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September 11, 2015

Atheism, a Personal Journey

My journey to atheism started several decades ago supposedly prompted by the question: "How can there be a god with so much evil in the world?" I don't recall asking the question, I only remember my mother telling me I asked it. As a kid I was an unruly little rascal and I was sent to a Catholic boarding school to see if they could knock some sense into me. They tried to indoctrinate me with the usual stories of hell and heaven and almost succeeded. At one point I wanted to become a priest! One day an older boy invited me to accompany him up the bell tower. Kids love adventure. Instinct saved me. Instinct told me that something was not right so I fled down the stairs and went to tell a priest my story. Nothing was done about it. In later years I wondered if the kid was procuring for the priests. Shortly after I ran away from this horrible school, the only time in my life that I have run away.

Fast forward a dozen years. I had a fun and challenging job at IBM and a voracious appetite for reading. I devoured SciFi, mystery novels, Scientific American (I used to head directly to Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games column), puzzles of every kind, and WWII history, not necessarily in that order. My childhood question returned: "Is there a god?" I still have the Barnes & Noble book Religions of the World. Where else would you find god if not in religion?

I was born to a Jewish family, non-practicing Jews except for my grandmother. On my mother's side there were several mixed marriages to Christians. In Hungary during the war my mother had us baptized Catholics and she placed my older brother and me into a Catholic boarding school as a way to save us from the Nazis. It didn't work. The Nazis came and ordered all the boys to lower their pants and took note of who was circumcised. The priests were admonished not to let any one of them get away. The priests complied. I was lucky. Some time before the day the soldiers came my mother came to visit and I would not let her go without me, unruly little rascal that I was. My brother liked the place and loved to play altar boy. It cost him his life.

The end result was that I got no religious indoctrination until I was placed in that miserable "Salesians of Don Bosco" boarding school. I had to find god on my own and my path to knowledge was reading. I read about the war until it was coming out of my ears. I read all I could about religion. My state of faith shifted constantly as I analyzed religions. I recall vividly that at one point I decided that if I ever found god I would become a Jew, they seemed to have the most sensible approach to religion. At that time I didn't know about the ultra orthodox and their strange rituals. Islam was quiescent, the current feverish fundamentalism had not yet appeared.

I didn't find god and other interests put the subject on the back burner until the day my mother died. Arranging for a funeral is complicated business specially on a day when your faculties are naturally impaired by the events. I will spare you of the details, suffice it to say that the events generated an eternal hatred of rabbis. This hatred was reinforced a year later when the time came to place the headstone on the grave. The truth about rabbis was revealed. It's a money making profession like any other. Another step on the road to atheism.

I don't recall when I started reading Ayn Rand, it must have been somewhere around 1990. I had time on my hands as I had finally shut down my businesses and I decided to read the classics which had not been on my earlier reading list. I have no idea why I thought Ayn Rand was a classic but she certainly was popular so I read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. They weren't all that great but I liked her philosophy.

The concept of god is very comforting, it's no wonder that god has been universally adopted by all human civilizations. If you indoctrinate a child before he has a fully functional capacity to reason, he is hooked for life. Even without the full indoctrination it took me several decades before I was able to throw god in the trash can. For this liberating experience I must thank Ayn Rand.

Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness culminated the process. As a young adult I was living in my parents home. One day I had a hot date but I had things to do the next day and I wanted to end the evening not too late. The girl refused so we continued dancing until well past the wee hours. My mother stayed up most of the night waiting for me to return. The next day I got a lecture from my dad about the evil of selfishness. I listened politely as I had been trained to do but afterwards I started thinking about the reasonableness of selfishness. Why should we not be number one? Rand found fertile ground for her ideas. There is one passage in The Virtue of Selfishness that made up my mind. Unfortunately I lent the book to a friend and so lost it forever. I paraphrase because I can't find the exact wording. When I came across the statement I did a double take and read it two or three times, it was so powerful. It reads: "Any man who believes in a superior supernatural being has no self respect." God had to go.

The Virtue of Selfishness

“Ethics is not a mystic fantasy—nor a social convention—nor a dispensable, subjective luxury. ... Ethics is an objective necessity of man’s survival—not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life.”

“The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man— which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes, who have never outgrown the primordial practice of human sacrifices.”

The first stage of my journey of discovery was over. There is no god and there is no need for a god. Furthermore, god is not the enemy as many atheists claim. God is no better, no worse, and no different than other figments of human imagination like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. There is a group of militant atheists who are waging war on god instead of on the real enemy of humanity, the clergy. I expect to discuss these issues in a followup essay.

Denny Schlesinger

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Last updated September 12, 2015.