This is the introduction to my new book, The Way of the Heathen. It’s available in ebook on Amazon/Kindle and on Smashwords for $7.99; the audiobook is at Audible; the print edition is at Amazon and Powell’s Books, and can be ordered or carried by pretty much any bookstore.
So you’ve decided to be an atheist.
Okay, that’s silly. No, you didn’t “decide” to be an atheist: you decided to ask questions, look at evidence, prioritize reality over wishful thinking, and quit pushing your doubts to the back burner. And you’ve concluded that there are no gods. We don’t “decide” what to believe: atheists can’t decide whether we believe in God, any more than we can put our hand over a flame and decide whether we believe in heat. But we can ignore doubts and difficult questions — or follow our ideas to their logical conclusion. You’ve done that. And you’ve come to the conclusion that there are no gods — not Jehovah, not Shiva, not Zeus. Zip squat in the “gods” department.
Living without religion is not always so different from living with it. Atheists and believers are all human: we laugh at jokes, listen to music, care about our loved ones, get angry at injustice, grieve when people die, try to be good.
But there are real differences. When you think the meaning of your life is handed to you by Zeus or whoever, you’re going to live differently than if you think we create our own meaning. When you think God is your co-pilot and your life is planned by this perfect, all-knowing creator (who still gave you sinuses for no apparent reason), you’re going to live differently than if you think nobody’s driving the bus and you’d better grab the wheel. When you think you and your loved ones are going to live forever in a blissful afterlife where everyone somehow magically gets along, you’re going to live differently than if you think this short life is our only one. There are differences between a religious life and a godless one, and they’re not trivial.
These differences can be unsettling, whether you’ve just started questioning religion, or have already rejected it and are grappling with non-belief. Even if you’ve been an atheist for a while, these questions may trouble you. Many atheists were brought up with religion, and were brought up framing life and death in religious terms. Many customs, rituals, and daily habits are rooted in religion, so when atheists reject these, we often don’t know how to replace them. When we’re confronted with a situation that our culture typically handles with religion — birth, death, marriage, coming of age, suffering, gratitude, sneezing — we sometimes feel stymied.
This book may help.
I’ll get this out of the way right now: Yes, the title is a joke. There are approximately 57,852 books titled The Way of the Something: The Way of the Pilgrim, The Way of the Master, The Way of the Warrior, about 57,849 more. This title is a slightly snarky joke at the whole idea of one person telling another, “Here’s the one right way to live your life.” A more accurate title (although a crappier and less funny one) would be Some Ways of Some Heathens. If you disagree with some of this book — awesome. Ten years from now, I probably won’t agree with all of it. I want people to think for themselves, using the best evidence, rationality, and compassion they can muster. There isn’t a right way to be an atheist, and this is not an atheist bible: take what you need, and leave the rest.
This book is aimed at — well, pretty much anyone, atheist or otherwise, who’s interested in atheism. But in particular, it’s aimed at four groups: Continue reading ““So you’ve decided to be an atheist”: Introduction to The Way of the Heathen“