An Interview with Frank Zindler

FRANK ZINDLER is Editor of American Atheists Press. A former university biology instructor, he is also a professional linguist with a specialty involving ancient languages. Zindler is the author of numerous articles and several books on Atheism and related history, including a special annotated edition of Part Three of The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine. He is a member of several learned societies including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, New York Academy of Science, Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental Research. Zindler is also a nationally recognized figure in the ongoing debate over creationist pseudoscience and evolution.

In his recent book The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, Zindler examines all Jewish writings surviving from the first centuries of the current era and concludes that the ancient Jews not only never heard of Jesus of Nazareth, they never heard of Nazareth either! Zindler, by the way, was a member of “The Jesus Seminar,” which, among several projects, studied the Gospels as historical artifacts.

Q: Frank, I’m delighted that you’ve agreed to an interview. I admire all the work and writing you’ve done over the years, to promote atheism, science, and the freethinking heritage of the United States. Up front, I usually like to ask for information about family and religious background. For instance, were your parents devout members of a church?

A: Thank you Marilyn for your kind sentiment and for inviting me to do this. I fear, though, that you know not what you do when you ask me to talk about myself! It’s hard for me to be brief about so seductive a subject.

Were my parents very religious? As compared to me, no—although they were both members of a Wisconsin-Synod Evangelical Lutheran Church (an extremely conservative, reactionary form of Lutheranism). My father’s two brothers took turns being secretary and treasurer of the same church. As far as I can tell, they did those jobs more out of a sense of service than of devotion. My father died in an electrical accident at the age of 33 and had been away in the war during much of my early childhood, so I don’t remember if he was very religious or not. The only memory I have of him being in our church was at his own funeral.

My mother, in retrospect, was not very religious. However, my own deep religiosity as a child seems to have colored my perception of her; I viewed her as a religious guide. You can imagine my shock many years later—I had already been a college professor for several years by that time—when she and my stepfather called me in New York to tell me they had been excommunicated from the Lutheran Church. My mother implied that she too was an Atheist! (Several years after my father died, my mother remarried and the younger of my two uncles became my stepfather.)

It seems that my parents had not been to church in over ten years and one day they received a visit in their Michigan country home from the pastor of the church. Although he had become the pastor two or three years earlier, he had never visited them or introduced himself to them before this visit. The reason for the visit? To raise pledge money to build a new church—a necessity arising from the “urban decay” of the neighborhood in which our church had been built. He had gone through the membership rolls and discovered my parents’ names.

My parents were peeved by the pitch and told the preacher that the whole thing smacked of racism. When the surprised preacher denied the charge and persisted in badgering my parents to help finance the white flight of the church, my mother informed him: “We won’t give money to support something we don’t believe in. We don’t believe those fairy tales any more.” Forty-eight hours later they received a special-delivery letter demanding they repent or be excommunicated, and giving them exactly one week to comply. The week passed and they received the letter of excommunication several days later. My mother died an Atheist at the age of 57.

My stepfather, today in his mid-80s, never goes to church but doesn’t like to be called an Atheist. He is rather embarrassed by my Atheist activism, but he clearly doesn’t believe in any hocus-pocus at all. When his second wife died several years ago, I performed a Humanist-style memorial service and he and everyone else who had attended said it was the most satisfying funeral or memorial they had ever witnessed.

As I have already implied, I was the most religious person in my family. When just ten years old, I became the assistant organist in our church and sang in the choir. When I was eleven, my father died and that seems to have kindled a nearly fanatical religiosity in me. I threw myself into catechism studies and spent as much time in the church as possible. I started the practice of saying grace at meals at home. Graduating from eighth grade at the age of twelve, I was rewarded by the German pastor with an eight-year scholarship to attend the Wisconsin-Synod seminary in Milwaukee—four years of high school and four years of college seminary. It was a hundred Christmases at once.

