Sociologist studies the swelling tide of American secular humanism


Sociologist Phil Zuckerman starts off his eye-opening but blinkered look at contemporary American secularism with Jill, a 40-something stay-at-home mom who has turned her San Francisco home into a God-free zone. And yet Jill worries: While ordinary kids grow up identifying themselves as Catholic, Jewish or Baptist, her children will grow up as cultural “nothings.”

It’s a gnawing concern for the mushrooming mass of people who shed their religious identity and label themselves as atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers. Do such people belong to a community with shared values and traditions, or is their personal liberation a form of solitary confinement?

In recent decades, secular humanism has ceased to be an exotic phenomenon for bohemians and nonconformists. It is now the fastest-growing “religious” group in the United States, accounting for roughly 30 percent of the population, Zuckerman reports.

A humanist himself, Zuckerman checks in with fellow nonbelievers to see how they are faring in their godless lives. Zuckerman doesn’t miss an opportunity to remind us that humanism represents an intellectual evolution over servile religion, and he presents some intriguing case studies, including a Holocaust survivor and a paralytic.

Still, cultural-nothingism has a ways to go as a creed before it rivals the great religions of the world. Claiming intellectual superiority goes only so far.

Consider the alternative traditions Zuckerman glibly tosses out as secular surrogates to religious worship: Bruce Springsteen concerts, football games, book clubs, Ultimate Frisbee and – no kidding – Darwin Day. Or the preferred Zuckerman family ritual: scattering Lucky Charms cereal about the house on Saint Patrick’s day and squirting green dye into drinking water.

With such sources for inspiration in a meaningless universe, a secular life starts looking a little shabby. At this point Zuckerman comes to the rescue with a face-saving out.

“The beauty of being secular on this front is that you and your children are not bound to rituals,” he effuses. “You are not enslaved to traditions.”

Zuckerman seems like a pleasant enough chap who is merely bemused and befuddled – rather than outraged – by prayer and worship. He bears no grudge against his evangelical Christian in-laws, and he’s even put off by atheists who fulminate against religion as a social pathology.

Zuckerman’s equanimity and good will are refreshing, setting him apart from many nonbelievers. And rather than embrace a mechanical view of life, Zuckerman describes himself as an “aweist” filled with wonderment at the ineffable miracle of the universe.

Yet like many atheists, Zuckerman has a rudimentary understanding of religion, exposing a pervasive chauvinism and naive assumptions that would make a first-year theology student cringe. His celebration of secularism is too heavily predicated on turning ordinary non-believers into moral superheroes, and religious folk into moral pipsqueaks.

In this view of the world, self-awareness is optional. Thus religious parents who pass on their faith to their children are engaging in a form of “indoctrination.” But inculcating children with free thought and encouraging them to question God is celebrated as one of “the highlights of secular parenting.”

Zuckerman is quick to parrot the self-serving proposition that religious people are motivated to act ethically only out of fear of eternal damnation.

Secularists, Zuckerman assures, exist on a higher moral plane. Their motive for leading an ethical life is not lowly fear of a celestial boogeyman, but commitment to universal principles such as empathy and the Golden Rule.

At no point does it occur to Zuckerman that secular humanists don’t routinely steal Lucky Charms from the grocery store for the same reason as the rest of us: They fear getting arrested.