‘Living the Secular Life,’ by Phil Zuckerman

Dec 22, 2014

Image credit: Elliott Zuckerman

By Susan Jacoby

Many years ago, when I was an innocent lamb making my first appearance on a right-wing radio talk show, the host asked, “If you don’t believe in God, what’s to stop you from committing murder?” I blurted out, “It’s never actually occurred to me to murder anyone.”

Nonreligious Americans are usually pressed to explain how they control their evil impulses with the more neutral, albeit no less insulting, “How can you have morality without religion?” Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in California, attempts to answer this question in “Living the Secular Life.” He offers an insightful mixture of academic research on shifting American religious views, his own experience as a parent, and interviews with others facing moral crises without God — from a woman overcoming drug addiction to a Holocaust survivor who bristles at the idea that God was looking out for anyone when the Nazis were murdering Jews.

Adults unaffiliated with any religion now make up nearly a fifth of the American population, but only about 30 percent of this group chose to identify themselves as atheists or agnostics in a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center. The rest described themselves as “nothing in particular,” giving rise to the media label “Nones.”

While slightly more than half of Americans say they would be less likely to vote for an atheist for president, the comparable figure in 2007 was closer to two-thirds. It is not inconceivable that the negative American image of atheists is beginning to change in a fashion that might one day resemble the dramatic shift in opinion about gay rights.

For now, though, many atheists find it impossible to eschew a slightly defensive tone, calibrated to show that they are as virtuous as anyone else. Zuckerman, whose previous works include “Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment” (2008), is no exception. He extols a secular morality grounded in 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.”

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19 comments on “‘Living the Secular Life,’ by Phil Zuckerman

  • @OP – Zuckerman, whose previous works include “Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment” (2008), is no exception. He extols a secular morality grounded in the “empathetic reciprocity embedded in the Golden Rule,

    The European states with an inclusive culture and a social conscience, have a lot to teach the right-wing corporate grabbing culture in US politics.

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  • How do I restrain myself?

    there is the law, social ostracism, reputation and my own moral code, I imagine what it would be like to be the recipients of my action.
    If wish to have sex with someone who would not want to have sex with me, I don’t sweat it. I don’t obsess on it. I don’t feel guilty about it. I don’t create a pressure cooker by feeling guilty about my thoughts as if they were actions. As long as I am not obnoxious about it, or pretend it is my due, even if they find out, they will likely be flattered not offended.
    There are general principles. What if everyone did that? What harm would be caused in the long term?
    In general I like people. I want my behaviour to be helpful to them. I spend a lot of time mulling over the fairest, most helpful, most ethical behaviour. I feel dissonance if I don’t follow my own reasoning.

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  • I accidentally have read his sentence in first paragraph “If you don’t believe in God, what’s to stop you from committing murder?” like: If you believe in God, what’s to stop you from committing murder?

    Which sounded very appropriate to me. I mean it is more likely for someone who believes in god to commit murder that one who does not. Believer has a redeemer for his/hers sins which has been installed for the purpose of taking upon himself all future sins of believers. The actual sinner is solved of responsibility by saying several prayers phrases. In my opinion, person who believe in savior, in god, is likely to commit misdeed than the one who does not believe,… the believer doesn’t have responsibility,… someone else is responsible for their actions.

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  • Quite. The twin ideologies of personal salvation and “taking care of number one” lubricated by the very freest of markets and a paranoia of governments creates a perfect storm of selfishness.

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  • It’s far simpler than that.

    The very premise of the question is selectively arrogant and deceitful. It knowingly omits one critical piece of the puzzle……the very first domino.

    If you answer the question as is, you are validating the inference that religion is moral to begin with. It is not!! Organized religion is the corruption of the mind to facilitate a construct of multi-level hierarchical authority. Politically speaking it’s basically the oldest pyramid scheme in human history.

    Basic logic:
    If Atheism is simply the absence of religion, then all babies are technically born atheists. EVERY religious person is taught the religion afterwards. You don’t naturally instinctively feel the need to murder someone in the righteous defence of any religion. You have to be convinced the need to defend that religion first. Ergo, religion teaches the justification for violence infinitely more frequently than any secularist group.

    The notion that religion bestows morality is a false premise because anyone can also be taught to be moral without incorporating stories of the talking snake and threats of damnation. Yet more evidence that religion actually uses indirect threats of pain and suffering and violence in order to teach morality….it’s bizarro logic.

    As secularism grows, atheists are going to come under much more fire. Religion in certain areas will be fighting for survival soon. Desperation is already starting to set in. Look at the recent actions of the new pope. It’s capitalism with the currency being humans occupying church pews. The more followers the Catholic church loses, the more concessions the Pope makes.

