Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of more than thirty works of fiction and nonfiction. His nonfiction titles include Coaching the Artist Within, Fearless Creating, The Van Gogh Blues, The Creativity Book, Performance Anxiety, Ten Zen Seconds, A Writer’s San Francisco, and A Writer’s Paris. A columnist for Art Calendar magazine, Maisel is a creativity coach and creativity coach trainer who presents keynote addresses and workshops nationally and internationally. His new book is The Atheist’s Way: Living Well Without Gods.
Free Inquiry: Your book is like an atheist’s self-help book.
Eric Maisel: That’s fair. Many books have come out over the last few years that do a good job of taking religion to task, and I more wanted to speak to the many millions of atheists who don’t always find it easy to live as an atheist. So, yes, it is really a self-help book for atheists. Also, between the lines, I try to make the argument for believers to help them move in the direction of atheism.
FI: Some atheists embrace a sort of pessimism—there is no God, the universe is cold and without hope—but in your book, you present a positive worldview derived from atheism and argue that atheism gives people more advantages than religious belief. How can this be if you don’t have the hope of life after death or that there is a father-god who has our well-being in mind?
Maisel: I think that both groups are faced with exactly the same problem, namely, the problem of making meaning in life and keeping that meaning afloat. Religious believers tend to settle this problem with their belief system, although I don’t think they do a seamless job of it. I think one proof of that is how many anti-depressants are sold in our so-to-speak Christian nation. So a lot of believers are suffering and not able actually to keep meaning afloat. For atheists, that is their main problem—they understand that the universe is indifferent and that they are obliged to make meaning in life, but this is a daily and hourly task, and it gets tiring. So I tried in the book to explain that this is our task as atheists, and though it is a task that requires courage, it is also a beautiful opportunity to make exactly the meaning we intend to make and to create our own lives.
FI: Most people wouldn’t think of atheists as having a cultural tradition, but you encourage atheists to see themselves as part of this grand tradition—many of the biggest names in history were atheists and you derive inspiration from that.
Maisel: I do. But there are two senses of the word tradition. We don’t have tradition in the sense of holidays like Christmas or Easter or other ceremonies that seem to work on an emotional level. And atheists are divided about whether we need that kind of tradition or not. The sense of tradition that I’m inspired by is just the longevity of atheism as an idea. So many of the best and the brightest of every era have embraced atheism; atheism goes back thousands of years. In the book, I survey a number of atheists from the Greek and Roman and Islamic eras of between 500 b.c.e. to around 500 c.e., and it is amazing how they speak to the issues exactly the way our contemporary atheists do—they expose religion and they believe religion is used by rulers to subjugate people—so we have this long tradition that if we, as atheists, do plug into, will find very satisfying and liberating.
FI: The other sense of tradition—holidays, ceremonies, and rituals—churches offer this. They’re not just about theology and worship but about community, a chosen family where people love one another, celebrate the passages of life together. Does being an atheist mean that you must give all of that up?
Maisel: Yes. And it is a sad thing. It is one of the big problems for atheists. Here where I live, in the retirement community of Rossmoor in California, we have an active atheist group. But we realized we needed to just socialize and be “church-like” and not just meet for lectures on atheism and philosophy. Most of us can recognize that there is something lacking in atheism as a movement with respect to this social component. This is one of the reasons it is so difficult for believers to make the journey from belief to unbelief; losing one’s home church is the number-one loss when one loses his or her religion. This is one of the biggest impediments to atheism becoming a real movement, the community that religion provides people that atheism doesn’t necessarily provide.
FI: Many of the ways that you’re describing atheism seems to describe the secular humanist worldview to me. To call myself an atheist just tells you what I don’t believe in, but to call myself a secular humanist tells you what I do believe in, which is much of this meaning-making stuff you talk about. So why isn’t your book called The Secular Humanist’s Way?
Maisel: That is a good question. It could have been called that, or The Existential Way, The Naturalist’s Way, The Freethinker’s Way, The Rationalist’s Way. There are a lot of these related traditions interwoven in the book. I chose atheism for the title because I think religion is a major problem for civilization, and I wanted to choose a banner that would make that clear. Using the word atheist is an opportunity to keep the atheism banner aloft—we must continue, as atheists, to fight the incursions of religion into daily life.