Nothing: Something to Believe In, by Nica Lalli (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007, ISBN 978-1-59102-529-0) 271 pp. Paper $17.00.
Looking for a carefully reasoned philosophical treatise defending atheism and attacking theism? Then this isn’t the book for you, nor does author (and Brooklyn art educator) Nica Lalli pretend to be offering such weighty material. But nothing says something like Lalli’s Nothing: Something to Believe In. This deceptively simple story, straightforwardly told, is the one to read if you want to know what it’s like for an atheist or agnostic in a society that takes its theism for granted as some great good, some set of obvious truths. Theists in America and atheists in other, more sane nations should all read Nothing. Americans without religious convictions already know much of what Lalli experienced, but there are things in this book for them as well.
Lalli’s autobiographical tale is of her unique personal journey, an odyssey from Chicago to Brooklyn, with stops all over much of the United States (Vermont;
Vassar College; Cape Cod; Hanover, New Hampshire; San Francisco; the Bronx; Washington, D.C.; and Boston) and a short stay in Italy. It is the story of growing up in a mixed marriage (her father was nominally Catholic, her mother nominally Jewish) without any serious religious attachment on either side. It develops into the story of an adult coping—sometimes more easily and effectively than at others—with assorted friends, in-laws, and relatives unable or unwilling to accept someone without a religion. It may well be difficult for a Western European, say, to imagine what it is like for people you care about to be offended, not by some attack you launch on their religious ideas but by the simple fact that you’re not religious. Lalli provides the context needed to understand what that feels like, even if none of us should accept it as reasonable.
Lalli’s early life was of course quite different from what a Southerner or a Texan or a child in an African-American Baptist/Muslim mixed family would have experienced. She makes little attempt to generalize explicitly from her own experience, and there are some parts of the book where the personal details bog down into tedium, but the particulars of Lalli’s experience will often resonate even for readers with very different backgrounds.
Richard Dawkins forcefully argues in The God Delusion that it is immoral to apply such labels to children as “Christian” or “Muslim” or “atheist”; he insists that we should instead recognize that children cannot reasonably be said to have come to meaningful, independent religious conclusions until they mature. Nica Lalli’s book was written before Dawkins’s book was published, but it would be interesting to hear what she would have to say about Dawkins’s argument. Lalli’s story is of a young girl desperate—at times comically so—to claim a religious label. But her concluding chapter, regarding her own children and her eagerness for them to grow on their own into an adulthood identity, suggests she might be likely to agree with Dawkins. Equally interesting would be her take on Sam Harris’s recent controversial (and sometimes misconstrued) argument regarding abandoning any label—“atheist,” “secular humanist,” “freethinker,” etc.—for those of us who accept no religious claims. (Harris draws a parallel with the fact that we neither have nor need a label for a contemporary Westerner who rejects the claims of astrology.) Both supporters and detractors of Harris on this question can find comfort in different parts of Lalli’s tale.
Lalli fills her story with concrete, specific cultural details, bringing to life the time and place of different phases of her life with brand names, rock bands that she and her friends followed, and precise locations (we learn for example, the name and location of the hotel where she and her husband spent their first night of marriage; and when she mentions an event on Cape Cod, she describes exactly where on the long arm of the cape she means). While sometimes her naming every tree gets in the way of our seeing her forest, at other times the detail is enriching. In all instances, her story has the ring of truth as an honest recounting from her perspective.
An index would have improved the book for those readers, like me, who want to go back and revisit a passage in the light of something mentioned later on.
Buy Lalli’s book. At least then you can say you have Nothing to read.