READ THE FIRST CHAPTER
Below is the first chapter of The Atheist’s Way. To continue reading, you can purchase The Atheist’s Way here.
There are no gods (including God). Like all the other species, ours is a product of nature. This is not something to celebrate or to mourn. But it can prove a transformational and mind-opening experience to put all gods, religions, and supernatural enthusiasms aside and explore the world and your life from the point of view of a human being who comes, goes, and is as natural as a tiger or a dove.
You may currently take comfort in gods, religions, and supernatural enthusiasms; or, having cast that all aside, you may feel cold and distraught standing alone in the universe. If you are currently taking that sort of comfort, I hope that you will find new, better comfort by living the atheist’s way and by replacing those dangerous superstitions with natural beauty. If, having cast that all aside, you are feeling cold and distressed, I hope that this book will provide you with some warmth and relief. For the atheist’s way is a rich way, as rich as life itself.
The atheist’s way provides you with a complete life picture and life plan. You start from the idea that evolution explains you but does not completely dictate to you. Because you are built exactly as you are built, with an instinct for ethics alongside an instinct for self-interest, with the ability to reason and to empathize, with a complicated “sense of self” from which flow your decisions about what self-interest means and what you will value (a sense of self that you yourself can modify through the application of reason), and with all the other diverse and fascinating aspects of your humanity, you can plot a course that feels righteous and worthy to you.
Living the atheist’s way is more than living without gods, religions, and supernatural enthusiasms—it is much more. It is a way of life that integrates the secular, humanist, scientific, freethinking, skeptical, rationalist, and existential traditions into a complete worldview and rallies that worldview around the banner of atheism, choosing that precise word as its rallying point. It chooses “atheism” as its rallying point to make clear that our best chance of survival is for members of our species to grow into a mature view of self-interest, one where human beings can discuss their conflicting interests without one side betraying the other by playing the god card. That will be a great day, when conflicts can be aired without the god card being played.
It is quite likely in your heart to do some good, to manifest your potential, to feel a certain kind of nobility as you face life squarely, to express outrage when you witness injustice, to love another person because the two of you feel drawn to one another, to celebrate human achievements like freedom of speech, to appreciate beauty and perhaps to create some beauty yourself, to spend your hours in ways that do not bore you (or, if they do bore you, that at least can be justified as part of your life plan) … these and things like them are likely what you want out of life. This good life does not require conjuring gods, joining religions, or indulging in supernatural enthusiasms. All of this is part of our human endowment and inheritance. You can have all of this by living the atheist’s way.
The title of this book suggests that there is (or ought to be) one and only one atheist’s way. Of course that isn’t true. Each atheist’s path will differ and must differ, in part because of differences in our nature, in part because of differences in our nurture. What I would like to communicate is that there can exist a coherent, comprehensive, righteous and beautiful way to live without gods … one that you will have to construct. The atheist’s way is your way. You will take your journey and it will not be identical to my journey.
Atheists feel obliged to think their own thoughts and so we are quick to dispute and disagree. Therefore I expect that no single atheist will agree with the picture that I’ll be painting. What I call a tradition someone else will call it a thread. What I call a choice someone else will call an instinct. When I say that we are obliged to make meaning, many will rise up to call that idea misleading, unnecessary, dangerous, or, as one of my correspondents recently dubbed it, effete. I understand that and applaud that. At the same time, I hope to present you with some ideas that you can use as your create your own way.
I am a lifelong atheist. I have never believed in gods or come close to believing. If every day people asserted that their belief in unicorns caused them to wage war on their neighbors, hate homosexuals and the brown-eyed among them, and tithe ten percent of their income to the unicorn church; and that unicorns accounted for the victory of their soccer team and the freshness of their sliced bread, you would feel compelled to stand up and shout, “That is such nonsense!” and “That is so bad for humanity!” You would not be railing against unicorns; you would be railing against a certain terrible human practice. I have felt that way about god-talk my whole life: that it is a terrible human practice.
We can do so much better. We can live courageously, we can balance our desires and our immediate self-interest with our sense of duty and our long-term interests, we can sun ourselves and relax or leap up and work hard at something really difficult, we can play jazz or lend a helping hand, we can stand amazed at life and learn all about it, we can pick ourselves up when we despair and we can do many different things on a single day, spending one hour relaxing, another hour investigating, another hour loving, another hour creating. Some days will be peaceful; other days we will have to defend ourselves. Some days will pass uneventfully; some days will be filled with drama. This is life, rich and real enough for anyone.
