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Vol. 21 No. 8 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. -
October 2004

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One Scientist's Path to Atheism

By Lester Goldstein

Lester Goldstein

FFRF Life Member and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Paul D. Boyer wrote an article in the March 2004 Freethought Today about how he lost his faith and how his education and experience played important roles in that fortunate loss. This article prompted me (another, less distinguished, scientist) to reflect about my own path to atheism. I'd like to share those thoughts.

My early life experiences bear little resemblance to those of Prof. Boyer. For example, I was born into a small (I'm an only child) Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, N.Y., in contrast to his being part of a Mormon family with six children in Provo, Utah. When I was two years old, my family shrank further when my parents separated, and I rarely saw my father thereafter. Although we moved a fair bit, my mother and I lived almost continuously in Orthodox Jewish environments until I left for the U.S. Army when I was 18.

The intensity of my exposure to orthodoxy varied in different neighborhoods. But from the age of 11 to 18 (1935-1943), when my path to atheism began to form, my mother and I lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Williamsburg was a large Jewish "ghetto" in those days, and was reputed to have a greater population of Orthodox Jews than all of Palestine at that time. (Israel was not created until 1948.) While almost everyone in the neighborhood seemed to be Orthodox, I believe that less than half were ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews, whom the rest of us thought were strange. It certainly made me feel that there was something odd about being so devout. I still feel that way, but now my feeling is based on more than superficial appearances.

I believe that it was relatively easy for me not to become pious. In my earliest years, although my mother (who had immigrated to the United States alone as a girl from an Orthodox shtetl in Poland) was Orthodox and did such things as maintain a Kosher household, little religious indoctrination or ritual took place at home. This was no doubt because she worked extremely hard to support us during tough economic times and was generally too exhausted to instill much religious doctrine. Our attendance at synagogue was pretty much limited to holy days. Much of what went on there was unintelligible and boring to me, because services were conducted in Hebrew, which I did not understand.

"My Bar Mitzvah photo (1937).
On the verge of foregoing all religion."

I was enrolled at the age of six in an after-school program to learn Hebrew and presumably to learn the essentials of the Jewish religion. I did manage to learn to read some Hebrew the first (and only) year, but I understood almost nothing, and little of the faith education stuck. From time to time, I was enrolled in other similar programs and usually rebelled, either because I found the instructor to be offensive or because of the tediousness of it all. (I loved going to regular schools.) In retrospect, I suspect that it was taken for granted that anyone growing up in such an intensely religious atmosphere couldn't help being a believer and didn't necessarily need much formal indoctrination. This was probably the "godsend" that helped me ultimately to reject all beliefs.

Nevertheless, until I was 13, at some level I went along with the myths (and thought of them as being in the same category as the Greek myths, which I enjoyed) associated with various practices and holy days, and under duress followed many religious strictures, especially the taboos tied to the Sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown).

Some of the taboos: labor of any sort; riding on any kind of conveyance; writing; cutting or tearing of any substance; handling money; carrying anything (pockets had to be empty); turning electricity on or off; cooking; listening to the radio; attending any kind of entertainment; answering the telephone (which for us was no problem, since we couldn't afford one); and more. You get the idea. These taboos were also invoked for some holidays. Among the few things that I knew were permitted: walking, talking, eating, and reading.

It is amusing to note that the World Series usually occurred at the time of the holiest of holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and these holidays were a source of great frustration for baseball fans like me. Not that we could afford to attend the games, which usually were not far away in Yankee Stadium. Rather, it was that we were prohibited from listening to the radio in those pre-TV days. It turned out, however, that a nearby poolroom, apparently run by gentiles, had outside its second-story window an animated display of the World Series play-by-play for the benefit of observers on the street below. Because the Talmudic scholars had not yet caught on to the need to ban this pleasure, we observant Jewish fans felt free to watch, with only slightly guilty pleasure. I doubt that we told our parents about it.

My clear separation from the faith began when I was 12, as a consequence of two events: (1) my father's death simultaneous with the beginning of my preparation for confirmation (Bar Mitzvah), which was to take place close to my 13th birthday; and (2) my realization of gross hypocrisy in the Orthodox community. I'm not sure whether I rejected the concept of god then; my memory is vague about what, if anything, I believed at the time.

Despite the fact that I had been attending what we called "Hebrew School" on and off over the years, I was a remarkably poor scholar there, though often one of the best students in elementary school. Because a Bar Mitzvah is a big deal for obedient Jews, my mother felt obliged (despite financial difficulties) to enroll me in a "crash course" that would suitably prepare me for the great event. I looked forward to this with dread, but the dread was compounded by the news conveyed by an aunt that my father had just died 3,000 miles away in California. And it was not because I mourned his passing; after all, he was virtually a complete stranger to me. The distress came because my mother--who never had a kind word to say about him--insisted that I recite the prayer for the dead (Kaddish) in his memory.

Simple enough, you might think, but this required that I attend synagogue services morning and night every day of the week for 12 months--all the while having to bear almost daily instruction to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah! It is a measure of how dutiful a son I was that I faithfully carried out those onerous tasks for the whole year. Much of the time I felt as though I was being punished, as my mother had let me know over the years that she had no good feelings for my father. At the end of that year, I successfully completed the Bar Mitzvah ceremony and began an at-home elaborate morning ritual that, now that I was a "man," was a required duty. Within two weeks I abandoned that agonizing practice and never again engaged in any at-home or synagogue rituals.

I have little doubt that that oppressive exposure to religion weighed heavily in my turning away from the faith. Biologists like myself are inclined to refer to the experience as an "immunizing dose," enough of a dose that I rarely entered a synagogue again. In fact, since then I've been in more churches (as a sightseer) than synagogues.

