Atheism for Believers: Do We Need a Book?


Some interesting comments on JT’s “Happy Ask an Atheist Day!” post got me to pondering that question. Do we need a book about atheism which we can comfortably hand to believers?

I’ve not really thought about it before. I’ve got close friends who are believers, but I’ve never felt uncomfortable recommending books like The God Delusion to them when they express interest in learning more about atheism. The conversations we’ve had haven’t swerved into completely uncomfortable directions, like the whole “But you’re going to hell!” trope. We’ve had sticking points, and we’ve had to talk things over, but they’re strong people who can handle strong ideas. Their faith doesn’t leave them flummoxed when confronted by the fact that someone they love is godless.

I’ve been lucky. But others haven’t. Chantalwallace says,

I recently deconverted (yay!) but my family is not taking it well. They think i’m being influenced by the devil. How do I explain to them that freethought is a good thing, atheism isn’t evil and that i’m not turning my back on them, just their belief system?

That can be tough. And when the people you need to explain this to are family members or close friends, that conversation can get very, very uncomfortable. But still, it’s a conversation that can be had. You don’t necessarily need a book or several for it.

Then I came across this comment by Wren, a Tru Hoppist:

My mom is Catholic. However, we’ve done a lot of talking since I came out as an atheist to her. She says she doesn’t understand, but loves me anyway. I don’t feel like I’m good at explaining myself in regards to my atheism. Do you know of any books that aren’t confrontational (like the God Delusion) that I could give her?

And Doctorburger’s response:

I’m in the same boat actually. I don’t know that I have any book I’d want to hand to my mom.

In the few conversations I’ve had with my parents about my atheism, it’s not that explaining atheism was difficult, rather it’s helping her know I’m the same child she’s always known and loved.

The question’s been bothering me ever since: do we need the kind of book you could hand to your mom? JT says it’s more important to read the books and put the arguments into our own words, and that’s true – to an extent. But it could also be quite helpful to have a handy little tome to hand to a family member who genuinely wants and needs to understand their loved one’s atheism. Sometimes, these conversations are most fruitful after people have had a chance to ponder in solitude. It can be hard to speak extensively face-to-face. Just to take an example from science: I’m perfectly comfortable talking to people about geology. I could do it until they pass out from sheer exhaustion. But it’s easier for both of us when I can tell someone who’s vaguely interested but overwhelmed by the difficulty of concepts they may be encountering for the first time, “Here’s this wonderful book. It’s an easy read, and the concepts are clearly explained in non-scientist language. Read it at your leisure, if you’d like, now I’ve got you interested. And feel free to come to me with any questions, confusions or concerns.”

A lot of times, people want that book. Books can do things conversations can’t do. It gives folks a chance to go at their own pace. They can re-read the stuff that they’re not quite absorbing on the first go. They can put the things in the book together with the conversations they’re having, and possibly understand more than they would with either just a book or a talk alone. And in this case, it gives some much-needed distance. There are some things that are too emotional at first to discuss face-to-face.

So I think we may just need that sort of book about atheism, one we can hand to the believers in our lives, that will help facilitate the conversation. My question is, what do you atheists who need such a book need it to do? Because it’s just possible I could write such a book. Not one that soft-sells atheism so much, of course – I’m Gnu – but at least does the job of explaining some things about atheists, freethought, and what it’s like to live a life without gods. Maybe there are common tropes you’re running in to that you need to have addressed, gently but firmly. Maybe you need a way of saying, “I’m an atheist, but I’m still me, and it’s a grand old life.”

I’ve actually got a book written that I think could be retasked to do the job. But before I rip it apart and rebuild, I want to know what you’re looking for, so I can make sure it would meet your needs, and I’m not just wasting everybody’s time. With two blogs (and occasionally a third and fourth), a busy field season ahead, and other writing jobs to do, I haven’t got any of my time to waste, much less yours! But if this is a necessary thing, and you’d like me to give it a whirl, tell me what you’d like. What’s in that book you wish you could hand to your loved ones? What about it is different from books like The God Delusion?

