I Was an Atheist Before I Knew the Word

Peter Kassan Why I'm An Atheist

Why I'm An Atheist

I was born a few years after the end of World War II to parents who were first-generation American Jews. As I grew up, religion was rarely, if ever, discussed. 

My father was a clinical psychologist in private practice, and if I was indoctrinated into any belief system, it was Freudian psychology.

The first time I entered a synagogue (with my maternal grandmother), I had to guess at what to do to show respect, and I ended up doing the least (unbeknownst to me) respectful thing: I took my hat off. I don’t think my grandmother noticed because she later gave me a gold Star of David necklace for my birthday the following spring. 

Largely ignorant of its significance, I put it around my neck and left it there until summer vacation a few months later when it simply disappeared—as if my body had just rejected it. To this day I have no idea what happened to it.

When I was about twelve or so, I went to a Jewish summer camp that held Friday services where I sat next to my camp counselor and made fun of the Hebrew prayer songs, pretending to misinterpret them as nonsensical English phrases.

I think my campmates were as happy as I was when I was subsequently excused from attending. The son of the camp’s rabbi lived in the bunk next to mine. 

I saw him put on his tefillin, which are black leather boxes with leather straps that an Orthodox Jewish man wears on his head and on one of his arms during weekday morning prayer.


I had never seen anyone do that before, and I was horrified and repulsed—it was as if I had walked in on someone practicing Voodoo.


I think this was the beginning of a lifelong puzzle: how could intelligent, educated people accept religion?

When I turned thirteen, my parents threw a large birthday party for me—at an Italian restaurant. It was only many years later that I learned it was a substitute for my Bar Mitzvah. 

I had never attended one, so I didn’t know what I had been fortunately spared. 

From early childhood, I was an insatiable reader. At some point in my teenage years, a book appeared in my house with no mention of it, much like the way sex education books did at the time. It had the title The Bible Designed to Be Read As Living Literature

I read as much as I could stand, and my reaction was incredulity. I could understand how people could believe this stuff thousands of years ago, but now? 

Fast forward a few years to my early twenties, when my first marriage was unraveling and I had grown disenchanted with Western psychology and psychotherapy. 

Ironically, it was my father, a practicing psychotherapist, who passed along to me the book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, a collection of talks given by Chogyam Trungpa, an important hereditary figure in a major branch of Tibetan Buddhism. 

I was astounded by the accuracy of his description of ordinary consciousness as the “monkey mind.” 

In Buddhist psychology, this refers to the continual chatter that runs through our minds, like a monkey jumping from tree to tree. 

In the book (which, I later came to understand, consisted of edited transcriptions of his talks), he seemed to understand my mind better than I did myself. 

He insisted that Buddhism isn’t a religion at all, simply a highly organized and systematic practice to make friends with oneself. 

With that assurance, I put my skepticism in abeyance and visited the local branch of his organization, the New York Dharmadhatu. 

There, next to people who looked a lot like me (instead of the Hari Krishna people I half expected), I threw myself in wholeheartedly. 

I met Trungpa, underwent an induction ceremony, pledged my dedication, took lots of classes, and received a certificate showing my Tibetan “refuge name,” (which translates to “Intellect of Enlightenment”—they certainly had my number). 

I usually meditated for an hour twice a day, sometimes at home and sometimes at the Dharmadhatu, where I would spend entire Sundays. I spent a month meditating at a center in Vermont with monks from other branches of Trungpa’s lineage. 

When the leader of that lineage came to tour America, I served as a kind of stage manager for his appearances in the New York City area, as well as his meetings with small groups of students. 

Eventually, I grew disillusioned not just with Trungpa but with the whole thing. It smelled like religion, it tasted like religion, and when you stepped in it, it felt like religion.


Like the Star of David necklace, my body rejected Buddhism for the foreign tissue it was.


I stopped going there entirely. 

For a while, I continued my daily meditation practice on my own, approaching it as an entirely secular practice, but it, too, faded away. 

As I grew less unhappy in general and became more fulfilled in my career, I found less time and also less need for it. 

A couple years after leaving the Dharmadhatu, I met, fell in love with, and married Michelle, a secular Jew like I am. 

We had two children and raised them to thriving adulthood entirely without religion. All the while, I was reading voraciously—on the fact and the theory of evolution, neurophysiology, the philosophy and history of science, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, the philosophy of language and the mind, the psychology of consciousness, the history of religion, cosmology and the origin of the universe, the relationship between science and religion, and a variety of other subjects, including atheism. 

Like my mother, I am the author of several unpublished novels. As I grew older, I turned to nonfiction. 

Among other topics, I attempted to answer the question of how intelligent, educated people could accept religion. 

I started writing about it at first just to see if I could make sense of it to myself. This effort resulted in my essay 

“Religion As Social Reality”. It answered the question—at least for me.


Peter Kassan

Author or co-author of several software patents, and has been an observer of the pursuit of artificial intelligence for some time. He has published several essays on that topic and others worthy of skeptical attention.

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