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Sunday, April 3, 2016
"The Aweist" (on Phil Zuckerman's Living the Secular Life)
Phil Zuckerman Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions (New York: Penguin Books, 2014)
In some respects, Zuckerman’s book is a bit like a self-help book, in which by using the examples of some of the hundreds of non-secular people he has interviewed, the author argues that most secularists can and do live moral lives, seek out a sense of community, raise they children effectively and create active communities that in some cases represent better welfare than the most religious sections of the US and throughout the world. Indeed, he argues, some of the most healthy and productive societies in the world such as the Czech Republic (with 61 percent of the population identifying themselves as secular), Estonia (49 percent), Norway (31 percent), and France (33 percent) show sharp increases in the numbers of their citizens who identify themselves as being nonreligious. A century ago around 10 percent of Dutch claimed to be religiously unaffiliated, while today that number has grown to more than 40 percent. It is estimated that about half of the population of Great Britain claim no religious identity.
Zuckerman, moreover, demonstrates, through individual examples, that it is possible to remain secular even during the most trying of times and the facts of death need not require one to seek out a God or religious faith. Indeed, those who remain secular, and who do not believe in an afterlife may be stimulated by their focus on living to find greater meaning in their lives and to seek out even greater interchange with friends and others in their communities.
That does not mean, however, that Zuckerman’s beliefs are passive or that he simply chooses not to call himself religious. Like Tim Whitmarsh, whose Battling the Gods I write about above, Zuckerman argues for the necessity of studying and sharing with other secularists to find answers to the important questions of human values and beliefs. And somewhat like Susan Jacoby, writing recently (February 7, 2016) in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, he is dismayed by the continual insistence of political candidates and state and governmental leaders to attempt to describe the US as a Christian country (Rubio, Trump, Bush, Cruz, and even Clinton to a certain degree have all remarked on their faiths as representing the American people) given the fact that a Pew Research Center study estimates that there are more than 36 million secularists in the United States alone. Zuckerman argues:
…when pundits and politicians such as Senator Marco
Rubio conflate being American with being a religious
believer, they do so not only in gross ignorance of the
demographic realities of American, but direct opposition
to the vision of our founding fathers.
As President Ulysses Grant declared in 1975: “Leave
the matter of religion to the family alter, the Church,
and the private school, supported entirely by private con-
tributions. Keep the Church and State forever separate.
Indeed, Zuckerman argues for increasing community involvement of secularists in promoting and maintaining the separate and church and state, while at the same time involving the non-believer in community and political life. Sadly, he reminds us that in most polls Americans would prefer presidents who were Catholic, Jewish, female, and even Muslim to an atheist—this despite the fact that, as the author has shown us, non-believers live as moral and productive lives as those who rely on faith. Given the growing world and American population, particularly among the young, who report that they do not believe, perhaps it is time to more carefully study what and how not believing means to our lives.
Los Angeles, April 2, 2016