Book Review: The Atheist’s Way by Eric Maisel

Imagine that you’ve just become an atheist. Maybe you read The God Delusion and you’re pretty sure you’re not religious.

But now, you don’t know what to do.

The New Atheists have done a nice job of convincing you to drop your faith in any god. But they never told you what to put up in its place.

Enter Eric Maisel and The Atheist’s Way:

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This book picks up from where Dawkins and the other popular atheist writers leave off.

It talks about the kinds of things atheists do believe in.

We have traditions and ethics and we live meaningful lives — those things don’t come from one book or one faith. Furthermore, they’re different for all of us.

By using anecdotes told to him by a number of atheists, Maisel puts together a collection of ways that atheists are living their lives. Just because they no longer believe in God or belong to a religion doesn’t mean they’ve let go of many of the aspects of life we typically associate with religion.

It’s a great book for anyone who’s on the cusp of atheism — someone who’s not quite there or someone who just became one. I’m not sure if Christians or long-time atheists will get as much out of it, but it’s an easy read and a nice gift to give to anyone who asks how you can get through life without a god.

For more information on the book and the author, you can check out the book’s website and the author’s blog.

  • mikespeir

    I’m dubious of a book purporting to tell the world what we do believe in.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I believe I will one day write my own holy book. The only thing I will borrow from Christianity is Revelation chapter 22, versus 18 and 19. All holy books should end with those passages for narcissistic reasons :)

    If everybody did this… then instead of a personal God, everybody could have their own personal holy book. I wonder if Eric mentioned that ;)

    But seriously, I suffered a bit for my atheism growing up. If Eric’s book can help some people live less contentious lives, then that’s a good thing.

  • Stephan Goodwin

    *begin sarcasm*

    We have traditions and ethics and we live meaningful lives — those things don’t come from one book or one faith. Furthermore, they’re different for all of us.

    So lets put it in a book?

    *end sarcasm*

  • schism

    I always figured that one Douglas Adams (I think) quote about recognizing a garden’s beauty without worrying about faeries haunting it pretty well summarized the atheist mindset.

    Or, even more reductive, you have this old Discovery Channel commercial.

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    So, you guys think there’s no need for positive atheist books about how people can live meaningful, satisfying lives without gods? So, the only atheist books that should be published are religion bashing and anti-apologetics, like Dawkins and Harris? How lame and shallow. The negativity that comes up in the comments whenever anyone posts something about the positive aspects of atheism makes me want to puke.

  • http://avertyoureye.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    I agree with WriterDD’s sentiments. No major movement or idea has ever advanced solely by demolishing its predecessors.

  • schism

    So, you guys think there’s no need for positive atheist books about how people can live meaningful, satisfying lives without gods?

    I was being serious, especially about the commercial, taken out of context though it was. The idea that we’re capable of being at least content with the world and our place in it without needing some deity’s help or permission is kind of the whole point.

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    Well, I thought, finally here’s an Atheist book with a positive approach rather than a negative one. Then I read the negative reactions to it. I am reminded of a certain robot from Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

    Teleprompter says, “No major movement or idea has ever advanced solely by demolishing its predecessors.” I agree. Methinks the New Atheism has a ways to go yet.

  • http://blog.calumnist.com/ Danny

    The negative comments are understandable. Atheism is a negative view (disbelief of theism), the only issue all atheists could agree with. Any purported “postive atheism” would not be universally accepted. Humanists, Objectivists, communists, anarchists, Capitalists, liberals, libertarians, satanists, apatheists all have different views as to how they would proceed with their lives AFTER discarding theism, and it would be presumptuous for someone to tell all these different disbelievers what their atheism ought to be.

    I myself would probably agree with the book (once I get the chance to read it), but I have no illusion that it is just one suggestion among other equally (more or less) viable worldviews. We are a herd of cats, after all.

  • http://www.otmatheist.com hoverFrog

    I’ve lived my entire life without religion. Why should I try to fit anything into the nonexistent gap that religion didn’t fill?

