Building Better Secularists

Feb 10, 2015

By David Brooks

Over the past few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people who are atheist, agnostic or without religious affiliation. A fifth of all adults and a third of the youngest adults fit into this category.

As secularism becomes more prominent and self-confident, its spokesmen have more insistently argued that secularism should not be seen as an absence — as a lack of faith — but rather as a positive moral creed. Phil Zuckerman, a Pitzer College sociologist, makes this case as fluidly and pleasurably as anybody in his book, “Living the Secular Life.”

Zuckerman argues that secular morality is built around individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility. Instead of relying on some eye in the sky to tell them what to do, secular people reason their way to proper conduct.

Secular people, he argues, value autonomy over groupthink. They deepen their attachment to this world instead of focusing on a next one. They may not be articulate about why they behave as they do, he argues, but they try their best to follow the Golden Rule, to be considerate and empathetic toward others. “Secular morality hinges upon little else than not harming others and helping those in need,” Zuckerman writes.

As he describes them, secularists seem like genial, low-key people who have discarded metaphysical prejudices and are now leading peaceful and rewarding lives. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that the secular writers are so eager to make the case for their creed, they are minimizing the struggle required to live by it. Consider the tasks a person would have to perform to live secularism well:

• Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.


Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below and read the follow-up letters to the editor here.

18 comments on “Building Better Secularists

  • Brooks concludes his piece with “…the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.” In other words, the good ol’ “need for the ABSOLUTE” every theist is so obsessed with – he simply cannot grasp that growing up into the full adulthood of secularism means also to finally grow out of self-centered notions of that kind.
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  • We secular, non believers do not have to build our moral philosophies. There is no philosophy when concerning moral, it is not philosophy like religion is. Moral is a way of healthy conduct, a way of human hygiene I would say, that is based upon evolution of good practice. And we have moral, thank you very much.

    “Building a philosophy” is a rhetoric of believers, of religious people, and it is deeply wrong. As I see it we non believers have to advertise more our morality, our absence of beliefs as religious people advertise their religious beliefs. It is very difficult, because they see that advertising as attack on their worldview (as they are only ones who have monopoly on advertising). Religious people are very persistent in persuading others in their degenerative worldview, just few days ago there was two religious persons trying very strongly to “convert” non believers to their views (regarding Steven Fry hypothetical answer to god). They actually came to a non believers forum for that! Unlike them, me as non believer do not have this urge to advertise atheism on any religious forum, and I have never been to one.

    Why do religious feel that they must advertise their beliefs? Why is that their first impulse when they have conversation with someone? Do they ask themselves that? Perhaps when they get rid themselves of all of musts they have, they will come to some good sense.

    We non believers have to speak more, loudly, and advertise what is human and good otherwise we are bad. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, and “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle”.
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  • Exactly! Their illusion of the sublime is so contrary to evolution. Really, sometimes I think that religious people are terribly and deeply mentally ill. How else can one explain their refusal of evidence!
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  • Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. It’s not enough to want to be a decent person. You have to be powerfully motivated to behave well. Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him. Secularists have to come up with their own powerful drive that will compel sacrifice and service…People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.

    Hmmm, do you guys really need to be powerfully motivated to behave well? Are you constantly urged to do bad? I think I behave well without giving it much thought. I guess if one has religious hang-ups about sex, masturbation, homosexuality, etc., one does spend most of one’s day obsessed with “behaving well.” And is “drifting” so bad? I like to call it living in the moment. All of my needs are taken care of, why spend my life striving for some other life that just entails more stress? The universe is a vast expanse of billions of galaxies and trillions of stars. For all we know, the Earth is the only place where “intelligent life” has arisen. What possible other meaning of life can there be than to stay alive and try to do so as pleasantly as possible (within reason)?
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  • The religious proselytize for two reasons: 1) Strength in numbers, more numbers more money/power, or 2) Some actually believe they are “saving” us from eternal hell fire.
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  • Within what reason? Try not to harm oneself, others or the environment. Those actions would obviously hamper staying alive. And I don’t think I would enjoy living very lavishly if others around me had to live in poverty.
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  • prietenul Feb 10, 2015 at 8:22 pm

    I guess if one has religious hang-ups about sex, masturbation, homosexuality, etc., one does spend most of one’s day obsessed with “behaving well.”

    I think you have it spot on. Many religions indoctrinate sexual hang-ups, to generate guilt for which a church’s “forgiveness” is required, and sexual frustrations, which can be redirected into religious fervour and evangelism.

    And is “drifting” so bad?

