Eric Maisel – The Atheist’s Way

March 06, 2009

Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of more than thirty works of fiction and nonfiction. His nonfiction titles include Coaching the Artist Within, Fearless Creating, The Van Gogh Blues, The Creativity Book, Performance Anxiety, Ten Zen Seconds, A Writer’s San Francisco, and A Writer’s Paris. A columnist for Art Calendar magazine, Maisel is a creativity coach and creativity coach trainer who presents keynote addresses and workshops nationally and internationally. His new book is The Atheist’s Way: Living Well Without Gods.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Eric Maisel addresses atheists who don’t always find it easy to live as atheists, as well as religious believers who have doubts. He describes how the atheistic scientific worldview offers more advantages than the religious perspective. He encourages an understanding of the “tradition of atheism,” and explains how to derive inspiration from it. He talks about how new atheists may cope with the loss of their church communities, even when they satisfy important human needs. He details the “main problem” for atheists, which he argues is making meaning in an indifferent universe. He talks about the importance of the atheist actively self-creating, being the hero of her own story, defending a radical individualism. He talks about existential depression that atheists may experience, and ways to respond to this nihilism and ultimate meaninglessness in the universe. And he defends the position that each atheist should be an “active moral philosopher,” and “make his own ethics.”

This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 6th, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass roots. Before we get to this week’s guest, a couple items. One, I’d like to invite every listener to a point of inquiry. If you enjoy this show to become a friend of the center, that’s the membership category at the Center for Inquiry. And it’s the chief means by which we can guess at the effectiveness as an outreach vehicle of point of inquiry. We do this show to advance science and secularism to new publics, to new audiences. And if we motivate more people to become friends of the center, we know that this show is working. You can become a friend of the center to day at Center for Inquiry dot net. Second, I wanted to mention that if you want updates throughout the week about the topics that we like to talk about on point of inquiry, find us on Facebook and on Twitter. My guest this week is Eric Mizell. He’s a psychotherapist and philosopher. He’s widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach. His books include Coaching the Artist Within Fearless Creating and the Van Gogh Blues. He joins me to talk about his new book, The Atheists Way Living Well Without Gods. Eric Mozelle, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Great to be here. Eric, your book, maybe you won’t like this characterization. It’s like an atheist self-help book. 

I think that’s fair. I think many books have come out recently over the last few years that do an honorable and accurate job of taking religion to task. I more wanted to speak to the many millions of atheists who don’t always find it easy to live as an atheist. So it is really a self-help book for atheists. Also, between the lines, I think I try to make the arguments for believers to help them move in the direction of AC ism, but it is a self-help book for atheists. 

Okay, so you just mentioned that there are some atheists who might find it difficult to be atheists. I know some some, you know, nonbelievers. They embrace sort of a pessimism. You know, there is no God. The universe is cold and without hope. But in your book, you’re getting all this positive stuff out of Athie ism. You say that Athie ism actually gives people more advantages than religious belief. So here’s the question. How can it advantages more than religion? If you don’t have the hope of life after death or that there’s some loving father figure in the sky who has our best interests at heart? 

I think both groups are faced by exactly the same problem, namely the problem of keeping meaning afloat, making meaning in life and keeping it afloat. Think believers tend to settle that problem by their belief system, although I don’t think they do a seamless job of it. I think one proof of that is how many anti-depressants are sold in our, so to speak, religious nation? I think a lot of believers are suffering and not actually able to keep meaning afloat. I think for atheists, that is their main problem, that they understand that the universe is indifferent and they also understand that they’re obliged to make meaning in life. And that’s a daily task and an hourly task. We get overwhelmed by that task. We get tired by the prospect of having to make meaning hour in an hour out and week in and week out. And I tried to explain in the book that that is our task, that it is a task that requires courage, but it’s also a beautiful opportunity to make exactly the meaning we intend to make and to create our own life. So I think it is an opportunity to live, frankly, in the sphere of meaning making an atheist get that opportunity. 

