Friday, March 4, 2011

Interview with Eric Maisel, author of The Atheist's Way: Living Well Without Gods

by A. C. LaMonica

Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of more than thirty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Coaching the Artist Within, The Van Gogh Blues and A Writer’s San Francisco. Maisel is a creativity coach and creativity coach trainer who presents keynote addresses and workshops nationally and internationally. He holds undergraduate degrees in philosophy and psychology, master’s degrees in counseling and creative writing, and a doctorate in counseling psychology. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. His website is

Path of Reason: Throughout The Atheist's Way, you emphasize use of the term atheist. Why do you think it's best to define ourselves on religious terms when the ideas you express encompass so much more than that?

Eric Maisel: I am framing my ideas around atheism and not around some less charged word like secularism, humanism, rationalism, skepticism, naturalism, existentialism, or freethinking because I think that 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.

POR: As atheists, we believe religion to be a human invention. If an atheist ultimately invents his/her own meaning in life, what's the difference and why is the atheistic one better?

EM: Atheists are more forthright about accepting personal responsibility for their values and their actions. When you’re an atheist, you’re obliged to figure out how to live as an atheist. It isn’t just that you’re convinced that god-talk is a human contrivance and a human weakness. That’s only a small part of it. It’s a complete vision about the finiteness of your time on earth, your intimate relationship to nature, the sources of your values, and all things human. If you’re addicted and intend to recover, you recover as an atheist. That’s how an atheist recovers— without god-talk. If you’re an artist and intend to create, you sit down and create—you don’t wait for divine inspiration. That’s how an atheist creates—by doing it. Atheism supports and demands a completely atheistic lifestyle, a way of life free of supernatural enthusiasms, full of personal effort and responsibility, and beautiful in its clarity and honesty. 

POR: One difficult thing some former believers experience as new atheists (as referenced in Marcia's story in Chapter 2) is the loss of their church community. Many find the social interaction of church attendance a very fulfilling part of life. What comparable alternatives are there for atheists who crave that sense of fellowship?

EM: There is a great debate among atheists on this score. Some atheists argue that they go to concerts with people who go to concerts, play sports with people who play sports, sing with people who sing, and so on—that they do social things of all sorts without needing any designated atheist society. Other atheists feel exactly the opposite, that they want and need to join with like-minded people who are like-minded in this most important sphere—and they want these gatherings to be warm and personal events and not just places to make intellectual points against religion. Minnesota Atheists, for example, provide lots of opportunities of this sort by sponsoring happy hours, movie outings, and so on. I am inclined to fall into the latter camp, that atheists in fact would benefit from atheist-oriented gatherings. But I suspect that there is a steep learning curve involved in figuring out how to make such gathering feel genuinely warm. 

Many former believers indeed lament that the hardest loss they experience when they give up gods is the loss of their home church and the fellowship of believers. They have not only lost the potlucks, music, ceremonies, rituals, and human contact but some central warmth necessary for mental health and wellbeing. Life is colder without their home church and their brothers and sisters. The atheist lifestyle has, so far at least, no comparative warmth to provide. That costs us billions of potential converts who naturally prefer warmth to truth. We atheists must work on creating warmth as well as light if we want believers to leave their churches.

POR: The title, The Atheist’s Way, appears to suggest that there is a certain way atheists should be. Many people such as Professor Richard Dawkins for example, have likened unifying atheists to that of “herding cats.” Do you think it’s important to bring atheists together under a certain cause and/or philosophy and if so why?

EM: The title of this book does perhaps suggest 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.

I do think that we want to rally around this banner because there is real harm in believing in god. The harm is that it makes a person more stupid than he or she would otherwise be, more authoritarian, and more antagonistic to solving our shared human problems. It amounts to a complete betrayal of our common humanity. The instant a person gives in to the urge to answer difficult questions about the facts of existence with false, slogan-sized supernatural answers, he makes himself a smaller, more frightened, less democratic person, lowers the critical thinking bar, and endangers our freedom. Just imagine that 
I started mouthing the made-up belief, “God says that blue is bad.” Wouldn’t you immediately begin to fear that your blue rug puts you in some undeserved danger? People should not do that to other people.  

POR: The main idea discussed throughout the book is that atheists should decide what is meaningful to them and live up to that. How is meaning “the problem and also the answer"?

EM: When our younger daughter came home from college one year she presented me with a coffee mug. The motto on the coffee mug read: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” “Isn’t that your philosophy in a nutshell?” she laughed. She was exactly right. E. W. Wilcox, to whom the quote is attributed, had captured the essence of thousands of years of existential thought: that life is as much a responsibility as a gift and that each of us is honor-bound to create ourselves in our own best image.

I make my meaning—or else I don’t. All that exists until I actively and mindfully make personal meaning is the possibility of meaning and, while I wait to get started, the experience of emptiness. There is the possibility that I will experience the next hour as meaningful, a possibility that turns into a reality only if I make a certain kind of decision and a certain kind of investment. If I don’t make that decision and that investment, I experience myself as going through the motions and wasting my precious time. We’ve all had that experience—for many of us, for far too much of the time.

Meaning is private, personal, individual, and subjective. Whether you find it more meaningful to sit for an hour by a pond watching ducks paddle or more meaningful to hop up after two minutes and rush home to work on your screenplay is entirely your decision—and one that you might change tomorrow. Who else but you could decide how you intend to order your values, manifest your ethics, and construe meaning? That is the awesome proposition facing every modern person. As limited as we may be in a biological and a psychological sense, we are exactly that free in an existential sense. If we do not live that way, honoring that existential freedom, we get sad and depressed and wish that we had decided to matter.
How do you make meaning? By letting go of wondering what the universe wants of you, by letting go of the fear that nothing matters, and by announcing that you will make life mean exactly what you intend it to mean. This is an amazing, glorious, and triumphant announcement. The instant that you realize that meaning is not provided, as traditional belief systems teach, and that it is not absent, as nihilists feel, a new world of potential opens up for you. You have aimed yourself in a brilliant direction: in the direction of your own creation. 

