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Lee Leimberg: My deconversion from faith began early

Margaret Sayre and Lee Leimberg enjoy some French fries. Margaret died in 2020.

By Lee Leimberg

I inherited Judaism from my parents. Dad was Orthodox, Mom was conservative. But my first memory of religion was in kindergarten. Some old woman would start each session by reading the 23rd Psalm at us kids from a big black book. “Yea, though I travel through the valley of death,” she warned. Why was she trying to scare the crap out of a bunch of 5-year-olds? What did we ever do to her?

I grew up two blocks from a large Roman Catholic church and most of the other neighborhood kids went to the parochial school. When I was about 8, an older boy from parochial school told me that he was taught that agnostics had no religion and atheists worshiped the devil. I did not question that until he told me something else. He claimed the Catholic sisters taught him that Jews did the same atrocities to Christians that scared Japanese civilians into jumping off South Pacific cliffs when we retook islands late in WWII! I knew that wasn’t true. Technically, they were not lying if they believed their falsehoods. But, what other nasty propaganda were nuns spreading?

At age 12, I researched peanuts before confronting my rabbi with a question: “On Passover, we are not to eat foods that the Israelites did not have when they fled Egypt. Peanuts came from the New World centuries later. Why do we fry everything in peanut oil on Passover?” His response was an arbitrary, “Don’t ask questions.” That spoke volumes to me. People should question authority. And authorities should be accountable. Instead, I wondered if the peanut oil lobby had donated to kosher causes.

My brother and I went to Sunday school, where we heard the same bible stories every year. Shouldn’t once be enough? We went to Hebrew school after public school two days a week. This was to teach us a foreign language in a strange alphabet used in ancient rituals and in a foreign country I had absolutely no desire to visit. At age 12, my father (who taught physics) and I agreed that I could continue to eat and sleep in his house if I went through with a bar mitzvah. Also, I could quit attending immediately thereafter. Such traditions just meant inertia to me.

Fast forward about 55 years. I attended a county-owned and operated senior center for lunch. There I met Margaret A. Sayre, who became my closest friend. She told me that she was a vegetarian and an atheist. But Marge was an exceptionally decent person. So, I checked out agnostic and atheist in the dictionary. Apparently, one need not be religious to be decent! 

Somebody demanded we have Christian grace or she would quit. (She quit anyway.) The former center director was only too pleased to comply. We endured these rude impositions for far too many years until the county replaced the senior center staff. (Google “Margaret Sayre and Don Dwyer.”) I want to thank American Atheists, Americans United and FFRF for their help in ending this travesty. Margaret died in 2020 at the age of 86.

Lee Leimberg is an After-Life Member originally from Philadelphia. He has lived “from New Jersey to California, from Montreal Island to Rio de Janeiro.” He has been retired from engineering for 40 years and resides near Baltimore.