I Met God — God Without Religion, Scripture, or Faith: Kid Atheist
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I Met God
— God Without Religion, Scripture, or Faith
A Book by J. Neil Schulman
Chapter 1: Kid Atheist
Neil, you’ve gone through many different philosophical stages in your life, and your career reflects many different areas of thinking and experiences that you have had. What I would like to begin with in this discussion about your experience with God, the first question I want to ask you is: Do you remember your age, when you first decided as a kid that you were an atheist?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN:
Yes. I remember it very explicitly. It was a very dramatic moment in my young life.
I was five years old. I was living in Forest Hills, New York — with my parents, obviously — and I was out walking on our street in front of our house with my mother. And for some reason — I don’t remember what caused this but I do remember the incident — I looked up into the sky and I saw the sun coming from behind a cloud.
Now let me just stop for just a moment. The sun coming from behind a cloud seems to be some sort of universal image — almost in a Jungian sense — for God. How I, at five years old, identified or associated that image with God, I don’t know. Maybe I’d seen it on television; but in any case, at five years old, I had that association in mind.
I saw the sun burst out from behind the cloud and I turned to my mother and I said, “Where is God?” and my mother said something the equivalent of “I don’t know” or “Nobody knows.” I don’t exactly recall her response; except what it came down to was she was not going to give me any sort of definite answer that this was something that people knew. When she said “I don’t know,” or “Nobody knows,” or some such answer, my answer to her was, “Well, then I don’t believe that God exists.”
That show-me attitude was characteristic of the way I’d view the problem pretty much for the next 20 to 25 years of my life.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Were you ever taken to temple or given religious instruction when you were growing up?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Again yes. I specifically recall my maternal grandfather, Samuel Lindenbaum, taking me to shul with him. I do not recall it being a particularly interesting or warm experience. I mean I enjoyed being with my grandfather; I liked being out with him. Again I was very young, maybe six years old, and my mother’s father and mother lived not far from us, also in Forest Hills.
Actually one of my earliest memories of synagogue is a scary one. There was this elevator in the shul and I remember we got on the elevator and the elevator went down to the basement for some reason — maybe it was going the wrong way — the doors opened up and it was a cellar — you know like a storage area — and I was very, very frightened — then the doors closed and we went up again. So I guess we’d just ended up on the wrong floor, but interestingly, one of the first associational memories I have with shul is a negative one, of being scared of the basement.
Now I had no formal education in Judaism when we lived in New York but again, we left it when I was around age seven. We moved to Massachusetts at that point. However, my impression at that age was that the neighborhood where we lived in Forest Hills was almost completely Jewish. I knew of only one Catholic family who lived across the street and I thought that that was the ratio of the world, that everybody was Jewish except there was this one Catholic family. Everyone else was Jewish. I was living entirely in a Jewish world at the beginning of my life. Then at age seven we left this neighborhood in New York City and we moved to Massachusetts where it was exactly the opposite. Suddenly everybody we knew was Christian and we were the only Jewish family.
My formal education in Judaism started with Bar Mitzvah training. That probably started somewhere around age 11 and that happened because my grandparents wanted me to be Bar Mitzvahed and it was explained to me that if I agreed to be Bar Mitzvahed I would have to have Hebrew lessons and then at age 13 I would be Bar Mitzvahed.
I did it largely because my grandparents — on both sides— wanted me to do it. My maternal grandfather, the one I just talked about, died in 1961 — when I was eight years old — so he wasn’t there anymore. But my maternal grandmother wanted me to be Bar Mitzvahed. My paternal grandmother died in 1963, when I was ten years old, so she wasn’t part of it. So it was my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather who wanted me to be Bar Mitzvahed. Judaism was very important to them.
Around eleven I started Hebrew lessons with Louisa Munzer, who was a survivor of Auschwitz and she told me stories of the concentration camp. I found out how she had been selected for medical experiments, which left her sterile and unable to have children — this was an amazing thing for an adult to be telling a child about, by the way, stories like this.
She taught me Hebrew, a language which I did not warm to. I disliked it. It was not that easy a language to learn, it had a different alphabet — its own character set — and everything was different about it. You wrote from right to left instead of left to right. It was alien to me. I don’t know what my language skills were but I did not find it easy and I did not find it pleasant. However, I did have a good accent — I was able to speak it with perfect accent — but my comprehension was very bad, my ability to read for comprehension was very bad. I could just read whatever was on the page without understanding what it was. I could sound out the words and speak it well. But it was rote, it was phonic, it was not reading for the most part with meaning.
