Cover image for Living the secular life : new answers to old questions
Living the secular life : new answers to old questions
Zuckerman, Phil.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Penguin Press, 2014.
Physical Description:
276 pages ; 24 cm
Over the last twenty-five years, "no religion" has become the fastest-growing religion in the United States. Around the world, hundreds of millions of people have turned away from the traditional faiths of the past and embraced a moral yet nonreligious--or secular--life, generating societies vastly less religious than at any other time in human history. Revealing the inspiring beliefs that empower secular culture--alongside real stories of nonreligious men and women based on extensive in-depth interviews from across the country. Zuckerman is a sociologist who in this groundbreaking book writes clearly, offers unobtrusive statistical support, and provides a persuasive and comprehensive look at the growing contemporary phenomenon of people who choose to live without religion, but with ethics and meaning in their lives.
Morality -- The good society -- Irreligion rising -- Raising kids -- Creating community -- Trying times -- Don't fear the reaper -- Aweism.
Geographic Term:

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BL2747.8 .Z83 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
BL2747.8 .Z83 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
BL2747.8 .Z83 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



Over the last decade or so, no religion' has become the fastest growing religion in the UK. Around the world, millions of people have turned away from the traditional faiths of the past and embraced a secular-or nonreligious-life. While these people may not subscribe to a faith, this secular life still enables inspiring beliefs. Here these beliefs and real stories of nonreligious men and women, based on extensive in-depth interviews, are explored, making this an indispensable handbook for anyone living a secular life.'

Author Notes

Phil Zuckerman is also the author of Strife in the Sanctuary (AltaMira Press, 1999). He is currently a professor of sociology at Pitzer College.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

With recent polls reporting 30 percent of Americans are nonreligious, while other studies find atheists the least-trusted people in the country, isn't it high time to blow away the myths about the nonreligious? Answering affirmatively, the sociologist founder of the first secular-studies program at Pitzer College presents real secular people as peaceable, productive, and living happily. Secular parents reveal that God isn't necessary for raising moral children, that the lack of an afterlife needn't inspire terror or prayer, and that coping with grave injury doesn't entail surrendering to higher powers (nor, for that matter, does kicking addiction). Zuckerman also profiles secular people creating institutions for themselves that stand in lieu of churches (while others are contented loners). He also shows that secularism isn't bipolar believer or nonbeliever but includes many with some supernatural beliefs but who aren't religiously observant. And there's not a proselytizer or zealot among this group the point being that secular people are not all, indeed, hardly ever, Christopher Hitchens or Madalyn Murray O'Hair. May one more prejudice fall.--Olson, Ray Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

While America's mainstream churches have declined, smaller denominations seem to be attracting more believers. The fastest-growing group isn't a church at all, but rather those distancing from traditional religious affiliations, a group known as the "nones." In this fascinating work, Zuckerman (Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion), professor of sociology and secular studies at Pfizer College, explores the moral and ethical foundations of secularism, addressing the question of whether you can live a good life without God or religion. Anecdotal evidence abounds; interviews with former religious adherents who have moved into secularism, both within and outside their religious communities, offer a compelling argument for the non-necessity of God in the pursuit of a moral life. Despite the amazing growth of "nones" in America, and even considering the growing trend toward secularism within many churches, Zuckerman concludes, "It still isn't easy being secular in America." Perhaps the accounts in this fine work will help ameliorate that. (Dec.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

Founder of the first department of secular studies in the United States, Zuckerman (sociology, Pitzer Coll.; Society Without God) here draws on extensive in-depth interviews to explore and illuminate the lives and beliefs of ordinary secular Americans. Representing approximately 30 percent of the population, nonreligious Americans are the fastest growing religious orientation in the country. This book aims to show that these men and women are more than "nothing"; they live good, meaningful, and inspired lives without religion. Writing in a positive and upbeat style remarkably free of both smugness and academic jargon, Zuckerman gently addresses and dismantles numerous common misperceptions about secular people. The book admirably manages to be thoroughly saturated in research and scholarship without reading like a stuffy academic text. The author brilliantly weaves stories and reflections together with empirical sociological research to create a rich portrait of secular America. Some of the topics covered include morality, raising children, creating community, coping with difficulties, and death. The chapter on "Aweism" is a high point as Zuckerman waxes poetic on mystery, wonder, and humility without religion. VERDICT Highly recommended for all readers, both religious and nonreligious, seeking a more accurate understanding of this ever-growing segment of the American population. [See Prepub Alert, 6/8/14.]-Brian Sullivan, Alfred Univ. Lib., NY (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Introduction And there it was again: the whole notion of "nothing." It came at me twice in the same week, and from two different people. The first time it came up was with Jill. We were standing and talking on the curb outside the studio where her son and my son both take cello lessons. Jill is in her early forties, from San Francisco, and she recently sold her modern furniture store in order to be at home more with her kids. We often chitchat when cello lessons are over and our sons are busy playing in the nearby bushes. The other day as we were talking, religion came up. That was when Jill expressed what I've heard so many times before: "I just don't want my kids to be 'nothing.'" Jill is one of tens of millions of Americans who are nonreligious. Her mom was Buddhist and her dad was Catholic, and she was raised with a fair amount of both traditions. But by the time she got to college, she knew that she didn't believe in God. Sure, maybe there's something more out there--who can say? But religion just wasn't her thing. Her husband felt the same way. And all was fine for several years. But lately, with her kids being three and six, things have somehow started to feel different. Jill is a little worried. She told me that she was