Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: Atheist Voices of Minnesota

Nearly a year after I initially submitted my essay, the book Atheist Voices of Minnesota will finally appear on store shelves nationwide. The electronic version is already available in various formats, so if you prefer that medium you can follow the link above, but for those of you who prefer a physical object you can show off to all your friends or have signed by one or more of the authors, the long wait will be over on Tuesday*. A few weeks ago I attended a special gathering for everyone who had contributed an essay or helped in some other aspect of the book's production, and there picked up a few copies for my own use. Though I knew some of the other authors, up until that point I had not read any of the other essays that appear in the book. But now that I've had the chance to absorb the entire collection I imagine you'll be wanting my take on it all, even though as an author I can hardly be considered unbiased.

The first thing you should know is that this is not a parade of arguments about why it is highly unlikely that any of the various divine beings thought up by humans over the past few thousand years actually exist. Nor will you find arguments about why the many forms of organized religions are harmful to individuals and society. There are plenty of great books that already do that, such as The God Delusion and God is Not Great. So if you want to bolster your atheist convictions I highly recommend you read those. The purpose behind Atheist Voices of Minnesota is altogether different and is twofold: First, it aims to showcase the wide variety of atheist perspectives and how they inform the way each individual atheist lives his or her life, and second, that amidst this diversity there are many common struggles that atheists often face, most of which stem from having to live in a larger society where the great majority is either ignorant of your views or actively hostile toward them, and where the default assumption is that a person is religious.

The book fulfills this purpose remarkably well, and while I must admit that not all of the essays are Pulitzer-worthy explorations of the human condition, many of them (including mine, I hope) will stick with you long after you read them and contain moving accounts of dealing with life's big questions and issues. Birth, death, gender identity, substance abuse, parenting, work, family conflict, diet, marriage, culture shock, and childhood trauma are all covered in one or more of the essays. Many of them also contain some kind of coming out story (there is a whole section devoted to this) or a narrative of how the author came to embrace the atheist perspective. In reading them you will find honesty, humor, frustration, joy, confusion, sadness, determination, and wonder, but one thing you will not find is despair.

If this book does anything, it is to convincingly dispel the myth perpetuated by many of the religious that atheists live without hope and are morally bankrupt. While none of us featured in the book could be called complete paragons of virtue, all of us are trying as best we can to live decent, ethical lives, and consider courses of action based on how they will potentially affect other people and the environment, not on whether they conform to arbitrary standards from a book written long ago by people with no knowledge of modern life. And while we have all experienced pain and grief and anguish, we continue to have hope for the future and each in our own way work toward making this world a better place for ourselves and those who follow us.

So if you are an atheist, you need to read this book to hear the stories of your fellow atheists in their own words and know that it is possible to have a happy, meaningful, openly atheist life, even if it is in a society that often expresses contempt at the fact of your very existence. And if you are a religious person, you need to read this book to confirm whether or not all of those things you have heard about atheists from your clergy and fellow believers actually hold water. But whatever your stance in life, you will come away from Atheist Voices of Minnesota with a better understanding of who atheists really are and the convictions that shape our lives, and realize that if we pose a threat to anyone's beliefs, it is only because those beliefs pose a bigger threat to us and to society and thus need to be challenged.

This book was not created to change minds (although if it does, more power to you), but to show the rest of the world that atheists are not just isolated individuals hurling rhetorical fireballs at religion from their perches in the ivory tower, liberal media, Hollywood studio, or other supposed bastion of secularism. We are in your community, working jobs across all fields, on every rung of the social and economic ladder. We celebrate, grieve, question, laugh, suffer, love, and live. We are your neighbors, classmates, co-workers, sisters, brothers, spouses, and (though you may not know it) friends. We are here, we are sincere, get used it.

 *All of the profits from sales of the book are being donated to Minnesota Atheists, a 501(c)3 organization, and none of the authors are receiving any financial benefit from appearing in it.

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