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Monday, July 27, 2015

How I became an atheist

I was born into a not-very-religious Jewish family. I went to Hebrew School and had a Bar Mitzvah, the whole schtick. But I never really thought about it much or paid any attention. God was just something people said, sort of like the adults' Santa Claus. He was something that was there, like air, and you didn't really need to think about it in daily life. Maybe specialists in "air" thought about it, like the Air Quality Management District, but it didn't really affect me.

I can pinpoint the date my deconversion began: Jan. 14, 1962. I was a devout admirer of comedian Ernie Kovacs, one of the great geniuses of the entertainment media. (For anyone who doesn't know about him, check out his lengthy Wikipedia entry.) Although he'd been working in New Jersey radio for some time, one of his first television gigs was a morning show in Philadelphia, where I grew up. I thought he was hysterically funny--and obviously so did many other people, for he quickly moved on to bigger things. But as a little kid I had the wonderful pleasure of my mom taking me downtown to the studio where his show was broadcast and watching him from the audience. (She told me later that she lost an earring there and went back to the studio to look for it after bringing me home; Kovacs's wife, actress Edie Adams, helped her look. My mom never told me whether the search was successful.) Kovacs went on to appear in some movies--arguably the biggest was Bell, Book, and Candle--and did a series of half-hour TV specials for ABC. They were way ahead of their time in both form and content.

In the wee morning hours of Jan 13, 1962, Kovacs was driving home from a party in Los Angeles when his car hit a power pole and he was killed almost instantly. When I heard about it later that day, I was devastated. This man with the brilliantly inventive mind, who could do things with a television camera that no one else ever dreamed of, and was funny to boot, was gone from my life. I was depressed all day, and when I was going to sleep that night I cried and prayed for god to take me instead and bring Kovacs back, or at least transfer his genius into me so that I could somehow continue his work. Neither of those things happened; although I did become a writer, no one, especially me, has ever claimed I approached his level of talent.

I started deciding that if god couldn't perform that one little favor, for which I prayed with such heartfelt conviction, what good was he?

Over the years my atheism became more formal and intellectually based, but that was where it started. The petulant, spiteful actions of a child? Maybe, but it opened my eyes. Santa Claus existed merely to keep little kids in line, but he was useless when you really needed something from him that your parents couldn't deliver. I started paying attention to the man behind the curtain, and realized it was all just doubletalk and hogwash. I decided to believe in people instead. People may sometimes deceive you, people may also let you down on their big promises--but at least you know they're not perfect and can't expect miracles from them.

And Ernie Kovacs's Nairobi Trio still makes me laugh when I see it and cry at the same time for the lost work he might have accomplished.

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