Unlike many people who were once believers and then became atheists, I was never a believer, or at least not a strong believer, in any religion.
When I was about three years old, my parents and I moved into the guest house on my grandfather’s farm just outside Womelsdorf, PA (Berks County), as that was where my father worked at the time. On Sundays we attended St. John’s Host Church, or at least we went to Sunday School there; I don't recall that we attended the actual church services very often.
When I went to Kindergarten at age five and during my first few years of elementary school, we'd start the day with the Lord’s Prayer, the Supreme Court not yet having ruled it unconstitutional. Not only that, but the schools offered regular classes in Bible studies.
So I was well versed in the basic Bible stories from an early age.
Sometime, I’m not exactly sure just when, but I know it was while we were still living on the farm, so I was probably between five and seven; let's say six. Anyway, I started asking the basic question: if God created everything, where did God come from?
No one could give me a satisfactory answer, or even an unsatisfactory answer, for that matter; I'd be told not to ask such dumb questions.
There were other odd things. In school we’d recite the Lord’s Prayer saying “forgive us our debts”, but in church it was “forgive us our trespasses”. What was that about?
I should point out that at that point, I did still believe in Santa Claus. I mean, there was clear evidence of Santa under the Christmas tree every December 25. And when I asked questions about Santa (“Why is there a different Santa in every department store?”), I got some sensible answers (“Oh, those are Santa's helpers; the real Santa stays at the North Pole.”). Well, they seemed reasonable to a five year old. The point was that I didn't really have much reason to think about or ask questions about Santa, as he was just a once a year phenomenon.
God, on the other hand, was this thing that was always there, saw and heard everything that I did, was the all powerful creator of the universe, and was a daily presence in one way or another. But I saw no actual evidence for his existence.
Now I don’t want to give the impression that I thought of myself as an atheist then; I don’t think I had even heard the word up to that point. It’s just that I had questions that never got answered. I was only trying to understand some things that didn’t make any sense.
When I was eight my family (by this time I had a younger sister) moved to Richland, PA (Lebanon County), as my father now worked at John Zug’s Feed Mill. Richland was a town with a population in the 1960 census of just a little less than 1300. It had one school, two barbers, three beauty shops (including my mother’s), and four churches. We attended St. Paul’s Lutheran church (which later merged into the Millcreek Lutheran Church).
The point is that I was completely surrounded by religion in one form or another all the time, and every Sunday I had to go to Sunday School, which I mostly hated, but I had no choice. We also started going to actual church services as I got older; I hated those even more. When I was about 12, I started going to Luther League meetings on Sunday evenings; those were sometimes fun, actually. And I should point out that I really liked our pastor, John Rodgers, and his wife; both of them were great at dealing with kids.
Around this time, I started taking turns as an acolyte, which meant I had to put on a silly costume, walk down the aisle as part of the processional that included the pastor and the choir members, light the altar candles at the beginning of the service, and snuff them out at the end. I think I hated that most of all, as it meant that I had to sit in the first row of the pews for the duration of the service.
Those were the days before the Internet, so I had absolutely no access to any atheist or other skeptical writings; if the Richland Library had anything like that, I never came across it. As to atheist role models, there were none, although by this time I did know the word.
But I no longer believed in the guy in the red suit, Randy Klopp having disabused me of that when I was eight. “You do know that Santa Claus isn’t real, don’t you?” he asked. “It’s really your parents.” I think my reaction was something like, oh, that makes sense.
And it came to pass that when I was 13, I read Robert Heinlein's science fiction novel Stranger In a Strange Land.
As Janice might say: “Oh. My. God.”
What a revelation! There was a passage that talked about Lot's offering his daughters to be raped by an angry crowd in order to protect a couple of angels, and about God sending a couple bears to kill some children for mocking Elisha's bald head.
This was the first time I had encountered any critical commentary about the Bible, and I ate it up.
It came at an opportune time, just as I was starting to attend confirmation classes, so it gave me some skeptical questions to ask Reverend Rodgers. But I didn’t push very hard; as I said, I liked the reverend. So I was confirmed along with the others in my confirmation class, but I was becoming more doubtful about the whole God-thing.
As I made my way through high school, I picked up more ideas that fueled my doubts, especially in science classes and science books. Evolution, for example. How could that be squared with Christianity? And I came across more science fiction stories that challenged religion on one level or another.
But I didn't have anyone to discuss my doubts with. Oh, I would sometimes offer up little tidbits here and there, usually to Gary Wells, but I never got very deep into it.
Then one day, probably in my junior or senior year, I happened to say something jokingly (I no longer recall what it was) to Cindy Kale that strongly suggested I wasn’t a believer. We were in the hall with lots of kids milling around. Cindy looked at me with an expression of horror. She pointed her finger and tried to speak. “You...you...don't believe...in God?” She could barely get the words out. Cindy was as close to hysterical as I've ever seen anyone. Luckily Gary was there and managed to convince her that I had just been joking.
In September, 1967, I started my first term at Penn State, and for the first time in my life I was not surrounded by religiosity. No more Sunday School or church services! And then the November, 1967 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction arrived (my recollection is that it arrived during my first week at Penn State). That issue contained a science essay by Isaac Asimov called “Knock Plastic!”
Now Dr. Asimov was one of my favorite science fact and science fiction writers. I devoured everything of his that I could find, and I always looked forward to his essays in F&SF.
This particular piece was about Security Beliefs that many people cling to despite the absence of evidence. He listed six in all and proceeded to discuss them. One was about racism. (Security Belief No. 5: You are better than the next fellow.) Another was about refusing to accept blame and inventing conspiracy theories. (Security Belief No. 6: If anything goes wrong, it’s not one’s own fault.) But it was the others that collectively spoke to me.
Security Belief No. 1: There exist supernatural forces that can be cajoled or forced into protecting mankind.
Security Belief No. 2: There is no such thing, really, as death.
Security Belief No. 3: There is some purpose to the Universe.
Security Belief No. 4: Individuals have special powers that will enable them to get something for nothing.
Clearly Dr. Asimov was an atheist. At last I had a role model. And I realized that like him, I’m an atheist too. Wa-hoo! (Cue for a song, sung to the tune of Irving Berlin’s “I’m an Indian Too”) From that point there was no turning back. So I began to embrace my non-belief. I’d get into discussions and arguments with others about religion. I took a couple courses on the New Testament and other religions so I could speak more knowledgeably about them. I even began to meet other atheists.
And that, kids, is how I met your mother. Oops! Wrong show.
Update August 31, 2015: After writing this up, I recalled another valuable influence, the Playboy Interview with Madalyn Murray (not yet O'Hair) in the October 1965 issue.