I heard Phil Zuckerman interviewed in a special segment on the rising demographics of secular people in the world. From a religious standpoint, that is the fastest growing group in the United States, the non-religious and unaffiliated. Some of them are “spiritual but not religious,” that is they have some sensibility about ultimacy, some awareness of or belief in the divine. But many do not. They are naturalists, finding the meaning of life in the natural order that simply is – without benefit of knowing a God or gods or some benevolent presence behind it all.

Zuckerman is a sociologist that specializes in this constituency of seculars. He is a professor at Pitzer College and the author of Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014).

Though he surely studies a-theists – those who do not subscribe to classical theism – he finds that too negative, defining oneself by what one rejects. In the same way a-gnostic is a label that, however accurate, says one simply cannot know such things and is also defining things by a negative, what we cannot know.

As I closely considered his research and followed his arguments I found myself more certain than ever before that the divide is not necessarily between the religious and non-religious (though it is that), but between those who embrace the modern world and those who do not. For example, he and other seculars often characterize Christians as antithetical to science. Well, that is true in one slice of the Christian spectrum. But clearly not true in others who walk side by side with the insights of science. It really matters which Christians you are talking about. You could say the same about any religious group – which ones?

But let me share a few of the categories Zuckerman addresses.

One of the things that he attempts to correct is that a/theists are somehow immoral, without ethical compass. Most seculars establish their moral codes within their families and though it is not determined by a religious code of morals it often is characterized by something close to the Golden Rule = treating one’s neighbor as one wishes to be treated. For whatever reason – be it the survival of the tribe or another – this is the ethic that is practiced, one found in philosophers and humanists throughout time. This is generally translated into social morals based on the same principle, do good.

Responsible secular parents raise their children with moral codes built mostly on example. They identify what is healthy for child and for others. Psychological balance is important. This, again, is done without benefit of religion. In the same way the need for community that many find in congregations or religious gatherings is found elsewhere, whether the community group, the arts, children’s programs.

How do seculars face and cope with tragedy? Like many others – social support, courage, grieving – but without the perceived external aid of a God. How about inevitable death that lurks around every corner? They face death without an expectation of a future life, or at least an unknowing about a future life. What is known is how to live this life to the fullest. Death is parting and ending in the natural scheme of things. The meaning of people lives on in memory.

I was very interested in how Zuckerman described his experience of “awe.” Many of us would say that we have the very same thing – and maybe it is. We are taken with beauty, the sublime reaches of space, the depths of love. He says that seculars, far from living a gray life, flat and purposeless – may drink deeply from the cup of life. Here’s how he puts it: “Existence is ultimately a beautiful mystery, being alive a wellspring of wonder, and that the deepest questions of existence, creation, time and space are so powerful as to inspire deep feelings of joy, poignancy, and sublime awe.”(209)

At the minimum, we who grew up with a religious worldview need to try to understand a life perspective from another view. The millions who are secular today are not diminishing, but growing. Many we encounter along the way will be living happily with no sense of a God or religious faith. We need to think through how we will relate to them. At the same time, on the other side, we are framed by fundamentalist religious groups who have no room to consider any other perspective than their own. They are also growing worldwide. We often find ourselves positioned between the two. This is our lot. Welcome to the 21st century world.

 

 

 

Comments
  1. Dawn Dillon says:

    Love, love, love this article, Tim. Oh how I miss your wisdom and calming presence.

    Sent from my iPhone, please pardon the typos and brevity.

    >

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