And in case there are any believers in the audience, what sorts of things help you understand and accept where atheists are coming from, even if you don’t agree with us? What helped you make peace with the heathens in your life?

Let me know.

Comments

  1. Tamsin says

    I think this sort of “atheism 101″ book would be pretty helpful.
    The reason why it took me so long to acknowledge my own atheism was that for a long time I bought the stereotype of atheists as grumpy, cynical, unfulfilled nihilists with no sense of wonder – despite the fact that my own father is an atheist who doesn’t fit this stereotype! For me, the key was the idea of the “deeply religious non-believer” which I first encountered in The God Delusion – I realised I didn’t have to give up my sense of awe and wonder by letting go of the idea of a god. I think debunking the grumpy atheist stereotype is probably a good start.
    Here are some of the questions I’ve encountered from religious people when I try to explain my atheism:
    “Doesn’t death scare you?”/”Wouldn’t you be happier if you knew you could go to heaven?”
    “Where do you think morality comes from, if not from God?”
    “How can you find meaning in life?”

  2. rq says

    Anything less confrontational than ‘The God Delusion’ would be good. While I could agree with much of what the book was saying, I had a hard time getting past the tone of the book. Didn’t help I was listening to it in audio, where Dawkins and his wife themselves are reading it, and it comes across as EXTREMELY confrontational and two-sided (as in, either you believe or you don’t, and we all know which is the CORRECT side to be on).

    An important point would be the whole ‘being good without god’ concept and morality, especially when it comes to teaching kids about being good and moral, which is a conversation I’m already dreading. But I think it would be important to explain that good deeds don’t have to be linked back to god in order to be good. (Although this might conflict with some people’s doctrine, where the only ‘good’ things are those coming from god, and anything NOT from god is automatically evil, no matter how good. That, however, is a whole different question.)

    Maybe something about the difficulty of reconciling all the bad things in the world with a ‘good’ god, and finding it easier and more logical to do without. You know, being able to accept positive and negative things in life without needing to somehow turn all the bad things into a positive faith experience. (Here again is the argument that faith isn’t meant to be logical and you have to blindly follow for it to make any ‘sense’… And if you can’t, then you simply don’t trust in god enough, and you need to work harder.)

    And definitely a point about being awed and impressed by the world around us without feeling the need to be grateful to god for creating it. Just enjoying things and wondering about them without reducing it to some ‘because god made it that way’ argument. If anything, not having a specific creator makes everything in the world all the more wondrous and amazing, that out of chaos CAN come order, all on its own – randomly and unpredictably. Putting someone in charge of all that kind of removes the awesomeness. Explaining guide-less awesomeness as opposed to someone making all the decisions, kind of thing… I’m getting lost in my own text here.

    Also explaining the feeling of freedom from religion – in the sense that god (in my view/experience) is often viewed as a surrogate parent, there to keep an eye on his kids and to make sure they stay in line with family values, and that getting out from under his eye is like growing up. You have parents, they guide you, but in the end you’re on your own. Individuals and maybe society work that way too – you need a ‘parental’ figure when you don’t know shit, but when you grow up, you have to do things on your own. And always answering to some mystical figure in the sky takes away a lot of that grown-up autonomy.

    Alright, so I’m sure you can come up with your own explanations and answers to those points, but this is what it looks like when I write what I think. To sum up:
    1) less confrontation
    2) goodness does not need to come from god to be good
    3) accepting that bad things do happen and they don’t need a reason (same with the good)
    4) self-assembly is so much more awesome than everything created by plan
    5) self-direction is so much more awesome than your parents holding your hand all the time

    These, at least, are the biggest points I’m going to have to clarify someday. And the whole prayer/not praying thing. Meh.

  3. echidna says

    I’d say it’s impossible. It’s the confrontation with reality that makes a religious person turn atheist, whether it’s the disjunction between evolution and original sin, the age of the earth, the protection of pedophile priests by an institution that claims moral authority, or the control exerted by celibate men over people in the name of life after death.