My mother, however, seems not to have been as thrilled by this development as was I. Making up a thoroughly bogus excuse for not allowing me to accept the scholarship, she said that I was needed to work on our farm. (After the war, my father built a house on a corner of a farm owned by my maternal grandparents, so I lived in a sort of extended-family situation.) She promised, however, that if I still wanted to be a preacher after graduating from high school, I could still go to seminary and would have her blessing.

To finally answer your first question: my parents weren’t at all devout as compared to me.

Q: Tell readers something about your childhood experiences.

A: I remember being attacked by a broody hen on our farm when I was three, and I remember trying to plough and harrow with a horse when I was ten or eleven. My experiences in the woods at the back of our farm and at the two-acre pond we shared with a neighbor certainly predisposed me to becoming a biologist. At an early age I perceived that there was a relationship somehow between what was happening on our farm and what was going on in the natural world around it. Ecology was the first branch of biology in which I was to become proficient. (Many years later I would be teaching an extension course in human ecology for Elmira College in Upstate New York.)

Most of my childhood memories, however, are scenes from school. I remember being battered by bullies repeatedly when going to a city school during the war and when going to the two-room rural school in which I completed grades four to eight. I remember walking the one mile home from school one day and being attacked by four “big boys” as I passed a neighbor’s peach orchard. They threw a lighted string of tiny fire crackers down the back of my shirt and then ran away. Amazingly, I was not badly burned — but it made the last years of grade school a frightening, numbing experience.

Shortly before sixth grade was to begin, I remember sitting at the counter of the soda fountain of a downtown drug store where my mother had a part-time job. As she handed me the cherry coke she had prepared for me, she said she had some exciting news. It happened that earlier that day my teacher had come to see her and had told her that I was going to be allowed to take sixth and seventh grades simultaneously—eliminating a whole year of torture on the playground and on the road to school.

I need to correct what I just said a bit. I spent almost no time at all on the playground, as it was just too unpleasant. My teacher let me stay in the classroom through recesses and lunch hours. To amuse myself during those periods, I either practiced the piano (I accompanied all the hymns we had to sing when evangelists came to “save” our public school!) or read the few books in the tiny school library. When there were no more ordinary books, I started on the World Book Encyclopedia.

To my childish mind, the encyclopedia represented all there was to know. When I got to the entry on Aristotle, I learned that he had taken “all knowledge as his province” and knew virtually everything there was to be known in his time. That inflamed my imagination and kindled my ambition. I resolved to be just like Aristotle some day—and all I needed to do was learn everything in the encyclopedia! I am ashamed to tell you how old I was before I accepted the sad reality that I would never be an Aristotle.

One last childhood experience: Throughout the first semester of eighth grade, I had repeatedly found myself staring at a world globe mounted on a pedestal-pole. Often I would be viewing the Atlantic Ocean and contemplating the coastlines of South America and Africa. I had never heard of Alfred Wegener, of course, but I decided that at least those two continents had once been attached to each other. One morning, when everyone else was out for recess, I got some white tissue paper, moistened it, and plastered it over South America and Africa. By the time of afternoon recess, the tissue-papier-mâché had dried and I could mark on it the coastlines of the two continents with a pencil. Then I cut out the two continents and slid their forms over the surface of the globe. They fit rather well—good enough to satisfy an eighth-grader—and from then on I was a “continental drifter.”

Many years later, as I was working on a master’s degree in geology at Indiana University, I recounted this “experiment” to my tectonics professor. He was not at all impressed, however. “There is no possible mechanism for the continents to move that way. What you discovered is just a coincidence.” Several years later, of course, he too must have become a “drifter.”

Q: I noticed in researching your life and career, that you decided that you were an atheist at age 18, and afterwards read philosophy until you reached a saturation point; you then studied biology and geology. You also have expertise in ancient languages. Where were you educated? Why and how did you manage to branch out, as a scholar, into so many disciplines? How much did you learn on your own?

A: It is true that I became an Atheist when I was 18, and I would like to explain how that happened before trying to answer the rest of your question.