I want to talk about meaning, which is the thrust of your book in a bit. But first about the atheist tradition. Most people don’t think of atheists as having a tradition. But you you know, you talk about plugging in to the atheist tradition. Many of the biggest names in history were atheists. And you derive inspiration from them. 

I do. I think there are two senses of tradition. I think the tradition we don’t have our things like, you know, Thanksgiving and Christmas. We don’t have holidays and we don’t have ceremonies that seem to work. And so there are many senses in which we don’t have a tradition. And I think atheists are divided about whether we need that kind of tradition or not. I think I’m in the camp that says that we actually do need those traditions would be nice to create some of them so we could feel some fellow feeling around those traditions. But then there’s the other sense of tradition, which is just the longevity of AC ism as an idea. And how many of the best and the brightest of every era have embraced racism? Ageism goes back thousands and thousands of years. In the book I just quote, you know, maybe 20 or so atheists from the old Greek and Roman and Islam eras of between 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. And it is amazing how they speak to ACS and exactly the way our contemporary atheists do. Namely, they expose religion. They believe that religion is used by rulers to subjugate people. They don’t really understand how anyone could believe in all of those thousands of gods. So we have this very long tradition that if we do plug into. I think it’s very satisfying and liberating to notice. 

So there’s almost a pride of belonging to this venerable tradition. Right. That predates Christianity. 

And I think I think one of the poles of religion is that it has this sense of openness and we often confuse old things with good things. We think that if something’s been around a long time, just by it’s a veneer by its petina, like an old piece of furniture by its petina, it’s a good thing. So it’s important to remember that Acey ism is an old thing, too. And if we do believe that old things are good things, then we can believe that atheist makes a good thing too. 

You just talked about the other sense of the word tradition, you know, rituals and ways of organizing ourselves that flesh out our meaning. Churches offer that, you know, churches aren’t just all about theology, but there’s this sense of. MUNITY, a chosen family where people love on one another, celebrate the passages of life together. If you’re an atheist, aren’t you giving all that up? 

Yes, and it’s a sad thing. I think it’s one of the problems with atheists. And it’s not a problem embedded in racism, but it is a problem for atheists here where I live in a retirement community of Rossmore in California. We have a very active atheist group and we’re very good at presenting ideas and, you know, doing power points and what have you. But we realized we needed a social half hour before the actual meeting where people could just say hello and be friendly and be, let’s call it church like. So I think atheists do realize that there is something lacking in racism with respect to the social component. And I think there are two things that believers find most difficult if they’re trying to make the journey, if they’re doubter’s and trying to make the journey from belief to unbelief. The two things they find most difficult is the one we’re now talking about, namely losing their home church and the believers I speak to. And I also run a cyberspace group for former believers. That’s their number one loss is the loss of their home church. And the second is the loss of the comfort of belief in seeing their parents again, their grandparents again, if they’ve lost a child, seeing their child again, the comfort of the afterlife and all of the other comforts that come with religion. So I think those are the two big, let’s say, impediments to a real movement to AC ism, namely the conference that religions provide and also what we’ve just been talking about. 

What do you think of atheists to admit? You know, there’s no reason to believe that theology in the church, but they stay in the church because they love the people there. Is that a kind of, you know, lack of courage of their convictions? 

I don’t think it’s a lack of courage. And I think that they are getting something out of it that they really don’t want to lose. From my point of view, I think it’s a problem. I think if we want to call it sort of weak belief or however we want to characterize that, I think as long as you stay in the camp of believers that forces you to remain silent about the big issues of our day, you kind of have to go along with a lot of religious beliefs while you’re still a believer. I think the second you let go of it entirely, you’re more able to point the finger at the problems that religions pose for civilization. So I think by not stepping out of the religious camp completely, you weaken your ability to stand up for the secular humanist values we all want to value. So I don’t think it’s I don’t think it’s a lack of courage, but I do think that ultimately it doesn’t serve civilization for, so to speak, weak believers to remain inside the fold. 

