A secular life: A review of ‘Living the Secular Life’

I wish I could say I began my secular life simply through natural logic and reason. That I was always happily secular, as I am today. But I wasn’t. I grew up in a faith-filled household, with mostly happy parents. I can, to this day, relish memories of my dad belting out hymns on Sunday mornings before church.

But in religion — I can’t say I’ve ever really had a sense of faith, at least — more often than not, I found a source of misery that brought about struggles with depression, anxiety, fear and self-loathing. In various ways, I stuck with religion, however, trying to discover faith, well into my thirties and even into my early forties. Like Jacob in the Old Testament, I wrestled with metaphoric angels, with the notion of god itself.

My matches, by the way, were with mainstream evangelical Christianity. I grew up Baptist, (I took the altar call, late, at 17) at a time in the late ’70s when the Baptist church was getting infiltrated by the “born-again” movement that seems, at least to me, to have been part of the conservative counter-counterculture movement and the neo-conservative movement that gave rise to the Religious Right so pervasive and destructive not only to our politics but to the church. Underneath it all is an you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us frame of mind, that’s dividing the U.S. daily.

At one moment, I denied any god’s existence, the next, God — the biblical God — was beating me into submission with my own fears, my sense of being lost, my whole sense of well-being. I allowed religion to beat down everything from basic self-confidence to accepting money and prosperity as good things to having decent relationships with women.

But, over the years, I’ve come to accept secularism as a way of life, having discovered for me, at least, life is much better, much happier without religion, without faith.

Many of you who grew up in the U.S. around my age or older, most likely adapted to a secular life after rejecting a religious upbringing, although, according to Phil Zuckerman’s Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, there are a growing number of us in the U.S. and worldwide.

“The percentage of Americans whom claim ‘none’ when asked their religion has grown from less than 10 percent in 1990 to some where between 20 and 30 percent today,” Zuckerman writes.

The book investigates the rise of secularism, especially in the U.S., and how various forms of humanistic practice have arisen here in the U.S., experiences as varied as our religious experience.

In his investigation, Zuckerman addresses those annoying questions believers like to pose, like “How can you be moral without God?”

Zuckerman’s answer, in short: Humanists follow the Golden Rule, a moral — and nearly universal — precept that came well before Jesus, and which Jesus taught (unfortunately there seems to be a lack of actually following Jesus in certain Christian sects these days). In greater depth, Zuckerman says,

For the nonreligious, morality isn’t about abstaining from sex or avoiding alcohol, or doing what someone in authority tells you to do, or not doing something because you fear otherworldly consequences if you do. Rather, secular morality hinges upon little else than not harming others, and helping those in need, both of which flow easily and directly from the Golden Rule’s basic, simple logic of empathetic reciprocity.

Overall, Zuckerman’s book serves as a nice introduction to humanist thought, a sort of guidebook to humanism, although I disagree with his positive view of religion in general.

In that, I tend lean toward Christopher Hitchens’ notion that “religion poisons everything.” That’s perhaps because my experience of religion was toxic or that I see its toxicity too often, as when ministers laud the massacre of gays in a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., or when even Hitchens is insulted from beyond the grave by an opportunistic evangelical writer who claims in a book the journalist and polemicist might have had a conversion experience as he lay dying of cancer.

That’s great marketing, but in it is a deviousness much more aligned with a certain fallen angel than it is with an alleged savior. It’s the kind of opportunism that makes us doubt in the first place. Thank goodness.

— Todd


Editor’s note: If you would like to live by the Golden Rule, and help poor writers in need, please consider purchasing Zuckerman’s book from the links above.