I already mentioned that I was not able to attend the Lutheran seminary in Wisconsin, but I did not say anything about how crushed I felt and what I tried to do about it. I began ninth grade in one of the best public high schools then existing in Michigan. In order to be ready for college seminary after graduating from public high school, I tried to replicate as much as possible the education I imagined my religious cohorts were obtaining in Milwaukee.

They would be taking Latin, so I enrolled in Latin. They would be learning German, so I enlisted my mother and grandfather to help me learn German in a semiformal way. My cohorts would be studying Greek, so during my second year in Latin class I got my teacher to help me with my independent study of Greek. (I would not take a formal course in Greek until years later, after graduating from the University of Michigan.) My Jewish friends gave me some primary Hebrew-School books so I could begin to prepare myself for Old Testament studies.

More important, of course, was the fact that my cohorts would be taking formal Bible-study classes. Nothing like that, of course, was possible in a public school, so I decided to read the whole Bible—lid-to-lid. Thirteen years old, I began a close reading of the King James Version of the Bible. Although I would not realize it until more than five years later, that was the beginning of the end of my religion.

By the time I had finished the Book of Joshua—long before I reached the nightmares of the Book of Revelation—I had become deeply troubled and appalled by the image of the god that emerged from my careful reading of the supposedly sacred text. All those massacres, all that genocide—all was supposed to have been ordered by Jehovah himself. And then there was all the racism inhering in the description of a supposedly chosen race!

I besought my Lutheran minister to explain all of this. Needless to say, his explanations were disingenuous, far-fetched, and dissatisfying. I pressed him so hard, he sent me to talk to a better-educated Missouri-Lutheran pastor in a neighboring town. His “explanation” was classic: we cannot know the mind of God. We have to take on faith the “fact” that God does things for perfectly good reasons but that those reasons are beyond our puny comprehension—beyond our finding out. The lame theodicy of the Missouri-Synod preacher distressed me as much as had the biblical text.

While I was worrying about the morals and inscrutable righteousness of Jehovah, a crisis arose in ninth-grade biology class at school. One day I came home from school and told my mother that I was worried that any day soon my biology teacher was going to start teaching us “that evolution junk.” (Of course, evolution theory was verboten in a church whose seminary did not allow the teaching of Copernican theory until early in the twentieth century!)

What was I to do? Evolution obviously contradicted the Book of Genesis. Other than the “fact” that pond scum was supposed to have turned into people, I really didn’t know what evolutionary theory claimed. (I seem to have forgotten all the relevant articles in the World Book Encyclopedia.)

For reasons I now can only suspect, my mother came up with an extraordinary suggestion. “Why don’t you read Darwin’s book? Then you can figure out for yourself what’s wrong with it and tell your teacher.” So, off to the public library I went to get On the Origin of Species. I don’t remember how many times that thirteen-year-old Lutheran had to renew the book before finishing it, but I think I finished it before completing my reading of the Bible. By the time I finished reading Darwin, I was an evolutionist. (My biology teacher never did dare to teach evolution in the class.)

So, by the time I finished ninth grade, I had two good reasons to reject the Old Testament: scientific and moral. Although my church attendance dwindled away and finally stopped before I finished high school—Oh, the agony of having to give up the ecstasy of that pipe organ!—I still called myself a Christian: a New Testament Christian. (Obviously, I had not read the New Testament as closely as the Old Testament.) The final words of my graduation speech still ring in my ears and heat them into a flush: “And, with God’s help, we will!”

Although I had spent the summer between eleventh and twelfth grades at Northwestern University studying speech and debate, my college studies began in earnest at Kalamazoo College—a school that boasted of being second in the nation for the percentage of its graduates who went on to a Ph.D. in science. The school was a seminary in infidelity! Atheists were everywhere. Even the Dean of Chapel was an infidel!

For my entire freshman year, I was virtually the only defender of Christianity—admittedly a very dilute, anemic form of the religion into which I had been born. Then, in my sophomore year just before Thanksgiving, that feeble specter too was exorcised from my life.