So, I did go through a Bar Mitzvah. The last year I went to Hebrew school at the temple where I was Bar Mitzvahed, in Framingham, Massachusetts. But then as soon as I was Bar Mitzvahed, I wanted no further part of it. I had the big party, had the Bar Mitzvah, made my grandparents very, very happy and then that was pretty much it, as far as my religious education. I had almost no interest in religion for a long time after that. I’d had my fill of it.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: From the age of five to when you were Bar Mitzvahed as a young teenager and you were going through all of this training and education, did you ever express to anybody at the Hebrew school the doubts you had expressed to your mother at five about your not believing in God? Did the subject of your belief in God ever come up in your entire training on your way to the Bar Mitzvah?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: It never came up. It was totally irrelevant.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Can you please expand on that?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: It was a ceremony. I could have been training for an opera in a foreign language. It was something that I was doing to please my grandparents. But what I believed was of no consequence to anybody and the subject never even came up for discussion.
Now interestingly, I do remember the sermon that the Rabbi gave the day of my Bar Mitzvah. It was a point that I found interesting. The Rabbi’s sermon, that day, was interesting because he was speaking about an Eye for an Eye and a Tooth for a Tooth and I do remember that he said that the commandment was not a demand for justice or vengeance but a limitation. It was interesting to me because I’d never heard it in that context. The idea that you only get one eye and you only get one tooth. You don’t get the entire mouthful of teeth and everybody else’s eyes. So there were at least some moral principles there, which I guess I absorbed at some level.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Would you say the beginning of your libertarian moral positions may have begun on that day?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: No. First of all I lived in a household where morality was pretty much taken for granted. I was not a child who was ever interested in stealing. I mean you have kids who will steal candy or steal some trinket or something like that. It never crossed my mind. It was never even something I ever even thought of doing. Actually taking something that we didn’t pay for? I would have considered it a horrible mistake. It just wasn’t part of me.
Even going to school, until I was greeted with hostility and irrationality — unexpected hostility and irrationality — coming from New York, I expected adults to be, for the most part, rational in their treatment of children. That was what I had experienced in this community in New York — in Forest Hills — where I started kindergarten and first grade. When I started school in Massachusetts I started getting reactions from teachers, which seemed to me wildly out of proportion —some that I worked into The Rainbow Cadenza.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: How about one example?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: The clearest example is that on my first day of second grade with my teacher, Miss Lafford — I still remember her — she gave me a piece of paper on which I was to write the numbers one to 100 in boxes all the way up — “1” on the upper-left-hand corner and “100” on the lower-right-hand corner — and I needed to fill in all those numbers. She gave it to me and said, “All right, you need to do this.” I said, “Okay that’s easy,” and she glared at me and said, “Just do it!” Exactly like that. I was shocked. Why was she irrationally angry with me? I found that this sort of behavior was repeated to me in school, but nonetheless my expectation coming into it was rationality and evenhandedness and benevolence.
I never understood adults who treated me this way and it basically took me from really having an innocent expectation that you went to school to learn to what eventually made me very, very hostile to school and eventually to learning itself — something I had to overcome in myself by the time I was 15, 16 years old. I was a kid who loved reading and it got to the point where I couldn’t pick up a book anymore.
The point that I was leading into is that morality for me at that age was simply not even a question. In other words, I wanted to please adults. My first impulse was to be good and to please adults. It wasn’t until adults refused to be pleased and were hostile, and kept on throwing me all these curves, that any other impulse even arose in me. My natural state was happy and innocent and wanting to please the adults around me.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: You shifted out of that desire to please and became more cautious and suspicious and even finally had to teach yourself to want to learn again. About what age would you have been when you realized the education you were going to have in your future life would primarily be through self-education?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Well, it happened naturally. It happened when I discovered libraries. First in Natick, and then for eight weeks during the summer we went up to the Berkshires. My father was a violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Every summer he played at Tanglewood with the BSO and we rented a summer home near Tanglewood, right outside Lenox, Massachusetts. So the two libraries most influential on me were the Morse Institute library in Natick, the town in Massachusetts where we lived during the school year, from age seven thru around 17, and in the summers the Lenox Library, in Lenox, Massachusetts.
The significance of each of them is that the Morse Institute Library was where I discovered Heinlein, where they had most of the Heinlein juveniles. The Lenox Library was where a librarian named Judith Conklin introduced me to The Chronicles of Narnia. I asked her for something to read and she pointed me over to the shelves with The Chronicles of Narnia.
