Good Without God

I read Greg Epstein’s Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe over the weekend.

It’s a decent enough book. Epstein isn’t interested in criticizing religion or supernatural claims; he’s concerned in describing how the godless might live as decent people and fellow citizens. Indeed, as the Humanist chaplain at Harvard, he represents an explicitly religious sort of “Humanism,” where his point of view is a kind of ultraliberal limit of Reform Judaism or Unitarian Universalist Christianity. He wants to retain much of religion, including congregations, ceremonies, and even much religious language, while setting God aside.

So if you’re interested in that sort of thing, this is exactly the sort of book that will inspire you.

I’m less interested in religion-lite. That’s partly because I’m a cynical misanthrope. But partly I just don’t see the need. As some other critics of religious Humanism have noted, why does a godless secular person need to obtain all the therapeutic and social services provided by religion from a single alternative source anyway? To a certain extent, a Humanist congregation seems to be there to provide a ready-made group of friends. But if you already are fortunate enough to have a strong circle of friends, and live in an environment already full of intellectual and aesthetic stimulation, what would be the motivation for getting involved with religious Humanism? Secular ways of life need not sell anyone short in providing therapy, companionship, stimulation, etc. etc.—it just more naturally does this through multiple, separate contexts that don’t come together under a common label.

Add to that Epstein’s rather annoyingly upper-class affluent liberal way of looking at things, and the attractions of religious Humanism diminish further. So I come away from this book with an ambivalent feeling about the whole matter.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University