Phil Zuckerman, Living the Secular Life

Subtitled: New Answers to Old Questions.

This is a book that addresses the growing trend of non-religious people especially in the US, and how they live their lives without the assumptions that the faithful think are necessary for living a good life. The author is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and this book is the result of hundreds of interviews he did with people who are not religious, about explaining how they live their lives.

The book is a blend of general conclusions, citations to academic and news references to specific points, and summaries of selected interviews the author has done over the years with many ordinary people who are in one way or another not religious.

The introduction describes his motivation: two personal encounters he had with women who, while not especially religious themselves, felt they had to take their children to religious events, otherwise they would be “nothing”.

This is not a book about condemning religion; it’s a book that explores how people live their lives without religion, and a guide to how people can live their lives without religion if they aren’t sure it can be done.

The author recognizes the widespread belief, in the US, that atheism is somehow equivalent to having no morals at all, which results in a mistrust of atheists to hold political offices, even below trust of other groups – Muslims, Jews, Homosexuals, et al.

The author advises:

People who don’t believe in God are not immoral; most have very sound ethical orientations and moral principles, and in fact, on certain measures, secular people appear more tolerant, more law-abiding, less prejudiced, less vengeful, and less violent than their religious peers.

Chapter 1, Morality, explores this idea in detail.

In this chapter Zuckerman addresses the common assumption that morality must be derived from religion.

[That this is obviously not true is a subject I’ve alluded to in previous posts, on two specific points. First, those who make this claim are invariably Christian, and who apparently don’t take into consideration the billions of people around the world who follow traditions that do *not* align to the Jewish/Christian Bible. Are their societies immoral and chaotic, consisting of people who randomly go around murdering because they are not acquainted with the Ten Commandments? No, they are not. Second, do they truly believe that adherents to their own faiths have no instinctive sense of what is right and wrong, without having to thumb through their Bibles to check out the Ten Commandments or passages from Leviticus to instruct them what is right or wrong? No they do not, and I don’t believe they truly think that either, if they stopped to think about it; and I would further note that many of those passages in Leviticus are ignored, even as others are emphasized, in a manner reflecting not the Bible’s incoherent composite of antiquated morality, but rather reflecting their adherents’ personal fears and prejudices. –-At the same time, that most of the world’s conflicts are religious in nature, and the worst atrocities (think ISIS) are explicitly based on religious principles, is a condemnation of religion, not an endorsement of it.]

So, Zuckerman asks, what underlies morality among secular people? His answer: culturalization, living in a society and recognizing that life involves interacting with other people, a process that leads to the ‘Golden Rule’ – being good means treating others as you would like to be treated.

He describes results of interviews (as he does throughout the book) to illustrate how ordinary people think about these things. One considers the issue of ‘moral outsourcing’ – if the source of morality is the Bible, e.g., doesn’t this imply that those who follow it have no inner morality of their own?

Author cites numerous studies (footnoted to references) that, contrary to the prejudice, secular people are less likely to be racist, vengeful, support torture, be militaristic, oppose women’s’ equality and gay rights, than religious people. There are very few atheists in prisons.

Another case study concerns Brian, an ER nurse, whose appeal to existentialism and evolutionary biology (p25-6) echoes E.O. Wilson’s ideas of group selection. Brian:

So natural selection has selected for humans who believe ‘I’ll watch your back if you watch mine and I’ll do unto you as I want you to do unto me and if we don’t, we’re fucked.’ To me, that’s how human morality started and that’s what we’ve inherited. Being a moral person means not screwing over my fellow tribe members, because I wouldn’t want them to screw me over. It’s that simple. I don’t need to complicate the issue with the notion of a God.

Author cites further cases, and suggests that when someone asks a nonreligious person “Where do you get your morals?” the answer is:

I get my morals from the people who raised me, the culture in which I live, the kind of brain and I have, and the lessons I have learned from things I experience as I navigate life.

Ch 2, The Good Society, addresses how secularization affects society, and the recurring theme is that the more secular countries around the world tend to score better on virtually every measure of societal health – crime, corruption, STDs, literacy rates, healthcare, freedom of speech, and on and on – compared to more religious societies (p48, again, with lots of footnoted references to various studies which support these claims). The same trend holds true among the states of the US. This is the very opposite trend of what would be expected were morality derived from religious faith. Author cites the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Newt Gingrich who make the traditional religious claims – e.g. Gingrich claims that secularism is a “ruthless, destructive force threatening to ruin the country”; they are flatly wrong.

The author acknowledges two criticisms of these conclusions. First, of course, is that correlation is not causation. But it is a pattern of history. Second is the accusation that plenty of atheistic regimes have been pretty horrible (the Soviets under Stalin, Cambodia under Pol Pot). But the problem with them is totalitarianism, many of which societies have been explicitly religious: Uganda under Idi Amin, the Third Reich under Hitler, many more examples.

The underlying trend seems to be that as societies become more democratic, and less authoritarian, their standards of living improve, and so:

Many people living in open, democratic societies simply stop finding religious beliefs sustainable or compelling, they lose interest in participating in religious organizations, and they maintain values, exhibit virtues, finds meaning, and develop a sense of identity outside the canopy of religious faith.

