I must say that I have never read an atheist self-help book prior to this. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not insipid. Aronson has a more extensive grasp of academic philosophy, history and science, than most writers in this category. He uses all of these intellectual weapons, albeit selectively, to let his skeptical readers know (to misquote Bob Marley) that everything can be alright with the proper approach.
His optimism, while never the uncritical “happy, happy, happy” of the self-help set, is persistent, though qualified. For example, his chapter entitled “The World on Our Shoulders” discusses human suffering and social responsibility. The existence of such a chapter is the first difference one should note between Aronson and pop-psych gurus: some of the chapters are not focused inwardly on personal, self-absorbing problems. The author sees humans as part of nature and necessarily connected to the world. In tackling social issues, he relies upon empiricism and individual interpretation of what one is seeing. Aronson makes it clear that we have a choice in our behavior; nothing in outcome is pre-determined or dictated to us. Regarding national issues of racism and economic inequality, “whether or not we see clearly depends on a fundamental choice of perception: do we see ourselves as isolated, separate individuals, or instead recognize ourselves as belonging to, and depending on, a wider world…Accepting responsibility for this means first acknowledging that we all belong to a community” (Aronson, pp. 80-81). The author makes it clear that, even if one were to recognize their membership in a community and act accordingly, the road to justice is still long and victory is uncertain. Instead of the absolute confidence that we will attain equality, he concludes that we are working “toward a time when every human being achieves…full human dignity” (Aronson, p. 89).
In reading Living Without God, I had to consider what value such a book might have to a community as individualist and decentralized as ours. Atheists don’t need a catechism. Of course we do have a few rather dogmatic thinkers among our community. Some are still stuck: angry at their dads or defining themselves by their opposition to the religion in which they were raised. But by and large, we’re pretty independent. Our strength resides in choosing our own paths through life. As a result, there can be as many atheisms as there are individuals who call themselves atheists. So why read a book that lays-out one person’s personal plan? Perhaps because it is an opportunity to bounce the author’s perceptions off of your own, comparing your thoughts and strategies with those of another rational, evidence-based individual. It’s an occasion to meditate on some questions, agreeing or disagreeing as you choose, sifting through Aronson’s thoughts and yours on the topics of the chapters (gratitude for life, facing death, hope, social responsibility), finding the views and methods that fit your life. If there are important subjects that Aronson has, in your mind, failed to address, then it’s time for you to write your own book.
Aronson, Ronald. Living Without God. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008.