    That’s why Dawkins books are so effective, and why they won’t work if you want to gently explain your position without challenging someone’s belief. There is no gentle way of saying that you found its all garbage.

    Even AC Grayling’s book on secular morality won’t cut it, because religious people generally can’t accept moral teaching from a non-religious source. It would look puffed up and arrogant, false and hollow to them.

  4. says

    Hemant Mehta had exactly the same problem; he had to convince his parents that he had not become an awful person. Took a while. Here are some disjointed thoughts:

    I recently deconverted (yay!) but my family is not taking it well. They think i’m being influenced by the devil. How do I explain to them that freethought is a good thing, atheism isn’t evil and that i’m not turning my back on them, just their belief system?

    There’s no key that unlocks every door. If they’re big-picture people, it would be hard to do better than The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. If they’re having difficulty imagining how atheism works out in daily life, I’m a huge fan of Hank Fox’s Redneck, Blue Collar Atheist.

    Thinking that Dawkins is confrontational may be cultural; an Anglophile may find him quite likable. English phrasing strikes many Americans as elitist. Combine that with atheism itself (it’s been demonstrated that just the word “Atheists” on a bus gets many Christians riled up) so it is a barrier.

    Is there a non-confrontational way to say; “You are mistaken about a key support for your culture and philosophy, and everything you have ever been told about atheists is wrong”?

    Then there’s “Why you are an atheist” – not logical arguments, but the personal why. I’ve found many Christians have a very difficult time believing there are any real atheists. We must have some reason for putting on this cloak, obscuring our real motives as it does. How to convince them “This is real”? I simply am not able to believe in god. For Christians that can be a tough conceptual nut to crack, because they’ve always been told atheists don’t really believe there’s no god.

    Maybe a good place to start is to ask “What is the source of all the stories you have heard about atheists?” If it was (directly or indirectly) some Christian preacher, might there be another side?

    “Mom” is a cultural place-holder for “that important person in your life who has to be handled carefully” and that’s a little insulting to moms. There’s “Computers for your mom” and probably “The Internet for your mom” and whatnot; the poor woman must not be very bright. But the truth is that most people will take pains to figure out something that is important to them. The key is making it important to them, and that comes closer to performance art than logic. Your knowledge of them will be critical.

    So maybe you could start with a chapter on “I’m still the same person that you’ve always known.” No better, no worse, just having figured out something important that was bothering me. Did you accept me before?

    Tough problem.

  5. says

    I suspect one of the best pieces of advice for people whose parents have a problem with their atheism is something Dan Savage said about gay people coming out to homophobic parents: treat them like a little kid having a temper tantrum, don’t give in, and once they realize their temper tantrum is going to get them what they want they’ll come around.

    I wrote about that advice here. Disclaimer: I’m not speaking from experience, and I’d very much like to hear from atheists who’ve had to deal with very religious parents if that seems like good advice, given their experiences.

  6. says

    Also, I think Greta’s book may be something some atheists will want to hand believers in their lives, depending on what angle the believers are coming from. Won’t work for the “you’re influenced by the devil!” types, but if what you’re getting from the believer is “why are you so angry about religion?” that’s kind of what the book is written for.

    • says

      Very good point. You could almost come up with a reading list for different objections.
      “How can you imagine a universe without God?” Demon-Haunted World
      “OK Bring it, let’s argue” God Delusion.
      “No really, how does an atheist live?” Red Neck Blue Collar Atheist. “What are you atheists so angry about?”…

  7. says

    I think we need the book. In fact, I think we need several books along the same vein. Your book may be just what some people need, but it can’t reach everyone – an arrow built to breach the emotional armor of your average Methodist would be fashioned quite differently than one built with a Fundamentalist Christian (or Muslim, or Jew, or Pagan…) in mind.

    TL;DR – Please write the book, and then encourage others to write similar ones.

  8. echidna says

    The hurdle for atheists to get some understanding and acceptance from their staunchly Christian relatives and friends is high. You have to overcome the Word of God itself, as shown in Psalm 14:

    The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good. The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one.

