(Editor’s Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)
Summary: A worthy effort, but at best a shallow draught from a spring that can sustain much deeper drinking.
I’ve often said that atheism, to succeed as a movement, needs to do more than just criticize belief in gods: it needs to offer a positive, appealing alternative to religion, a depiction of the happiness and fulfillment that can be obtained by living a superstition-free life. For this reason, I was excited to read Eric Maisel’s The Atheist’s Way, which promises to offer just such an alternative. As its prologue says:
…the atheist’s way is a rich way, as rich as life itself. [p.2]
Maisel spends little, if any, time criticizing existing religion or offering reasons to be an atheist; this book takes that as a given, and then goes on to ask what the next step is. His answer is that atheists can lead a rich and meaningful life by choosing our own purpose and making our own meaning, which we accomplish by participating in the activities that matter most to us.
So, as I said, this is exactly the kind of book we need, and I had every reason to thoroughly enjoy it. And yet, I was disappointed. In my opinion, it fell short of what it could have been. Too often, Maisel skims over his subject material, engaging in only cursory exploration of topics that have far deeper and richer veins to be mined.
A case in point is chapter 1, which argues that atheists have historical traditions to feel connected to. “As far back as thousands of years ago, sensible people like you and me were seeing through religion” [p.13]. So far, so good – without a doubt, this is an area where there’s a wealth of historical material to survey. There have indeed been many freethinking sects through history, from the Carvakas of ancient India to the Epicureans of Greece, as well as many lone nonbelievers who bravely fought against the prevailing superstitions of their times. But we don’t hear about any of this. Instead, all we get is a smattering of quotes, most of which are presented with little or no historical context – no more than anyone could find for themselves with a cursory web search. Here’s a typical example:
“Petronius Arbiter (c.27-66 CE): ‘It was fear that first brought gods into the world.’”
If you didn’t know anything about these people or the schools of thought they represented before reading this chapter, you wouldn’t come away enlightened. (He even quotes people who were manifestly not atheists, such as Giordano Bruno or Thomas Hobbes, without making any distinction about their actual views.) I found this frustrating, because there really are historical traditions of atheism from which we can take courage and inspiration, and I wanted this book to say more about them. Upon reaching the end of the chapter, I found myself thinking, “Is that it? Doesn’t he have more to say?”
The next several chapters, and the majority of the book, are taken up by Maisel’s argument for how we can make and maintain meaning in our own lives. Most of the (many) other books that he’s written are self-help books, and it shows. Again, there’s nothing wrong with his argument, but it feels flat, relying more on platitudes and vague exhortations than on examples that awake the sense of the transcendent. Consider passages like this:
…our lives are the sorts of epic projects that require work and attention. It is a central tenet of any authentic person’s life plan to work at the project of her life, since that work is life: it is the way we justify ourselves, create ourselves, and make ourselves proud. it is the way we love our lives and love life itself. [p.75]
As editors often say, don’t tell, show! Instead of long explanations on how we can create meaning, which inevitably start to sound cliched, it would have been better to give more specific and detailed examples of atheists who do create meaning, demonstrating what makes our lives valuable to us. Trying to explain why this works is never going to be as powerful or as compelling as showing how it works.
The last few chapters are better, but overall, I still came away feeling let down. I wanted this book to be more than it is, and it didn’t live up to my expectations.