A Review of Phil Zuckerman’s Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions
Penguin Press, 2014; 276 pp., including bibliography and index.
Review by Ed Buckner
In an earlier life, a hundred years ago, I taught some courses on social science research methods and statistics. These were graduate courses but not for people expected to become researchers so much as for people who needed to know enough to wisely consume such research (police officers, social workers, teachers, etc.). One thing we covered was qualitative research or “case studies” investigations, and one thing stressed about these were problems with generalizing from a specific case or from very limited numbers of respondents. Points were made similar to this: “… as a sociologist, I fully understand the frailty of argument by anecdote. I know that it is impossible, from [one] story alone, to derive any grand conclusion about the benefits or demerits of secularity or religiosity in the face of a dying parent.” That comment is from Living the Secular Life (p. 183) by Phil Zuckerman, and it is directly relevant to why his book is well worth reading.
Zuckerman’s work is the finest example I know of effective qualitative research and brilliant reporting of what that research reveals. He roams across the nation (and here and there elsewhere on Earth), across ages and categories of all sorts to give the reader real insight into what it does and does not mean to live a secular life. He deftly sets up situations with real people, including one or two I actually know and love, such as Mandisa Thomas and August Brunsman, lets them speak for themselves, and discusses what it means only lightly. He doesn’t over generalize or over analyze; he trusts his reader to see what’s to see. He writes of his own thoughts and experiences and fears, but without making himself the focus—just as another example to be reflected on and learned from.
The book has been out for well over a year now and it has been reviewed by others, most notably by famous freethinker Susan Jacoby in the New York Times and the reviews, including Jacoby’s, have been positive and accurate, so why is it worth having another one now? Because the book is worthy of another look, especially by my fellow atheists and by those who, frequently, attack me and secular living more broadly, from positions of great ignorance.
One cannot read Zuckerman’s book honestly and retain any notions of secularists as monolithic, predictable, immoral, angry, or grim. He uses wit and emotion to great effect, sometimes simultaneously—as when he self-deprecatingly describes both the terrible grief he endured over the death of his friend Michele and the almost uncontrollable laughter he shared with her over the “steak” he was sure had been hurled in Cyclops’ eye. (You have to read the book.)
Jacoby rightly points out that Zuckerman skates perilously close to the thin ice of sappiness with his preferred choice of label—awe-ism—but she is also right about that being an aberration not a pattern. Zuckerman effectively evinces a Carl Sagan-like delight in the wonders of science and the universe and a Paul Kurtz-like passion for the joys of life available to secularists (though he only mentions Kurtz only briefly and Sagan not at all).
The most systematic, negative, unjust attack on atheists is always on our alleged immorality or our lack of capacity for caring, honest action toward our fellow human beings. Zuckerman makes short shrift of those angry, ignorant claims. He does so primarily with example after example of thoughtful secularists, but also with summary comments like this (p. 220): “It is essential to assert, both publicly and privately, that religion is clearly not the sole source, arbiter, or purveyor of morality and values. For to equate religion with morality, or to conflate theism with ‘having values,’ is to commit a grave historical, sociological, and philosophical fallacy. Historically, some of the greatest moral and ethical advances have been predicated upon strictly secular ideologies championed by the nonreligious.” He then briefly sums up some of those advances, to nice effect.Zuckerman’s book is, as noted, primarily the result of extensive qualitative research, but he makes good use of a variety of quantitative research, carried out by people like Gregory Paul, in his analyses. His book is well documented,* with extensive supporting material, a good index, and a system of documentation that avoids intruding on the reader with endless footnotes and parenthetical references.
Zuckerman labels himself as an atheist, a secular humanist, an agnostic, and a freethinker, depending on context and philosophical or popular setting, and he makes a strong case for all of those labels, even if he doesn’t persuade me as to his first choice for overall label (as already noted, “awe-ist”). His book will probably not satisfy the most cynical, hard-edged, unforgiving atheist, but it will, if read, enlighten theists and atheists of all stripes.
The book only briefly describes (in the concluding chapter) history, especially the errors many make about whether the US is or should be a Christian nation, but Zuckerman effectively rebuts that claim. As he does so, he provides a glorious list of irreligious historical figures (American and otherwise) who have made major contributions to our nation and our lives. And Zuckerman concludes that “…secular men and women value reason over faith, action over prayer, existential ambiguity over unsupportable certitude, freedom of thought over obedience to authority, the natural over the supernatural, and hope in humanity over hope in a deity” (p. 224). I’d be hard put to come up with a better summary of why we should all read his book—and live the Secular Life.
*A quite minor exception is Zuckerman’s declaration, on p. 217, that the vote on the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797 was “only the third such unanimous vote out of 339 votes that had taken place up to that time.” This is quite slightly off—there were 339 recorded votes up to that point—but more important to me is that he gave no source, and I was the source–the one who went through the entire Senate record, when my son lived on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and counted those 339 votes. Unfortunately, I mentioned this fact in a talk I gave, and that got transcribed online without a reference. The fact I developed has thus entered common lore, undocumented. But this really only matters—or even should matter—to me.
(Photo credit: book cover from amazon.com)
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