So to stand up for the truth of Athie ism. You’re suggesting people cut ties with their faith communities? 

I am suggesting that I know it’s hard. And as I say, when I talk to believers, that’s often a kind of irreparable wound that can’t get healed. Namely, the loss of their home church. That’s why I think we ought to be able to do better. I can’t actually envision how we will do better in providing the same kind of fellow feeling, because, you know, as we know, atheists are independent people and put to atheists in a room when you have three opinions, et cetera. So we know how hard it is for us to kind of just be simply human and friendly and gather. But I just think we want to move in that direction. We want to figure out how to be more human and more friendly and just gather. 

I’d like to talk to you on that point at length. But moving on to what I think is the medius part of your book, the best parts of your book for me were when you talked about the big, you know, meaning of life stuff. 

There’s ultimately no meaning to life. 

Yet you talk about how atheists make their own meaning. You were touching on this at the beginning of the interview, but isn’t making your own meeting kind of you know, it’s ultimately an exercise in futility. 

I don’t think it is an exercise in futility. It’s exactly what believers do, too. There’s nothing in the Bible that really helps them know whether they should cross the street at this intersection or that intersection or whether there should be a doctor or a lawyer, Indian chief, whether they should support this cause or that cause. All of us, believers and unbelievers alike, have to make these kinds of choices one after another until the end of time. And that’s what I mean by making meaning, namely just consciously and mindfully making the choices we have to make based on the values that are built into us that we know we want to uphold. I think all people, all groups, the whole species has to do this. Once we recognize that we get to do this, that making meaning investments is exactly the sort of opportunity we have. Then just then, believers and unbelievers remain in the same boat. But we understand better exactly what our opportunities are and what our requirements are. 

The hippie’s decades ago talked on and on about how we should be ourselves. She, you know, beat yourself. Right. But you talk in the book about becoming yourself or creating who you are. Pindar had that line become yourself. Nature talked about it a lot. You’re really saying make your life, your individual life a project, a work of art that you create yourself? 

Yeah, there are two different models in psychology. You may know this. Your listeners may know there’s there’s the Freudian model of development and then there’s the union model where we’re born whole and then we start to undeveloped because of cultural constraints. And then typically in what you call the midlife crisis, we get the opportunity to look at our life again and see who we really want to be. Whichever model is true, whether we sort of develop in a kind of linear way or whether we start out whole and undeveloped and then have to develop whichever is the right model. There’s still that sense that that life is an act of development, that we were good little scientists and we learned from experience where trial and error species, we try things out. We see what works for ourselves. And all along, we get to know more and learn more about the universe and do a better job of representing ourselves the way we want to represent ourselves. 

Mm hmm. So you’re talking about being the hero of our own stories. Your. You mentioned that in the book a lot and some of your other books. But all of this is beginning to sound really self-centered to me, like we should just pretend that we are indeed the center of the universe, that it’s all about me and my narrative. Seems like that opens is up to the charge from the cultural competitors that say, oh, you atheists are all egoists. 

It does come down to the individual. I am for a radical individualism. I don’t think we can follow anyone. I don’t think we ought to follow anyone. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be socially responsible and we shouldn’t stand up for civilization. But we have to do those things because they arise from our understanding of what each of us as an individual thinks is the right thing to do. So I’m going to, you know, without embarrassment and unabashedly say I am for radical individualism. I think that each one of us has to figure out our journey and our understanding of life for ourselves. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of the atheists way living well without Gods through our website points of inquiry dork. Eric, the process of living your life exuberantly with all this existential import sometimes doesn’t it lead to a crash and burn? Cause ultimately what we care about everything. We care about it, you know, it all comes to nothing, right? You talk about how this truth of Athie ism, it leads atheists to get depressed sometimes, and that’s somehow appropriate. 

