Freethought Almanac

Lighting a candle in toxic air.

January 2: Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov (1920)

Isaac Asimov

It was on this date, January 2, 1920, that American science and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov was born Isaak Yudovich Ozimov in Petrovichi, Russia. He was educated in Orthodox Judaism, but religion had little influence throughout Asimov's childhood. His father "didn't even bother to have me bar mitzvahed at the age of thirteen," Asimov remarked later. He grew up hearing the Yiddish tales of Sholem Aleichem, but his parents emigrated to New York City when he was three, so Asimov learned English and Yiddish, but never Russian. "My real education," Asimov wrote in one of his memoirs,

... I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it.[1]

Asimov studied chemistry at Columbia University, New York, where he graduated in 1939 and received his M.A. in 1941. He served eight months as an Army corporal, then, after the war, in 1948, earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia University. He lectured from 1955 to 1958 at Boston University School of Medicine, but his first love was writing.

It was as a science writer, but most famously as a science-fiction writer, that Asimov, for works such as the Foundation Trilogy and I, Robot, became one of a triumvirate of S‑F immortals that included Arthur C. Clarke (b. 1917) and Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988). Asimov turned out 470 books in four decades of writing, and on a dizzying array of topics, including Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan, literature, technology, world history, mythology — and four memoirs. In one of these he noted,

I have never, in all my life, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind. The fact is that I feel no spiritual void. I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural.[2]

His philosophy of life might have been, "Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what's right." The American Humanist Association named Asimov Humanist of the Year in 1984 and later voted him its president. Recalling this, he wrote,

Those of us who are willing to identify ourselves as humanists are few. I suspect that huge numbers of people of Western tradition are humanists as far as the way they shape their lives is concerned, but that childhood conditioning and social pressures force them to pay lip-service to religion.[3]

Asimov's scientific background gave him a thorough grounding in empiricism — "If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them," he said — and he not only produced two dispassionate volumes examining the Bible, but also debunked ESP, astrology, and fundamentalist arguments for the existence of God. In The Roving Mind, Asimov wrote,

Don't you believe in flying saucers? they ask me. Don't you believe in telepathy? — in ancient astronauts? — in the Bermuda Triangle? — in life after death? No, I reply. No, no, no, no, and again no.[4]

Only toward the end of his life was Asimov comfortable in admitting his atheism. "Since I am an atheist," he said in his final memoir, "and do not believe that either God or Satan, Heaven or Hell, exists, I can only suppose that when I die, there will only be an eternity of nothingness to follow."[5] Isaac Asimov died on 6 April 1992 before seeing the finished manuscript of his last memoir, I. Asimov (1994). According to the Isaac Asimov official website, his 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. As the prolific author would say, "Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome."

[1] Isaac Asimov, I. Asimov: A Memoir, 1994. [2] Ibid., p. 13. [3] Ibid., p. 499. [4] Isaac Asimov, The Roving Mind, 1983. [5] Isaac Asimov, I. Asimov: A Memoir, 1994.

Originally published January 2004.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

Daily Almanac

March 1: William Dean Howells

Howells cast off his Swedenborgian creed in his youth and became a social liberal and a sentimental Theist. We can see this in his poem "Lost Beliefs."

Daily Almanac

Coming soon!

Follow me on twitter

@ 2020 Free Thought Almanac