It was one of those all-night bull sessions in the dorm. As so often was the case, I was defending Christianity against the onslaught of friends and other students. Then it happened: the spark was struck that caused the mental hydrogen inside my Hindenburg-sized ego to explode. More in jest than in earnest, my best friend asked me a fatal question: “If God is omnipotent, can he build a wall so sturdy that he cannot tear it down?”

That was it. The timing was perfect. I had learned enough about formal logic by that time to consider the question seriously rather than shrug it off as I would have done a year earlier—or the way virtually all religious apologists do even today. Instantaneously, it seems, I realized that an infinite being is a self-contradiction, what philosophers call a logical incoherence.

We spent the night deriving amusing theorems pertaining to infinite beings.

If God is infinite, he must be everywhere. There is no place in which he can NOT be. But if that be so, he is not omnipotent.

If God is everywhere, he is in the Devil too. If we oppose the Devil, we are opposing God. If God has to be everywhere, he must be inside the people who claim he does not exist. If he is infinitely powerful, no human power could withstand him, and so it must be God himself forcing those tongues to claim he does not exist.

If God is infinitely good, is everywhere, and is omnipotent, the entire world must be good of necessity. Hitler must have been a good guy after all, since an infinitely good being would not be able to allow the existence of evil. Of course, an inability to allow evil would be incompatible with his omnipotence…

It was a dizzying night, the most important one in my life. From that day until now, I have been an Atheist.

Proceeding now to the questions you actually asked about my education, I have to preface my response with the observation that I never met a subject I didn’t like to study. It took me seven years (including summers) to get a BS degree—largely because I kept changing colleges and majors from physics to chemistry to biology to psychology to linguistics. Did I omit to mention music? When I found myself wanting to switch to medieval history, harsh reality (absence of funding) forced me to take the remaining biology course needed to allow me to graduate with a major in biology.

After teaching high school biology, chemistry, and earth science for three years, I had the great good fortune to receive eleven National Science Foundations grants to pursue graduate studies in the sciences. Unfortunately, I could choose only those fellowships that could be completed in the stipulated time period. So, I settled for an intensive summer at New Mexico Highlands University where I studied molecular biology and pathology, and an academic year plus a following summer at Indiana University where I earned an MA in geology. The field geology summer in the Rockies was one of the most satisfying experiences of my academic career.

Becoming a professor of biology and geology at Fulton-Montgomery Community College (SUNY-Johnstown), I created a laboratory course in psychobiology and a laboratory course on how to evaluate “fringe science” or pseudoscience. To strengthen my background in neuroscience, I enrolled at SUNY-Albany to study for a doctorate in neurophysiology. I completed all the requirements for the doctorate except for the dissertation—for reasons I will explain in my answer to a later question.

How much did I learn on my own?

Although I have studied at 15 different colleges and universities ranging from the Seventh-Day Adventist Emmanuel Missionary College to Yale University and the New York University Postgraduate School of Medicine, I really pride myself on being an autodidact, especially in the area of languages. When I studied Classical Arabic at Yale and Technical and Scientific Japanese through the University of Wisconsin, I was only receiving formal recognition for studies I had initiated on my own as early as high school. In the case of Russian, I never yet have received a single college credit for the language, yet I published more than 3,000 English typescript pages translating Russian scientific journals as a freelance translator for Plenum Press.

All my life I have envied people like Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Bertrand Russell, and Isaac Asimov for their ability to see the interrelatedness of all knowledge and to forge grand syntheses—however ephemeral—uniting science, technology, the humanities, and the arts.

Life, of course, is too short to achieve such grand summations today, and one has to give up many things to even approach such a goal. In my own case, the sacrifice has mostly involved not reading works of fiction—except, of course, for the daily newspapers and bibles. I never have understood why anyone would spend precious time reading novels, when textbooks are available on every subject imaginable.

Q: I read that you once lived in Amsterdam, where you started an Atheist church. Was that experience fruitful? What memories and “life lessons” would you care to share?