    While secularists may drift on satisfaction of emotional feelings, fervent mind-slaves, preoccupied with sexual guilt, and “Brownie points” for an afterlife, “drift” on all the important real material issues, they have neglected in their education, and left to their gods.
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  • 10
    fadeordraw says:

    From an evolutionary understanding, religions seek to expand followers to increase chances of survival. All have an missionary element to them. Just to note.
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  • 11
    fadeordraw says:

    The idea of morality with or without religion may or may not be a valuable discussion, though it seems to be often raised on this RD site. What we want to pursue, I think, is the governance of the planet without recourse to supernatural beliefs or speculations. We know that religions gave homo sapiens the survival advantage of community and social organization. For many of us, however, the fact that such advantage is based upon ridiculous assumptions is unacceptable, irrespective of the advantage. The objective, I would anticipate, is for governance at all levels be restricted to articulated understandings of how things actually work on the planet; as ridiculously complicated as that might be. I’m simply not sure if the “do unto others…” morality (evidently not always adhered to by religions today or in the past) would be at all threatened by such governance.
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  • I think it’s important to realise, also, that believing in a creator God or Gods doesn’t necessarily imply any particular creed or set of beliefs outside of that. Many societies have believed in a “great spirit”, or creator God of some sort, but have not necessarily postulated a set of moral codes like that given in the Sermon on the Mount, for example.

    Whether we believe in a God (or Gods) or not we are still free to form our own ideas of what is important in life and even those who claim to belong to the same religious denomination will be found to have significantly different values from each other, if we scratch beneath the surface.

    The fact that various religions attempt to “own” God by telling us what God is and what God (supposedly) wants, I find distasteful. I think we need to figure that out for ourselves, if we choose to believe in a transcendent reality. And even if we don’t, it is still up to us to determine what values we will uphold. And in that space, we are all empty-handed and free- to create as we wish! That is the meaning and reality of free will and if a creator God did create us with free will that is presumably what they would wish, also!
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  • I think it’s rather worrying if the average church goer needs the fear of an invisible god to guide them to make the right moral choice. Says a lot about their lack of a moral compass which should be in all of us.
    Even many animal species like the apes for example know it’s wrong to steal, kill or have sex with another apes mate. They also know to share and protect their family.
    They didn’t need the bible to develop their set of morals.
    If you want people to act badly towards one another, religion seems to do the trick, it’s been used as an excuse to butcher populations from the time it was first invented. Possibly they think they’re on the moral higher ground by stating they are a Christian. Of course once I hear that, all I’m thinking is that they have a mental illness.
    What about all these Catholic priests. Surely if anyone should act with a strong moral conviction it’s them. But hardly a month goes by when another Catholic priest is up on peadophile charges. In Ireland in the Catholic boarding schools, the kids that weren’t molested were in the minority. How sad is that?
    Great morals you Christians. I think not!
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  • This one bothered me quite a bit; mainly because Brooks generally has a way of writing that makes him rather credible, and on most subjects I think he also is quite correct. However; in this case he is conveying what has become the more or less standard “intellectual-and-accepting-Christian’s”-view of the most hated people on the planet (you and me!), and of course he is galloping in the wrong direction entirely.

    Personally I think one of the main flaws in religious rhetoric regarding general moral behaviour lies in the misconception that it is only by studying holy scripture (which I think is actually fairly rare nowadays) or listening to someone who can interpret holy scripture for you that you can achieve decent morals. It is good for them to believe this, I guess, but in reality stoning/burning/torturing/etc. people for various reasons is perfectly accepted, or even encouraged, in scripture. So why do they no longer consider this to be moral behaviour even if they still worship whatever the books tell them to?

    Because of generations of guys like us; a conglomerate of more or less sceptic, non-conformist, pain-in-the-ass people who happen to actually care! Not exactly by teaching them morals but by no longer allowing them to act according to their indoctrination. This is not news to you guys, I know, but what bothers me is that Brooks (and so many others) so frenetically refuse to even consider this. Being religious is a more or less acceptable way of life (in my opinion) only because the religious have had to skip at least some of the horrible crap contained in scripture. For instance, the biblical material utilised by the church of Sweden is now so watered down in order for the church to be considered a politically/morally correct organisation that I think most of the congregations would have been steered of to the stoning pits immediately for being heathens if the guys who wrote the bible were still in business.

    So thank you all for helping the poor brainwashed buggers not to hurt themselves with their misconceptions, and try not to let them hurt you either.
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  • Our moral philosophy is sound-perhaps more so than many people like Brooks think. We don’t have to prove ourselves anymore than religious folks, and we don’t have a ‘guidebook’ from which we cherry pick. I think that settles that, then, doesn’t it?
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  • 18
    hisxmark says:

    Brooks is one of those who just can’t imagine that others can actually think differently than he does. Secularists must form communities? Of course, he ignores the fact that religious communities don’t just bind people together, they also exclude. They divide people into “us” and “them”, depending on whether people believe in the same nonsense as themselves. Religion, race, nation, … all these things are methods of differentiating “them” from “us”, and an excuse to treat “them” as not quite as good as “us”. It matters less that someone is of a different religion than whether they have any religion at all. Religious and patriotic people need acceptance so desperately, they will profess any sort of nonsense to “fit in”.

    Religious persons all agree, more or less, with Martin Luther: “Reason is a whore.”
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