considering sending her kids to some church, perhaps the local Catholic church. But I could tell that she was conflicted. When I asked her why she was contemplating sending her kids to church if she didn't feel 100 percent about it, she said, "I want them to get some morals. I think that's important." "But your children can develop a healthy, durable morality without religion," I replied. "Yeah, I guess you're right. But still . . ." Being a secular parent myself, and having studied the hills and dales of secular culture for some time now, I know what gnaws at Jill. I'm quite familiar with the angst that many such secular Americans experience: the feeling that maybe one is making a mistake by raising one's kids without religion. Even though Jill is living a meaningful, thoughtful, and ethical life without religious faith or affiliation, she nonetheless feels that if she doesn't impart some sort of religious identity to her kids--if they lack religious involvement--then they will be . . . nothing . Oh, and immoral to boot. A few days later, the matter of "nothing" confronted me again. This time it came from a religious woman. Her name is Beverly. She is in her late sixties. She describes herself as "just Christian." We met at a picnic being thrown by mutual friends at a park near Pasadena. She asked me what I did for a living. I said that I was a professor at a small liberal arts college. She then told me that she was the programming director at the religious center of a large university, a place where students from all walks of faith can find community, attend services, meet with clergy, and so on. Beverly loves her job. She helps arrange religious events, she coordinates panels and discussions, she sets up volunteering and charitable opportunities, among other things. When Beverly asked me what I studied, I said, "Secular people." Pause. "You know," I continued, "people who live their lives without religion. . . ." And then she calmly replied, "Well, without religion, you've got nothing." Now, mind you, there was nary of hint of snark or derogatoriness in her comment. It was said kindly and openly, a genuine expression of this woman's lived experience, inner faith, and personal orientation. To Beverly, life without religious faith and involvement would be empty, desultory. This association of secularity with nothingness runs deep. Many people assume that a life lived without religion is not only somewhat void, but intrinsically problematic. After all, how does one deal with death without religion? How does one cope with life's troubles? Develop morals and ethics? Find community? Experience a sense of transcendence? These are extremely fair questions. And yet the idea that religion is the best and/or only option out there when dealing with such matters is simply untenable. The glaring truth is that millions of people live their lives without religion--and they do so quite well. They aren't living aimlessly, adrift in a vacuum of nihilistic nothingness. Jill may not know it, or she may not conceive of it in terms of clearly articulated precepts, but her secular lifestyle is actually very moral and deeply grounded in ethical conduct. How she interacts with those around her on a daily basis, the choices that she makes as a mother, wife, neighbor, businesswoman, and citizen, and the ways she reacts to and appreciates the world around her--all of these are linked to developing and expressing an empathetic spirit, caring about others and the wider world, being responsible and upstanding. And they are very much linked to the secular sensibility. For as the stories of the many nonreligious men and women presented in this book will illustrate, there are actually specific key virtues of secular living, and prominent pillars of secular culture, that enhance moral rectitude and promote human decency. As for Beverly, while I didn't want to get into it at the picnic, what I would want her to know is that religion is definitely not the only avenue for people to live good, meaningful, or inspired lives. There are other, secular options. A life lived without religion is not "nothing." There are common attributes, characteristics, traits, and values one finds among nonreligious people, and within secular culture, that directly enhance individuals' ability to cope with life's troubles, allow for moments of fulfillment and existential awe, and even increase societal well-being. Indeed, the foundational components of a secular orientation are both abundant and laudable: from encouraging pragmatic, reasonable problem solving to fortifying oneself against groupthink and a herd mentality, from deepening our attachment to the people and things of this world to sparking a soulful appreciation for the majesty of nature, from encouraging scientific inquiry to manifesting a humane empathy, from fostering a mature morality to engendering a serene acceptance of mortality, secularity offers individuals a rich, proud wellspring of both wisdom and wonder. And as the many men and women you'll meet in the pages that follow will attest to, being secular is an affirming worldview and positive, purposeful life stance. What it means to be secular--and the cardinal virtues of secular living--are thus deeply important matters to recognize and understand, and their importance is all the more timely given that the number of nonreligious Americans is precipitously rising. Indeed, the recent spike of secularity has been a truly remarkable phenomenon, unprecedented in our nation's history. -- BACK IN THE 1950s, fewer than 5 percent of Americans were nonreligious. By the 1990s, that figure was up to 8 percent. Then it jumped to 14 percent in 2001, 16 percent in 2010, 19 percent in 2013, and as of the latest national surveys, it is up to 30 percent today. This means that the number of nonreligious Americans has increased by well over 200 percent over the last twenty-five years, making it the fastest-growing "religious" orientation in the country. More than a third of Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine now claim to be nonreligious. In the early 1970s, only 9 percent of Americans said that they never attended religious services; today, nearly 25 percent say as much. And there are currently more people in this country who were raised in secular homes--without any religion--than there are African Americans. Such a surge of people eschewing religion is truly remarkable, and helps explain why Time magazine recently cited the dramatic increase of Americans claiming "none" as their religion as one of the ten most significant trends changing American society. I am fascinated by this trend. And in my work as a sociologist and professor of secular studies, I have sought to thoroughly explore secular people's approaches to life, to probe the ramifications of their worldviews and perspectives, and to shine a light on their experiences, joys, and challenges. I've done all of this with an eye toward connecting such information to the broader social scene, both here in America and in the world at large. My primary investigative method has been to conduct in-depth interviews with nonreligious people from all over the country and from all walks of life, representing a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, occupations, sexualities, and class backgrounds. And I've