BOOK REVIEW: 'Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions': Secular Humanism Explained, Undemonized

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions': Secular Humanism Explained, Undemonized

Gee, Officer Krupke, we're very upset.

We never had the love that every child oughta get.

We ain't no delinquents, we're misunderstood;

Deep down inside us there is good. -- West Side Story (1961 film, 1957 Broadway production)

                                                          * * *

My choice of the above quotation from the hit musical "West Side Story" may seem an odd epigraph  to lead off a review of Phil Zuckerman's "Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions" (Penguin Press, 276 pages, bibliography, index, $25.95) but I think it's strangely appropriate.

"Secular humanists" is Zuckerman's big tent term that includes atheists, agnostics, "none" (people responding when asked their religion), and, I might add, many members of the Unitarian-Universalist Church. The latter category is a useful home for people who feel the need for a formal religion, for whatever reason. Maybe they want to run for office in Texas or any number of  states that bar atheists from holding public office. The other states are South Carolina, Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi and Tennessee. In those states, and in parts of many others, voters would vote for an African-American, a Muslim or a Jew rather than casting a ballot for an atheist.

In addition to being a secular humanist himself, along with his wife and family, Zuckerman is a  sociology professor at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California,  where he studied the lives of the nonreligious for years before founding a Department of Secular Studies, the first academic program in the nation dedicated to exclusively studying secular culture and the sociological consequences of America’s fastest-growing “faith.”

Zuckerman discovered that despite the entrenched negative beliefs about nonreligious people, American secular culture is grounded in deep morality and proactive citizenship—indeed, some of the very best that the country has to offer. The Golden Rule that Christians and Jews try to live by is the grounding principle for secular humanists, too, Zuckerman writes.

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—Living the Secular Life will be indispensable for millions of secular Americans. I found the stories an enthralling part of this very readable book. Maybe it's because I was raised as a secular humanist myself. I don't consider myself "misunderstood" in the words of the singers in "West Side Story." Rather, I consider myself enlightened. Like many of the secular humanists interviewed by the author, I have respect and tolerance for my religious friends.

Drawing on innovative sociological research, the book illuminates this demographic shift with the moral convictions that govern secular individuals, offering crucial information for the religious and nonreligious alike. "Living the Secular Life" reveals that, despite opinions to the contrary, nonreligious Americans possess a unique moral code that allows them to effectively navigate the complexities of modern life. Spiritual self-reliance, clear-eyed pragmatism, and an abiding faith in the Golden Rule to adjudicate moral decisions: these common principles are shared across secular society. Living the Secular Life demonstrates these principles in action and points to their usage throughout daily life.

"Living the Secular Life" journeys through some of the most essential components of human existence—child rearing and morality, death and ritual, community and beauty—and offers secular readers inspiration for leading their own lives. Zuckerman shares eye-opening research that reveals the enduring moral strength of children raised without religion, as well as the hardships experienced by secular mothers in the rural South where church attendance defines the public space. 

Despite the real sorrows of mortality, Zuckerman conveys the deep psychological health of secular individuals in their attitudes toward illness, death, and dying.  Zuckerman shows how Americans are building institutions and cultivating relationships without religious influence. "Living the Secular Life" combines the sociological data and groundbreaking research with the moral convictions that govern secular individuals, and demonstrates how readers can integrate these beliefs into their own lives.

"Living the Secular Life" offers secular humanists, atheists, agnostics and other "Nones" a manifesto for a booming social movement—and a revelatory survey of this overlooked community.

If you've been looking for tools to explain to your religious friends what secular life has to offer, "Living the Secular Life" offers essential and long-awaited information for anyone building a life based on his or her own principles. For those who are religious, it's a book that's well worth reading.

About the Author

Phil Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. He is the author most recently of Faith No More and Society Without God and blogs for Psychology Today and the Huffington Post. In 2011 Zuckerman founded an interdisciplinary Department of Secular Studies at Pitzer College, the first such program in the nation.

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