Can We Be Converted to a Secular Faith?

Can We Be Converted to a Secular Faith? October 15, 2020

Editor’s Note:  Why are some people seemingly naturally religious, and some people are not? Why do some people who are indoctrinated into religion as children, break away as adults, while others dutifully pass on religion to their children?  What good does religion offer to society?  It looks like we may at least have a viable answer to this last question, as presented in the book discussed here. /Linda LaScola, Editor


By Chris Highland

In his dense but sensible book, This Life:  Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom,

Martin Hagglund treads the borderline between faith and atheism.  Hagglund is a professor of comparative literature and humanities at Yale, and I don’t pretend to grasp the whole of his arguments, but I think he’s on to something we might take to heart and seriously consider.

Hagglund shows he has respect for what religion and faith can bring to human life.  Yet, he also presents a way for faith to be more secular, and that can sound like a contradiction at first.  But here’s how he explains his reasoning:

 “The practice of religious faith has often served—and still serves for many—as an important communal expression of solidarity.  Likewise, religious organizations often provide services for those who are poor and in need.”  He recognizes that people of faith participate and sometimes lead the way in “concrete struggles against injustice.”

So, Hagglund acknowledges the value of what many in religious communities engage in.  Then, he offers his reality check:

“None of these social commitments, however, requires religious faith or a religious form of organization.  For these commitments to fulfill their promise of emancipation, religious faith must be converted into secular faith and be devoted to social justice as an end in itself.”

In the writer’s view, “our life together [is] our ultimate purpose.”

This perspective grabs me by the curiosity.  What I hear in Hagglund’s suggestion is a deep understanding of the motivations behind the good works we see from many in the religious community.  There is a sense that some “faith activity” is actually secular since it has practical, secular goals.  And if the goal of any socially conscious work is “here and now” rather than some future otherworldly existence, we can find meaningful, literally down-to-earth common ground.

Early in “This Life,” the author describes why “this life”—the life we all share—is so valuable and precious.  It has to do with how we live a brief, finite existence here.  The example he uses is familiar.

“The Golden Rule does not require any form of religious faith … [it] does not depend on a religious sense of eternity.  On the contrary, it depends on a secular sense of finitude.”

While much religious faith brings an underlying interest in “eternity” and eternal things, a “secular faith” has a commitment to living in the present.  Hagglund offers “a secular vision of why everything depends on what we do with our time together.”  What he sees as a decline of faith in eternity, is not something to be concerned about because

“It provides an opportunity to make explicit and strengthen our secular faith in ‘this life’ as an end in itself.”

We act toward others and practice ethical behavior because it matters “now” and it matters for people who are living now as vulnerable human beings who have immediate needs.  Hagglund offers a stimulating viewpoint to stir up honest conversations between secular people and believers as well as deeper discussion within those communities.  It may be surprising that he speaks of “spiritual freedom” and by that he means, “to lead a free, spiritual life, I must be responsible for what I do.”  Once again, his concern is for this present life and no other.

“The condition of our freedom is that we understand ourselves as finite.”

This brings a story to mind from chaplaincy days.  Our tiny office in the large, downtown church was nestled behind the pulpit and altar, down below the big, expensive organ pipes fixed to the wall dividing the chaplaincy office from the sanctuary.  On many occasions when I walked up to open the outside door to our office in the morning, someone would be sleeping there.  It didn’t take long for me to learn the daily challenge of un-housed people to find a safe place to sleep.  Rest and restrooms are luxuries.

As was often the case, weary people would enter our office and simply ask to lie down and rest.  If the sanctuary was not in use, I would take them into the empty, darkened space and the person would go right to sleep.  In my view, that was the moment the sanctuary lived up to its name.  If the church needed the room for some “religious activity” such as arranging the altar, setting up for choir or practicing a sermon, I would quickly usher the weary soul back outside.  You may catch the irony there.  I’d return to my office shaking my head in unsurprised disappointment.

As “This Life” shows:

“Our spiritual commitments proceed from caring for what will be irrevocably lost and remaining faithful to what gives no final guarantee…. Secular faith will always be precarious, but in its fragility it opens the possibility of our spiritual freedom.”

**Editor’s Question** What examples of secular faith have you seen?


Bio: Chris Highland was a minister and chaplain for many years in the SF Bay Area.  Now teaching courses on Freethought in Asheville, North Carolina, he writes a weekly “Highland Views” column for the Citizen-Times. His new book, A Freethinker’s Gospel, is now available from Pisgah Press.  Chris has been a member of The Clergy Project since 2012. To learn more, see

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