Not only is the atheist worldview more accurate and more truthful, it confers great advantages. The first is that you feel very free. You are free to think your own thoughts and have your own feelings. If a passing pastor accuses you of sinning, you feel free to rebuke him or ignore him. You know that he has no special knowledge and that he is only betraying your common humanity by quoting gods. You know that no one has any special knowledge about the purpose or lack of purpose of the universe, that there is only scientific knowledge, with its limitations, the speculations of consciousness, with its limitations, and some amount of shared mystery, shared by all of us and quite likely to remain unexplained until the end of time.
This freedom lifts an enormous weight off your shoulders. Freedom is often characterized as a burden and a responsibility and it is those things but it is also a beautiful thing. It is like taking off your heavy overcoat when you get indoors or having your shackles removed when you get off the chain gang. You are free to sit in the sun for an hour without feeling guilty. You are free to cut off contact with toxic people and eliminate toxic beliefs from your system. You are free to create stresses and strains for the sake of a task that you value, whether that task is writing a novel, starting a nonprofit, politicking for a candidate, or intervening in your child’s life. You are free to step out of the cultural trance, step off a cliff and hang glide, or step to one side and let someone else win. You are as free as you can be—that is, as free as nature allows.
The word “atheist” is a larger, friendlier, and more glorious word than you might imagine. It stands for a conviction about the non-existence of gods but it also vibrates at other wavelengths. It is about a solidarity with nature and with the universe: we are not afraid of this universe in which we live, we do not create dragons and devils with which to scare ourselves, we are not frightened that a vacuum is empty or that we begin dying as soon as we are born. We are exactly, precisely, and wholly natural. We are human beings, with enough fascinating attributes to make even the most incurious among us stand up and take notice. To say “human being” is to say plenty: it is all of that plenty that the word “atheist” connotes.
IF YOU CURRENTLY BELIEVE
I offer you this same invitation if you participate in one of the river religions. There are religions like Buddhism and Taoism that do not posit gods. I am calling these disparate religions the river religions to distinguish them from god-based religions and to catch something of their flavor. The river religions tend to posit an eternal, indivisible reality that flows along and in which the lone individual swims. At first glance this view of life does not seem too incompatible with the atheist’s way. The river religions can seem very attractive to people who do not believe in bearded gods dictating to man. But they are no less false than the god-based religions, because ultimately they are dogmatic and create an unnecessary wall between a person and reality.
And what about an enthusiasm for Wicca, paganism, past lives, psychic powers, remote viewing, spoon bending, vampires, astrology, Tarot, the I Ching, palm reading, haunted houses, sacred sites, séances, and a thousand other variations of New age, paranormal, and supernatural belief? These, too, interfere with your ability to assess well, choose well, and live well and ought to be discarded. Like the god religions and the river religions, our supernatural enthusiasms have their undeniable seductive side, their psychological pull, and their blandishments. But they don’t serve you any better than do god-talk or river-talk. Believing in them, affording them time and energy, and imbibing in their metaphoric power diminish you. The more you consult your chart, the more personal power you relinquish; the more you identify a site as sacred, the less real you make it.
To add a religion or supernatural enthusiasm to your life is to diminish your life. What you gain in ceremony, ritual, fellow feeling, and the comforts of a metaphoric system you lose in integrity, freedom, and dignity. Against the epic metaphor of religion is the Buddha’s better epic metaphor that all Buddhas must be killed—that religion itself is the danger. Not only are you not to believe in gods, according to the Buddha, you are not to believe in systems that distance you from a personal reckoning with the facts of existence. Personal means personal: to chant with robed monks robs you of your inheritance just as surely as praying to a bearded god does.
The god religions, the river religions, and the world of supernatural enthusiasms do not really serve you. They are always a hairs-breath away from being hijacked by some snake oil salesman, they force you to rein in your intelligence, they make claims that you do not honestly believe (whether it is a claim about heaven, nirvana, or that tall, dark stranger), they smell of illegitimate short cut, and they hurt your chances of taking a fearless inventory of your beliefs and charting a course that will make you proud.
I hope that you will read along, even if you currently believe. You will hear from believers like yourself who made the journey from belief to atheism. You will hear why they made that change and how they are faring. You will learn that the atheist tradition is a very long and honorable one, thousands of years old, exactly as old as your own religion—if not older. You will learn that your belief system does not relieve you of the responsibility for making thoughtful rather than dogmatic choices—that, in that regard, you and atheists are in exactly the same boat. I think that you will learn many things of interest to you, so please come along for the ride.
THE ECSTACY OF PARTICIPATION
In short, it doesn’t care; and that can bring a person down. Believer or atheist, we are quite liable to think, “Isn’t it ridiculous that an ice-cold universe creates this sentient passing speck—me—and then forces me to deal with indignities like toothaches and an extra thirty pounds?” We get down. We get down in a very deep place and that blueness can become our default feeling about life, a feeling that is never very far from spilling over and becoming grief. We get a speeding ticket or fail at a task and go to a sad place, a place that has nothing to do with that speeding ticket or failed task and everything to do with our wonder about why we are even bothering.
