Category Archives: Ethical Culture

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.