On top of all that, there was the hypocrisy. The Sabbath taboos against turning on electricity or lighting a stove did not mean that the Jews of Williamsburg sat in the dark or ate cold food on the Sabbath. Oh, no; we had others do the dirty work. The neighborhood apartment houses, in which most of us dwelt, all had resident janitors who lived with their families in the basements of their building workplaces. These janitors, always African-Americans, were almost the only gentiles in the neighborhood (as was probably true in similar neighborhoods throughout New York City). They were conveniently available to Jewish families, who called on them on the Sabbath to turn on the lights and the stoves, things Jews were forbidden to do. And for their efforts, the janitors were given small gratuities (and demerits in heaven?). Although I had observed this practice for most of my life, it wasn't until my 13th year that it occurred to me that if it was sinful to do those things, why were we paying non-Jews to commit sins? If these are taboos, isn't there something decadent about finding ways to get around these prohibitions? The wakening to this hypocrisy left a persistent repugnance for faith-based initiatives.

For the next dozen or so years little occurred to modify my views about matters religious. The only circumstance, and a minor one at that, that might be worth noting occurred during military service. Because I was not raised a Christian, Christmas had (and still has) no emotional significance for me, but of course it did for most of my comrades-in-arms. This gave me an opening to unashamedly take advantage of their religiosity. When Christmas came around, I would volunteer for KP, displaying an air of sacrifice, so that others could have time off for the holiday. (Because almost everyone would be away from camp, KP entailed remarkably little work.) This "sacrifice" won me much goodwill, so that, for example, I easily obtained leaves on the occasion of various Jewish holidays--even though I had no intention of participating in religious activities, nor did I claim any such intent.

During World War II, I was an aid-man in an infantry regiment and saw a fair bit of combat. That entailed exposure to numerous terrifying episodes, and I was indeed quite fearful at those times. But it never occurred to me to call on God for protection, despite wishing desperately for the terrifying action to end. Whoever said "There are no atheists in foxholes" did not look far enough.

My life as a conscious (and conscientious) atheist, i.e., the total rejection of any belief in the supernatural, probably began in graduate school. As a biology major at Brooklyn College, I had been exposed to numerous perspectives on evolution, but with little of the kind of philosophical reflection that encourages full appreciation of its implications. In graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, we engaged in deeper considerations of evolution, both regarding its meaning for biological principles and the broader significance for understanding the world in which we live. After that, it was not hard to recognize that notions of god, miracles, biblical creation, etc. are absurd.

Prof. Boyer notes that surveys over the years have found that among scientists with bachelor's degrees, about 60% are nonbelievers, far greater than the 10-15% reported for the general U.S. population. But among the most distinguished scientists (and probably other active researchers with doctorates), the proportion of nonbelievers is 90%. I am chauvinistically pleased to note, among biologists of that group, 95% are nonbelievers. (Why am I nevertheless troubled that 5% of them can still believe in the supernatural?) I am convinced that the difference in belief between scientists with bachelor's degrees and research scientists with advanced degrees is that the former are generally educated to learn facts and concepts but not encouraged to be more inquiring, whereas for the latter, asking questions and an intense exercise of skepticism are coin of the realm. It's not hard to see how advanced training would lead to the rejection of superstition for most. That biologists (and probably geologists) are the least likely of the scientists to be believers reflects their robust familiarity with evidence that evolution of living things has occurred. It is a major failing of our educational systems--from grade school through college--that we do little to encourage the asking of probing questions and the exercise of skepticism. No doubt most religious leaders would ferociously resist such progress.

I have, over the years, much admired those many individuals raised in religious environments who, without the benefit of an advanced scientific education like mine, were able to reject various notions of the occult through their own reasoning. To me, these people had the independent spirit and capacity of mind to use their intellectual abilities splendidly to confront the world with reason--and, not infrequently, at some risk to their well-being for doing so.

Whether I would have become an atheist had I taken a different path, I can't say. I can say that, as far as belief is concerned, it was fortunate that the idea of god failed to curtail the heavy but murky religiosity that almost smothered me in my youth. Because I understood so little and it was heavily imposed, it was easy to repudiate that which was supposed to capture me. The call to reason demanded by my graduate education lifted my agnosticism and allowed me to see the preposterousness of belief in the supernatural. After seeing the harm that religion has produced in this world, I have gone from being relatively passive to being fairly aggressive in fostering atheism. I am particularly appreciative of the opportunity to support organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which I feel fight the good fights on behalf of principles I hold dear--and, happily, the Foundation does so with good humor.

Prof. Goldstein was born in 1924, served in the U.S. Army from March 1943 to April 1946, and received a B.A. degree from Brooklyn College in 1948, thanks to the G.I. Bill.

He attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, again with the help of the G.I. Bill, but also with fellowship support. He received a Ph.D. in biology in 1953, and spent 1953-1959 doing research at the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco. In 1959, he returned to the University of Pennsylvania to replace his dissertation professor in the Biology Department. In 1967, he was appointed professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and in 1982, was appointed director of the School of Biological Sciences, University of Kentucky. He retired in 1992 and has lived in Seattle ever since.

He is part of the advocacy group, Feet First, to promote safety for pedestrians. He invented an orange plastic sign, which can be folded and carried in a pocket, then unfurled like a flag. It shows a silhouette of a walking pedestrian on an orange background and reads: "Stop for Me, It's the Law." Feet First has produced 500 flags and Prof. Goldstein has applied for a patent. He and his safety device were featured in the Seattle Times, Nov. 4, 2003.

October 2004 Excerpts