    I disagree with writerdd here because the books by Dawkins, Hutchins, Harris, et al exist to tell atheists (and others) that religion isn’t required and to point out the flaws in religion arguments. I don’t find that shallow at all. This is not a book for me but then I’m not the target audience as the commentary clearly states.

    For a person who is “on the cusp of atheism” I imagine that such a collection of positive tales might help them to overcome any trepidation on abandoning faith. Honestly though the only thing I have in common with every other atheist is a failure to believe in gods. There are no traditions or ethics that we share by virtue of being atheists.

    Having said that I might well read this book out of interest as positive atheist tales are seldom identified as “atheist”. Why would they be? It’s not as if afairyist is ever mentioned in positive stories either.

  • Aj

    So, you guys think there’s no need for positive atheist books about how people can live meaningful, satisfying lives without gods?

    It’s troubling that people think they can learn how to live in a book, like some kind of manual. This also suggests that gods have anything to do with a living a satisfying life, and that a lack of belief means that people have problems. That’s pretty fucking negative, and pathetic theist propaganda.

    So, the only atheist books that should be published are religion bashing and anti-apologetics, like Dawkins and Harris?

    Are you talking about pleas for happiness, salvation, security, with promotion of a reason and evidence based approach?

    …positive aspects of atheism…

    What are you talking about? Atheism is a lack of belief in gods.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I’ve lived my entire life without religion. Why should I try to fit anything into the nonexistent gap that religion didn’t fill?

    So maybe you’re not the intended audience.

  • inkadu

    It’s troubling that people think they can learn how to live in a book, like some kind of manual.

    I think books can be helpful. So do a lot of other people.

    This also suggests that gods have anything to do with a living a satisfying life, and that a lack of belief means that people have problems.

    I think that depends what role religion and belief had in their lives prior. If you grew up as an atheist, then you’re probably ok. If you grew up Catholic and went to church every Sunday and were considering joining the priesthood and took a measure of comfort knowing that you were working to serve God, etc, then you have some adjusting to do.

    It’s also true that religious belief confers some emotional and psychological benefits. Or at least that’s what the research seems to indicate. But that doesn’t have any bearing on whether there is a God or not. I’m not an atheist because it’s comfortable. I’m an atheist because it’s the only thing that makes sense.

  • Matthew T.

    Another great book that is quite similar and was released a little while ago is Living Without God by Ronald Aronson….

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    There are a lot of positive aspects of atheism, even though disbelieve in god(s) is the only defining factor.

    Without god(s) and holy books atheists can:

    Define their own purpose in life
    Make responsible decisions about how to live
    Share a long history with other unbelievers
    Know that they are not alone because there are other unbelievers around today
    Life without fear of punishment and eternal damnation
    Appreciate the brevity of life
    Life life to its fullest without putting off fulfillment for an afterlife
    Help others because it’s the right thing to do, not because we are commanded to by a holy book
    Help alleviate suffering, again because of the brevity and preciousness of this life
    Celebrate life, not death but be at peace knowing that death is not hellfire or eternal boredom kissing god’s ass
    Appreciate science and reason with no guilt about “believing” evidence that is not in line with ancient myths

    And so forth….

  • Aj

    I think books can be helpful. So do a lot of other people.

    That’s called an argumentum ad populum. Lots of people think a lot of things. If that type of fallacy persuaded me then I would be religious.

    …and took a measure of comfort knowing that you were working to serve God…

    Perhaps atheism won’t give you that certainty but I don’t see it as a problem. If you’re talking about doing good, it’s obvious they’re not getting their moral sense from gods, so they don’t lose it when they lose gods. It’s a career problem, not an atheist problem.

    It’s also true that religious belief confers some emotional and psychological benefits. Or at least that’s what the research seems to indicate.

    I haven’t come across research that suggests that. I have read about a study that found a correlation between between religious membership and happiness, but that’s not the same thing at all, and it wasn’t clear what the relationship was.

  • Aj

    There are a lot of positive aspects of atheism, even though disbelieve in god(s) is the only defining factor.