purposely sought out people exhibiting a wide array of secular orientations, from the firmly convinced to the mildly befuddled, from the staunchly atheistic to the serenely indifferent. I've interviewed people who have devoted their lives to secularism as well as people who have hardly given it a thought prior to our discussion, and many others in between such extremes. I have found my interviewees through every imaginable channel: by searching secularist Web sites to find potential informants, by going to humanist gatherings of various shapes and sizes and getting to know the people involved, by pursuing individuals I've come in contact with at various conferences, by tracking down people from stories I've read in the newspapers, and by pursuing any and all leads that come my way via professional and personal contacts and networks. Such qualitative research, especially when corroborated by relevant statistics and bolstered with quantitative data, offers the best possible window into people's lives and worldviews, allowing their contoured stories and personal reflections to come forth--stories and reflections that are unique to each man and woman, and yet simultaneously relevant for countless others. What I have learned, and what shall be illustrated throughout the chapters ahead, is that while secular Americans may have nothing to do with religion, this does not mean that they wallow in despair or flail about in hapless oblivion. To the contrary, they live civil, reasonably rational, and admirably meaningful lives predicated upon sound ethical foundations. Secular Americans are undoubtedly a remarkably diverse lot, exhibiting a wide spectrum of identities, beliefs, dispositions, and proclivities. But as I've been able to glean through my research, most do share certain key traits and values, such as self-reliance, freedom of thought, intellectual inquiry, cultivating autonomy in children, pursuing truth, basing morality on the empathetic reciprocity embedded in the Golden Rule, accepting the inevitability of our eventual death, navigating life with a sober pragmatism grounded in this world (not the next), and still enjoying a sense of deep transcendence now and then amid the inexplicable, inscrutable profundity of being. For most nonreligious men and women, to be secular ultimately means living in the here and now--with exuberance, relish, passion, and tenacity--because this is the only existence we'll ever have. It also means being committed to making the world a better place, because this world is all we've got. Being secular means loving family and friends rather than a deity or savior. Being secular involves seeking to do good and treating others right simply because such behavior makes the world a better place for all. Being secular is about finding joy, splendor, and fulfillment in newborn babies and thunderstorms, peaches and tears, harmony and inner thighs, algebra and forgiveness, squid and irony, without attaching any supernatural or divine masking tape to such inexplicable wonders of life. And in line with what one of the leading lights of American secular humanism, Paul Kurtz, emphasized in his many books, essays, and speeches, most secular folk deeply believe that education and scientific discovery have the potential to enhance life, that democracy and respect for human rights are essential elements of a good society, that justice and fairness are ideals worth enacting, that the earth is to be valued and protected, that honesty, decency, tolerance, integrity, love, altruism, and self-responsibility are attributes to be cultivated, that creative and artistic expression are vital to the human experience, and that life, though at times beset with horror and despair, is intrinsically beautiful, wonderful, sublime. No doubt most religious people can wholeheartedly agree with the above sentiments. But many of them--perhaps people like Beverly--don't know that secular individuals actively advocate and embody such principles and beliefs. And many others--perhaps people like Jill--don't quite understand just what it is about being secular that strengthens and emboldens these principles and beliefs. -- THERE HAVE BEEN countless books extolling the philosophical rigor of atheism or polemically assaulting, deriding, and/or condemning this or that aspect of religious life. But what I offer here is something altogether different: a positive view and encouraging vision of real secularity that is developed "on the ground," in ordinary life, by and among ordinary people. I will explore how secular Americans get on and how they get by, how they confront death without the promise of eternal life, how they face tragedy and confront life's difficulties without the comfort of religious faith, how they find community beyond the walls of church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, how they raise their kids--in sum, how secular people navigate their lives. Of course, many secular Americans have rejected religion for very specific and staunch reasons; they are ideologically, philosophically, or politically motivated to embrace the secular life and they know its value and promise. However, many other nonreligious people are more passively secular, with less pointed intention or self-reflective awareness. People like Jill. And thus for the less consciously secular, or the newly secular, or the reluctantly secular, I hope that this book offers some guidance--a road map of sorts--that can ideally help such people navigate life lived without God or congregation. For those Americans out there living secular lives but feeling not quite sure just what that even means or ultimately entails, may the pages that follow be of use, for matters both existential and practical. But I also hope that this book will be illuminating for the majority of Americans out there who are happily religious--people like Beverly. I hope that the stories and experiences of the people profiled in the pages ahead, as well as the concomitant analysis, will positively influence the way that they make sense of and understand their neighbors, colleagues, and relatives who, for whatever reasons, do not or cannot share their religious faith and involvement. And in this vein, I further hope that the information, data, and discussion that follow will serve to counter some of their negative stereotypes and shake up a few of the many misconceptions out there concerning atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, and other such freethinkers. For example, a lot of religious Americans don't like or trust people who don't believe in God because they assume that atheism is the same thing as being without morals. This assumption is so widespread that in many surveys atheists come in at last place when Americans are asked to rank members of certain racial, ethnic, or religious groups as potential spouses for their kids. And a recent national poll found that 43 percent of Americans said that they would not vote for an atheist for president, putting atheists in last/worst place, behind Muslims (40 percent of Americans said they wouldn't vote for a Muslim for president), homosexuals (30 percent wouldn't), Mormons (18 percent wouldn't), Latinos (7 percent wouldn't), Jews (6 percent wouldn't), Catholics (5 percent wouldn't), women (5 percent wouldn't), and African Americans (4 percent wouldn't). Many other studies conducted in recent years have shown just how disliked the nonreligious are. For example, psychology professor Adrian Furnham found that people gave lower priority to patients with atheist or agnostic views than to Christian patients when asked to rank them on a waiting list to receive a kidney; legal scholar Eugene Volokh has documented the degree to which atheist parents have been denied custody rights in the wake of a divorce; psychologist Marcel Harper has found that many Americans consider secular people to be selfish and immoral; psychology professor Will Gervais found that many Americans consider atheists to be untrustworthy; and finally, sociologist Penny Edgell found that nearly half of all Americans would disapprove of their child wanting to marry an atheist, and when compared to other religious or minority groups such as African Americans, Mormons, Muslims, and Latinos, "atheists are at the top of the list of groups that Americans find problematic." All of the above needs to be contended with--and countered. An initial goal of this book, then, is to disabuse Americans of their dislike or distrust of the secular, not just because I am secular myself, but because the reality of secular men and women's lives and values indicates just how wrongheaded the dislike or distrust of nonreligious people truly is. 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. It is by stepping into this important arena--looking at how secular individuals construct and experience their morality, and what actually constitutes the primary ethics that undergird life without religion--that we'll begin our foray into the world of contemporary secular life and culture. Chapter 1 My father was recently getting his teeth cleaned. The friendly dental assistant, Brittany, was chatting to him about the weather, her boyfriend's new paintball gun, and the Kardashians. Somehow, religion came up. She asked my dad what church he goes to. He said that he didn't go to church. She asked him why not. He said because he was Jewish. She asked him if he went to synagogue. He said no. She asked him why not. He said because he was an atheist. The twinkle in her eye immediately flickered out. She was crestfallen. "But if you don't believe in God," she said, dental instruments held pensively in midair, "how can you be a good person?" "Well," my dad replied. "Remember Jiminy Cricket? I let my conscience be my guide." Brittany couldn't quite remember who Jiminy Cricket was, but she did like the idea of my dad having a conscience. And yet she just couldn't quite wrap her brain around the idea that my father could be a good person without religion. In her mind, being moral and having a conscience were only possible with an abiding faith in God. It is a widespread, all-too-common, taken-for-granted "truth" among many Americans today: morality comes from religious faith and involvement. The corollary to this belief is the assumption that without religion, one can't be moral. In other words, to be secular (or an atheist, heaven forbid) means that you must be immoral. This notion is not only held by dental assistants like Brittany, but is put forth by professors such as James Spiegel of Taylor University in Indiana, who in his book The Making of an Atheist argues that atheism is essentially, integrally predicated on immorality. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia recently shared his opinion that atheists favor "the devil's desires." And as broached in the introduction, various national surveys consistently report that a majority of Americans associate a lack of belief in God with a lack of personal morals. And yet, as I suspect you already know, it simply isn't so. No one who is secular themselves, or has any good friends or relatives who are secular, could ever cling with any tenacity to the notion that secular people are intrinsically or inevitably immoral. How Can You Be Moral Without Faith in God? Even if one doesn't hold to the prejudice that secular people are immoral, it is nonetheless a fair matter for inquiry: What does underlie secular morality, at root? How do individual men and women navigate their moral lives without a religious compass? And as Brittany's dismay implies, if secular people don't believe in God, or divine judgment, or heaven or hell, how do they construct their notions of ethical conduct, decency, and goodness? In beginning to answer these questions, we can start with the words of George Jacob Holyoake--the man who first coined the very term "secularism" back in 1851. Holyoake was from Birmingham, England. He worked as a schoolmaster, lecturer, writer, and magazine editor. He was also an atheist, and he even spent six months in jail for giving a speech deemed hostile to Christianity. According to Holyoake, secularism is not about being against religion. Rather, it is something positive, a personal orientation predicated on a this-worldly ethos--that is, guiding beliefs and principled ideals that are concerned with the here and now, people and nature, life and existence. As he explained in a publication from 1896, "Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable. Its essential principles are three: (1) The improvement of this life by material means. (2) That science is the available Providence of man. (3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good." It is good to do good. Nice enough. But what is good? For contemporary secular people, the answer to that is simple: the Golden Rule. Being good means treating others as you would like to be treated. That is the bedrock of secular morality. Not harming others--and helping or assisting others, should they seek such assistance or help--is pretty much it. For the nonreligious, morality isn't about abstaining from sex or avoiding alcohol, or doing what someone in authority tells you to do, or not doing something because you fear the otherworldly consequences if you do. Rather, secular morality hinges upon little else than not harming others, and helping those in need, both of which flow easily and directly from the Golden Rule's basic, simple logic of empathetic reciprocity. Given its easy applicability and inherent reasonableness, it shouldn't be surprising that the Golden Rule is remarkably widespread the world over. And it is also ancient, predating many of the famous moral precepts one finds in Christianity. Though it was undoubtedly articulated countless years prior, a version of the Golden Rule was first written down by the ancient Egyptians; a piece of papyrus from as far back as 600 BCE contains an inscription stating, "That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another." The Golden Rule was also recorded in ancient China, among the teachings of Confucius (551--479 BCE), who in his Analects taught, "Do not impose on others what you do not desire others to impose upon you," and "What you would require of your friend, first apply in your treatment of him." In ancient Greece, Thales (c. 624--c. 546 BCE) argued that humans live most virtuously and justly when "we never do ourselves what we blame in others," and Isocrates (436--338 BCE) reasoned that "those things which provoke anger when you suffer them from others, do not do to others." The rabbi Hillel of ancient Israel, living in the first century