A: That was in Amsterdam, New York, not the famous one in Europe. When I was teaching at Fulton-Montgomery Community College (SUNY-Johnstown), I joined a number of other activists around the country in a drive to abolish tax exemptions for church-run businesses and properties. I was well-known in the region as an Atheist activist and conceived the delicious notion of creating an Atheist church (The First Church In The Light Of Science) and applying for a tax exemption. My hope was that the IRS would challenge me and, since I would be keeping very careful records and doing everything “according to the book,” they could reject my exemption only if they rejected the exemptions of all the other churches as well. Of course, to claim that Atheism is a form of religion is as silly as saying that health is a type of disease. What I hoped to achieve, however, was to provoke the IRS into ruling as to what was and was not a “legitimate religion”—something prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. Once things got through the courts, I hoped, either it would be found that religious exemptions are unconstitutional or, at least, that Atheist groups could enjoy the same state subsidy as the churches do.

My “church” met once a month in my home, and the “service” usually was a dialog between me and religious advocates ranging from Jesuits to Jehovah’s Witnesses. The “congregation” was mostly people from the college. But, thanks to our prominent presence on the church page of the local newspaper, we often had visitors come in from the street. The church lasted about three years, but it failed its purpose by succeeding. That is, everything was carried out with such legal meticulousness that the IRS never came to visit. Finally, my conscience forced me to close the church and give up the struggle to abolish religious exemptions from taxation.

Q: I have several questions regarding your involvement with American Atheists. When did you join the organization? How long have you been the editor of its magazine? I understand that while you were teaching in the SUNY system, you became involved in a lawsuit, along with Madalyn Murray O’Hair. The upshot was that you were pressured into giving up your university position. What happened?

A: I joined American Atheists (then known as Society of Separationists, Inc.) in 1976 or 1977 after Madalyn Murray O’Hair held a meeting in New York City. I was a regular columnist for the magazine from about 1980 until the murder of the Murray-O’Hair family in 1995. I became editor of American Atheist Press in the spring of 1996 when it appeared that the “first family of Atheism” was not likely to return. (It was five years later before we learned the awful truth of what had actually befallen them.) I immediately began to edit the newsletter and magazine and to produce new books and pamphlets.

In the late 1970s, Madalyn Murray O’Hair initiated a lawsuit to remove “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency. I, and many others including the composer Leonard Bernstein, joined her in the suit. As with the changes made in the national motto and the pledge of allegiance to the flag, this motto had been required on currency since the mid-1950s at the instigation of the McCarthyites in their crusade against “godless communism.” Our unsuccessful case went on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court at a time in my career when I had been Chairman of the Division of Sciences, Nursing, and Technology at SUNY-Johnstown for several years and was trying to carry out research for my doctoral dissertation at SUNY-Albany.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s rejection of our appeal, I was interviewed on all the TV stations in the New York Capital District. Many radio talk-show hosts had me on their programs, and the newspapers carried a bit of my opinion. Then, the feces hit the fan.

The Fulton County Board of Supervisors, the body that controlled the purse-strings of the college, passed a resolution condemning me for un-American activities and threatened to turn the college into a nursing home if I not be “eliminated.” Of course, I had tenure and had done nothing illegal, so they couldn’t fire me. (They did, however, fire the college president who came to my defense.) To force me to leave, they cut off all funding for science education except for professors’ salaries. Thus did they seek to extort my “voluntary” departure as the price to pay for restoring science education at the college. For good measure, they forced a reorganization of the college that replaced division chairmen with associate deans. I went back to a full-time teaching schedule. All the special courses I had developed, however, were abolished.

I fought for two and a half years, while science education threatened to disappear for lack of funding. The brain research that I was doing for my dissertation became impossible to finish while working the inflexible schedule imposed upon me by the new academic regime. One day I saw an ad in the New York Times Sunday edition wherein a scientific publisher in Ohio needed editors who could read scientific literature in a variety of languages. I applied for the job and was hired almost immediately. On Christmas Eve, 1982, I slipped my final grade reports under the office door of the dean who had replaced me. On Christmas morning, I threw about 50 language dictionaries into my Volkswagen, along with a few items of clothing and I headed west to Ohio—leaving my wife Ann to sell our house and come with our daughter Catherine to join me later. Although I am now well past normal retirement age, I am still working at that job. It is a job that keeps my brain alive (more or less). Even so, I still miss teaching more than words can express.

