Reading The Way of the Heathen, first and foremost, reminded me of why I fell in love with Greta Christina’s writing. A series of meditations on weighty topics from an atheist, science-loving perspective, The Way of the Heathen is the antidote to religious insistence that we have no answers for what it means to live a life well lived, and a much-appreciated bridge between the scientific and the sublime.
The book is organized into sections, grouping related essays into a useful sequence: epistemology and meaning; ethics and morality; emotion and ritual; interacting with others as an atheist; and an atheist view of pleasure, sensuality, and fun. In each essay, Christina expounds on the implications of the fact that deities aren’t real on a facet of human existence, or builds on a previous point, or gives an addendum or caveat a space of its own to occupy. Critically, she doesn’t leave the idea that deities aren’t real to stand on its own as the base of any of these new thoughts, practices, suggestions, or stories. “Deities aren’t real” is a small thought, but it has many big corollaries and connects with other important ideas, and it is this logical medley that Christina explores in The Way of the Heathen. Here, it is important, clearly stated, and openly acknowledged that rejecting deities is part and parcel of a scientific, empirical view on what reality is and how it works, and that following both of these ideas to their conclusions means rejecting dozens of oft-unexamined premises of how life in the US works. The way of the heathen isn’t to occasionally meditate on how great it is that Apollo and Yahweh are figments of our cultural imagination—it is to recognize the Victorian and Protestant notions that govern basic social expectations in our society, notions that grew out of Christianity but could and do easily survive without their parent, and find them wanting.
Christina narrates an alternate path, with morality based on consent and harm, life trajectories based on meaning and desire, politics based on evidence, and leisure assigned its true, inestimable value. It is here that Christina’s thesis shines: whether deities are real could be merely academic, but whether all of these preconceived notions about what a life well lived are divinely ordained is not. Without this cultural baggage, we are free to pick out our own adulthood milestones and decide for ourselves the relationship we will have to love, pleasure, fun, and work. The way is opened for a new, more honest relationship with nature and with ourselves.
Atheists have struggled to articulate this splendor in ways that resonate in the wider culture. Christina’s contribution may or may not be the version that finally gets the rest of the world to find stereotyping us boring instead of apt, but it’s the one that people curious about atheism, or who are new to the deconverted fold and need a hand with some hard questions, should read. Christina’s style is characteristically conversational, energetic, funny, easy to follow, and unfailingly clear, and she covers important questions and points often not considered, for a thorough and gratifying experience.
The only downside of this book, for devoted Greta Christina fans, is how much of it appears elsewhere in the world, modified from her other books or published online. This familiarity makes the book a bit less obviously valuable to someone who already follows Christina’s writing, and even more valuable for those new to her voice, as a de facto compilation of her best work alongside new essays and a new framing device.
I cannot recommend it highly enough, alongside Christina’s equally amazing volumes on atheist anger; on coming out atheist; and on grief.