BCE, preached that "what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor." All of these formulations predate Jesus's teachings, found in the Gospels, that "all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them," and "as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." Although we find other versions of the Golden Rule within all of the world's religions, from Buddhism to Islam and from Jainism to Bahaism, not a single one of these religious articulations of the Golden Rule requires a God. All that is required is basic, fundamental human empathy. But how is basic, fundamental human empathy developed? Simply by living among other empathetic humans. As the great English philosopher John Stuart Mill so wisely quipped, "Though direct moral teaching does much, indirect does more." In other words, while people can certainly be taught to be considerate of others via sermons, lectures, bedtime stories, and so on, what really does the trick is actual lived experience. That's the "indirect" and yet far more effective way of developing morality. People learn, understand, and develop empathy as a result of what they observe in and experience from those around them. Sure, preaching and teaching morality are fine. But they don't hold a candle to day-to-day interactions. Children who are raised by considerate, fair, empathetic people generally grow up to be considerate, fair, and empathetic themselves. Children who grow up in stable, safe, and supportive environments generally develop the capacity to be kind, sensitive, and humane toward others. No philosophical proofs, theoretical arguments, logical axioms, Bible stories, or theistic beliefs are necessary. As Kai Nielsen, author of Ethics Without God , has stated, "What makes us moral beings is not so much the theoretical belief systems we inherit . . . but the way we have been nurtured from very early on. If we were fortunate enough to have had good moral role models, that is, kind, tolerably wise, and understanding parents, and to have lived in conditions of security where our basic needs were stably met, the chances are reasonably good that we will have those desirable moral characteristics ourselves." For many secular people, questions such as "Why be moral?" or "How can you be moral without faith in God?" are almost nonsensical. The very questions implicitly suggest that one "chooses"--in an intellectual, purely cognitive manner--to be moral based on certain theories, logical proofs, ideologies, beliefs, or on one's faith in a divine being. And yet for most secular people their morality is something much more experiential, much more visceral, even automatic. It has to do with the way they were raised, what they observed as they were growing up, what they unconsciously absorbed through their socialization--not this or that idea, theory, belief, dictum, or doctrine. I've talked to many secular people about their morality, specifically questioning them about where it comes from and how it works. And in response to my queries, I've heard a lot of interesting philosophical speculations, anecdotes, enthusiastic references to this or that book or film, and plenty of personal reflections. But two responses particularly stand out that I'd like to share here. One comes from a man named Milton Newcombe, from Pennsylvania, the other from a woman named Sonja Weiss, from Massachusetts. I find the way that they were able to articulate their thoughts on secular morality to be especially compelling. -- WE CAN CALL it the "matter of moral outsourcing," and it comes from Milton, age forty-six. Milton's take on secular morality goes something like this: people who base their morality upon their belief in God, or who think that morality comes from God, are guilty of "moral outsourcing." Morality, according to secular people like Milton, is essentially about the decisions and choices one personally makes for oneself, based on contemplation, the weighing of options, understanding alternatives, accepting possible consequences, and navigating complex life questions via one's own conscience. Morality is about listening and adhering to one's inner moral compass concerning what is right or wrong, just or unjust, compassionate or cruel, and then acting accordingly in relation to others. But if God is the source of morality, a person doesn't need to consult his or her own inner moral compass--one simply looks to God for direction. And looking to God for guidance about how to be moral is basically absolving oneself of doing the heavy lifting of moral deliberation. It is obediently deferring to a higher authority. It is seeking moral guidance elsewhere, outside of one's self. And according to many secular men and women, that is a major abdication. A serious eschewal of ethical duty. A deep deferment of moral decision making. It is, in short, a cop-out. Secular morality allows for no such cop-outs. Godlessness means that you have to make your own choices about how to treat others and how to live your life in a way that reflects your conscience. That, many secular folk will argue, is true morality. In the words of philosopher and humanist Stephen Law, "It is our individual responsibility to make our own moral judgments, rather than attempt to hand that responsibility over to some external authority." By predicating his morality upon his own conscience rather than looking to God or a pastor or the teachings of an ancient text for guidance, Milton gets by quite well, or at least as well as most of us. And one obvious benefit to the secular morality embraced by people like Milton--at the larger, societal level--is that it is less likely to lead to blind obedience to those in positions of authority, or herdlike behavior, or a mob mentality. As history has repeatedly shown, when too many people in a society look for moral guidance outside of themselves, ignoring their own conscience in favor of heeding some external source of moral instruction, the results are often quite unsavory, if not downright bloody. An orientation such as that of people like Milton who refuse to outsource their morality and instead rely on their conscience is more likely to foster independent thinking, personal responsibility, skepticism toward hegemonic propaganda, and a sober self-awareness of why one chooses to do right over wrong--all of which are virtues highly compatible with and indeed essential for a healthy democracy. -- A SECOND ARTICULATION of the value of secular moral reasoning is what I would call the "eye in the ceiling." This comes from Sonja, age sixty-two. During our interview, Sonja presented me with a hypothetical situation in order to illustrate what she thinks reveals the superiority of secular over God-based morality. Here's the scenario: Imagine that there is a room, and in the middle of the room, perched on a small table, is a beautiful, amazing, intricate piece of art. It contains all sorts of colorful levers, golden pulleys, shimmering crystals, silver balls, cute bells, spiked wheels, red spokes, brittle branches, webbed wires, all arranged in a psychedelic, fanciful way that is truly spectacular to behold. But this piece of art is extremely fragile. And it is the only one in existence. And the artist who made it is dead. Okay, so now let's say we take two nine-year-old kids. We say to the first kid, "Go into this