By Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
In 1950, fewer than 5 percent of Americans were nonreligious. Sixty years later, in 2010, as Phil Zuckerman writes in his new book, Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions(Penguin, Dec.), that number had jumped to 16 percent, according to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project (with a smaller proportion actually identifying as atheists). Today various national surveys find some 30 percent of Americans saying they do not practice any religion. With an increase of more than 200 percent in the past 25 years, this latter group–which sociologists of religion refer to as the “nones”–is the fastest-growing “religious” orientation in the country. How do people live fulfilling and meaningful lives without the traditional support of religious beliefs and institutions?
As they studied what they call secularism—”our term for atheists and non-theist humanists”—sociologists Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith say they noticed the issue of atheism vs. religion has generated “more heat than light.” Rather than joining the debate, in Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America (Oxford, Nov.), Cimino and Smith draw on in-depth interviews with atheist, secular, and humanist leaders and activists to illustrate the ways these nonbelievers organize themselves. “Even though organized religions are antagonists of secularists,” the authors tell PW, “we found that secularist groups do share some common ground with religious groups, especially evangelicals. Atheists mimic evangelicals in their emphasis on outreach; some secularists are seeing the value of rituals and even talk of ‘spirituality’ minus the supernatural elements; and atheists and evangelicals often see themselves as a struggling minority and see the other as a dangerous force in society, leading both camps to take up political activism.”
In Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-First Century (Rowman & Littlefield, Oct.), Lex Bayer–a board member of the Humanist Connection, a humanist, atheist, and agnostic nonprofit organization serving Stanford University and Silicon Valley–and John Figdor–the humanist chaplain serving the atheist, humanist, and agnostic communities at Stanford–address the question, “So, you don’t believe in God; now what?” The authors argue that atheists need not react against God but instead can embrace a set of constructive principles to live by that establish a meaningful view of the world. To aid in that quest, Bayer and Figdor provide a set of ten “Non-Commandments” that include affirmations such as “we can perceive the world through our human senses,” and “we act morally when the happiness of others makes us happy.” They invite readers to discover their own non-commandments, to help them arrive at a deeper understanding of their core beliefs.
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