    You have to admit that they’re examples of not being of particular religions. Under your own definition you would have to describe them as “negative”, but I would not. Many of them are included in The End of Faith, and The God Delusion.

    A shared history and experience is a positive of their being other atheists, not of atheism itself. One atheist, is still an atheist. It passed the first test, being unique to atheists, but it’s not a necessity of atheism.

  • David D.G.

    The New Atheists have done a nice job of convincing you to drop your faith in any god. But they never told you what to put up in its place.

    This is the thing that always puzzles me — that people talk of having to “replace” religion with something else. I never felt the need to have anything in its place, because God-belief (and all the associated trappings of it) always seemed like something extra, something contrived, that unnecessarily complicated life and was about as useful as continuously wearing a parka in Bermuda (even while snorkeling).

    Granted, a former theist may have some adjusting to do when he embraces atheism. But any “adjusting” that a newly atheistic person needs to do isn’t that of replacing his religiosity with something like it, but of recognizing that it was superfluous in the first place. If that’s essentially what this book does, then I’m all for it.

    ~David D.G.

  • Siamang

    schism, That Boom-de-ya-da video is the best atheist manifesto ever made. If anyone asks me “well, what DO atheists believe in”, I’m showing them that!

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    But they never told you what to put up in its place

    I’m also an atheist who grew up atheist and never believed in god. I never had to replace religion so I kind of have to “take it on faith” that some people have some “gap” that emotionally they need to replace when they become an atheist.

    Perhaps its like loving one person, breaking up, and then having a hard time getting over the person until you love another person. That I can understand because I’ve been there and done that.

    I would suggest to find some real human being to love to fill the religion gap… not an ideology… but I have to say that the discovery channel commercial is fantastic.

  • David D.G.

    Perhaps its like loving one person, breaking up, and then having a hard time getting over the person until you love another person. That I can understand because I’ve been there and done that.

    I know what you mean, but it’s not a perfect analogy, since people actually DO need companionship, in varying degrees.

    More importantly, there is a fine line between getting over someone when moving on to a new relationship and being “on the rebound” — certainly a danger if someone insists on “replacing” religion with something else. The only things I can see to replace religion with are freedom, honesty, and clarity of vision and thought (and, perhaps, a greater sense of personal accountability).

    ~David D.G.

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    Most people seem to feel the need for some sort of spirituality (Eric doesn’t use that word BTW) and community. It seems like most vocal atheists on the internet do not. But I think people without a longing for this type of thing are the minority in the real world, even among those who do not believe in gods.

  • Aj

    Most people seem to feel the need for some sort of spirituality…

    Most people don’t even know what they mean when they talk about spirituality.

    …and community. It seems like most vocal atheists on the internet do not.

    It seems you don’t know what the hell you’re writing about.

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    It seems you don’t know what the hell you’re writing about.

    And you, and the others in this thread, are so frakking predictable.

  • Aj

    If that predictability is met with your contempt then at least we’re not wrong.

  • KP

    Speaking as a newly-minted atheist, I think this book sounds very helpful. Letting go of religion did leave a gap in my life, and while I’m not looking for another ideology to fill it, I do feel the loss.

    I’m trying to find my way in a world where all I hear is what people don’t believe in, where very few people offer any suggestions or advice beyond, “don’t believe in gods, cuz they don’t exist.” Yeah, I got that. So now what? Where do I go from here? I don’t think I’m all that unusual for wanting guidance.

    I don’t want a book or a guru to tell me what to do. But that’s not what this book is. It is someone saying, “This is how some people live without gods,” and that is a good thing. Taking a whole new direction in life isn’t easy, and some of us need all the help we can get.

  • http://avertyoureye.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    Aj, it’s you who don’t know what you’re talking about.

    WriterDD is right…again. Some people do have a real need for spirituality, whether they ultimately do need it or not is completely irrelevant.

    Do you need to have sex if you’re not reproducing? No, not really. You could say…it’s superfluous. But not taking advantage of it can sure leave a big gap. Spirituality is probably built on some of the same mechanisms. It’s more than likely a natural function of our brains.