    Just saying that people can be good without god is directly against scripture (hence the vitriol against the bus slogans). The only way for an atheist to gain acceptance is if the religious person accepts that scripture, in this instance at least, is not correct. And that only some of the ten commandments are important.

    It may be too much to ask, unless you can also shake their faith. Still, I think that’s worth trying for.

    • triamacleod says

      Just saying that people can be good without god is directly against scripture (hence the vitriol against the bus slogans). The only way for an atheist to gain acceptance is if the religious person accepts that scripture, in this instance at least, is not correct. And that only some of the ten commandments are important.

      I think showing that scripture is incorrect in several places is fairly easy as much of it contradicts itself so you have to ask the believer “Which one is correct and how do you know?” as for the 10 commandments, well it might seem an odd source, but George Carlin brought them down to a couple which are all common sense. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Don’t be a dick.

      I think the real problem is that so many Christians, particularly the hard-core, right wing type see their beliefs as their IDENTITY. They aren’t Americans from the Mid-West who happen to believe in Christ. They are Christians first and foremost and the rest of their identity is build around that. I think that is the biggest problem when it comes to explaining how you, as an Atheist, can simply brush that off and walk away from what ‘they’ see as your core identity. It would be similar to Mel Gibson suddenly coming out as a homosexual Jew. There is just a complete and utter disconnect for them that they do honestly seem to not be able to wrap their minds around.

    • Randomfactor says

      Psalm 14 is Old Testament, and therefore superceded. Hit ‘em with Matthew 5:22.

      I’d say you should then perform the double-tap with Romans 1:33, but they’ve MOVED that one to Romans 2:1 to hide it.

  9. plutosdad says

    I used to be a believer, and I would never recommend any dawkins book, beyond maybe The Blind Watchmaker or The Selfish Gene. Even then I remember what an a-hole I thought he was, and still think he is when I read him.

    But those two books are more for people who have studied “why evolution is not true”. the selfish gene was the real eye opener for me that caused me to start questioning. The Demon Haunted world is good, most Sagan is good, but it is becoming dated.

    I think Richard Carrier would be a far better choice, probably Sense and Goodness without God, as for an explanation of what we believe and how we can still be good.

  10. jasmyn says

    I would suggest Dan Barker’s “Godless.” I think it’s accessible because he starts out with such strong faith. People can relate to that. He later on comes around to atheism, and it isn’t easy. I think a first person narrative about it may really help some believers to see that coming out isn’t easy and it doesn’t have to change our ethics.

  11. iknklast says

    I’m not sure what the problem is here; I find that many of the books asked for already exist. Perhaps we just need for those who have read widely on the subject to get together and compile a list of books on different aspects of atheism, including what sort of believers they might work for.

    I have found, however, that no matter how mild the tone, a book explaining atheism tends to annoy those who are true believers, because they wrap their identity around this belief. It will always seem like a personal attack, at least if it’s an honest book. And I think we need to be honest.

    I do think rather than reinventing the wheel we should look at the extreme mass of books already out there, and recognize that there actually are atheism primers already out there.

    • says

      I do think rather than reinventing the wheel we should look at the extreme mass of books already out there, and recognize that there actually are atheism primers already out there.

      I agree it’s valuable to look at what’s out there, if only for inspiration. But I’m never inclined to discourage someone from creating something. Too few people want to create, and too many feel intimidated by the strange thought that they are wasting their time if they don’t have totally awesome completely original ideas that nobody ever thought of before. It’s like saying you shouldn’t ever have children because it’s been done so yours will be derivative.

      Besides, there’s a lot of room to tweak the wheel, to modernize it, to fit it to purpose. Also, there’s nothing like writing to clarify one’s own thinking.

      Otherwise, all we need is the Complete Works of Robert Green Ingersoll (and holy shit, it’s FREE for Kindle) and we’re all set.

  12. Decnavda says

    Not a book, but I think the best thing currently out there for this is “Letting Go of God” by Julia Sweeny. It is sweet, funny, and from the point of view of someone who used to be a believer and understands why people are reluctant to give that up, but it still lays out a good case and pulls no punches.