Any modern person, believer or atheist, can feel this way. The believer, to take some comfort and to find some solace, allows his brain to perpetrate a trick that it is quite willing to play, to conjure a god and a more pleasant universe, and so he turns to religion, even if to get that solace he must ignore his religion’s monstrous contradictions, swallow his doubts, smile at ludicrous claims, and accept that he has transformed a metaphor into a pseudo-reality. Before the advent of modern science and the last four hundred years of increased knowledge, believers may have actually believed in some seamless way. Now every sensible, educated, modern believer knows in a corner of consciousness that he is buying his solace on the cheap—he knows that the Pope is not infallible, that God did not give the Jews a piece of land, that there is nothing like nirvana, and so on. So he bites his tongue and tries to get as much out of his religion as he can get, covering his eyes to all the rest—and not really dealing with the central issue of cosmic indifference.
The atheist endeavors to finds warmth, solace and purpose in human activities like family, love, creation, learning, good deeds, sex, entertainment, and so on; and often does find fine solace in these activities. He may keep himself very busy, amused, and interested as a trial lawyer, biologist, corporate executive, hi tech worker, or other professional whose days are filled with activity and whose evenings are filled with good meals and fine wine. But even in the midst of this excellent life, many an atheist is burdened by the feeling that he and his efforts do not “really” matter. The thought that he is a disposable throwaway in a meaningless universe can wreak havoc just beneath the surface, draining him of motivational energy and preparing him for a depression.
Both the disgruntled believer and the mourning atheist can move to a better place by virtue of making some new calculations and some decisions and by announcing that life is an eloquent project ripe for his or her passionate undertaking. You let go of wondering what the universe wants of you, you let go of the fear that nothing matters, and you announce that you will make life mean exactly what you intend it to mean. This is an amazing, glorious, and triumphant announcement and rights your ship—for all time, if you keep repeating it.
We are on the threshold of understanding a shining idea: that each individual life can have meaning, even if the universe has none. This nature has granted us. I get to decide what will make me feel righteous and happy and you get to decide what will make you feel righteous and happy. You can turn the meaning that was waiting to be made into the meaning of your life. By announcing your intentions to yourself, by making the requisite effort, and by manifesting the courage that is part of your inheritance, you aim yourself in a brilliant direction: in the direction of your own creation.
The species needs you to do this. Consider the following mind experiment. Let’s say that in each generation a majority of people define self-interest in a narrow way and back their church, club, company, and country, produce lots of offspring, grab scarce resources, pad their bank accounts, and try as best as they can to keep others from sharing in the global pie. At the same time, a small minority define self-interest in another way and strive to defend some humanist principles, advance civilization, help the weak, promote sharing, and so on. What will happen?
What will happen is that there will be many important advances, because of that small minority; but the selfish efforts of the vast majority will threaten to swamp those advances and return our fragile civilization to an ice age. Isn’t that what we are facing? And if it is, that means that each generation needs its warriors who define self-interest in a way that favors civilization. We need them to be real warriors, because so many of their fellow human beings are defining self-interest more “selfishly” and so threaten us all. We need atheist-warriors on the side of the species who, having thought it through, decide to side with the good and fight for the future.
Let me remind you why I am framing these ideas around atheism and not around some less charged word like secularism, humanism, rationalism, skepticism, naturalism, existentialism, or freethinking. First, it would be a shame to miss what may be an opportunity, as we are perhaps finally ready to face an indifferent universe with new views and to live purposefully and well without gods. Second, rallying around atheism underscores the heightened threat that religious belief poses to the survival of the species. It was one thing for human beings of another age to use god-talk to justify inquisitions. Now they have or are getting nuclear weapons. We need atheism to grow as a movement because we need to remove the god card from the hands of the selfishly self-interested. This is not all that is needed to save our species but it would be an enormous help.
For thousands of years smart men and women have been saying the same thing: here we are; now let us make the best of it. Against these few voices have been marshaled billions of voices in support of gods and the supernatural. The reasons for this are obvious enough: religion is excellent cover for the unscrupulous; it is much harder to think than to pray; if you are born into a religion, you have to fend off your parents and your neighbors to get free of it; it is comforting; it makes you feel select and knowledgeable; admitting that you don’t know requires courage; and so on. The reasons are obvious enough.
Perhaps we are now ready for a vast multitude to join those previously scarce atheist voices. The atheist’s way is a beautiful way, a truthful way, and may prove the only way for our species to have a fighting chance for survival. Your exact atheist way is for you to determine. In the following chapters, I will outline what it might include and how it might be designed. In the end, you will decide for yourself and adopt the way that is completely your own.
Copyright 2008 - The Atheist's Way - Eric Maisel