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.