    • otrame says

      I second the motion on Julia Sweeney. Her journey to atheism, the way her parents dealt with it, things like her realization that she would not be seeing the much beloved brother who had died again. She hits all the main issues that believers have to face when they become godless, and does so with compassion leaking from every word–except when she’s tailing about Deepak Chopra. And she is very funny doing it.

  13. jacobfromlost says

    Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” didn’t seem to be very confrontational, but I read it as an atheist.

    And I also remember Dennett saying he had some of his religious students read it during the editing process in order to help him not offend religious folks (he wrote it with a religious audience in mind). Over time he came to learn that he COULDN’T make his case without offending religious folks. It didn’t matter how gentle he made the message, most of the religious students said it was offensive and told him to change it (I can only guess he would have had to keep changing it until it said “Jesus is lord” for them to be satisfied that it wasn’t offensive).

    I think the problem is that no matter how diplomatic, gentle, or funny we make the atheist case, the fact remains that we don’t have a magic book to give believers that would cause them to understand our position.

    And I don’t accept that Dawkins is confrontational. As he himself has said, why can one express opinions about music, sports, politics, movies, etc, that would never be characterized as confrontational. No one ever says, “Why did all those film critics try to confront the makers of ‘Skyline’ by using such hostile language about the film? Do they really think using such a belligerent tone would make us think the movie was bad, or consider their reasons why they think the movie was bad?”

    And the thing is, if you swapped Dawkin’s tone toward religion with the film critics’ tone toward “Skyline”, you’d have two things:

    1) People claiming the atheist book was written by Satanic Demon Nazis, as evidenced by its unrestrained hostility, and calls to burn the book then the author…or maybe the author then the book.

    2) And a mildly negative movie review no one would notice or care to comment about.

    • rq says

      I don’t think Dawkins is always confrontational, and it IS very important to have an opinion, to state it strongly, and to defend it whatever it takes. But I found ‘The God Delusion’ a little over the top, almost openly insulting, even though I was already heading away from religion at the time. (And yes, he DOES have a right to be insulting if he wants to, and it is mostly a matter of my perception of the things he says that makes something directly insulting or not.) I think it’s because it feels like the book presents the whole idea of god as a black-and-white topic, and doesn’t really give you room to maneuver.
      Anyway, what it comes down to is that you can say things in a firm voice without yelling, or you can yell and scream. ‘The God Delusion’ felt like a bunch of screaming and directed put-downs, that’s all. I’ve seen some of Dawkins’ presentations and lectures, and he doesn’t always come across as a screaming fanatic. Mostly. :)
      I think what Dana is asking for here is something about a book explaining a personal point of view, speaking in the first person as opposed to talking at someone. I haven’t yet gotten to Greta Christina’s book, maybe that IS what we need. Then again, another book explaining another personal point of view about atheism can’t do any worse than everything else out there, right? The more points of view we have out there, the more choice people have in selecting a book that best reflects the way they see atheism. (And yes, all of them ARE going to offend religious sensibilities. But that’s inescapable.)

      • jacobfromlost says

        “‘The God Delusion’ felt like a bunch of screaming and directed put-downs, that’s all.”

        I’ve heard this claim before, but I don’t remember any such thing from the book. The quote most usually cited is the “god as bully” quote, which was one sentence.

        I don’t know how you get “screaming” from the text. If anything, Dawkins has an academic style that’s rather stuffy. Can you give an example of the “screaming” in the book, as well as the direct put-downs, etc. I think you’ll find there aren’t any.

  14. triamacleod says

    Truthfully, I’d like to see some good Atheist cartoons, a la chick tracts, (only, you know, truthful and sensible) that can be left out for people to discover. Manga-style would be nice.

    Something simple, concise and non-confrontational. Just enough to get people to think and younger kids interested enough to ask a few questions, do a little Googling. There are so many good places on-line to read, or even better, have actual conversations with Atheists that once people get to the point that they are WILLING to look and ask the rest will take care of itself. Tumblr is rife with friendly, chatting Atheists who are more than willing to take people by the hand and explain how and why, share their personal conversion stories and explain what has and what hasn’t changed in their lives.

