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Atheists in America Hardcover – June 3, 2014
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Atheists in America is a unique contribution to the literature on atheism touching on topics rarely discussed or researched. I do not know of any other book on the market that seeks to bring together individual narratives of deconversion and the challenges faced afterward. (Amarnath Amarasingam, York University)
Atheists in America―a vital new contribution to the growing literature on nonbelievers―reveals in their own words how a wide diversity of people learned to live lives of integrity and meaning without God. The book also grants readers ready to hear it the message that not only is it okay not to believe, being an atheist can be both enlightening and liberating. (Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic)
I used to preach that atheists are fools who lead sad, empty, meaningless, and immoral lives. Then I actually met some atheists. After reading the moving and honest stories in Atheists in America, you will agree with me that nonbelievers lead reasonable, moral, and purposeful lives. (Dan Barker, copresident, Freedom from Religion Foundation)
Intriguing... This volume should appeal to academics and some spiritual seekers. (Library Journal)
About the Author
Melanie Elyse Brewster is a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research focuses on marginalized groups and examines how experiences of discrimination and stigma may shape the mental health of minority group members, such as LGBTQ individuals, atheists, and people of color. She regularly tweets about identity politics at @melysebrewster.
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James Mouritsen woke up to reason one day and turned his back on the Church of the Latter Day Saints. As an Utahn and a Mormon, it was a tough decision, but he made it and sets out why. He saw through the ‘Catch-22’ of the Mormon faith which is a 3-step way of knowing God. First have a true desire to find God. This is known as having a ‘sincere heart’. Secondly, pray and ask God to reveal himself. Thirdly, God will reply affirmatively through the Holy Spirit. But what if this does not work? Here’s the Catch-22: If the 3-step does not work it means that the person concerned did not have a sincere heart – and, by the way, Mormons are taught that the ‘Holy Spirit is the unmistakable feeling inside you’. So, basically, if God does not talk to you, it is you who messed up.
Amy Watkins and her husband were Seventh-Day Adventists (SDA) but she became an atheist after her daughter was born. The big event of becoming a parent got the Watkins thinking about all the big questions about life. Amy Watkins searched for those answers in the Bible. She read Ellen White, ‘the prophet of the SDAs’, she read C S Lewis, but the more she read the more she doubted. She writes: My path to atheism starts with the most fundamental elements of my faith: Reward and punishment, mercy and judgment, love and fear, but the path is only visible from this side. Start with me saying “I don’t believe in god” Go backward…Go back further. Ask, “Where did the doubt come from?’ If we are to be honest with ourselves, Amy says, it means admitting to our doubts. Christians tend to ignore the hard questions or accept superficial answers in dealing with doubts. We should go the Amy Watkins way.
Naima Cabelle says that from ‘the time I was conceived in Harlem, New York, my future as a black woman was already compromised’. She tells her personal story of how she went from Catholicism and born-again Christianity to secularism and atheism. ‘Men in the Christian community are raised with the expectation that they will find a nice Christian girl who was raised to be a nice Christian wife’, David Norris writes. The trouble was that Norris is gay. His Christian parents maintain that they love him, but that he was just a ‘broken heterosexual who needed Jesus and a good woman to fix’. Justus Humphrey, the son of a Presbyterian minister, took up Bible studies in college and after studying the history of the Bible, he began asking questions. ‘I began wondering how every word could be divinely inspired if the document itself was adjusted and altered so much over time. If any one version of the Bible was God’s perfected text, then all the other versions must be flawed. It made no sense that any other version could be right’, Humphrey writes.
This book is very personal and every contributor seems to have written with a sincere heart. When we reads about the so-called ‘New Atheists’ like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, we see how similar they are in the way they write, or, as the editor describes, they appear ‘composed, thoughtful, informed, and even humorous or playful – certainly not disfigured creatures of the night.’ This is a book written fearlessly and ought to be read without fear.
As with most writings by contemporary atheists, the choice of essay selections does seem to promote an underlying, sometimes implicit, brand of what could arguably be called mainstream atheism in America; that is, atheism defined over against or in reaction to theism or religious faith. This may have been intentional, though I did not find it explicitly addressed by the editor. As a result, I wrestled to find myself in the collection as a gay American whose admittedly unconventional faith allows and incorporates a certain kind of atheism, and certainly doubt, as a necessary and essential element. (Some lesser known strains of Christian theology, for example, emphasize the absence of Jesus' god on the cross - "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" - and suggest that the message of the cross is scandalous precisely because love is shared deeply and fully in the "presence of divine absence.")
It seems to me that those who embrace both doubt and belief, skepticism and faith, science and religion - or otherwise embrace atheism within a context of faith - might be compared to bisexuals in the predominate straight-vs-gay discourse by the way their "both-and" identifications unsettle the very dichotomies that give power to our "either-or" characterizations of things. And just as a collection of essays on sexual orientation would have more breadth with a story from someone identifying as bisexual, I think this collection could have more breadth if it included a story (or a section) by persons who embrace atheism within a context of faith, not just in reaction to religious literalism or within contexts of modern reason, rational thinking, or science. Perhaps these folks are few and far between, yet all the more reason they too may be worthy of a voice in a collection that seeks to show the true breadth of atheist experiences and minority atheist narratives.
I give the book 5 stars. The choice of which atheist narratives are legitimate or significant enough notwithstanding, the book is a needed addition to contemporary atheist writing in the ways it sheds light on some of the everday and diverse atheist experiences in America. Some authors describe a former agnosticism or period of questioning as an important stepping stone toward an atheist identity. I believe the book itself could be an important "stepping stone" to another collection on the diverse and sometimes disparate atheisms in everyday American lives.
The thoughtful tone of Atheists in America, the combination of scholarship and personal stories would have been immensely helpful to me, and I'm glad the book exists for others engaged in the process of deconversion. It's also a great book for atheists to share with friends who say, "But aren't atheists all angry, negative, mean people with no morals?" No, most of us are worried about the same things as everyone else: how to be good parents, how to age gracefully, how to work and date and deal with our families and friends, how to be true to ourselves without being unkind to others.