Q: As you may have perceived from one of my earlier questions, I’m quite impressed with your range of skills and your education. You’ve written on many topics pertinent to atheism, or served as the editor for books like Part III of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. Which of your projects, in your estimation, has had the greatest impact? In general, do you see a more scholarly approach to atheism, by authors invested in its advancement, particularly in the U.S.?

A: As editor of American Atheist Press I have to be careful not to let my own predisposition to scholarly approaches to Atheism skew things too far in the scholarly direction. Of course, we need scholarly books like the anthropologist David Eller’s Natural Atheism and his block-buster sequel Atheism Advanced, which I hope to have out before the end of the year. But we also need satirical works such as RIUS’s Manual of a Perfect Atheist or Paul Farrell’s Illustrated Stories From the Bible (that they won’t tell you in Sunday School). Perhaps most of all, we need Atheist books for children and teenagers. This being said, I must say that I am hoping to have Big-Bang impact this fall with the publication of René Salm’s The Myth Of Nazareth: The Invented Town Of Jesus. That book will demonstrate beyond cavil that the present town called Nazareth was uninhabited at the time that Jesus of Nazareth is supposed to have lived there. If there never was a land of Oz, there was no Wizard of Oz. If there never was a Nazareth… You see how explosive this scholarly book should be.

Q: What are your hopes for atheists in the United States? Will we soon overcome the “stigma” attached to atheism? I’m referring, of course, to the University of Wisconsin study that found atheists in the statistical “doghouse” when it comes to electability, mostly based on the matter of public trust:

This group does not at all agree with my vision of American society…
Atheist: 39.6%
Muslims: 26.3%
Homosexuals: 22.6%
Hispanics: 20%
Conservative Christians: 13.5%
Recent Immigrants: 12.5%
Jews: 7.6%

What measures do we take to assure the general public that our lifestance is central to a “vision of American Society?”

A: I am not sanguine concerning the future of Atheism in the United States. With the media almost completely controlled by Bushbuddy Industries, Inc. and its minions, it is going to be harder and harder for voices of reason to be heard in the broadcast media or to be reported in print. It is little short of an Atheist miracle that the past year has witnessed the best-seller successes of so many excellent Atheist authors. I fear, however, there will be a backlash. These books are being read not by believers in the pews but by religious apologists who will apply their skills to “neutralize the poison” of these books so the true believers will remain untouched.

To be sure, these books are of immense utility to Atheist readers, who can find many useful arguments to employ in their day-to-day encounters with religious activists. But unless the Atheist readers of these books band together for educational and political purposes, a return to the Dark Ages of Faith seems not only possible but probable.

It is often said that trying to organize Atheists is like trying to herd cats. I think that simile underestimates the difficulty. Organizing Atheists is more like trying to place a saddle on a flock of hummingbirds—species that do not form flocks.

Nevertheless, we have to try. It is important that Atheists take out membership in organizations such as American Atheists, even if their contribution is only in the coin of membership dues. Although he cost of membership is low, the money will help such organizations to pursue their many programs to fight for Atheists’ civil rights and to defend the wall of separation between state and church. Membership forms can be obtained on-line at the American Atheist Web-site. While people are there, they can read a large number of my essays on many subjects by clicking on various action buttons on the left side of the home page screen.

For those who want to help with political action of their own, there is the Godless Americans Political Action Committee (GAMPAC) which has a Web-site. That Web-site is a marvel of helpful information making it easy for even mildly motivated activists to take action. GAMPAC is supported by a wide range of Free-Thought groups in addition to American Atheists.

Thank you once again for granting me this opportunity to express my views and opinions.

Frank R. Zindler, editor
American Atheist Press

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