room and look at this wonderful piece of art. You will have ten minutes in there, all to yourself. No one will be in the room but you. But please do not touch the piece of art. It is extremely delicate, very fragile, and it is the only one in existence. If you were to touch it, you might accidentally break, stain, or alter it, which would possibly cause irreparable damage, and then other kids won't be able to see it as it should be seen. Now, if you do touch it, and if you do accidentally break it, we won't punish you--but we'd be quite sad, and so we'd just really like you to not touch it." The kid goes in, looks but doesn't touch, and comes out. Great. Now here comes the second kid. But we say something quite different to this kid. We say, "Go into this room and look at this wonderful piece of art. You will have ten minutes in there, all to yourself. No one will be in the room but you. And please do not touch the piece of art. It is extremely delicate, very fragile, and it is the only one in existence. Now, there will be a small hole in the ceiling, and through that hole, the principal of the school will be watching you. His eye will be on you at all times. If you touch that piece of art, he will see it, and he will be very angry, and you will be severely punished when you come out of the room. However, if you don't touch it, he will see this as well, and he will be very pleased, and he will reward you with something wonderful when you come out." The kid goes in, looks but doesn't touch, and exits. Fine. Now, for many secular people, such as Sonja, the first scenario represents secular morality: the kid who makes a choice not to touch the piece of art does so because she understands the risks and she understands the potential consequences, and she understands the value of what is before her. She chooses to do what is right, but not out of fear of punishment, or hope of reward, or because she is ever mindful of that eye in the ceiling watching her. The second kid represents religious morality: he makes a choice not to touch the piece of art largely because he is aware of the eye in the ceiling, and he doesn't want to be punished, and he wants a reward at the end. That isn't morality, Sonja argues. That's just being obedient, or merely fearful, or prudent, or greedy. To be sure, both kids in Sonja's hypothetical scenario did the right thing. But the underlying motivations were quite distinct. And I would agree with Sonja that if we as individuals, when placed in morally ambiguous or potentially precarious situations, make choices because we think the Eye of God is watching us, and we seek to avoid punishment while attaining personal rewards, we aren't being truly moral. But if we make moral choices on our own volition, based on our understanding of what is at stake and what might be gained or lost and who might be harmed or helped, and not because we are being prudently mindful of a cosmic eye waiting to punish or reward us, well, that's truly moral. But there's more. In Sonja's scenario, the child who is only acting morally because of the eye in the ceiling engages in exactly what Milton described: moral outsourcing. He is not relying on his own conscience. He is not depending on his own sense of morality that has been developed through making his own decisions, mistakes, and good choices. Rather, he simply adjusts his behavior because of that eye. But what happens if, at some point down the line, this child begins to doubt the existence of that eye? Well, now we're stuck with an actively immoral individual, who can't rely on himself to do the right thing. The child raised within a secular framework does not risk such a crisis, since her morality is not predicated upon belief in an all-watching eye to begin with. Such a secular orientation to morality has concrete benefits in the real world: when people make decisions based on their understanding the ramifications of their actions, weighing harm to others versus personal pleasure, without reliance upon or fear of a deity whose existence we can't even be sure of, such a moral orientation is not only more durable--requiring no leaps of faith--but it also lends itself to reasoned decision making, unavoidable self-reflection, and, perhaps most important, an empathetic disposition. Secular Morality in American Society In order to see the real-world benefits of secular morality in action, we need not rely on thought experiments. Many recent studies are available that reveal the tangible degree to which secular men and women harbor ideals and exhibit ethical orientations that evidence a deep valuing of life, empathy for the suffering, desire for fairness, and hatred of injustice and cruelty. For example, consider racism. In a landmark paper published by then Duke University professor Deborah Hall and associates, fifty-five separate studies were carefully analyzed to reveal the relationship between religion, irreligion, and racism. The most interesting finding of this impressive meta-analysis was that strongly religious Americans tend to be the most racist, moderately religious Americans tend to be less racist, and the group found to be the least racist of all are secular Americans, particularly those espousing an agnostic orientation. As psychologists Ralph Wood, Peter Hill, and Bernard Spilka note, basing their assessment upon decades of research, "As a broad generalization, the more religious an individual is, the more prejudiced that person is." Perhaps this helps explain why secular white people were more likely than religious white people to support the civil rights movement, and why secular white South Africans were more likely to be against apartheid than religious white South Africans. How about feelings about torture? In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush began allowing for the torturing of prisoners suspected of terrorism. This decision to make government-sponsored torture legal was met with great debate. And in a national survey from 2009, it was found that those Americans who were the most supportive of the governmental use of torture were the most strongly religious, while those who were most opposed to the governmental use of torture were the most secular. The same holds true for support of the death penalty: the more religious tend to be the most supportive of it, favoring vengeance over forgiveness, while the more secular tend to be the most against it, manifesting a more merciful orientation. Not only are secular people less likely to be racist or vengeful, on average, than religious people, but they are also less likely to be strongly nationalistic. And when we look specifically at militarism, we see that the more religious among us tend to be more in favor of attacking and invading other countries, such as Iraq or Vietnam, while the most secular among us are the least supportive of such military aggression. Secular people are also much more tolerant on all fronts than their religious peers, being more likely to support the civil liberties of people they strongly disagree with or even oppose politically. And as for protecting the environment, religious Americans (especially the most strongly religious) tend to be the least in favor, while atheists and agnostics are the most supportive, and secular Americans are more likely to understand and take