    Unfortunately ‘Atheist as the boogie man’ is still the predominant view in many areas, but once you start talking to us, realizing that we are just like you, only without the belief and fear that come with worshiping, it’s really hard to say ‘you’re the plaything of Satan’, ‘you’re going to Hell’ and so on. I’ve often wondered if comparing Atheism to Homosexuality is a valid comparison as many of us have no more choice over our ability to not believe than Homosexuals have over who to love. Maybe books written along the vein of ‘coming out’ as homosexuals would be the way to go.

  15. says

    I’ll put myself in the believer camp and say that if I were handed a book like that, the biggest thing I would want to see is how people get to atheism, particularly if they’ve been raised in religious/spiritual homes. Until relatively recently, my perspective was that atheism always arose out of rebellion. I know that’s not true, but since I didn’t know any atheists to discuss it with, and because I’d been raised to believe a certain set of ideas, I couldn’t imagine someone not believing in a higher power without it being to get back at overly-religious parents. Reading about how people arrive at atheism, logically, I think would be incredibly helpful to believers.

    So says I.

  16. F says

    Books are good for book readers. Perhaps a series of pamphlets would be more accessible and provide better targeting as needed. Or a book which could be easily broken into shorter pamphlets. (To be handed out in airports, of course, wink wink.)

  17. MatthewL says

    Perhaps I’m just stating the blindingly obvious, but…

    The audience for this is assumed to be a believer who wants to better understand atheist friends so the problem of atheists’ mere existence being offensive is a nonissue.

    As to content it seems best to focus on the questions the believer is likely to have (as others have suggested) such as: How can you be moral without god? Aren’t you afraid of death? and so on. In addition to the other sources suggested above there should be lots of inspiration in PZ’s “Why I am an atheist” series as well.

    Finally it should probably be written in a tone you would use explaining these things to a friend.

    I think this could be a worthwhile project. There is room in the movement for all approaches. I think of it as attack like water. Seep into all the little cracks and expand until bit by bit the megalith eventually crumbles. I guess it’s just a question of whether there are enough suitable cracks and whether your book/pamphlet can work its way into them.

  18. Aliasalpha says

    I suspect that a full book would be the wrong approach, what would probably be better is a small pocket book (similar to F’s idea above). Something say 40-60 pages long with a common argument/fallacy on one page & the plain english explanation for why its bullshit on the opposite. Not a general book about atheism but a purpose written book to solve this specific problem.


    Just something small and cheap to give to people, something that requires negligible time commitment, isn’t technical and explains everything clearly. Essentially eliminate as many barriers for entry (and/or excuses for not bothering to read it) as possible.


    You give someone a 300+ page book with lots of big ideas that need detailed explanations and its quite on the cards that if that someone is hostile to the ideas therein, they’ll lose interest or get lost in detail if they bring themselves to devote the time to read it at all. However if you give someone a book that small written in plain english then even the laziest person would be hard pressed to claim its too long or too hard to follow.

  19. russ says

    Digital Cuttlefish’s April 19th “I believe in…” poem.
    I don’t think there’s anything else that needs to be said.

  20. MichaelD says

    A book? Why not follow the bible’s example and just stick a whole bunch of different books together from different authors all different and contradictory. Only problem is modern books are much longer, the atheist bible would weigh a ton ;p

  21. Nihilismus says

    I don’t think you can fully explain in a short “non-confrontational” book why a non-believer doesn’t believe anymore. However, the book could still do a number of things. First, it could give clear definitions of theist, strong atheist, weak atheist, deist, agnostic, gnostic, etc. It could try to explain that lack of belief in the truth a claim does not necessarily mean belief in the falsity of the claim. As mentioned by others, it can also explain how atheists can still be moral.