    If you were the leader of a organized religion, holding influence over large groups of people, and living a life of privilege, how easily would you give it up ? As Shakespeare said: Power corrupts…

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  • We should keep in mind that morality is a concept. It only exists in our head. So here we are with the source of morality: the human mind. No wonder that we envented something like an omnipotent big brother to make sure morality works. Besides we have brains that are aimed on our survival. To achieve that goal there are components that work by extrapolating possible future scenario. At the same time this function has to struggle with the fact that it might fail the task for several reasons. We also need an explanation for these failures. God, an entity that – by definition – is capable of solving infinite regresses is a nice trick to get rid of the trouble not being able to do it ourselves. Here we are!
    But in th end not to kill each other can – for a lot of reasons – be a ESS. We do not always renounce to kill each other but most of the times we do. Usually if people kill each other (mental illness as an exeption) there are dilemmas like wanting things someone else has (land, food, love ect.) and if the threshold is exceeded – we kill each other. But in all normal situations we “know” (in fact a more subconscious process) that by killing each other we loose more than we gain!

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  • 8
    zulfiqar says:

    Morality seems to be much ancient than religions. One can easily understand how it evolved. Religions have simply borrowed the human natural feelings and norms of their times and have tried to present them as commandments and codes. One can easily see morality working in instinctive forms in other species esp the social ones like bees, ants and monkeys etc.

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  • While I was doing the ironing this afternoon, I was pondering the question. “Given I don’t do christmas, what would be an appropriate secular greeting between two rational people at solstice time.”

    I tried to convert “I wish you a merry christmas” but “I wish you a merry solstice” failed. First, to “Wish” for something means you are doing what the religious do. Wishing something was true, or praying, another form of wishing. The substitute word “Hope” is like wishing, but for lazy people. The solstice is the start of a new year. I’m a human. I have emotions. I want everyone to feel happy and to be good. That’s nice for people and nice for humanity and the planet. Wish? Hope? And the “Merry” bit needs some work to. Happiness is a preferred state, over sad or depressed, but the latter are not infrequent companions. They are normal human emotional states and serve a rational purpose. If I can’t “Wish” and I can’t “Hope” you are happy, now and in the new year, what is the word I am looking for. I roughed this out while ironing my wife’s denims.

    “The probabilities are higher that you will have a more happy and
    successful 2015 if you make your decisions based on reliable
    evidence.” Sigh.

    It might be technically correct, but where’s the hug that we emotional humans also need. The next time I’m ironing, I will work on it some more.

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  • I only really have one thing to add. If you only behave yourself simply because you are told to by god then you are not really a good person. Atheists manage to behave themselves without being told by anyone! Amazing isn’t it!

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  • Human primitive morality evolved in our ancestors millions of years ago, the proof is in the Bonobos, and, like it or not, Nones are atheistic or agnostic…

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  • For years I somewhat struggled with something similar. For example, I am an atheist, and yet I like and support the practice of the traditional wedding ceremony…….in a church no less. My rationalization is the following
    – it is a significant life event no matter how you look at it
    – I love the architecture simply for the beauty of the architecture…period. Feel free to remove all statues and depictions of deity. Put a copy of Lord of the Rings up on the pulpit if you wish. I still enjoy the masonry and the woodwork.
    – on a psychological level it is consistent to have a wedding ceremony within a structure of visual significance to go along with the significance of the event, i.e. let the venue match the event.
    – rather than any religious connotations, I do like the symbolism of the circle (i.e. the wedding ring or band): infinity….the commitment to one another forever. There is no religious prerequisite needed. It has a certain mathematical purity to it.
    Other than that it’s one big costume party where the ladies dress up as Cinderella and the guys all dress up as penguins.

    So when it comes time to celebrating something like Christmas, I treat it no differently than Halloween, only there’s a different theme and set of cultural traditions. I think of the feeling of ‘Christmas spirit’ simply as a heightened state of mind. It’s like a temporary emotional cease fire among us. Somehow I think atheism seems to get interpreted as emotionless and without passion. You can still feel a sense of joy and wonder with the complete absence of any religious attachment.

    If that’s the mechanism that results in everyone being a little bit nicer to each other, then so be it. I play along with the established theme. Therefore I do not feel the need to substitute anything for the purpose of avoiding some sort of philosophical contradiction. I treat the religious stories as no different than another form of fantasy literature, of which I am a huge fan….I pay good money to watch wizards and dragons in an IMAX 3D theatre and don’t feel the need to go home and try to cast magic spells with a broom handle. The same goes for all the stories in the old testament.

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  • Anthropology shows us that humans evolved to become pack animals. We learned that if we worked together we could accomplish more – we had a better overall chance of survival.
    I believe morality is simply an extension of that same realization that within the community, your quality of life (as an extension of basic survival) overall is improved with supportive morality.

    The contradiction is that humans also evolved to have structure within the pack, i.e. the alpha male, again for the purpose of optimizing the chance for survival – to strengthen the species. That inherently introduces competition within the pack.

