Building better nonbelievers

Building better nonbelievers February 5, 2015

At The New York Times, David Brooks candidly writes about problems I think modern nonreligious Americans seriously need to grapple with.* Brooks writes:

As [sociologist Phil Zuckerman] describes them, secularists seem like genial, low-key people who have discarded metaphysical prejudices and are now leading peaceful and rewarding lives. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that the secular writers are so eager to make the case for their creed, they are minimizing the struggle required to live by it. Consider the tasks a person would have to perform to live secularism well:

•Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.•

Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice. Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.

•Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths. Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.

•Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. It’s not enough to want to be a decent person. You have to be powerfully motivated to behave well. Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him. Secularists have to come up with their own powerful drive that will compel sacrifice and service.

The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation. The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.

I think these are all worth taking seriously, and Brooks expresses them very succinctly. I have a few thoughts about all of these points, but I’m very curious to hear other’s while I sort my own out.

*I object to Brook’s use of the word “secularist” to describe the nonreligious like this. A secularist only wants government to have no compulsion in religious matters, a philosophy that was invented and supported most strongly by believers. G Slocum, in a NYT selected comment, makes this point well:

Mr. Brooks makes the all too common mistake of equating secularism with unbelief. Martin Luther was a secularist. Roger Williams was a secularist. I would argue, and he might well agree that Jimmy Carter is a secularist. So, too, was John Locke.

As a secularist, neither Mr. Brooks’ nor my religious beliefs are the key consideration. The key is that Mr. Brooks has no place, much less right to tell me what to believe, that I similarly have no place, and the state certainly has no place telling any of its citizens what their religion should include.

Jacques Berlinerblau is much more articulate than I, so I highly recommend his How To Be Secular: A Call To Arms For Religious Freedom. We need more people, believers and unbelievers alike, who understand that secularism doesn’t mean lack of belief in any god, but a strong belief in religious freedom and tolerance. Before we abandon the Enlightenment, let us remember what it is.

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