I always enjoy reading columns by New York Times Op-Ed writer David Brooks. His opinions are not of the usual “conservatives say the darnedest things” variety, and his 3 February 2015 column “Building Better Secularists” is no exception. (See the link below)
First off, Brooks admits some inconvenient truths that most apologists for religion won’t, such as the fact that evidence says secular people are more—not less—“moral” and law-abiding than religious people. (Go figure!) Brooks also faces the fact that “atheist, agnostic, or without religious affiliation” is a growing group, making up one out of five Americans, and one in three of the “youngest Americans.”
He might also mention that people in the European Union—the old “Christendom”—now split 50-50 over the question of the existence of a god and that in most EU countries attendance at houses of worship is in the single digits. (For comparison, one in three Americans attend at least once a month). In this context, I think it might be more clarifying to call people “post-religious” rather than secular—many are done with religion, but it’s not about rejection, it’s about irrelevance.
These numbers alone should end debate. But as a leader of a Humanist congregation, I am intrigued by the question of how post-religious people can live more meaningful and purposeful lives in community. Brooks suggests that post-religious people face three challenges: build-it-yourself morality; build-it-yourself communities; and build-it-yourself moral motivation. The religious, in Brooks’ view, have all these provided ready-made by tradition.
However, isn’t it true that part of the consumerist American spirituality industry, from the Eighteenth Century to the present, has been exactly about build-it-yourself morality; build-it-yourself communities; and build-it-yourself moral motivation—well exemplified by the Church of Latter Day Saints and Scientology?
Strip-mall spirituality is one of the reasons more Americans still attend congregations, but the connection to tradition is often tenuous at best. I agree with Brooks that this is a problem. That’s why I am, in addition to being post-religious, also a Humanist—I believe in building community and finding moral direction in a responsible manner.
I am the senior minister of a congregation that has been Humanist for ninety-nine years. (That’s almost a century!) That’s a bit of time to have developed some community, morality, and motivation. All without reference to any gods or supernatural woo-woo. It’s not all that new after all, unless you see Claude Monet is the hottest new trend.
How has my congregation managed? Well, tradition for one. When the newbie-Christians came around, they suppressed and killed off some very fine and very ancient communities in which morality and moral cultivation had been taken seriously for a very long time. That’s one way. We look back past the newbie colonizers. (Oh, and there’s also China.)
Beyond that, the religions that now predominate in the world are very young in comparison to the evolved morality of the human brain. Why are the same things taboo in various and sundry religions and philosophies all over the planet? Because human beings evolved morality long before the rise of the Iron Age religions that now dominate the world.
Yes, I agree with David Brooks that a default and consumerist secularity is not good for anyone. I don’t, however, agree that we humans have a “spiritual urge” toward “purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.” Two of those are marketing terms as far as I can see. . . creating a need to be filled. Smart marketing, bad philosophy. From my perspective human beings are pure and sanctified enough the day we’re born.
But I do agree that we can do better. Always better.
Sure, I agree that meaning and purpose are born of those things that transcend individualism. “Self-transcendence” arises when we realize that primates diverged from other mammals eighty-five million years ago . . . and we’ve still got a long way to go. And that way includes new, post-religious, ways of thinking.