Book Review: The Atheist's Way

(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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • GodlessInND

    Thanks for the review–now I know not to waste my time with this book. I, too, am always seeking the “how,” even though I’m hesitant to draw parallels between atheism and religion. I think that’s why atheism may never be a unified movement: we want to maintain distance from religion, which is defined by its unified beliefs and rituals and historical traditions. Who says that atheists need such things?

    I think it’s impossible to illustrate the “how” of atheism in one book, because the things that we atheists do make our own meaning are too numerous and varied. Perhaps an in-depth survey of non-believers and their specific traditions and “rituals” would be a good place to start. Detailed examples might help other atheists to create their own meanings, but it would only be a very small sampling.

    That’s why I stick with atheist forums. They’re a great place to solicit ideas for non-religious ceremonies and how to create and nurture secular traditions. Again, though, the whole idea seems to be to find the secular version of something religious (like weddings, funerals, “holiday” celebrations), rather than creating something wholly secular with absolutely no ties to religion or religiously-inspired occasions.

  • http://manticoreweb.blogspot.com/ Richard

    It’s too bad if Maisel did not put atheism in a historical context. We tend to think of atheism as a “modern” phenomenon and we often forget that there have been very brave people throughout Human history who stood up to the prevailing superstitions of their day. Perhaps another author can pick up this thread and trace atheism back through the ages, it would be an interesting project!

  • AnonaMiss

    Sounds like the book’s a framework. You know what you need to do, Ebon ;).

  • Mathew Wilder

    I would recommend just reading primary sources on living well godlessly – the Stoics, the Epicureans, Nietzsche, Camus, etc.

    For historical context on atheism and freethought, and a more in depth look at “the good life”, I would recommend Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt and The Happiness Myth.

    Also, it is a matter of debate whether Hobbes was an atheist. I think he was, myself. His philosophy was materialistic, and I think his religious beliefs were just for the sake of saving his skin.

  • Brock

    Let me add Paul Kurtz to the list. His style is rather turgid, but well worth the effort… to me at least.

  • http://www.izgad.blogspot.com Benzion N. Chinn

    “we often forget that there have been very brave people throughout Human history who stood up to the prevailing superstitions of their day. Perhaps another author can pick up this thread and trace atheism back through the ages, it would be an interesting project!”

    Richard

    As a Jew who has spent much of his life running from works of “history” designed to list the “great” Jews of history and make one feel proud to be Jewish I would put in a word of caution. One has to be careful when writing history in order to not fall into the trap of writing hagiography. History, by definition, requires one to not take sides or promote anyone as being brave, praiseworthy or worthy of imitating just as science, by definition, means sticking to materialist causes and remaining silent about any theoretical non materialist causes. The moment your history becomes proscriptive than you are no longer dealing with history.

  • http://www.izgad.blogspot.com Benzion N. Chinn

    Brock
    Funny that you should mention Paul Kurtz. The name rang a bell and I realized that he was the guy who wrote a pamphlet that was so awful that I blogged about it upon reading it. (http://izgad.blogspot.com/2007/01/mr-enlightenment-meet-meom-loez.html)
    Kurtz is a good example of how not to write history.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Thanks for the review. I’ve been debating whether to get this book. Now I know that I’ll give it a pass. Ebon, I assume you’ve read Doubt, by Jennifer Michael Hecht. That book is a wonderful historical look at skeptics through the ages.

  • Libby

    Personally, I think that spending so much effort on finding the “way” to be a happy atheist detracts from the simplicity of atheism. With religion, there are so many rules, and you always seem to have to work harder to be happy, to reach enlightenment, and so on. The libraries upon libraries of self-help religion books try to fill the inherent holes in organized religion. Atheist eliminates that, and simply allows people to live their lives to the fullest. Why ruin that?

  • EJ

    I agree with the review and I found the book to be simplistic but I think it can be useful to some who are just starting to think for themselves and are not studied in philosophy. It’s all well and good to say that atheism does not need a way and one can just live but that supposes that one is already doing what makes them happy in life to begin with. Some people, growing up religious or just under authoritarian influence may not have followed their preferred path and now after leaving that need some inspiration. I think the book at least does that.

  • Mathew Wilder

    Libby, I think you’re right. As many people have purportedly said, “You’ll never find happiness if you are seeking happiness.” In other words, happiness (such a milquetoast word) is a side effect of other pursuits, rather than an object of pursuit itself.

  • Christopher

    I would recommend just reading primary sources on living well godlessly – the Stoics, the Epicureans, Nietzsche, Camus, etc.

    Personally, I would also add Stirner, Bakunin, Rand and Mishima to the list as well.

  • TommyP

    Don’t tell, show. Good advice, simple and to the point. It opens a world of possibilities when writing. I’ll have to keep that in mind!

  • Mathew Wilder

    Certainly Bakunin. I would add Russell to my earlier list, as well.