I think it is appropriate. I think existential depression is the depression that atheists probably face the most. Again, your listeners may not quite remember, but depression is usually divided into four categories, namely biological depression, psychological depression, social depression and existential depression. Whether those are really accurate categories or not, they’re they’re useful for us to talk about. I think believers suffer from a lot of psychological depression because they’re in conflict between their belief system and their glimmers of understanding that their belief system doesn’t hold water. So I think that the most prevalent depression among believers is psychological depression. I think the most prevalent depression among atheists is existential depression, namely the experience of meaning leaking out of the enterprise and the difficulties in keeping meaning afloat. I think one thing that’s really interesting and it’s not very well understood about meaning is we don’t have to make meaning of time. We’re actually not built to need that. We’re only built to have to make meaning some portion of the day. For instance, if you’re a creative person and you actually turn to your novel first thing in the morning and work on it for a couple of hours, you have the experience of having made some meaning on that day and built up some meaning capital and the rest of the day can be half meaningless and you won’t get depressed. So it turns out that we don’t have to try to make meaning 24 hours a day. That would be way too heavy lifting for anyone. We get to take naps. We get to watch television. What’s really important is that a portion of our day feel meaningful to us and that we build up some meaning capital for some hours each day. When we begin to understand how this works, how making meaning actually works, how you only have to make meaning for a portion of the day, then a new lightness occurs in our understanding of the universe. We understand that we don’t have to do this existential heavy lifting all the time. We can do it just for a portion of the time, and that works perfectly well. 

So the way to deal with ultimate meaninglessness is just to create our own meaning. And then you’re saying we don’t have to do it all the time. Is it always going to satisfy your kind of admitting that it’s not always going to be enough and sometimes you’re just going to kind of be left alone in the recognition that when you die, you’re dead and all of your projects end in dust? 

That’s exactly right. I mean, I think it just takes a kind of courage and a maturity of mind and also takes what the. Namely, getting a grip on your own mind and not letting your mind wander off to the thoughts you just enumerated. The better job we do of not letting our mind just wander off to those thoughts about ultimate meaninglessness, the better job we do of remaining present in the moment. There are so many books nowadays and so much talk about the power of now and presence and what have you. Well, I think that means for an atheist or a one way to translate what all of that presence talk and power of now talk means is to make meaning in this moment and not think about ultimate meaninglessness. It really just means doing the work we need to do, showing up, being responsible, doing the next right thing in this moment and not worrying and actually no longer asking those, so to speak, ultimate questions because they’re answered. We know the answers to the ultimate questions. There is no meaning ultimately. So we can stop asking and trying to answer that question. We can stop seeking meaning. And this is the paradigm shift. I tried to explain as clearly as I can in the book. The paradigm shift from seeking meaning to making meaning. We don’t have to try to answer those questions anymore. There’s no meaning to seek. There is only the meaning we make. 

So, you know, once we answer these big questions, there is no ultimate meaning. It’s all right to put our head in the sand and stop wringing our hands about it all the time. 

It’s all right to stop wringing our hands. I think. See, the image of putting our head in the sand is one of not taking responsibility for our actions has a negative connotation to me that that I don’t think I meaning I don’t think we put our head in the sand. I think we stand right up and look around us and see what needs to be done. I think we take better responsibility by no longer trying to ask the large questions, but asking simpler, more immediate questions like what’s the next right thing to do? That, to me, doesn’t feel like putting your head in the sand at all. It feels like taking complete responsibility for the amount of time you have on this earth. 

You just talked about asking what’s the next right thing to do? And maybe you were just, you know, referring to what’s the next appropriate thing to do. Not really touching on ethics. But in your book, you do touch on ethics, secular ethics, humanist ethics. You talk about active moral philosophers who in quotes make ethics as opposed to being ethical. They make ethics. Ethics is a project for the kind of atheist you’re talking about, Eric. Is it up to each one of us as atheists just to decide for ourselves what’s right from wrong? And if that’s true? What if I decide murder is something that’s good? Who are you to tell me I’m wrong? If there are no moral absolutes? 