    And yes, I fully understand that argument that “some natural things are despicable and/or counterproductive” but that still does not change the basic reality of these phenomena.

    If atheists refuse to acknowledge spirituality, atheism will never be prevalent in society. Period.

    Sam Harris was going in the right direction.

  • inkadu

    Aj – Since you gave your opinion without any evidentiary backing, I figured I’d give you mine the same way. And ad populum is actually not a bad way to go when you’re trying to figure out what people LIKE, which may correlates to how helpful it is. I can’t use ad populum to argue that beer is good for you, but I can sure say people like to drink it.

    On doing good, I agree that charitable new atheists aren’t going to change their positions on charity — but it’s still going to be emotionally disorienting!

    Religious belief / membership – We probably read the same study… regardless, you can’t really be a religious member without a belief (believe me, I’ve tried!) so people coming to atheism may also be leaving a church.

    I also think this book would be largely unnecessary in a culture where atheism was matter-of-course. There is a stigma attached to atheism. A gay muslim will be elected president before an atheist. And even if there isn’t a lick of pragmatic good to be had from reading the book — in terms of learning new “beliefs” or philosophies or filling spiritual holes or whatever — just the fact that there ARE atheists living normal, healthy, fulfilling lives may be reassuring for people.

    writerdd – Spirituality, to me, is about awe and wonder in the universe. Carl Sagan captures it best, if you’re familiar with Cosmos. Thinking about how big the unverse is does it. How precious this blue planet is. How infinitely short our time span is on this earth, and how miniscule the time since we started banging rocks together. Or how amazing this illusion of consciousness is, created by the three pounds of dog breakfast between our ears. As Douglas Adams said, “The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.” It is a deeply weird universe we live in, and recognizing and appreciating it is my version of spirituality — and probably that of a lot of other scientifically-minded atheists as well. We’re all looking for “deeper meaning” and some sense of connection to the greater universe. Some people express it in religion, others in bland pantheism, and other is astronomy. If you don’t see ‘sprituality’ among atheism, it’s because you don’t know what you’re looking for.

  • Aj

    Teleprompter,

    Spirituality disconnected from spirits is meaningless to me, I’ve asked and people who use the term don’t know what they mean. To say that people have a “real need” for it isn’t supported at all.

    I support Sam Harris’s research into religious practics: ritual, meditation, fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation or using psychotropic drugs. I wouldn’t say these are necessarily connected natural phenomena so to group them under spirituality and to say we need them is beyond hasty. It also denies the variety of religious practice, and equivocates it all into one.

    Would people enjoy or benefit from doing these activities? Sure, but they’re relatively few of many activities that would.

    inkadu,

    …which may correlates to how helpful it is.

    It may be completely unconnected to how helpful it is. Popularity says nothing about how helpful it is.

    …but it’s still going to be emotionally disorienting!

    Change usually is.

    so people coming to atheism may also be leaving a church.

    People need other people, no one denies this.

    …just the fact that there ARE atheists living normal, healthy, fulfilling lives may be reassuring for people.

    If that was the goal of the book, documenting how some atheists live their lives, it wouldn’t have received the reaction it did. It definitely would dispel some myths about atheists.

  • book

    Wow spiritual tending atheists, a miracle!

  • book

    Just be good for goodness sake!

  • inkadu

    Holy crap, aj, we’re like two old cats getting up on their haunches and batting at each other.

    It may be completely unconnected to how helpful it is. Popularity says nothing about how helpful it is.

    Not by itself, no, but it does tell how people feel if it’s helpful. And if it feels helpful, it probably is helpful in some small way. The placebo effect is not without its charms. Aspirin is even more popular, and actually IS helpful in a scientific way.

    But, yes, you still may be horrified that people feel books are helpful. Nobody is going to take that away from you.

    Also, on spirituality… I don’t really think atheists are, in general, that different from religious people when it comes to wanting to understand and feel connected to the universe. People say “spiritual but not religious” because they don’t want to live a joyless, mechanical existence. Some atheists just have gone one step further and realized that joy and wonder arise from this joyless mechanical existence, that they are one in the same, and that we don’t have to create a plane of “spirituality” to explain the things like love and curiosity that make life worth living. The natural human yearning to enjoy life and put it in some larger context is the same for everyone, from the most religious to the most godless.

