Asimov on Religion

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Note to the BBC Moderator: Quoted material is copyrighted, but represents a half page out of a 500+ page book. It is not central to Asimov's life, and therefore not the crux of his autobiography. And anyway, I include it within the context of a brief review of the book and a general discussion of the quoted material. Please don't remove it!


In the hopes that I might someday feel qualified to finish my Guide Entry on Isaac Asimov, I have been reading his last autobiography, I, Asimov. It's quite interesting. It reveals a good deal about Asimov's motivations for writing, the constant themes of his life experiences, and a general explanation of his world view. Of course, you have to wade through his unapologetic egotism. But this is finally quite bearable.

In his chapter on Religion, Asimov attempts to explain his atheism. He explains that his father was an Orthodox Jew by teaching, but probably not in his heart. Isaac didn't receive much of the same instruction, and didn't even celebrate a bar mitzvah. He complains that he has been accused of not being 'Jewish enough,' even though he was one of very few early science fiction authors who insisted on publishing under his real ethnic name instead of a pseudonym.

All this is interesting to me as a member of the Freedom From Faith Foundation. Asimov was one of my early role models. He was terribly smart and a prolific writer. And if he could get away with being an unabashed egostist, perhaps I could too. Eventually.

I only found out much later that he was an atheist. And I suppose this gave me hope too.

Anyway, one particular bit got my attention. In discussing his lack of belief in the supernatural, Asimov tries to explain that religiosity is understandable to him because life seems full of temptations leading one to believe the unreal. Here is his example:

In January 1990, I was lying in a hospital bed one afternoon... and my dear wife, Janet, was not with me but had gone home for a few hours to take care of some necessary chores. I was sleeping, and a finger jabbed at me. I woke, of course, and looked blearily about to see who had awakened me and for what purpose.

My room, however, had a lock, and the lock was firmly closed and there was a chain across the door too. Sunlight filled the room and it was clearly empty. So were the closet and the bathroom. Rationalist though I am, there was no way in which I could refrain from thinking that some supernatural influence had interfered to tell me that something had happened to Janet (naturally, my ultimate fear). I hesitated for a moment, trying to fight it off, and for anyone but Janet I would have. So I phoned her at home. She answered immediately and said she was perfectly well.

Relieved, I hung up the phone and settled down to consider the problem of who or what had poked me. Was it simple a sensory dream, a hallucination? Perhaps, but it had seemed absolutely real. I considered.

When I sleep alone, I often wrap myself up in my own arms. I also know that when I am sleeping lightly, my muscles twitch. I assumed my sleeping position and imagined my muscles twitching. It was clear that my own finger had poked into my shoulder and that was it.

Now suppose that at the precise moment I had poked myself, Janet, through some utterly meaningless coincidence, had tripped and skinned her knee. And suppose I had called and she had groaned and said, "I just hurt myself."

Would I have been able to resist the thought of supernatural interference? I hope so. However, I can't be sure. It's the world we live in. It would corrupt the strongest, and I don't imagine I'm the strongest.

This passage utterly shocked me. I could relate to it perfectly. And yet, I don't remember anyone ever talking openly about this sort of experience before. It made me wonder why we would keep such things to ourselves.

I remember vividly when I was eight years old hearing the voice of my teacher from the previous school year. I could have sworn I clearly heard Mrs. Stewart call my name. I had recently received a set of books from my mother, and was sitting there reading idly when it happened.

I might have dismissed it, but I wasn't anywhere near sleep and wasn't ill in any way. Afterwards, I listened for anything that might have created the culprit sound. But it was a perfectly quiet weekday morning in August. And I was in the house alone.

It bugs me to this day. I still can't figure it out. Did some runaway brain impulse cause a passing memory of my teacher to manifest itself as an auditory hallucination? If so, how can I trust so many things that I hear and take for granted? And why didn't I have any awareness that I was thinking about my teacher before I heard the voice? Was there some plausible explanation that I simply haven't grasped yet?

I tell you, it's vexing. Can anyone else report a moment like this?

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