By Greg Peterson
The Atheist's Way: Living Well Without Gods
By Eric Maisel
New World Library
Ever since Sam Harris first got our attention with The End of Faith, a parade of atheist-themed books has come out. Thanks to people like Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Taner Edis and others the scientific case for the implausibility of religious dogmas has been largely made. Christopher Hitchens has made the politico-sociological case against the desirability of religion, and Daniel Dennett has gotten us to question religion and religious psychology. But until recently, a few topics have been missing from our canon. Enter Eric Maisel and his Atheist's Way.
Way presupposes atheism. Maisel spends no time making a case for godlessness, a position he sees as too evident (perhaps because the case has been made elsewhere) to address in this slim volume. He has other, bigger fish to fry, anyway, rather than rehashing the same old arguments against cogent evidence for theism.
Maisel sets out to answer the question, "How then should we live?" and he largely succeeds in providing challenging answers that provide philosophical courage and direction without succumbing to unrealistic, wishy-washy, banal "inspiration."
This is the path of existentialism that looks reality in the eye unflinchingly and determines to create in our meaningless universe a source of boundless meaning from within. We nominate ourselves, we invest meaning, and we take off on a hero's quest. Some statements within the book reminded me of my favorite line from the TV series, Angel, in which the title character says, "In the greater scheme or the big picture, nothing we do matters. There's no grand plan, no big win....If there is no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. 'cause that's all there is....All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because I don't think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world."
Maisel might take exception to some parts of what Angel said. It is perhaps a little facile. But as a statement of principle for the character, it rather nicely reflects the attitude of Atheist's Way. In one sitting, I read it cover to cover. It took a couple of chapters to get into the book, but once I was hooked, I was hooked like a hungry trout.
Too few atheist writers, even the best ones, seem to know how to address the problem of meaning - not for themselves, but for others. It is fine for the relatively well-off and well-known to make brash proclamations about a godless universe without ultimate purpose, but where does that leave the overweight stock boy in Kansas who wants to be part of an epic struggle between opposing forces to give his life some meaning? I found Way has the answer: Anyone can be involved in an epic, heroic struggle against the forces, external and internal, that would seek to drain life of meaning. It truly is a heroic undertaking, and has the added virtue of being true in a way that demons, angels, and apocalypses never can be.
This is a book to challenge and improve an atheist's life, and to show the religious skeptic afraid of embracing atheism a clear-eyed view of what a life free of superstition can be. It is simply written, direct, accessible, and potentially life-changing. There's no excuse not to read this book, and I urge all atheists to do so. Frankly, we need a better class of non-believer, and adherence to the "Way" laid out in this book can help produce that.
The most loathsome movie character I know is Cypher from "The Matrix." Knowing what was real, he chose to re-enter the imaginary world of the matrix to experience fantasy comforts and pleasures rather than bravely facing a gray, bleak reality in which painful struggle could make him an actual hero. This choice is somewhat analogous to what Maisel lays out for the reader. As a life coach, he provides the insight, the motivation, and the methodology to make selecting the hero's journey seem not only achievable, but noble in a way that will satisfy the self.
The subtitle of this book is How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, and thus Dan Barker gives his background from when he was born again to when he became a preacher at age 15. Dan had a ‘call to the ministry’ in 1964. In 1984 Dan sent a letter to 50 colleagues, friends, and family announcing that he was “somewhere between the agnostic and the atheist.” This bold and brave act defined his new life course.
Dan shows that this change was not because he had been insincere in his religious convictions, or that he lacked faith. He describes how he felt when he believed that he received the Holy Spirit, and was born again. His commitment was deep and devoted. In his religious career, he describes the call into the ministry and his faith in being a witness for god. The reward was not financial, but it was the deeply personal experience of bringing others to Christ. Once again, he speaks with authority about this experience.
As he relates in his book, there were people who were very skeptical of his loss of faith. Those he left behind in religion could only see this through their own dark prism using phrases like:
“You dislike authority.”
“You want to be different and stir up trouble.”
“You are an angry person.”
“You are arrogant.”
Dan’s journey away from faith is familiar. He was a person who asked questions, had a thirst for knowledge, and looked beyond religious materials. First, he confronted the issue of inerrancy. Liberal theologians, such as Tillich and Bultmann, caused him to think. Thus the questions raised weakened his faith but strengthened his intellectual curiosity. He said, “Faith and reason began a war within me.” It was reason that won the war, but one gets the impression that this was not easy or done without emotional pain or loss.