    If you extrapolate this out, we have that exact same construct today. As individuals, we are taught to do unto others as you would have them do unto you….your comfort in life will be improved. We also learn the value of teamwork. The pack becomes the company. Our economic system is based on rewarding the victors of competition: pay and promotion (towards the leadership of the pack) based on performance. When one pack encroaches upon another pack’s resources, then there is competition for the resources. One pack will eliminate the other, or merge with the other to form an even bigger pack…..sound familiar ?

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  • Stee Dec 24, 2014 at 8:59 am

    I love the architecture simply for the beauty of the architecture…period. Feel free to remove all statues and depictions of deity. Put a copy of Lord of the Rings up on the pulpit if you wish. I still enjoy the masonry and the woodwork.

    Interestingly in Moscow, under the communist regime, they still preserved the artwork, icons, and architecture of the churches (in Red Square and in the Kremlin) as tourist museum exhibits. – Likewise the Czars’ palaces.

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  • I think that we may be asking the wrong question and you have hit on the the real question. At what point are we prepared to kill, not are we likely to run amuck and kill randomly. You have listed a few selfish reasons but what about on a smaller scale of protecting your family? What about physical abuse to your daughter, say, that causes you to want to kill? A feud ensues and more lives are lost. Is this not what moral religious laws and then state laws are about? Isn’t this where the morality question is levelled at? State laws provide police officers to help prevent but they cannot be everywhere at once. The invented god, on the other hand, is omnipotent. We take these accusations personally but they are aimed at those that WILL kill for possessions but also at those of us that might crack under certain circumstances and feel we are justified in our response. Don’t get me wrong. They obviously are no deterrent when we DO feel justified, neither religious law or state law. In fact we use them as justification in themselves. One religious right over another and one state /world law over another will give us all we need to make the murder of thousands justifiable. So I ask myself the question ‘can I kill’. Yes, given the right situation if the law of religion or star cannot protect me then I will have to in order to protect my family. So, for me, morality is much more than just me. Its has become, on thinking, the responsibility of the society, and ultimately the world, that I live in. Not only is it the law of evolution in self preservation and reciprocation but an order that must be observed by all for it to work. A law that must be voluntarily signed up to because force can only break the law you are trying to observe. Forcing ideologies on people has given us the world we have today but how we achieve a world wide consensus is another question all together. My thoughts.

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  • If I can’t “Wish” and I can’t “Hope” you are happy

    Exactly. Only incomplete person has wishes and hopes. If one is complete then they do not have needs.

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  • Don’t use the word “proof,” as it is unscientific. One never “proves” anything in a scientific sense (Einstein “illustrated, not proved, that even natural science was not immutable). Rather than proving something one illustrates the increased significance of a hypothesis. My stat professors beat this into me so strongly that when I see the words proof or proved it raises the hair on my arms. Sorry.

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  • We should keep in mind that morality is a concept. It only exists in our head. So here we are with the source of morality: the human mind. No wonder that we envented something like an omnipotent big brother to make sure morality works.

    Holding forth in the 7th comment, Joe Wolsing pretty much covers the ground. We atheists believe on convincing evidence that religion is human made. We sometimes get tongue-tied when believers confront us with God’s word and commandments because we fall into a compliant mode of arguing “as if” God exists. The “problem” of Theodicy, for example, has a delusional premise. Why does God let evil things happen? Where was God during the holocaust? Why did God let 250,000 people perish in the recent tsunami? We seldom consider the fundamental contradiction: If God doesn’t exist how can we debate what “his” role is? The answer is elementary: non-existent entities play no role in phenomena and to talk “as if” they do is nonsense.

    Susan Jacoby seems to recall something of this discomfiture when she was confronted as an “innocent lamb” on a radio talk show with the question: “If you don’t believe in God, what’s to stop you from committing murder?” Another answer might go like this: When we humans talk about the prohibition against murder, whether we talk about it as a divine commandment or as a secular moral imperative, we are only using different language to describe the same practice grounded in the same human sensibility and human belief.

    Debates about moral “superiority” concede the psychological high ground to believers because of the historical fact that moral systems had their origins in religion millennia before secularism. For millennia, nearly everyone in human societies, ignorant of the explanatory power emerging in recent centuries from a scientific-physical worldview , believed the world was created and sustained by supernatural powers including “moral intuition” divinely inspired; divinely guided by God’s commandments, and divinely punished in the breach by hellfire in the afterlife.

    Ms. Jacoby might have countered the question with the assertion that religious and secular moral systems have the same human origins but that we use different language to talk about them. Though the systems often merge in consensus about common practices, secular morality derives from pragmatic beliefs about how best to implement compassionate, nurturing, fair and honest relationships between and among people, based on empirical and rational criteria, while religious morality derives from superstitious belief a supernatural enigma with absolute authority over human conduct even when that authority demands atrocity. If you believe in God, what’s to stop you from disemboweling your child on a stone altar if you believe inexplicably that your God so commands it?

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