Issac Asimov, humanist

Isaac Asimov, best known as a science fiction and science fact writer, was also president of the American Humanist Association up until he died in 1992. A re-issued biography, Isaac Asimov: A Life of the Grand Master of Science Fiction by Michael White (1994/2005, Carroll & Graf), gives us a glimpse into the religious life of this prominent humanist.

Asimov was born into a non-practicing Jewish family, and had almost no experience with organized religion as he was growing up. Yet he recognized the deep human need for some kind of religion, and had his own attachment to religious community as an adult: an Ethical Culture leader officiated at his second marriage (to Janet Jeppson, a psychiatrist and science fiction fan); and when he died, his memorial service took place at an Ethical Cultural Center (presumably at the New York Center for Ethical Culture, which is located across Central Park from the Asimovs’ apartment, but alas the book does not tell us this little detail).

Michael White’s biography also points out:

Asimov took humanism very seriously and frequently gave talks about it as well as devoting essays and entire books to the subject….

….Asimov placed education and knowledge at the pinnacle of his beliefs and was strongly of the opinion that the ignorance of those in political power lay at the root of the world’s problems. Like many of his friends and colleagues, he lamented the appalling scientific ignorance of most people. This ignorance was all the more scandalous, he believed, in those who were otherwise highly educated.” [pp. 186-187]

Here Asimov is a lot like us Unitarian Universalists — we, too, believe that education is absolutely crucial, and over the years many Unitarian Universalists have worked to spread education.

Interestingly, Asimov once attended a Unitarian Universalist worship service. The story goes like this: Asimov was on the faculty of Boston University as an associate professor of biochemistry in 1956, a time when his writing career was really starting to take off. He published a story called “The Last Question,” in which human scientists pose the following question to increasingly more powerful computers: “How can entropy be reversed?” I won’t spoil the story for you, but finally they get an answer that has, shall we say, certain religious overtones.

Machael White writes:

‘The Last Question’ even became the subject of a sermon at the Unitarian church in Bedford, massachusetts. Asimov somehow discovered that one of his stories was to be included in a sermon, and decided to attend. He sat quietly and unobtrusively in the back row, listening attentively. He never related what he thought of the sermon.

One last tidbit from this revised version of this biography. Michael White again:

Isaac Asimov was HIV positive and died from complications associated with AIDS. I was aware of this at the time of the first edition of this book, but chose to honor the wishes of Isaac’s family and friends who did not want me to bring this fact into my account. Isaac contracted the disease after being given infected blood during a surgical procedure, but it was some time before he became aware of his condition and his decline was gradual. However, a few years before his death he learned the nature of his illness and wished to make it known to his public and to bring the matter out into the open. But… he was advised against this because of fears that the news would devalue his apartment in New York….

Highly recommended book for anyone who wants to know more about this prominent humanist.

One thought on “Issac Asimov, humanist

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    Comments transferred from old blog

    Most days, I walk by a “famous UU” poster in the church office that lists Asimov among many others. (It is the poster that has a little reflective mylar strip instead of a picture in the lower right-hand corner where the viewer can see him or herself among the luminaries. Asimov, of course, is hard to miss, not only because I have enjoyed his writing, but also because of those mutton chop whiskers! I wonder if his inclusion on the poster is based on something so slight as sitting through a single sermon, or if the book isn’t offering a full picture of his religious affiliation?

    Comment from gatheringwater – 5/20/05 4:48 PM


    Do Americans get married by a mayor or a judge? A town hall wedding would be the preferred choice for non-believing Europeans. I am trying to understand why Humanism in Europe is more a cultural thing with no religious “temptations” (making specific buildings, ceremonies, and the like), whereas in America everything seems to be related to some church, even incredulity!

    Comment from jaummrc – 5/20/05 5:36 PM


    jaunmrc: Some with no religious affiliation do get married by a justice of the peace or other governmental official. However, here in the US, weddings have become a part of the consumer culture to the point that many non-believers now think they must have a church wedding for social legitimacy (see the sociological study “Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding”:

    The point I wanted to make with Asimov, however, was that he did have a religious affiliation.

    gaterhingwater: I don’t know the poster you’re looking at, but remember that the American Humanist Association was dominated by Unitarian Universalists. This led a number of overzealous UU’s to think that everyone associated with the American Humanist Association must therefore be a UU.

    And the debate rages on about what consitutes a UU, or Unitarian or Universalist. I perfer the criteria used by the UU Historical Society, which basically boils down to membership in a congregation as an adult (or sometimes major rites of passage, or long-term affilitaion and attendance). See their Web site for a pretty comprehensive list of dead UU’s:

    Comment from danlharp – 5/21/05 2:36 PM

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