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The Inspirational Atheist: Wise Words on the Wonder and Meaning of Life
edited by buzzy jackson
plume, 256 pages, $16

Buzzy Jackson is dismayed by “inspirational” books. Not so much because they exist, but because she “never encountered a single one that spoke directly to those of us with a secular outlook.” “Where was the motivating quote of the day for nonbelievers?” she asks. What she wanted was a Chicken Soup for the Soulless, depressing as that sounds on its face, for that one-fifth of Americans who claim no religious affiliation. She wanted a source of hope and comfort for “the atheists, the skeptics, the agnostics, and the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ among us.” Yet, on going to the bookstore, she found a void. If Chicken Soup for the Soulless didn’t exist, would it be necessary to invent it? Yes, apparently.

Jackson seems to have scoured an extensive book collection—or possibly Wikiquote—for timeless wisdom on thirty-three alphabetical subjects, from “advice” to “work.” Her only criterion for selecting the thinkers she quotes seems to be the exclusion of voices commonly seen as religious. Out, then, with Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Sojourner Truth—and in with William Shakespeare, Joan Didion, and Bill Hicks. But the inspirational atheists need not actually be atheists. Søren Kierkegaard and James Baldwin both appear, for instance, and she made an exception to her one rule by giving the Dalai Lama a pass.

Jackson, of course, includes avowed atheists. It is regrettable that the imperative to select uplifting quotations has muzzled the darkly toned realism that is the hallmark of great atheists such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, H. L. Mencken, and ­Ambrose Bierce—all of whom make strangely uncharacteristic appearances. Instead of their most stringent sayings, we have more anodyne observations that few can quibble with, including Seneca’s “Take care not to make your pain greater by your complaints” and Charles Bukowski’s “If you want to know who your friends are, get yourself a jail sentence.” That’s a shame. Something that could have been called The Uninspirational Atheist would have made for a much more vital, if less commercially ­appealing, book.

Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey.

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