The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life

223 PP.; $14.95 (KINDLE $7.99)

Greta Christina is a widely known atheist who has written extensively for secular publications, blogs, and websites. Her latest book, The Way of the Heathen, is a collection of some of her previously published works and is intended for atheists as a guide for living. The five multi-chapter sections that make up the book could be briefly described as: Why atheism?; ethics; coping with illness, suffering, and death; relating to believers and other atheists; and joy and pleasure. The author says up front that it’s OK if readers don’t agree with everything she says, and that in ten years, she herself probably won’t agree with it all.

In the first section, Christina notes that whenever she writes about atheism she’s often asked, “What difference does it make if religion is true? Religion makes people happy. It gives comfort in troubling times. It offers a sense of purpose. It lets people tolerate the idea of death. If it’s useful, who cares if it’s true?” Her answer is that we should live in reality, with reality being defined as scientific and evidence-based. Furthermore, we have a moral obligation to seek and find this reality, and by living in it, our world becomes bigger. This includes stopping and smelling the roses, which helps us discover just how big and marvelous this world is. It also gives us the freedom to create our own meaning and gives us motivation to live this short life to the fullest.

Good stuff. I agree with it 100 percent. However, I have a couple of comments about this section. First, reality is wonderful, and one can say that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God. But the theist will reply that there is also no evidence that proves God doesn’t exist. This is all they need from science, and they won’t be swayed even if we reply that proving a negative is impossible.

Secondly, in chapter 4, Christina debunks the argument that religion is needed because it provides a sense of mystery. She says there’s plenty of mystery in our physical world, which is absolutely correct. However, it’s not mystery that religion provides a sense of; it provides a sense of awe. Christina uses this term later in the chapter when she describes looking at a newborn child, remarking that it fills her with a sense of “mystery and awe.” We’ve now raised the psychological bar and discovered what sustains religion: emotions. We also now have a contest as to what provides the greater awe: some physical object or God. Sitting in a giant cathedral that is hundreds of years old and lined with paintings created by our greatest painters, and experiencing hundreds of people singing and smiling can produce a sense of awe. These emotions create God-colored glasses for the theist to wear in the future while the realist still has only clear glasses. Now, the theist looks at a newborn child and sees the awe of God. Unfair? Yes, but that’s reality.

Topics Christina tackles in the section on ethics include: the human proclivity for rationalization; the necessity for sincerity when apologizing; knowing when to listen to what others think; and the importance of consent, honesty, fairness, and harm when judging the morality of particular sexual behavior (defining consent as saying yes when we have the power to say no.) This section is supposed to be how atheists should behave ethically, but the suggestions appear to be equally applicable for anyone.

Incidentally, in several places throughout the book Christina talks about the insensitivity towards women, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ individuals that she’s witnessed at atheist organizations and events. I wonder if, upon reading all this, a reader might get the impression that there are a lot of insensitive people among atheists, reinforcing a preconceived notion that atheists have fewer morals than theists.

The third section of The Way of the Heathen examines how to cope with illness, suffering, and death. The author discusses why the phrase “Everything happens for a reason” is crap and also stresses that even though you can’t save the whole world, it shouldn’t stop you from trying. Here too, many of the ideas presented are just as applicable to theists. For example, chapter 29 (in my opinion, the best in the book) provides a list of things one might say to a grieving nonbeliever. When I was reading this list, I kept wondering why these words wouldn’t also work with a grieving believer. I got my answer at the end of the chapter, when Christina states that they are all indeed things you could say to a grieving believer.

One thing that’s certainly different for atheists is how they cope with their own mortality, which is discussed in chapter 28. Christina suggests the ideas that death is a natural consequence to being alive and that death will be the same as not having been born can help an atheist cope. I wish she would have included the “how fortunate we are” idea discussed in chapter 53. In other words, if someone is fortunate enough to have been born into a free, prosperous country and to have lived comfortably for seventy-seven years (in other words, having lived longer, healthier, and freer than 99 percent of the billions of people who have lived and died before), then this person has nothing to complain about on his or her deathbed. Christina could have also included the “no regrets in the end” idea discussed at the end of chapter 58.

Elsewhere, the book slams the “no atheists in foxholes” claim by describing the author’s own experience in 2012 when her father died and she got a diagnosis of uterine cancer two weeks later. It was her atheism and humanist philosophy that got her through this, not turning to religion. But I would like to pose a different interpretation of the foxhole phrase: it’s about desperation in the face of impending death. Christina’s cancer was treatable through surgery. What if it had been an advanced stage, terminal diagnosis? I doubt she would have turned to religion, but would she have turned to an unconventional, possibly quack treatment? Many terminally ill patients do just that. “It would be irresponsible not to at least consider pursuing treatments, even if they’re highly uncertain,” she writes in another chapter. How much different is pursuing treatments, even if they’re highly uncertain, from praying to God, even if it’s highly uncertain? After all, we’re talking about Pascal’s Wager where the odds have been changed. Instead of having to lay down decades of believing in God, you just have to believe for a very short time—only for as long as you are in the foxhole.

In the section dealing with how to relate to believers and other atheists, Christina encourages people to come out about their atheism. She says that while discussing religion with your friends can be tricky, confrontation can open the doors to conversation. She also stresses that it’s OK to attack and mock a believer’s beliefs but not the believer themselves.

The next and last section has to do with joy and pleasure. The main points here are: hedonism is OK; physical pleasure is good; frivolity is fantastic; sex is mind-blowing fantastic; and there are some common things for which all people find meaning but you can also find or create meaning on your own.

The introduction to The Way of the Heathen states that the book is aimed at four groups:

  1. Recent atheists who are figuring out how to live without religion;
  2. Not-so-recent atheists who want some new ideas on living as an atheist;
  3. Doubting believers who want some ideas about how they might live without it; and
  4. Curious believers who want to understand atheism better.

Changing the last group to “curious believers who want to understand atheists better,” might have more impact. It’s no secret that some theists have a negative view of atheists, especially against atheist activists. Such a person may approach this book gleefully expecting to reinforce his or her expectations of a book filled with vile hatred and mean-spiritedness. What they’ll find instead is a book filled with wit, honesty, insight, and compassion. Yes, there is some anger—Christina is a passionate person—but there is no hatred or mean-spiritedness. A person who has some mild homophobic bias would, after reading the book, have to be brain dead not to see the genuine affection the author has for her partner in life.

One quibble this reviewer had is that, aside from the section on relating to believers and other atheists, the book tends to lump theists into a single, homogeneous group as though they all think alike. However, there’s a very wide range of religiosity among theists, and they don’t all think alike. For example, not all believers think that God’s punishing them if something bad happens. Elsewhere the author states that there are real, non-trivial differences between a religious life and a godless one. But “religious life” is not defined. Is a person who goes to church once a month living a religious life? How about Donald Trump, who says that the Bible is his favorite book?

In any event, I found The Way of the Heathen, which contains Christina’s biting humor throughout, to be an enjoyable read, and one that could have its greatest impact on the theist reader who may have some negative, preconceived notions about atheists.