On The Conceptual Extermination of Secular Religion

On The Conceptual Extermination of Secular Religion.

At the recent convention of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association I picked up a book on “Living the Secular Life” by Phil Zuckerman. Since Dr. Zuckerman is a “professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California,” and the book comes with endorsements from Susan Jacoby, Greg Epstein, and David Brooks, among others, I thought this book would be useful in developing the theory and practice of our Ethical Humanist congregation on Long Island. But, to my profound chagrin, and even annoyance, I found from the outset, that rather than contributing to our efforts, Professor Zuckerman had defined us out of existence. Without the slightest degree of self-awareness, this “expert” on secular studies simply treats as interchangeable the words secular and anti-religious. Thus all of his facts and arguments presuppose that to be secular you must be anti-religious, and to be religious you must be anti-secular, that is, I suppose, you must believe in the divine and the sacred. I say “suppose”, because I must admit I could not get much beyond the first few pages, so put off was I by this casual conceptual extermination.

But I think the deeper point that calls for comment, is the fact that Professor Zuckerman’s approach is quite representative of the views and attitudes of the vast majority of Americans — and perhaps of many people around the world. As an expert in “secular studies” you would think that Professor Zuckerman would have known better. But that he reproduces conventional prejudices does call for, at least, a response and a clarification.

The word religion may be seen as coming from the Latin religio (or perhaps religare) which refers to being bound. There need be no reference to the divine, sacred, or transcendent in its meaning, though, of course, often there is. But quite to the point, religio speaks to one’s being bound by belief and practice to a shared community – similar to the root of yoke, from which Yoga is drawn. (According to Wikipedia: “yoga (from the root yuj) means “to add”, “to join”, “to unite”, or “to attach” in its most common literal sense. By figurative extension from the yoking or harnessing of oxen or horses, the word took on broader meanings such as “employment, use, application, performance” (compare the figurative uses of “to harness” as in “to put something to some use.””)I need not appeal to Buddhists or Confucians, however, to underline the point that one can be bound up with a community of believers and practitioners, who celebrate life’s passages together, while “ministering” to the needs of one’s fellow congregants, without having to make any appeal to “higher authorities.” In fact, one may well be committed, as are we at the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, to building a community of “caring hearts,” living an ethical life, attributing dignity to all human beings, and seeking to promote human respect and social improvement throughout the world, without making the slightest appeal to the divine or sacred. And to do all of this as a secular religious community, that is at least recognized as such by the US government, if not by Professor Zuckerman. If he had made that distinction, I would have loved to see how his factual analyses would have changed, as well as his consideration of the personal and social values of such secular religious communities — with their commitment to science and human betterment — as well as the social and institutional role that such secular organizations might play, more particularly, in the policies and programs of the United States.


7 thoughts on “On The Conceptual Extermination of Secular Religion

  1. Most people can’t make the distinction. I explain it this way, which works for me: there is a difference between an atheist and a humanist. An atheist doesn’t believe in the existence of gods, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. If they care about community, making the world a better place– that’s not in the definition. A humanist cares about making the world a better place. Not all humanists are atheists, but most probably are. I am also an atheist– but I won’t define myself by something don’t believe in (god), but rather by something I do believe in (people’s infinite capacity for growth, love, and goodness.) These are deeply held beliefs. I don’t think of it as a religion, but as a values system that guides my life. Which in the end, sounds pretty much like a religion.

  2. I often have people ask me what are Humanists? They assume we are anti religion, atheist and isolationist.When I explain about our community, our beliefs and values, and our regular meetings, I’m told that’s religion. I say yes but without “god” only good. Then I say look up the definition of religion.

  3. .. just because we have no pigeon hole, doesn’t mean we aren’t pigeons…. ok … That is a questionable analogy….but it rhymes with religion… I want to be defined from first principles of Humanity, my empathy, my gravitation towards reason, truth and justice, which ideally in my mind are eternal almost mathematical ideas/values that occur in nature because the implementation of these have made Darwinian success stories of it’s adherents! These values exist in various concentrations in all the religions from man’s past … but…. i like the idea of distilling out the useful and valuable and then teach that to our progeny. The main value, to me, of past religious notions of god or gods were as placebo-placeholders that act as a focal point for groups of people to act as a unit, because acting as an individual made one prey to other groups… sort of the reason that inner city kids join a gang….. to survive. To that end religions were very useful and successful, but now, we see there is no value in eternal war and conflict, so, the ideas that preferentially promote and adapt us to more and more mutual cooperation is what will carry us as a species forward…. Anyway… to me humanism, ethical and otherwise, is a tangential notion to most of our culture…. most want to define it in terms of something that already exists, but it seems to be more emergent and nascent. Settling out of our melting pot multicultural soup…. or , maybe floating towards the top?…. I skimmed the Wiki article on secularism, and it seems to describe the situation of both a benevolent dictator and a constitutional republic’s tolerance of large and small groups with ideologies that are mostly exclusive of each other, but living within the laws of the land, which are sculpted to encourage peaceful coexistence between these groups as well as those who purport to belong to no group. What I love about the notion of Humanism is that it uses our common humanity. human traits and tendencies to unite people from all groups towards a common goal of optimizing our humanity, human survival, survival of our planetary ecosystem, because reason shows that all of it is completely interdependent and interlocked, from here-on-out.

    1. I appreciate your thoughtful comment, and particularly your sense of what most humanists try to do. As for the reference to emergence, you might wish to check out my book “Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory,” particularly chapters 3 & 4 which set forth the outlines of a philosophical theory of emergence. I then spend the next 5 chapters seeking to apply those ideas. In fact, I had orignally intended to entitle the book “Emergence”, but that was not to the publisher’s taste.

    2. Humanism is not an answer to all of our collective issues and problems. But it is an effort to provide a scientifically grounded and humanly sensitive framework within which human beings can seek to study and critically engage the many and diverse problems with which our species — and its joint inhabitants of this planet — can seek to address our futures in the most constructive manner possible.

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