Incidentally, simply as an anecdote, this last time I was in Massachusetts I found out she’s still working for the Lenox Library and she’s married — she’s now Judith Conklin-Peters — and I autographed a copy of Escape from Heaven and left it for her. I didn’t see her there but she did still work there and I autographed a copy of the book and thanked her for introducing me to The Chronicles of Narnia in that inscription. So that story has a circle to it.
But again, as I say, it happened very naturally. I was a comic-book reader even back in Forest Hills, New York. I was reading Superman comic books. When I say I read Superman comics, I read Superman, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Justice League, Batman, Flash and Green Lantern, all of them. I read all of them, all of the DCs. But particularly, Superman and Superboy were my favorites, and when they had Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen comics I read those. Action comics, Adventure comics, all of them, if it had DC on it I read it. So, a lot of my reading initially was comic books and that lead naturally into science fiction and fantasy.
So by the time I got to these libraries, which had Heinlein and C.S. Lewis, that was just natural to me. My main school experience was that I was a reader and was never really challenged by anything that they threw at me in those areas. Math I wasn’t as good at. History I was pretty good at. Music, of course, coming from a musical family, anything they threw at me there was easy. So really the only challenge I had was math and that came to a crisis in eighth grade.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Now, during all of this period did you find yourself thinking about God at all, and I include when you were reading The Narnia Books, did the thought of God ever cross your mind?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: No, never crossed my mind. I have attended, as an adult, meetings of the C.S. Lewis Society in both New York and Southern California —and as a matter of fact, served on the Council of the Southern California C.S. Lewis Society for several terms at different times.
I have heard it said during those meetings that it is obvious that the Narnia Chronicles were Christian parables. Well let me say that for me wasn’t obvious. I came from a family that knew almost nothing about Christianity … and what it did know was wrong. So it never crossed my mind that Aslan was supposed to be Jesus Christ, it never crossed my mind that this had anything to do with Christianity. What’s more, if I had known that — if Judith Conklin had told me that these were Christian stories — they never would have gotten into my hand off the bookshelf. Because Christianity was something totally alien to me and not something attractive.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Did you think that Christianity might be some of the same boring experience you’d had in Hebrew school, only maybe worse?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: No. It never even rose to that level. It was not even something I considered at that age. It just was not part of my life — even living in Massachusetts, where almost everybody I went to school with wasn’t Jewish.
The only real close friend I had — who is still a friend today — was my Jewish friend, Bob Schneider. So even then, that’s the friend whose family my parents socialized with. My parents didn’t socialize with any of the non-Jewish parents of the school children with whom I went to school in Natick, so there was a divide even there.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: You parents did not go to temple?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: No. My parents were entirely secular in the way they raised me. My going to Hebrew lessons and then Hebrew school and being Bar Mitzvahhed was simply for that one purpose. They never asked nor expected anything further of me once I was Bar Mitzvahhed.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Do you remember what age it was when you next thought about God at all, since your decision at age five, when the sun appeared from behind the cloud and you asked your mom “where’s God?” Do you remember the next time you thought about God?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: In between that — and starting to consider God — I would say that I was into odd phenomena, the supernatural, psychic phenomena — E.S.P. as we called it back then — or telepathy.
My father had told me a number of psychic-related experiences, he’d had, precognitive dreams — we were very telepathic with each other. So in other words, these sorts of things were fairly common in our family, what we would call psychic phenomena or the supernatural.
My father in his younger days had been very interested in these sorts of things, even attending séances. He told the story of going into a house he’d never been to before and standing in the entrance way and telling everybody where everything was, because he’d had a precognitive dream about being there. He told about having a dream which saved his life, where he had this dream in which his car went out of control on a certain highway in New York because the headlights went out and the car crashed, in this dream. Then the next time he was there at night he remembered the dream just before he got to that curve and slowed down, his lights did go out but because he had slowed down he was able to control the car on the exit and didn’t die.
My father told a very dramatic story about when he was playing a gig at a hotel in the Catskills. He was with a woman singer — I can’t remember her first name but I remember her last name, it was La Brea, like the tar pits. A stage name, I think. She was a medium as well as being a singer and my father was rehearsing with her in the rooms where the help were — the musicians being part of the staff, away from the main house.
Very dramatic things happened there. My father was telling the story: the lights went out where they were and he got scared and tried to leave and the door wouldn’t open. And he tried to light matches and they wouldn’t light. Then she said “You’re making my spirit Indian guide angry!” and then an entire chest of drawers went across the room by itself – was thrown across the room. At that point she said “Sit down!” and my father sat down. Then things calmed down and the lights went on. My father then got out of there as fast as he could and the door opened and he got out.
