Living the Secular Life
New Answers to Old Questions
Phil Zuckerman
Penguin Press, New York, 2014.


Phil Zuckerman is an American sociologist who 5 years ago founded the Department of Secular Studies at Pitzer College, California. His principal interest is in studying secular people, those who profess no religion, and he is an enthusiastically secular person himself. He is also an apologist for the secular way of life, who engages with the strongly religious elements of his US culture, who might be mistrustful of atheists and unbelievers, and seeks to turn aside their criticisms.

Indeed the chapters of Living the Secular Life can be seen as meeting common suspicions religious people might have about secular people. Chapter 2, ‘Morality’, seeks to counter the thought that atheists have no reason to be moral, and so probably won’t be. Chapter 3, ‘The Good Society’ tries to upend the related idea that a secular society will be a dysfunctional society. Chapter 4 ‘Irreligion Rising’ takes on the notion that religion is natural to human beings and irreligion is unnatural. Chapter 6, ‘Trying Times’ tests the claim that secular people have no true resources to help them face tragedy and suffering; chapter 7, ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ challenges the conception that death as final extinction leaves life meaningless and full of dread, and chapter 8 ‘Aweism’ seeks to debunk the feeling that atheism cannot admit a positive sense of wonder, joy and mystery into life and living. So just as the early Christian apologists had to defend themselves against the accusations of the world of Late Antiquity that they were atheists, cannibals or seditious, so Phil Zuckerman, secular apologist, seeks to defend the irreligious from the slurs of the religious.

But Zuckerman has a broader purpose than just the foregoing. He writes to equip and encourage his fellow secularists with ways of understanding themselves, explaining themselves and developing the emerging secularist culture. He opens the book with two anecdotes, one about a secular woman who worries that she is raising her kids as ‘nothing’ if she does not give them some religious affiliation, and the other about a religious woman who commented to Zuckerman, ‘without religion, you’ve got nothing’ (p3). Zuckerman wants to tell secular people (as well as everyone else) that the secular life is not a nothing life, it is, at its best, a noble, admirable, venerable, reasonable, engaged, humane, profound way to live.

In pursuit of this end, Zuckerman recommends characteristic values and attitudes that he detects among secular people when it comes to certain central questions and activities of life. Hence his chapters on moral reasoning, raising children, creating community, facing suffering and death and appreciating the goodness of life. As far as morality goes, Zuckerman defends the Golden Rule of moral conduct (with its ‘basic, simple logic’) teamed with ‘fundamental human empathy’, as a sufficient basis for the moral life (p13-14). The chapters on ‘Raising Kids’ and ‘Creating Community’ tackle various intricacies of the secular person’s experience. In ‘Raising Kids’ Zuckerman muses on interacting with religious relatives and fellow citizens (and any prejudice they may harbour). He also reflects on parenting in the delicate situation of the freethinker who does not want to indoctrinate his children with a particular point of view, yet who at the same time wants his children nonetheless to adopt values like ‘obeying the Golden Rule, being environmentally conscious, developing empathy, cultivating independent thinking and relying upon rational problem solving’ (p96). In ‘Creating Community’ Zuckerman surveys the ways secularists are trying to reproduce what religious communities have developed: fellowships of like minded people for mutual learning and support, community service groups, kids’ camps etc. He wrestles with the fact that for many secular people, being secular is not a motivating part of their identity, and their individualism means that they say—as Zuckerman’s wife said to him— ‘Ugh. Who needs community?’ (p134). Zuckerman is the opposite—he is excited about the prospect of secularist churches, and hopes to see them develop as the irreligious grow and mature in their secularity. All in all Zuckerman wants to say that the secular life is not nothing, but rather it is something quite wonderful and worth embracing.

Zuckerman’s approach is not angry or generally debunking of religion, and he is capable of acknowledging strengths of religion and weaknesses of secularism. This is most notably seen in his telling the story of a secular woman, Sarah, whose best comforters after the death of her eight year old son were from the women’s group at her neighbour’s church. Sarah said to Zuckerman, ‘I’ll never forget how those religious women took me in . […] Let me tell you: there’s nothing like that out there when you’re secular.’ (p167.) But still, Zuckerman’s convictions that belief in the supernatural, the divine etc is illusory baggage without a scrap of evidence or rationality are there in his book. Religious people believe in life after death, but secular people accept the fact that death is oblivion forever (p180). Religious people believe that God lies beneath the wonder of existence, while secular people accept the fact that we will never know what lies beneath the wonder of existence: ‘We will never, ever know why or exactly how all this comes about. That’s the situation. Deal with it. Accept it.’ (p201).