seriously the catastrophic threat of global warming than religious Americans. They are also more likely to support women's equality. In fact, secular Americans are much less likely than their religious counterparts to believe that wives should obey their husbands. And what about gay rights? As to be expected, the religious are most likely to be opposed, while the secular are most likely to be supportive. How about the hitting of children? Religious people are, on average, much more supportive of corporal punishment, while secular people are much more likely to be against it. As for the status of illegal immigrants in the United States, the secular are far more supportive of offering a path to legal citizenship status than the religious, who are more likely to insist that there isn't any more room at the inn. The secular are also more likely to be concerned with the suffering of animals than the religious. In sum, when it comes to a host of issues and positions--from torture to war, from global warming to the welfare of animals--secular people clearly feel that it is good to do good in this known lifetime. Admittedly, secular men and women don't outshine their religious peers in every way. For example, when it comes to generosity, volunteering, and charitable giving, secular men and women fall short, with religious people being more likely to donate both their time and their money. However, as for what is perhaps the ultimate indicator of moral behavior (or lack thereof), namely, violent crime, we know that atheists are grossly under represented in our prisons today, with some reports suggesting that atheists make up less than half of 1 percent of all Americans behind bars. A similar underrepresentation of secular folk in prison is found in the United Kingdom as well, suggesting that this is no fluke. As professor of psychology Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi has concluded, "Ever since the field of criminology got started and data were collected of the religious affiliation of criminal offenders, the fact that the unaffiliated and the nonreligious had the lowest crime rates has been noted." Brian and Paula: Good Without God The findings of social science, when it comes to revealing the degree to which secular people can be moral without faith in God, are important--nay, essential. The survey data, statistical averages, and opinion polls summarized above provide concrete evidence concerning contemporary secular moral predilections and proclivities. But in order to get a richer, deeper, and more personable sense of lived secular morality, I'd like to shift away from sociological averages and surveys and introduce you to two living, breathing individuals: Brian Mackelroy and Paula Hendricks. They are both ER nurses who spend their days caring for others in need. Their lives illustrate some profound truths and realities concerning the nature of secular morality. I'll begin with Brian, who works as an ER nurse at a hospital in one of Wisconsin's larger cities. Brian is thirty-seven years old, married, and the father of twin boys. He was raised a Catholic but started having doubts about his faith in his late teens. And then, when he was twenty-one, he took a philosophy course on existentialism at the University of Wisconsin. At the heart of existentialism is the insistence that each individual, through her own consciousness, must create her own meaning in her life, and there is in fact no grand meaning to the world other than what we ourselves give to it. While it is certainly possible to be an existentialist and also a Christian believer, many people, like Brian, find existentialism to be inimical to traditional religion. "After reading this philosophy, I was, like, 'Oh, wait a minute!'" he says, laughing. "I've been an agnostic with atheist leanings ever since." Brian's loss of faith did not result in feelings of alienation or despondence--quite the opposite. "It was actually very liberating, losing my faith. It made me want to seize the day more." And his sense of responsibility toward others only strengthened. "We are social creatures. We are interdependent. I think it is just part of our evolved human nature to want to be with each other and to help each other." The other day at work, Brian tended to a woman who was so drunk that she was essentially unconscious; when she arrived at the ER, her pants and underwear were down below her knees and her body was covered in bruises. The day before that, a man came in with diabetes and advanced cancer--large tumors all over, including his liver and spine. The day before that, a man came in who had been shot by a shotgun at point-blank range; his left shoulder was gone, and his left lung was collapsed. The day before that, a woman came in who had been stabbed multiple times. Day in and day out, Brian helps and comforts people in literal life-and-death situations. "Just recently a woman came in--she had a history of ulcers and colitis. She came in with a perforated bowel--one of the ulcers in her colon ruptured . . . huge infection, lots of internal bleeding . . . and we said, 'We've got to get you to the operating room immediately and we can save you. . . .' And she said, 'No, thank you.' She was about fifty-five. Her sisters had come in, and they were just pleading with her to have the surgery. And she said, 'No.' So I watched this woman exercise her most profound right--the right to decide her own fate. She just kept saying, 'I've had a good life. And up until recently it's been really good. But now I am suffering. I don't want to live like this. I've had a good life, and I am prepared to die.' So I watched her die. And it wasn't a pretty death. Her two sisters were in the room just bawling--really freaking out. And when she died, she just threw up tons of blood--all through her mouth--it was an ugly situation. Fecal matter, blood, the whole thing. And I cleaned her up, gave her sisters as much time as they needed, checked in with them frequently, told them they could have as much time with their dead sister as they wanted. That's really intense, right? But I actually feel privileged to experience such things. It's life. It's death." Yes, and it's really heavy. It's got to take a toll. How does he keep at it? What keeps him going? "It gives me real job satisfaction to have positive interactions with people day after day, and I love the amazing sense of teamwork that takes place when someone comes in and they are in real dire need of care--when it is a life-or-death situation--and we're on it and we help them. It can be really heated and really intense, and you can't take things personally at those times--but the interdependence is incredible, and it all comes together. And of course, it seems sort of obvious to say, but it feels really good just working with and helping people. Just helping people. The helping aspect. I enjoy that." What underlies Brian's personal morality? What's the source? "I don't know the exact answer to that, to be perfectly honest. But I look at the world through the lens of evolutionary biology. I got my degree in biology. And if you're asking how I can be ethical--how we can have ethics without religion, or without it all being handed down by the word of God--from a natural selection viewpoint, we are social creatures, and in small communities, way back when, people needed to work together and contribute to the greater good, to the group, which was the key to survival." But if there is no God--no ultimate divine being that establishes morality--then how do we live according to a moral system? "I would argue that the Golden Rule prevailed long before we decided that it came from a God. And for me, I just look at it in terms of our human evolution. If you take a group of humans living in a situation where they need to work together, need to band together in order to defend themselves from predators and find food and water and shelter, and you throw in the mix someone who tries to manipulate the system for his own good and rob or steal, I think, sure, he may thrive for a little while, but if suddenly more such people emerge and grow and now you have a community of people who are only inclined to rob and steal from one another, well, that community is going to fail. They're not going to be able to get their food, water, and shelter. And they're going to be preyed upon. 