So stories like that were part of my background, but I never associated any of it with God or religion or anything like that. But the possibility of the supernatural was real to me.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Did your father talk to you about these experiences?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Yes, they were anecdotes. My father was always a raconteur and this was part of the repertoire of the stories he told, just like he told jokes. But he also was very interested in hypnosis and Houdini and stage magic and all these sorts of things.
My father’s personality was that he was a science-fiction fan who read Amazing back when Hugo Gernsback was editing it.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Right, the original days.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: So in other words there were science-fiction books around the house — not Heinlein or anything like that — but I remember that 1984 and Brave New World were around. There was a book of Native American Nature Myths, which I read and found very interesting, as well as other things like that.
My father was a voracious reader. He loved reading eclectically and so there were a lot of books around our house when I was growing up and I sampled them and probably got a very rich and varied education from these books — far more then I was getting from school.
So to leap forward to where your question gets to: “When did I start thinking about God again?”
It probably wasn’t until I got to New York again, in 1970 at around aged 17 and then met up with people in New York who had read Ayn Rand. That’s when these questions started up again. This was really the first group of intellectuals I’d ever really met –— the crowd in New York of libertarians.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: There was a heavy Ayn Rand/Objectivist element?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Right. And that really confirmed me in my atheism because I was given very strong arguments from the Objectivist viewpoint, from the Ayn Rand viewpoint. Which basically confirmed those tendencies in me. However, I was a fan of C.S. Lewis and so I was brought to the C.S. Lewis Society meetings — by Samuel Edward Konkin III, whom I met in New York — and I found out that Lewis wrote books for grownups also, not just the Narnia Chronicles. I started sampling those books, I don’t know if I read heavily into his nonfiction before I got to California after 1975.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: At this time did you read the Perelandra books?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: That probably also didn’t happen until I got to California, but at least I became aware that there was more than Narnia.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: And TheScrewtape Letters?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: It’s possible that I read Screwtape in New York. I don’t remember exactly in what order I came across them. I do remember that Mere Christianity, Miracles and The Problem of Pain — those books weren’t until I got to California after 1975.
So, I would say that I didn’t start thinking about God again until, really, I started attending the C. S. Lewis Society meetings in New York then later in California. More in California, because the New York C.S. Lewis Society was much more of a literary group than a Christian group, whereas in California the emphasis was more on the theology. I would say that I didn’t start thinking about God again until I got to the Lewis Society meetings in Southern California where most of the attendees were more interested in Lewis as a theologian than as a fiction author.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Do you remember if during this period you read The Great Divorce?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Sometime in that period in California I would have read The Great Divorce, yes.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Let me ask this then, regarding Lewis. At some point, then, you realized that the Narnia books you had enjoyed so much as a child did have this extra Christian dimension.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Yes.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: You must have noticed it at this period?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Well, it would have been talked about endlessly at the Lewis Society meetings.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Did that, in any way, put you off your pleasant childhood memories of the books?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: No.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Or did it merely enrich them … or was it just something interesting to know?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: It was informative. I didn’t resent it at all. I mean, by that time I had pretty much been living in a secular Christian world for most of my childhood and adulthood.
For the ten years in Massachusetts, I wasn’t really living in a Jewish community, so there was very minimal contact with that. I mean my relatives were Jewish, Bob Schneider and his family were very, very Jewish, so much so that Bob went off to live in Israel to live in a kibbutz for a while, and came back and told me the shaggy-dog stories they told around the campfire, and about shoveling manure.
I will say that there was a point at which I considered going to Israel myself — at around age 14 or so. But that wasn’t because I had any desire to go to Israel, but simply because I hated the school I was in so much I would have considered any alternative. I mean if you had told me that going to school in Nazi Germany was possibility, it would have been somewhere on the list. It might not have been at the top of it, but I really got to the point at which I just hated the school I was at in Massachusetts.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: You were ready to try something else.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: I was ready to try anything else. So by the time I got to California and the C.S. Lewis Society meetings I’d been living in a Christian, secular society for so long that Christianity was no longer a shock. To tell you the truth, it probably had a little flavor of forbidden fruit to me — a little sexiness because of that.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: What about the Rand arguments that reinforced your original atheism? Because it sounds to me like reaction you had at age five, to your mother, is a reaction that was worthy of Ayn Rand herself. Rand, of course was somebody who had come from a Jewish background but walked away from the Russian background, the Jewish background, the family background. She talked about the accident of birth and tried to create this highly individualist American cult, fundamentally. So she was an odd transmission belt for a Jewish libertarian, because who could be more American than Ayn Rand? Yet, what is America? It’s a Christian country, and here was Ayn Rand, the ultimate atheist.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Look, let me try to describe myself at that age. If I thought of myself as a follower of anybody, I mean there was a period when I considered myself sort of philosophically Objectivist. But at the point when I talked to Ayn Rand, when I was doing what was supposed to be an interview with her for The New York Daily News, which never happened, but nonetheless we talked for hours, at that point in August of 1973 I considered myself philosophically an Objectivist.