Part two of Barker’s book is a compendium of reasons for this loss of faith and his endorsement of reason. It is personal, but many readers will identify with the questions he raises and the answers he found. Whether he is refuting the proofs of god’s existence or clashing with the most recent propositions for proving god’s existence, Dan relates it as a personal experience that could and does happen to many atheists.
Part three is a handbook for debating Christians. Barker argues the issue of morality as it is portrayed in the bible. What is the test for a god who is claimed to be the source of morality for billions? We have all probably read the story of Sodom where Abraham raises the question, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25) God did the right thing in that situation, if you believe the slaughter of hundreds of children and babies count among the unrighteous.
The fact is that the bible teaches us from authority, not from reason. It nowhere states that ‘every human being possesses an inherent right to be treated with respect’. It presents religion’s role models, especially Yahweh, Elohim, and Jesus, who often ignore their own teachings and are ruthless. As the Proverb says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Prov. 1:7) Time and again fear is the motivation behind obedience to the law and not understanding. Dan examines the recording of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20: 7-17, Ex. 34: 11-26, Deut. 4:13), the result is we should be asking how one could believe these contradictions.
Part three continues by listing contradictions and discrepancies in the bible. The question is – how many do you think qualifies the bible for rejection as being the word of god – not even the inerrant word of god? The errors he lists in the recording of numbers could happen over time, but the contradictions on teachings and beliefs are numerous and far less excusable.
The two chapters on the existence of Jesus should have you packing your bags to leave on the free thought train. The historical challenges to the real Jesus have been examined in greater detail, but Dan gives an overview of the material that pointedly argues the case against a real Jesus.
Part four summaries his continued pursuit of atheism, and the issues it raises in our nation. Dan and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have challenged the relationship between church and state. The concluding chapters return to a more personal statement. Dan’s message is clear and helpful to those seeking reason over faith. -Grant Steves
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Since Israel and the religions that formed there receive so much attention worldwide, it is odd to remember that it is one of the world's countries that we know least about historically. Not only has archaeological research been difficult to perform there until the later 20th century, but the history that we do know has been muddied by a literal reading of the Bible.
About a third of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, and many more believe that some variation of the scriptures is true. Did the Exodus actually occur? Is it an exaggeration of an actual event? Were David and Solomon historical figures? As atheists, most of us are biblical minimalists, but there has always been very little evidence on which to build any sort of a strong case. Slowly, however, the archaeological field work taking place in Israel has been yielding results and we are now able to reconstruct a ‘new' history of ancient Israel. The truth has finally emerged from the sand and rubble.
Israel Finkelstein is the director of Tel Aviv University's excavations at Megiddo while Neil Asher Silberman is a contributing editor of Archeology Magazine. In the introduction, the authors quote Roland de Vaux, who stated, "If the historical faith of Israel is not founded in history, such faith is erroneous." This is very true. And since the books of the Hebrew Bible are the foundation of the entire Judeo-Christian canon, the deeds and philosophies of all later prophets, including Jesus, have had the rug pulled out from underneath them.
The book is divided into three sections: Part one challenges the traditional history of the patriarchs and the conquest of Canaan. Part two explores the rise and fall of the Northern kingdom of Israel, and part three looks at the southern land of Judah and the composition of the Bible. There's no need to be a Biblical expert to read the book; the Old Testament stories are given a brief and readable synopsis before the evidence is examined and the alternative hypothesis given.
For all the textual critics and debaters out there, this book gives ample ammunition. The once thought ‘glorious' reigns of David and Solomon have been shown to be little more than chiefdoms while Deuteronomy is shown to be nothing more than propaganda by King Josiah in order to create national identity for Judah in the 7th century BCE. Finkelstein's archaeological work is the final nail in the coffin of any form of Biblical literalism. It's enough to actually make reading the Bible enjoyable. -Vic Tanner
The Bible Unearthed
Why be even remotely concerned or interested in the debate over the inerrancy of the Bible? Because approximately forty million or more people in this country do believe the inerrancy of the Bible and about two hundred million more people believe the Bible to be the Word of God. Atheists may have written the Bible off as fiction, but others have not. Our continued interest in the debate over the Bible, Koran, and other religious books is about being informed by the most recent and accurate evidence on these issues.
Misquoting Jesus is a more recent effort to examine the text of the New Testament. In a more complex and scholarly work in, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (1993), Dr. Ehrman set down his argument about the New Testament text with more complete footnotes and comments. This gives a reader a choice in matters of complexity of materials.
Misquoting Jesus has a popular style of writing, and as a result it became a best seller. It is easy to see why this became a best seller. It is easy to see why this became a best seller from the introduction to the concluding depth. Dr. Ehrman's introduction describes his journey of faith in scripture to a skeptic of the scripture and an agnostic.