In 1950, fewer than 5 percent of Americans were nonreligious. Sixty years later, in 2010, as Phil Zuckerman writes in his new book, Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions (Penguin, Dec.), that number had jumped to 16 percent, according to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project (with a smaller proportion actually identifying as atheists). Today various national surveys find some 30 percent of Americans saying they do not practice any religion. With an increase of more than 200 percent in the past 25 years, this latter group--which sociologists of religion refer to as the "nones"--is the fastest-growing "religious" orientation in the country. How do people live fulfilling and meaningful lives without the traditional support of religious beliefs and institutions?
As they studied what they call secularism—"our term for atheists and non-theist humanists"—sociologists Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith say they noticed the issue of atheism vs. religion has generated “more heat than light." Rather than joining the debate, in Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America (Oxford, Nov.), Cimino and Smith draw on in-depth interviews with atheist, secular, and humanist leaders and activists to illustrate the ways these nonbelievers organize themselves. "Even though organized religions are antagonists of secularists," the authors tell PW, "we found that secularist groups do share some common ground with religious groups, especially evangelicals. Atheists mimic evangelicals in their emphasis on outreach; some secularists are seeing the value of rituals and even talk of ‘spirituality’ minus the supernatural elements; and atheists and evangelicals often see themselves as a struggling minority and see the other as a dangerous force in society, leading both camps to take up political activism."
In Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-First Century (Rowman & Littlefield, Oct.), Lex Bayer--a board member of the Humanist Connection, a humanist, atheist, and agnostic nonprofit organization serving Stanford University and Silicon Valley--and John Figdor--the humanist chaplain serving the atheist, humanist, and agnostic communities at Stanford--address the question, "So, you don't believe in God; now what?" The authors argue that atheists need not react against God but instead can embrace a set of constructive principles to live by that establish a meaningful view of the world. To aid in that quest, Bayer and Figdor provide a set of ten "Non-Commandments" that include affirmations such as "we can perceive the world through our human senses," and "we act morally when the happiness of others makes us happy." They invite readers to discover their own non-commandments, to help them arrive at a deeper understanding of their core beliefs.
While many recent books on atheism engage in tirades against religion--and religious thinkers respond in kind--lawyer and philosopher Ronald Lindsay shows ways that secularism works for everyone's benefit in The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can't Tell Us What to Do (Pitchstone, Dec.) "Secularism is not a threat to private religious beliefs,” he says. “I would like more people to embrace it." Lindsay argues that in a religiously pluralistic society, a robust secularism is the only reliable means to preserve democracy and rights of conscience. Once we import religious language into a conversation, he says, it dominates debates about public policy in unhelpful ways, creating unnecessary tensions. He contends that using accessible language to speak about facts and evidence can lower tensions that arise in debates about religion and nonbelief.
In Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism (Yale Oct.), Philip Kitcher, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, argues that secular humanism can enable people to live meaningfully without religion. Says Kitcher, "Secular humanism can take over what religion at its best provides and allow people to flourish and lead richer lives." While religions call people to be part of some higher, eternal purpose, secular humanism encourages them to be a part of something higher than themselves, but recognize that human life is finite. Being a part of a multigenerational secular movement offers a way to make an enduring contribution, he says. Such an outlook also helps secular humanists foster a sense of community, a role often played by religion.
Phil Zuckerman's Living the Secular Life can be called a Habits of the Heart for nonbelievers. For that influential and groundbreaking 1985 book, Robert Bellah and a group of sociologists conducted extensive interviews with individuals across the country to discover the ways in which religion permeated their everyday lives, offering for the first time a snapshot of contemporary lived religion in America. Zuckerman has done the same for the nonreligious. "I was looking at the statistics about the rise of the 'nones', and I wondered how these people were living their lives in which religion has simply evaporated or withered," says Zuckerman, who founded the first Secular Studies program, which he currently chairs, at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. Zuckerman conducted interviews over a period of ten years with nonreligious men and women across the country, discovering that most are not hard-core philosophical atheists, just average people trying to navigate their lives through spiritual self-reliance, clear-eyed pragmatism, and faith in Golden Rule morality. The growing number of Americans who embrace secular humanism, Zuckerman says, "find that [rule] affirming and clarifying."