But, there was this other strain of philosophy in me, which I considered just as important and that was Robert Heinlein. I considered myself a rationalist. I was interested in science. I was interested in space — all these sorts of pro-high-tech, Jetson-type worlds. This was what I wanted. The past had no interest for me whatsoever. Tradition was abhorrent to me. Do something just because it was tradition? That’s ridiculous — where’s the sense in that? None of that had any appeal to me. Nothing drew me to the past, everything drew me to the future. I was a total and utter futurist.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Didn’t you once say, on Jack’s radio show; “The trouble with Religion is it’s just about the past”?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: That’s exactly right, and that was how I felt about religion. I mean, I didn’t know enough about Christianity to feel that way about it then, but I certainly felt that way about Judaism. It all seemed to be about ritual and tradition and things that were not part of my thinking, not part of my world.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: So, Rand had given you this reinforcement for the atheist perspective.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Well, she had taken my instant childhood concept —“If nobody knows where God is, I don’t think there is one”— and, in essence, given me layers of philosophical reasoning, which supported it and gave me a grown-up version of that, which was: God is incompatible with natural law. Since I was a believer in natural law, and I couldn’t see how a supernatural God made any sense, her arguments were pretty well convincing to me.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: At this same period you were also getting involved with the C.S. Lewis group.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Particularly in books like Miracles, where Lewis got into questions of metaphysics like this, where he was discussing the supernatural in things like his book The Abolition of Man and in Mere Christianity and in his book Miracles. All these sorts of things, where he was addressing these fundamentals — the same issues that Rand was discussing — of not only epistemological issues, but also the issues of how would you conceive what the supernatural is?
If there was anything that fundamentally described my philosophy, in some fundamental sense, in those days, is the line from Hamlet, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I knew that there was more than just materialism because I had experienced it.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Which is your psychic experience?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Yes.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: But now talk about Neil Schulman, the author again for a moment. In your novel TheRainbow Cadenza, the encounters between a character who follows Rand — I guess you could say — and a character who is inspired by Lewis, those exchanges that must have been very personally important to your intellectual development. Was that what was going on in you at that time — both sides of the debate? The argument from the C.S. Lewis side that there might be something beyond the immediate material realm of the senses versus the Randian argument that this is all we’ve got, this thing we have here in front of us basically? Was that your own mind working in the debate — in that exchange — between those characters in The Rainbow Cadenza?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: That is exactly what was going on. Now Rainbow Cadenza was published in 1983 but I finished it Christmas Day, 1981. And the conception of it had started five years before. Almost as soon as I finished Alongside Night, I started working on what originally had been outlined as The Carnal Commandment and later became The Rainbow Cadenza.
By the time I actually got to the writing of the book, the bulk of which was written in 1981 — the latter third of the year was probably when all but the first few chapters were written. By that time, I’d read a lot of Lewis, a lot of his nonfiction. So the arguments were swirling back and forth, almost like one of those movies where you have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other shoulder. Well in this case it wasn’t a devil and an angel — it was two opposing philosophies.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: I was going to ask you who’s who, who’s the devil and who’s the angel?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Well, obviously we have to allow Lewis to be the angel, simply for traditional purposes. So I have a Randian devil and a Lewisian angel debating with each other over my soul. But nonetheless, I was thinking of it not in terms of anything other than: who’s right? In other words it was an epistemological question, which Lewis raised in me. That is: are there ways of knowing other than the five senses which Rand talked about as the primary source — the only source — of human knowledge?
BRAD LINAWEAVER: “Can emotions be tools of cognition?”
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Well “feelings,” because I do see an important semantic distinction between “feelings” and “emotions.” The word “emotion” implies that it is a reaction to something that’s going on around you. The word “feeling” is not so defined that it doesn’t allow for feelings being a source of other information in the psychic sense — almost more like intuition, or something like that.
I was, of course, conflicted because I’d had these experiences and believed that they were real. I was convinced that they were real, as a matter of fact. But, nonetheless, I was an atheist and if there was going to be a supernatural then it had to be one that was as scientifically possible as the natural world that I knew about.
Next in I Met God — God Without Religion, Scripture, or Faith is Chapter II: First Doubts
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