Tom Ashbrook's marvelous On Point radio show recently featured an interview with Phil Zuckerman, a Pitzer College professor of sociology and secular studies and author of “Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions.”
Zuckerman has been studying the rising tides of the "Nones" in America, those who claim no affiliation with a religious tradition. Nones, Zuckerman has found, represent about 30% of those in their 20s. They have turned their backs on religion for a number of reasons, including a loss of belief in the supernatural and dismay at the way "religious" people dismiss science and reason. They are folks who find their morality in a homespun version of the Golden Rule -- don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you. They find awe in contemplating the vastness of the cosmos, the plaintive cry of a newborn and the majestic swell of a distant thunderstorm. They are more likely than religious people to believe in gay rights, equal pay for women, the need to address global warming and dismay at war and global poverty.
They are nice, good people.
But a few things about Zuckerman's presentation troubled me. As a religious person, albeit one with deep reservations about some of the beliefs of my own faith tradition, I don't doubt that secular people are capable of being moral. Let's face it, even with the tenets of religion to guide them, plenty of people who profess a belief in God and Jesus are capable of appalling acts of hatred, selfishness, greed and neglect. What I disagree with is Zuckerman's assumption that the God of the Universe can only express himself through explicitly religious institutions and rituals. But why couldn't secularists, repelled by the brutality and cruelty of some Christians, actually be the ones responding to God's call to "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly"? Are we to assume, as Zuckerman seems to, that God only acts inside the walls of the churches his followers have built?
Zuckerman also roundly rejects the supernatural. I can understand that. After all, we are talking about invisible entities; it's not insane to believe they were invented and aren't really there. But while I don't call a lack of belief in the supernatural a sort of "faith," there is something categorical about stating definitively that God absolutely does not exist. After all, until 200 years ago, no one believed that tiny, unseen animals in water and air could cause disease. And today, NPR ran a story about dark matter--that theorized stuff, comprising 95% of the universe, that is invisible to the eye and to all of our most sophisticated scientific devices. The story contains the following claim from a physicist: "You've probably got a hundred million dark matter particles going through your hand every second." While that is a not a statement of faith (science will either determine it is true, false or unprovable) I got the sense that my "absurd" belief in God who loves us to be anemic by comparison.
Faith and secularism are hypotheses. Faith hypothesizes that there is a benevolent being who created and who sustains the universe. Accept that hypothesis, and you end up sooner or later with a religion--a system of beliefs and practices that expresses that belief in ritual actions, music and ethics. But accept the secular hypothesis--one that contends (without proof) that NO such benevolent being exists, and you end up with perhaps another set of ritual actions, music and ethics. What is intriguing is that, at their best, both systems converge. Both believe that harming others is bad -- faith because we are all God's children, and secularism because of a perceived unity of human beings. Both find a sense in awe in Nature -- religion because it was created by God, non-religion because of its intrinsic complexity, beauty and majesty.
Religious people have much to learn from the secular. You could argue that we are already secularized. After all, how many religious people follow the examples of their own holy books -- slaughtering enemies, stoning sinners and keeping women in the house? We faithful have already been turned from the more appalling aspects of our faiths by a centuries-old debate with the kinder and more insightful people in our communities.
But there is something for secularists to learn as well. One is to challenge their rough-hewn beliefs in the crudity of religious systems. Sure, you can find plenty of examples of rank nonsense among religious leaders--that hurricanes are punishment for gay marriage; that lesbians are to blame for 9/11; that all non-Christians (regardless of their personal virtue, good works and love of of neighbor) are doomed to eternal burning. But far more subtle theistic systems are possible. Say, one that posits a God who works subtly, though persistently, through the actions of human beings, to lead them to act ever more justly and ever less brutally.
I applaud professor Zuckerberg and those like him who have turned away from the superstition, xenophobia, insularity and stubbornness of too many religious people. There are many of us who trust our God-given senses and abilities, and accept the discoveries of science, psychology and business ethics. We are not all the Inquisition, consigning Galileo to house arrest and prohibiting him from teaching what he saw with his own eyes. Strip away the power politics and the liturgical obstinacy, and you will find some of us responding to a spirit that guides our minds and actions toward goodness and justice. A spirit that moves us out of our zones of comfort to challenge the corruption of our own day. A spirit, congruent with the voice of God, that fills the universe with divine love, purpose and direction. A spirit that pierces seven billion souls and is at least as compelling as the hundred million particles of unseen, unfelt matter supposedly piercing our bodies every moment.