POR: You talk about society’s aversion to discussing or encouraging any sort of meaning in private or public life. Our culture is notorious for pushing our existential struggles to the side while focusing far more on things such as wealth, fame, power, etc. How are we to even begin addressing the daunting task of switching this culture-wide attitude amongst atheists and theists alike?

EM: A vital step is acquiring a useful vocabulary of meaning that allows you to communicate with yourself and others about the realities of your life. If something disturbing is happening in your life and you can’t identify it as a meaning crisis, how will you handle it? You may misidentify it as “depression” or a “work problem” or a “relationship issue” and head yourself in the wrong direction. If, on the other hand, you possess the language to call it a meaning crisis, then you know what you are obliged to do: make new meaning.

Phrases like meaning threat, meaning spark, meaning leak, and meaning adventure help you think more clearly about meaning. Without such a vocabulary in place, you are stuck with our cultural vernacular that is keen to dub ordinary activities as “spiritual.” With a vocabulary of meaning in place, you inoculate yourself against using supernatural language. Your cousin says, “I had a spiritual experience.” You reply, “Oh, you had a meaningful experience. How nice for you!” Your co-worker says, “I’ve never had a more spiritual time than visiting the gardens of England!” You reply, “Really? What was meaningful about that experience?” By persisting in using a vocabulary of meaning you keep yourself supernatural-free and help others move in the direction of rationality.

POR: As an atheist, reason is the standard by which I consider my opportunities, make decisions, and take action in life. Despite the common sense of reason, religious people continue to encourage living on faith. Why do you think faith is harmful and how are we to express this to the those who advocate it?

EM: People have the right to smoke cigarettes—but they shouldn’t. It’s harmful to them, their loved ones, and innocent strangers. We are so clear about this that we do not allow them to smoke where their smoking can harm others. For exactly the same reasons, we keep religions out of our public schools. People have the right to believe in gods, but they shouldn’t. Just as fewer and fewer Americans smoke cigarettes, because the truth about its harmfulness has penetrated our shared consciousness, my hope is that fewer and fewer Americans will betray their neighbors with dangerous god-talk. They have the right to their beliefs; but I hope that they will shed them.   
A belief in gods is not an innocent thing. It is a position vis-à-vis the world and vis-à-vis one’s neighbors. It is a refuge for scoundrels who want their views to count more than the next person’s, it is way to enslave the minds and hearts of children, it provides cover for bigotry and prejudice, it causes sharp divisions among people, and it makes the world a less rational and a more dangerous place. Therefore it should be the hope of every thoughtful person that beliefs in gods wither way and the practice of every thoughtful person to indict god-talk as a betrayal of our common humanity.    

POR: Atheists are commonly looked upon as “evil” or at the very least, an untrustworthy group of people. How do ethics arise from an atheistic worldview?

EM: You and you alone decide what you want to value. The universe does not care about fairness; nevertheless you may decide that, despite the universe’s complete indifference, you would like to advocate for fairness. You do exactly what any serious ethicist does, what someone like the framers of the Constitution did: you decide what you want to value—fairness, justice, equity, and freedom spring to my mind—and then you manifest those values by making ethics and by becoming a moral instrument. The planets do not care about your next right action—but you must.  Ethical believers and ethical atheists do exactly the same thing: they identify their cherished values and then they live them. There is no other way to be ethical except by being ethical. 

POR: Do you think atheists as a group struggle to find meaning in life more than others? Why?

EM: I think they do, because for them meaning is a problem and not a given. They do not swallow dogma about what to believe and so they are stuck having to figure out what to believe, which can be challenging. Believers, by virtue of their belief system, are almost certainly less inclined to suffer from existential depression, as existential matters are “wrapped up” for them and “made easy” for them by virtue of their belief system. Of course, the less they believe their own beliefs (or, to put it differently, the more they doubt), the more likely it is that they open themselves up to the threat of existential depression. But on balance, if they “really do” believe, then they are substantially inoculated against existential depression

By contrast, atheists are obliged to continually make sense both of “what matters” and “why anything matters,” thus making them ripe for existential crises (when nothing seems to matter) and existential depression. While there are robust ways to deal with these existential crises, and, in turn, with existential depression, it is nevertheless the case that, on balance, atheists are probably more prone to existential depression than are believers.  

Conversely, though, it is entirely likely that belief involves a believer in the kinds of intrapsychic conflicts and defensive gymnastics (like repression) that breed depression, so believers may well be more prone to psychological depression than are atheists. It requires some profound repressive tactics to hide the truth from oneself that one’s religion is primarily an accident of birth, that there are no gods choosing to down airplanes or subject cities to hurricanes, that virtually all of the thousands of posited gods are immature, vindictive, squabbling creatures not worth valuing, and so on. A tremendous amount of obvious data must be ignored and repressed to continue believing, especially if you are basically bright and humane, and all that repressing must translate into psychological depression. Therefore it is fair to guess that, all other psychological causes being equal, believers must suffer more often and more intensely from psychological depression than do atheists.

So the need to make meaning can get atheists down and the desire to avoid making meaning can get believers down. Who gets more down? We don’t know yet.

POR: What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with The Atheist's Way?

EM: Many things; but a central one is to warm up the word “atheism.” The word “atheist” is a larger, friendlier, and more glorious word than most people currently 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. I would like the word to resonate with some of that beauty and majesty.


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