Ch 3, Irreligion Rising, explores the question of *why* secularism is increasing. There have been secularists throughout history, but never more than tiny fractions of their societies. Today the numbers show high percentages of secularism among many European countries, as well as Japan and other advanced nations around the world. The US is an outlier; but even the US, the “nones” are now running 20-30%.

The split is not binary; there are categories in between. There are ‘fuzzy fidelists’, many who believe but don’t participate, and vice versa(!); many who don’t care one way or the other (‘apatheists’).

The causes of increased secularism, the author discusses, are not philosophical – they are not the result of folks thinking through these ideas and coming to some conclusion. They are mostly political and sociological.

First, the backlash against the religious right, beginning in the 1980s.

Second, reaction against the Catholic Church’s pedophile scandal.

Third, the rise of women in the workforce, and the resultant diminishment of their religious family involvement (historically, women have kept their families interested and involved with religious moreso than their husbands; there’s even a sardonic line on this point in “Inherit the Wind”).

Fourth, the increasing acceptance of homosexuality, resistance to which is now solely religious.

And Fifth, the Internet, exposing anyone who cares to look (when not sheltered within various cultural bubbles, or sealed off from the outside world like the citizens of North Korea and Cuba) to critiques of their cultures and their religious, and further enables people to connect with others might share their doubts.

Author goes on the address the common assumption that the religious impulse is a natural part of human nature, and secularism is unnatural. Perhaps true to some extent – every society has religion. But not in every person, any more than every person dances or is given to crime. That would suggest that ‘doubt’ or the ‘reason’ instinct are also components of the human condition.

[Here I would cue McRaney and all the other psychologists, who’ve demonstrated that all humans are subject to biases that distort their understanding of the reality around them, and in particular that all children are given to various phases of magical thinking as they grow up. The religious impulse is surely related to that, which some people outgrow more than others do.]

The rest of the book explores how secular people deal with various aspects of their lives, and I won’t detail these quite so much. Subjects include:

–How secular people live in highly religious communities [don’t try this in the South, per one interview] and raise their kids;

–(with a fascinating aside, p91-92, about how humans pass through various stages of moral development as they grow up: the earliest stage is understanding right and wrong in terms of punishment. As kids grow older they realize other factors: social approval; negative consequences of actions, and finally moral reasoning based on universal ethical principles, such as justice, equality, respect for all people, and the Golden Rule.

And that, with its holy books of rules to follow under threat of God’s punishment, religion is stuck at the earliest, least developed of these stages.)

–the kinds of traditions secular people adopt in lieu of religious ones;

–the kinds of communities secularists create, from summer camps to campus humanist groups;

–how secularists face hard times of illness, injury, death, etc. (an aside: it’s easier for nonbelievers in some cases to not have to be burdened with awful guilt about *why* bad things happen, which some religious people assume must because of some ‘reason’);

–and how they think about the fact of their own deaths—by appreciating life for what it is in the here and now, and not counting on some kind of afterlife.

In the final chapter the author becomes more personal, addressing the feeling many nonreligious people have that the word “atheist” is a poor label, because it emphasizes a negative. (It’s like calling oneself a non-stamp collector.) Author says ‘agnostic’ is a bit better, but too intellectual; ‘secular humanist’ is OK, but it’s more about a social agenda, rather than about positions one supports.

So the author (after citing a famous Einstein quote) comes up with the term ‘aweist’:

A lack of belief in God does not render this world any less wondrous, lush, mystifying, or amazing. A freethinking, secular orientation does not mean that one experiences a cold, colorless existence, devoid of aesthetic inspiration, mystical wonder, unabashed appreciation, existential joy, or a deep sense of connection with others, with nature, and with the incomprehensible. Quite the contrary. One need not have God to feel and experience awe.

One just needs life.

Conclusion – Author reiterates the difficulty of being secular in a society that frequently assumes one must be religious to be moral, or that America is inherently Christian. He quotes and rejects statements from GHW Bush and Marco Rubio, e.g. “Senator Rubio is simply wrong in his insistence that a shared faith in God is what unites us as Americans.” And cites the many times the founding fathers were clear about this.

It is essential to assert, both publicly and privately, that religion is clearly not the sole source, arbiter, or purveyor of morality and values. For to equate religion with morality, or to conflate theism with “having values,” is to commit a grave historical, sociological, and philosophical fallacy.

Because the bottom line is that many of the world’s problems need a secular approach to solve – climate change, inequality, terrorism, and so on. Author disputes Christopher Hitchens about his claim that “religion poisons everything”, and cites Alain de Botton, who wrote a book about “religion for atheists” – about ways to retain the communal, tradition-based practices of religion, without clinging to invalidated views of the nature of the world. [A book a I have on my shelf to read.]

It is the reality that more and more people prefer to live their lives without religion. This does not render them any less normal, natural, American, human, or humane than their religious counterparts. … Such secular men and women value reason over faith, action over prayer, existential ambiguity over unsupportable certitude, freedom of thought over obedience to authority, the natural over the supernatural, and hope in humanity over hope in a deity.

Sam Harris has an interview with Phil Zuckerman here

Salon has an excerpt from the book here

And the New York Times Book Review has this review by Susan Jacoby of the book.

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