Well, there was a lot in that question, of course. Let me start with the beginning part. Yes. I’m saying that each individual has to make his or her own ethics. Ethics are always contextual. You have to decide and this is this is the kind of example that the existentialist, like Sartre, always loved to give. You have to decide if you’re going to stay with your dying mother, who needs who needs you, or if you’re going to go off to fight a righteous war, which you think you ought to go fight. You still have to decide which is the right decision to make there. There’s no slogan’s sized principle. There’s no commandment that can move you at all in the right direction of understanding what to do in that kind of situation. And most moral situations are like that. They’re gray. They have to do with making choices among right actions. It’s that complicated. So I do believe that each person has to be a an active moral philosopher in his or her own life. As to the second part, if you decide to murder, first of all, we believe that some killing is justified, to use your own example. So it’s not even easy to say that murder per say is immoral if you’re the victim of a home invasion. It may be perfectly proper to pull out your gun and kill the invaders. We have a word for that. And that’s self-defense. So, yes, if you decide to do things which generally speaking, are considered immoral, we have a system for that. We have hopefully civilization will remain and we have a legal system for that to punish you and to try to curtail you from doing those immoral things. But ultimately, I need to stand behind my vision of radical individualism, that each of us has to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. 

So if the guy down the street does something you think is wrong, you’re leaving it to consensus. 

You know, that the legal system, et cetera, to kick in to figure out whether or not it was right or I may decide that it’s so egregious or wrong or it’s something that I need to handle that I decide that it’s my that is part of my moral system to take him to task personally. In other words, during the Nazi resistance, I may decide that it isn’t up to the the allies to take care of the Germans in my town. I may decide to be a resistance fighter. So in some cases, I’m leaving it up to the mechanisms of civilization. In other instances, I will decide that I have to do the work myself. So both of those are true, that civilization needs to take care of policing moral issues. And I also need to make. Decisions about when I’m going to act. 

Eric, I can’t help but to think that many of the ways you’re describing Athie ism in the atheist’s way seems to actually describe the secular humanist world. In other words, Athie ism only tells you what, I don’t believe in God. But secular humanism tells you a whole host of things about what I do believe in, you know, non-religious ethics. All these components of living well that you go into in your book. Why isn’t this book called The Secular Humanists Way? 

Good question. It could have been called the existential way. It could have been called the rationalist way, the naturalist, the way, the free thinkers way. I think there are a lot of traditions interwoven in the book and they’re also interwoven in our systems. I think we’re all drawing from a number of traditions, a skeptical tradition, the rationalist tradition. I chose Acey ism because I think that religion is is a problem for civilization. And I wanted to choose a banner that made it clear that I was pinpointing religion as one of the problems we face. I agree with you that I could have chosen any of those other banners equally well, but I thought it was an opportunity with the spate of bestsellers we’ve had in the last three, four years. Those of those four or five bestsellers that we all know, it was an opportunity to do another AFC ism book that I hope most cases in thinking a little forward, but also that keeps the banner aloft, that keeps the atheist banner aloft, because I think the dealings we have with religion must continue. We must continue to fight the incursions of religion into daily life. And that’s why I chose the atheist banner. 

So if there’s a nonbeliever listening to our discussion who hasn’t yet embraced the includes atheists way, what’s the first step aside from picking up your book? 

Well, I think the first step is being as self truthful as possible. I think the looking in the mirror step is always the first step. And if you actually don’t believe the dogmas of your belief system, if you actually can’t fathom why a God would care if you aid off one set of plates or another set of plates or faced in a certain direction while you prayed or covered your head or didn’t cover your head, if you actually have your own doubts about those sorts of things, then I think the first thing to do is to honor your own doubts and open up to the possibility that those doubts are actually speaking to the Big Dig movement from beliefs to unbelief. 

I really appreciated our discussion. Thank you very much for joining me on the show. Eric Measle, thank you so much. I thought is great. 

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Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.