But is it really that religious people have beliefs about God, death etc, while secular people do not have beliefs about these things, but rather accept the facts about God and death etc? This seems to me one of the several illusions secularists like Zuckerman labour under and seek to perpetuate. It seems more honest to recognise secularists are not accepting facts or making decisions based on evidence—or lack thereof—when they say they claim not to believe in God. It seems more accurate to say that secularists hold beliefs about the big questions just as much as theists or anyone else. And they come to hold those beliefs in similar ways to the ways religious believers come to hold theirs: Usually a massive dose of parental upbringing and example gets mixed with influences from peers and societal media like schooling, clubs and societies, churches, arts and entertainment etc, which individuals accept or reject for themselves to various degrees according perhaps to certain inner intangibles and personal quirks of temperament, reflection, judgement and experience.

At times Zuckerman does seem to acknowledge all this, and some of the testimonies of loss-of-faith in the book bear this out: Amber was raised Mormon in Utah, and says, ‘I really did believe’. But then various things happened: she moved to Montana and then back to Utah, and: ‘Maybe it was getting away from Provo for a spell’—or making non-Mormon friends, or puberty—‘but whatever it was, … her faith melted away’(p142). As Amber explained to Zuckerman: ‘I was sixteen or seventeen. At that point it was just like, “This is crazy.” I just knew.” She expanded on her new incredulity: ‘I mean, you die, and there’s something that goes somewhere? What? I just don’t believe that.’ (p142-3). Or take Scott, a soldier who went to Iraq and Christian and came back an atheist. In the midst of convoy operations in which US soldiers were dying, a chaplain said to Scott’s unit that, ‘the reason my unit hadn’t had any serious losses yet was because God was protecting us’ (p110). Scott’s response was, ‘Well, what about those four guys in that other unit—and I knew two of them—who got killed just yesterday morning? Where was God then? That’s when it really just clicked for me’ (p 111).

These are conversion stories—one spiritual stance is left behind, and another one is embraced. There is a certain amount of mystery to them. Expanding experience creates tensions which could be resolved in various ways, and in other individuals might be. But in these cases, the tension was resolved by shifting world-views, losing one set of convictions and embracing another. And this is not primarily because of new facts coming to someone’s attention, nor is it primarily a process of rational consideration and judgement. But a catalytic, personal moment of change, or stepping out of one point of view and into another. Sure, these baby secularists had a lot to learn and put together before they were fully formed secularists, but that was the time they were ‘born again’, so to speak. Other secularists (like Zuckerman himself) have no conversion story, because they were raised in secular households, and ‘can’t remember a time when they did not not believe in God’, so to speak. But they, too, just like religious believers, grew in faith as time went on. My point is that the claims that secularists ‘accept the facts’, rather than that they ‘believe certain things’ that many other people don’t believe (eg that there is no evidence for God, or that there is no God, or that death is insurmountable oblivion etc) is a self-serving story, not a true story. They have embraced a set of convictions, not accepted a set of facts.

But of course, whoever we are, it’s difficult not to characterise the convictions you hold as reasonable, factual, based on evidence, humane, and to characterise conflicting convictions as unreasonable, illusory, without basis, inhumane and slightly dangerous. And there is an activist streak in Zuckerman, he does want to challenge religion. He feels there’s a job to do for secularists to make a space for non belief in a religious country which distrusts and despises atheists and humanists. He is American, and so his situation is rather different to an Australian secularist. Americans are an intense lot, aren’t they? This book gives another glimpse of that!

I could take up various other aspects of his book (I thought his chapter on morality was pretty unconvincing), but I’ll wind up by saying that I like reading Zuckerman because he’s a good writer interested in important changes in western society, which he analyses both as a professional sociologist and an irenic but committed secularist. His books are peppered with people’s stories, including their own words in the telling. I hope his project fails, inasmuch as he wants to see secularism flourish. But I appreciate his personal candour, his generally respectful tone, his openness to good things in religion and his deep interest in the big questions of life.