    Your mileage may vary.

  • David D.G.

    inkadu wrote:

    Spirituality, to me, is about awe and wonder in the universe. Carl Sagan captures it best, if you’re familiar with Cosmos. Thinking about how big the unverse is does it. How precious this blue planet is. How infinitely short our time span is on this earth, and how miniscule the time since we started banging rocks together. Or how amazing this illusion of consciousness is, created by the three pounds of dog breakfast between our ears. As Douglas Adams said, “The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.” It is a deeply weird universe we live in, and recognizing and appreciating it is my version of spirituality — and probably that of a lot of other scientifically-minded atheists as well. We’re all looking for “deeper meaning” and some sense of connection to the greater universe. Some people express it in religion, others in bland pantheism, and other is astronomy. If you don’t see ’sprituality’ among atheism, it’s because you don’t know what you’re looking for.

    Nicely put, and I agree 100% with the sentiment. I have some problems with a piece of the vocabulary, however. “Spirituality” implies “spirit” somewhere in the mix. While awe and wonder in the universe may feel essentially the same as spirituality, it simply cannot be the same thing for literal reasons. (I know that won’t bother most people, but I’m a very literal-minded person.) So I guess we need a new word to describe it. Too bad “reality” is already taken — that’s the obvious parallel term.

    ~David D.G.

  • Richard Wade

    David D.G.,
    I agree that the word “spirituality” has too much “soul” caught up in its connotation from centuries of use by theist-dominated European cultures, and so there can be some confusion when atheists apply the word to themselves. Originally the Latin “spiritus” meant “breath,” but quite soon it also meant something like “soul” or “ghost.”

    For that difficult to describe thing that many people here may mean when they say “spirituality,” I suggest the more mundane but more to-the-point term, “emotional health.”

  • inkadu

    “Spirituality” implies “spirit” somewhere in the mix. While awe and wonder in the universe may feel essentially the same as spirituality, it simply cannot be the same thing for literal reasons.

    Of course, but language is metaphorical, so I think reengineering vocabulary is unnecessary.

    People turn to the spirit because they can’t figure out (or accept) that their consciousness is meat-based, an experience of the brain. As such, “the spirit” is not so much religion as folk science. In this context, we all agree that there’s something really interesting and quite singular about consciousness.

    Check out “they’re made of meat” on youtube. It really puts it all into context.

  • Aj

    I reject the attempts to take hostage emotions like awe, wonder, joy, and love by the religious, that try to bind them in superstition. I don’t need to reclaim them, I never lost them, and I do not believe they were given to me by magic.

    I’m not sure about deeper meanings, greater universes and being connected to them. I understand what the words mean but as phrases they’re too vague to mean anything, they need at least a bit of context. When religious people say “deeper meaning” they mean intentionality of the supernatural variety.

  • Skeptimal

    writerdd said: “Most people seem to feel the need for some sort of spirituality (Eric doesn’t use that word BTW) and community…I think people without a longing for this type of thing are the minority in the real world, even among those who do not believe in gods.”

    I agree completely, and I think it would be great if there were more books about developing mental health and well-being for non-theists.

    Look at what happened to the Raving A/Theist. I strongly suspect that he adopted the worst kind of superstitions because he felt that atheism lacked meaning and a sense of purpose.

    Religions have been very successful in persuading people that life is not worth living if you don’t believe in gods. Look at how theists respond when you show them the holes in their beliefs. As often as not, they eventually fall back on something akin to “If I stopped believing, my life would be empty and I’d do nothing but murder, steel, and go to orgies.”

    The more honest among them will admit that they’d rather have a pretty lie than an ugly truth, and they define ugliness as living without a god.

    I think it’s important to talk about the mental and emotional positives associated with freethought.

  • Allenbarth

    Check this video out — Author Eric Maisel describes The Athiest’s Way http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xiNGZfN5OM&feature=share via @youtube


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