    But considering the audience of the book, it might be helpful to explain how — even if there is a god — everything will work out okay for the reader’s loved one. That is, hypothetically, if god is all-loving and forgiving, he will still let the atheist join her theist family members in heaven. Or at least, he will yet reveal himself to the atheist in her lifetime. That since God is all-knowing, he knows what it will take to convince her. That he gave her the gift of critical thinking and rational reasoning, and he doesn’t want her to waste it. That he is more impressed by how she got to her conclusion then by whether she got the right answer. That even Thomas was allowed to demand proof. That since an atheist cannot force herself to believe, a loving god will not hold it against her. That Jesus’s sacrifice means more — and is truly selfless — if it redeems non-believers as well. After all, we are no more responsible for our non-belief than the “original sin” he supposedly absolved.

    Remember, the book’s goal should be to relieve the theist’s worries about their loved one. If it appears early on that the book is trying to argue why the atheist is justified in rejecting religion, the theist will avoid reading it.

  22. remysecor says

    I think the first part of Greta Cristina’s book is good for those who don’t understand, as GC says, why atheists are so angry.

    Books like Dawson’s are best for people who 1) believe because they were taught to believe but rarely if ever go to church or 2) already have doubts and want to study the arguments.

    Those who would expel from their lives anybody who strays from the faith cannot, in my opinion, be reached by logic.

    But for the situation you describe, people who care about you and worry about your lack of faith, I am going to suggest something counter-intuitive: a mini-course in comparative religion – as a way to show how billions of other people answer the basic questions. Think of it as a half-way house on the road to atheism.

    Please note: what follows are very broad generatlizations of complex systems of faith and philosophy. I repeat that I do not believe in any of them. I find some aspects of these systems of faith or philosophy intellectually interesting. Other aspects I think are ridiculous. That is not the point.

    Cosmology
    Hindu cosmology posits a universe that is trillions of years old, that is born, grows, dies and is reborn, Endlessly. (A day of Brahma the creator is 4320 million years; a year of Brahma is 360 such days and nights; a life of Brahma is 100 such years. There are cycles within cycles with the human race being continually reborn just as the universe gets reborn.) We know now that our universe will expand out into nothingness – but since it would appear that physics allows for something from nothing, out of the nothingness another universe may be born. In any case, this is a vision of the universe and time vastly different from that in the Bible.

    Life after death
    Both Hindus and Buddhists believe in rebirth or reincarnation. One’s future life is determined by how one lives one’s current life (karma). If you are a good person, your next life will be better; if you are not, it won’t.

    The goal of Buddhism is to escape this cycle of rebirth and achieve nirvana, a oneness with the universe. The 4 Noble Truths describe the Buddhist view of life; the Eightfold Path describes how to live so as to escape rebirth. Open-minded Christians will find some parts of this philosophy and guide to living not so far removed from their faith.

    The ancient Egyptians, of course, believed in an afterlife. That’s why people were buried with the resources they would need in the afterlife. At death, one’s heart (the seat of the soul) is judged against the principles of Ma’at, representing truth and right living. A good person is welcomed into “heaven”; a bad person into “hell”. (There are variations but I think this is a fair generalization. And the similarities to the Christian hell are interesting, to say the least)

    What I find most interesting about these attitudes toward an afterlife is that all these faiths promise something good if you live a good life, something bad if you don’t. This contrasts rather strongly with the “accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior” and it doesn’t matter what kind of life you have lead. All that matters is the worship. Now this is no doubt appealing to less-than-perfect individuals, but from an ethical perspective, and the Conservative belief in personal responsibility, there is much to be said for faiths which assert that you control, by the manner in which you live, what your afterlife will be.

    Ethics and Morality Without a God
    Confucianism consists of a set of precepts for right living: as a person, a member of a family, a community and a nation. Although there are references to Heaven and Harmony, Confucianism is basically a guide to proper behavior that does not depend on belief in a God who punishes evil.

    The objective of such a survey is, as I said at the start, to illustrate that there are many ways to address the issues of life and death, and to perhaps open a small crack in the surety that one’s own faith is the only possible faith. It is, after all, easy to criticize faiths or philosophies in which one does not believe. But it is not that far a step to then ask questions about one’s own faith, especially where it intersects with the beliefs of these other faiths.