Freethinker: Isaac Asimov born on this day in 1920…




“Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived”

On this day in 1920, Isaac Asimov, a self-described “second-generation freethinker” and one of the world’s most prolific authors, was born in Petrovichi, Russia. He moved with his family to Brooklyn, New York, in 1923, and became a naturalized citizen in 1928. Isaac taught himself to read by age five. At age seven, he taught his sister to read.

He sold one of his earliest published short stories, “Nightfall,” in 1941, which was eventually voted the best science-fiction short story ever written, by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Asimov graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor of science degree in 1939, earned his M.A. in 1941 and a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1948. He was hired by Boston University’s School of Medicine to teach biochemistry the following year, although he had never studied biochemistry. He wrote a textbook on the subject in 1951, became associate professor of biochemistry in 1955 and professor in 1979, although he stopped teaching in 1958 to devote his life to writing.

I, Robot, (1950), is the title of Asimov’s first collection of short stories (a recent movie was based on one of the stories). Employing the “Asimovian Law of Composition,” which meant writing from nine to five, seven days a week (often closer to 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.), he averaged at least 12 new books a year. Asimov won five Hugos, three Nebula Awards, and his best-known “Foundation” trilogy was given a 1966 Hugo as “Best All-Time Science-Fiction Series.” Nonfiction works by Asimov were typically encyclopedic in range, such as his well-known Asimov’s Guide to the Bible (1968) and Asimov’s Annotated Paradise Lost (1974). He wrote a series of popularizing books on science and history, and even a guide to Shakespeare.

Asimov was an atheist: “I am Jewish in the sense that if an Arab wanted to throw a rock at a Jew, I would qualify as a target as far as he was concerned. However, I do not practice Judaism or any other religion.” (March 17, 1969 letter). Asimov called himself “an orthodox, practicing atheist” (April 29, 1988 letter). Asimov wrote: “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived” (Feb. 22, 1966 letter). He also observed, “I must say that I stand amazed at the highly intelligent people who have taken so much of the Bible so seriously” (Oct. 28, 1966 letter). “Nobody but a dedicated Christian could possibly read the gospels and not see them as a tissue of nonsense” (Nov. 1, 1966 letter). “I would not be satisfied to have my kids choose to be religious without trying to argue them out of it, just as I would not be satisfied to have them decide to smoke regularly or engage in any other practice I considered detrimental to mind or body” (Aug. 22, 1963 letter).

“I am prejudiced against religion because I know the history of religion, and it is the history of human misery and of black crimes” (March 27, 1976 letter). Elected in 1985 as president of the American Humanist Association, Asimov rejected an offer to support “Jewish” humanism: “I want to be a human being, nothing more and nothing less” (June 21, 1985). (All letters cited from Yours, Isaac Asimov, a Lifetime of Letters, edited by Stanley Asimov, 1995). Asimov noted that “it is an excellent sign that the right wing is trembling before a few thousand Humanists. We are weak and yet feared. Let’s give them more cause to fear!”

Upon his death at age 72, he had written more than 470 published books, covering every category in the Dewey Decimal System, fiction and nonfiction. Asimov was married twice, and had a son and daughter. Isaac’s death from heart and kidney failure was a consequence of AIDS contracted from a transfusion of tainted blood during his December 1983 triple-bypass operation. D. 1992.

“Just the force of rational argument in the end cannot be withstood.”

—Isaac Asimov, Winter Solstice Speech before the New Jersey Freedom From Religion Foundation, Dec. 22, 1985