Book review of Phil Zuckerman’s “Living the Secular Life”

​I’ve just finished reading Phil Zuckerman’s new book, Living the Secular Life. I’ve been interested in Zuckerman’s establishment of a Department of Secular Studies for years, given that years before that, I astounded my college boyfriend, a very active and vocal atheist, by saying that there was no reason a religious studies department shouldn’t offer a class in atheism, since atheism – or secular humanism, or agnosticism, etc., was, after all, another form of worldview akin to a religion. I’m not sure whether he was pleased or alarmed that his beloved secularism might find serious consideration in a department of religious studies, which he (at least when we started dating) assumed was as much about promoting religion as anything else.

But I digress. I know it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and rather than write about King, or racism, or Ferguson or Paris, I post this review today in remembrance of all the this-worldly, secular, human-centered work (work that, as Dr. King knew so well, might also be divine, I’d add) that still needs to be done to bring about a more just society. In lieu of a  more formal review, I offer some of my observations and questions about the book:

1. Secularism. This book has an awkward relationship to secularism. It’s primarily about secularists who actively organize their lives around a this-worldly, human-centered approach in terms of classic religious categories: morality, raising children, dealing with troubled times, facing death, and experiencing awe. He’s most interested in secularists who, like himself, find a positive identity in secularism or atheism, similar to the positive identity one might find in belonging to a religious group.

2. Religious “nones:”at the same time, he recognizes that the increasing statistical presence of secularism in America comes not necessarily from self-described secularists, but those who just don’t care to join a group or attach a label, be it religious, secular, atheist, etc., similar to the non-observant secularism of many European societies.

3. Atheist/humanist communities: As someone who’s spent a significant amount of time studying religious practices, I’m fascinated by the movement to create atheist communities, like the Harvard Humanist Community project. This project strikes me as a very American phenomenon, and it connects to #2 above. I doubt that the most secular nations in the world (such as the many Northern European countries that Zuckerman uses as reference points) have flourishing meetings of atheists/humanists who gather for mutual support, conversation, and friendship or “fellowship.” It’s been said that in America, we’re a nation of joiners, and in this  case, it seems that the people who take secularism as an active identity in their lives use the creation of these communities in similar ways to their supposed polar opposites, those who join religious groups. As a matter of practice and function, I do have to wonder how different these groups are from religious groups.

4. Finally,  awe-ism. This is perhaps the most interesting chapter of the book (for me), and also the shortest. Zuckerman spends almost no time on examples from his research subjects, and instead gives strictly personal examples of times when he’s experienced awe. But unlike those who would call these numinous or mystical experiences, he regards them as filling him with awe for a time, and then the feeling moves on, and that’s ok. “An aweist just feels awe from time to time, appreciates it, owns it, relish­es it, and then carries on-without any supernatural, cosmic, karmic, or otherworldly baggage” (211).

As someone who’s spent much of her life thinking, in one way or another, about awe, I really wanted to like this chapter. But it fell a bit flat for me. He says that “this awe is a feeling that constitutes an integral, visceral, and beloved part of my existence.” I think that for the term “awe-ist” to work as the “-ism” descriptor he wants it to be, I’d want to see more proof that awe lies at the center, is really the” beloved part of his existence.” If it’s just a passing emotion without larger meaning, then why awe, and not love, or joy, or some other deep emotion? Awe comes the closest to religious feeling, and reminds secularists and religious folk, and those in-between, of two important things: mystery, and also humility, the limits of our understanding.

Since my own life has been so much about a delicate dance with awe (is it just neurobiology, or something more), I find it hard to think awe and wonder can be the center if it is not given greater meaning. I think that this, in the end, is where I part ways with strict secularism, and where I ultimately had to part perspectives with that long-ago college boyfriend. We didn’t part ways, though, before his secular outlook had messed pretty dramatically with my own tendencies towards mysticism and meaning. In all the humanist, atheist, secularist writing I’ve read during that relationship and since, awe always seems to be a side-note to the main melody of focusing on this world, its loves, its woes, and what we as humans can do to make it a better place. Secularism makes for a busy, often productive worldview, a good and positive one, but it’s one that doesn’t leave much time for the type of contemplation or practice that leads to awe.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!