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Sunday, April 3, 2016

"The Aweist" (on Phil Zuckerman's Living the Secular Life)

the aweist
Phil Zuckerman Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions (New York: Penguin Books, 2014)

In Living the Secular Life American sociologist Phil Zuckerman explores what he describes as “new answers to old questions” about secular living. Noting that, with a growing number of people in the US now describing themselves as  atheists, agnostic, or simply disinterested in religion—from the 1950s when fewer than 5 percent of the popular described themselves as nonreligious, it now has grown by 200 percent representing 20 to 30 percent of  the population—Zuckerman argues that it is increasingly important that we cease describing ourselves as a Christian nation and explore what it means to be secular and how one can live a moral and productive life without religion.
      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. 
      Citing examples from his own life, the author describes his own wonderment of the universe as a positive force which he describes as “Aweism,” a live without religion but that still permits him to be in “awe” of the joys and beauty of the world around him. While he admits to be an “atheist,” Zuckerman feels the word is a negative response something that he perceives as positive. The world “agnostic” suggests that he simply has made up his mind, and even though he teaches as a secular humanist at Pitzer College near Los Angeles, he argues that it represents more an agenda than a person definition of who he is.  An aweist, he suggests, allow others to know that he is not so much “against” those who believe as simply unable, given his intellectual constructs, to believe; yet to also see him as an individual who recognizes the wonder of the world and being alive in it.
        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


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