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." When Brian speculates about the natural, adaptive evolutionary underpinnings of human morality, he is in good company: a growing number of developmental psychologists, evolutionary biologists, historical anthropologists, and primatologists are discovering more and more evidence that bolsters just such a perspective. For example, Matt Ridley, in his book The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation ,shows how human trust, mutual aid, and ethical cooperation naturally evolved over time and that such primal instincts helped early humans survive, both as individuals and in groups. In his book Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals , Frans de Waal similarly argues that primate morality, both among humans and our closest primate relatives, is indeed a naturally evolved trait, and that cooperation and humane behavior have been evolutionarily key to our success as a species. De Waal adds more depth in his latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist , arguing that human morality does not come down to us from the heavens, but develops within us naturally as a product of evolution. Additionally, Cristopher Boehm, in his book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame , asserts that while selfishness certainly has its evolutionary advantages, so too does cooperation. Boehm analyzes the evolutionary role of altruism, arguing that selflessness and mindfulness of others' needs have most definitely played positive roles in the evolution of human thriving. Such research is mushrooming at the moment, and as scientists J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer sum up, this new research indicates that human morality developed as "an adaptive strategy handed down to us by natural selection." For as psychology professor James Waller explains, since the small social group has been one of the few constants in our evolutionary history, that means that we "have evolved in the context of group living. . . . What are some of the psychological adaptations that enhance the fitness of individuals within a group . . . ? Love, friendship, cooperativeness, preferential and reciprocal altruism, nurturance, friendship, compassion, communication, a sense of fairness . . . in short, the things that hold society together." For any social species, be it early humans or bonobos, the rewards of being part of a group that shares, cares, and looks out for one another generally outweigh the benefits of selfishness. -- WHEN IT COMES to caring and looking out for one another, Paula Hendricks is as good a human specimen as they come. Paula is from New Jersey; she is fifty-three years old, divorced, with one daughter. She has worked as a trauma and ER nurse for more than twenty-five years. Like Brian, Paula was raised with religion and definitely believed in God as a child, but by the time she was in her early twenties she wanted nothing more to do with faith, church, or religion. Working at a hospital in a large city in New Jersey with very high rates of crime and poverty, Paula has seen her share of traumatic cases: stabbing victims, shooting victims, rape victims--and she's seen lots of people die. Sometimes those deaths are peaceful, but sometimes they are painful, prolonged, and gut-wrenching. The many years of such work, however, have not in any way sapped Paula's passion for what she does. "I love being a nurse. A day doesn't go by when I don't love being a nurse. And I feel like every patient is a gift, every interaction is a gift, every experience is a gift. It is a gift about learning about myself and learning about what it means to be human. And that happens, as a nurse, every day, all day long. . . . I'm grateful for the moments I have helping people, that I am able to share with people, every day." If Paula is ever depressed or distressed about anything, it is the inability of the large hospital she works at to help more people. She feels terrible about the current inadequacies of the American health care system, and how so many people are left unassisted or poorly handled. "We are so overwhelmed--just the volume. Some days I am just so overwhelmed--because what is happening is that people, because they've lost their jobs and they've lost their insurance--we often just can't handle the load of people coming to us for treatment. And some days we have ambulances lined up at the door--and we don't have enough beds. And I always feel like I am fighting to give each patient the very best care, and there's always someone pushing me to move quicker, move on to the next one, that you don't get to give care . You're just quickly performing tasks. I hate those days. Because being a nurse is not just about performing tasks. It's about being there for people, talking to them, listening to them. You know, the best thing I can hear is when a patient says to me, 'I just feel so safe in your care.' I want people to feel safe." Perhaps the hardest times for Paula are when children come in who have been the victims of violence. "I've seen a lot of children--sodomized, abused--just bad, bad things. Just bad. And there's nothing you can appreciate, there's no 'silver lining.' It's just bad." Sometimes, when several such cases come in a given week, she takes a day or two off in order to deal with the sadness and feel good again. But these times are uncommon. Generally, she feels wonderful about what she does, even though it involves encountering so much suffering and death. "I appreciate life so much after I see people die. It is always just such a reminder that every moment--this is all we have. This is it. I don't know if there is anything before or after, but this is what we do know. This is it. There are no guarantees for anything else. So we have to always, always appreciate." Excerpted from Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions by Phil Zuckerman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
Chapter 1 Moralityp. 11
Chapter 2 The Good Societyp. 38
Chapter 3 Irreligon Risingp. 55
Chapter 4 Raising Kidsp. 78
Chapter 5 Creating Communityp. 107
Chapter 6 Trying Timesp. 137
Chapter 7 Don't Fear the Reaperp. 168
Chapter 8 Aweismp. 200
Conclusionp. 213
Acknowledgmentsp. 225
Notesp. 227
Bibliographyp. 245
Indexp. 263