The atheist has it easy, and the atheist has it hard. One the one hand, in rejecting notions of the supernatural, the unprovable, and the dogmatic, the atheist can live free and unburdened by nonsense and superstition. But with that rejection, we lose the comfort of religion and spirituality's existential fiction that life and existence are innately meaningful because God or some other force has bestowed it with meaning. Without that myth as metaphysical scaffolding for one's view of the universe, the atheist can, in his or her freedom, feel very much alone in a bleak, cold cosmos. Not all of us can be Carl Sagan.
Enter self-help author and creativity coach Eric Maisel and his book The Atheist's Way: Living Well without Gods. Maisel's important mission is to help atheists face the truth of their circumstances, and in his book he gives some guidance as to what to do with once those circumstances are honestly understood. His message, I found, is crucial. His execution, however, is somewhat flawed, if nobly so.
This book offers a vital message that I think any nonreligious person needs to hear, even if they don't realize they need to hear it: There is no inherent "meaning of life," existence really is a random, pointless phenomenon, and any meaning for which we may pine must be created by ourselves. Maisel levels with the reader, and insists that we establish our own parameters and values based on our consciences and intelligence, and encourages us to live these to our best ability.
Less generously, the skeptical reader (which would be, I imagine, just about all his readers) will no doubt take Maisel's position to its logical next step, and say that he is telling us to invent our own myth, our own fiction, just as irrational as any other. It is hard not to have this idea nagging at one's head in reading The Atheist's Way, but it misses the point. In Maisel's terminology, the idea is to "nominate" oneself as the "hero of your own story," that your exercises in meaning-making are not based on a fiction, but on a structure of values and wishes that you have knowingly constructed for yourself. Neglect this, and you leave yourself open to existential depression. Embrace it (not fictions or fantasy but the reality of your constructed situation) and you have a chance at fulfillment.
The other important aspect of this to realize that "meaning-making' is not, and cannot be, full-time. Along with accepting the fact that life is inherently meaningless, we must also accept that any meaning we wish to imbue can only be done when real-world time allows, because yes, there is no meaning to most of the nonsense we have to do day in and day out...and that's okay, so says Maisel. Again, it is about acceptance of reality, and the reality for most of us is that most of the time we are engaged in activities that are required of us, but offer no fulfillment or sense of purpose. These times have to be a down payment of "meaning capital," to be invested in those times and tasks that do feel important and valuable to us. We choose to make the most of those moments, and also allow ourselves to be "meaning-less" when toiling at drudgery or relaxing in front of the tube, because those things are necessary.
The problem: Maisel's book is written at a fairly low-comprehension level, and often feels like a stretched-out pamphlet. It has the tone of an Oprah-ish self-help screed, repetitious and far too reliant on letters and "testimonials" from atheists going about their lives (the penultimate chapter is almost entirely made up of such passages). I suppose a less dense book of this sort is necessary, for not all atheists are biologists, philosophers, or neuroscientists (nor am I), but it does not make for a satisfying experience as a read. Indeed, the self-help aesthetic ironically saps the book of some of its own potential meaning. It is highly accessible, of course, and in this way may reach more potential theological fence-sitters than, say, the works of the New Atheists.
But let me be clear: All in all, The Atheist's Way is worth reading if for no other reason than that it elucidates a critically important message for the nonreligious person struggling with finding purpose. Though I suspect the book will be somewhat too simplistic for many readers, and is certainly weighed down by filler (for example, a seemingly endless list comprising a "vocabulary" of verbs to place before and after "meaning"), the need for Maisel's message cannot be understated. Reality is something that must be faced not only by institutions, but by individuals. That reality is all we have to work with, and so we'd better make the best of it.
*** For more from this reviewer, see my Examiner.com column at [...]