene Gordon on March 22, 2014 at 11:52am

Wow! That "one little detail" is a knockout blow. I know you only on the Internet and yet my heart goes out to you. Can such feelings travel from one computer to another? Well, we've made a beautiful connection already. And on an atheist site!

Comment by Joan Denoo on March 22, 2014 at 11:47am

Gene, I just watched your film! FANTASTIC! What a way to tell a story. I enjoyed every minute of it and especially since I was born in 1936, seeing poverty from a little farm town in eastern Washington state. Your experience of urban life, and mine of rural life gives two perspectives that match and contrast in interesting ways. This is going to be fun.

Thanks for the link to film making.  

Comment by Joan Denoo on March 22, 2014 at 11:44am

Gene, I forget to mention one tiny little detail, this week it is one year since I heard "cancer" connected to my name. I have had two surgeries, gone through chemo, radiation, am now on a protocol of Herceptin drip every three weeks.

This disease offered me the opportunity that I could have had no other way. My three children and their families provided support and encouragement every step of the way, even sitting through five hours of chemo, poison dripping into my body. My medical team at Cancer Care Northwest was without a doubt the finest care I could have had. Being a professional therapist, I felt myself going into a deep depression that I could not break, in spite of all my training. CCNW therapist, Tess, had me out from under that dark cloud within an hour. A condition developed where my toe and finger nails began to curl into my flesh, it infected one big toe. It is a side effect of chemo. CCNW set me up with a podiatrist and my toe nail will probably have to be removed, even the root. So, they have provided what I need, from head to toe. 

My friends and neighbors provided support and encouragement in little ways, like cupcakes, or a lovely veggie tray, or a cheery smile during those darkest hours when I just wanted to not wake up. 

Of course, I cannot forget the wonderful virtual friends of Atheist Nexus. Sentient Biped started a site called "Cancer" where we could cry, whine, moan, laugh, and be refreshed each and every day. Daniel was diagnosed with CA the week before I was and our stories read like stories from hell. And we laughed, not then, but now. 

That brings me up to date. Thanks for reading. 

Comment by Gene Gordon on March 22, 2014 at 9:48am

In less than a week on this site, Joan, I've already 'met,' so to speak, a number of interesting, friendly people. But you take the cake! To share your life story the way you have here is just wonderful and a brave thing to do. Thank you.

I'll return the favor and send you the first chapter of my video autobiography. It's colorful, musical, and tells my story in a unique way - not as pages in a book, but as videos on YouTube. I know you well enough already that I'm sure you will enjoy it very much. 

CHAPTER I 

        Birth and Bridgeport 
 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGqCm8DxdCQ
Comment by Joan Denoo on March 22, 2014 at 2:16am

Gene, I read the da Vinci article before I read your composition. I am blown away by what you wrote, how you came to think in terms of atheism and materialism, the process you followed through growing up in a Jewish home, going to a school of that faith, your refusal to have a ceremony of passage, the experiences of public school and introduction to materialism, and the navy. So much packed into this short piece and in your young life. I can't imagine how you could be asking the questions you did at such an early age. 

I didn't start asking such impertinent questions until I was 37 years old and trying to figure out how to survive in a miserable marriage with three small children, all of them ten years old. (We adopted a five day old son and when he was five months and 13 days old our twins were born.)

The harder I tried to make my marriage work, the worse it got. I didn't understand the dynamics of family violence and now realize that is the "normal" pattern for battering. A very long story made nicely short, I left my marriage, packed up my three ten year olds, drove two thousand miles and created a new home for them and myself. We threw away all the rules, made an agreement to be a team and we worked together to organize a family in which no violence was allowed. 

Working full time, going to college full time trying to understand what happened to us and why, I completed a bachelor's degree in psychology with an emphasis on family violence. I then complete a master's degree and my thesis was "Toward a Theory of Family Violence: Its Antecedents, Treatment, and Prevention". I then proceeded to get all but a dissertation toward a doctoral degree but ran into trouble with the priests and Gonzaga University, a Roman Catholic institution. My dissertation was, "A Splendid Heresy" in which I revealed how religion plays a role in maintaining and perpetuating family violence. When I defended my dissertation, the priests told me I was biased and I would not receive my PhD. I remarked it was strange that men who wore dresses and denied their sexuality felt they could call me biased. 

Well, it will be 40 years on July 1 that I ran from my husband and created an entirely different family style. My three children are all 50 years old now, I have four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. It has been a wonderful life; I am so grateful that I left and experimented, explored, and improvised raising these three kids who are so very wonderful. 

In that process, I realized there was no god, no invisible force that loved me and cared for me or for my children. It was all up to us to make it work. By that, I mean have three adult mentally healthy kids with no family violence being passed on to the next generation. You see, both my husband and I came from families who were violent. The pattern is broken.

Comment by Joan Denoo on March 22, 2014 at 1:28am

This article is a interesting read, revealing how modern da Vinci thought. His words evoke strong images of modern men dressed in long robes pompously making rules that are grounded in their fear of sex and delusions of spirits and miracles. Here is another snippet:

"These scholars strut around in a pompous way, without any thoughts of their own, equipped only with the thoughts of others, and they want to stop me from having my own thoughts. And if they despise me for being an inventor, then how much more should they be despised for not being inventors but followers and reciters of the works of others." 

~ Leonardo da Vinci 

Comment by Joan Denoo on March 22, 2014 at 1:03am

Gene, may I Twitter the article with attribution to you? 

Comment by Joan Denoo on March 22, 2014 at 1:02am

Gene, this is a powerful statement of Leonardo da Vinci's thinking. I quote just a small portion: 

"Of what use are those who try to restrict what we know to only those things that are easy to comprehend, often because they themselves are not inclined to learn more about a particular subject, like the subject of the human body." 

"And yet they want to comprehend the mind of God, talking about it as though they had already dissected it into parts. Still they remain unaware of their own bodies, of the realities of their surroundings, and even unaware of their own stupidity." 

"Along with the scholars, they despise the mathematical sciences, which are the only true sources of information about those things which they claim to know so much about. Instead they talk about miracles and write about things that nobody could ever know, things that cannot be proven by any evidence in nature."

"It seems to me that all studies are vain and full of errors unless they are based on experience and can be tested by experiment, in other words, they can be demonstrated to our senses. For if we are doubtful of what our senses perceive then how much more doubtful should we be of things that our senses cannot perceive, like the nature of God and the soul and other such things over which there are endless disputes and controversies." 

~ Leonardo da Vinci 

Comment by Gene Gordon on March 21, 2014 at 11:45pm

Yes, "Leonardo da Vinci was arguably the most intelligent human who ever lived." So I read on a website which gives a pretty good account of da Vinci's thinking about religion, philosophy, science, etc…

The author quotes the very first biographer of da Vinci who wrote "Leonardo's cast of mind was so heretical that he did not adhere to any religion, thinking perhaps that it was better to be a philosopher than a Christian."

The article (much too long, darn it!) is at 


http://www.deism.com/davinci.htm

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