Quaker Universalist Conversations

The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, edited by George Levine – A Review by Larry Spears

George Levine, ed., The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now (Princeton University Press, 2011)

By Larry Spears

Properly viewed, this book, George Levine, ed., The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now should be titled Affirmation of Secularism: 11 essays addressing, but not solving, how we live now. The book’s cover is cute in making visual reference to the cookbook, The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer. The implication is that secularism is a kind of recipe for happiness, wellbeing, ecstasy and stewardship of community life.

The editor is George Levine. The writer contributors are Philip Kitcher, Charles Taylor, Bruce Robbins, William Connolly, Adam Phillips, Paolo Costa, Frans de Waal, David Sloan Wilson, Robert Richards and Rebecca Stott. These are not household names in our house, but I should be more familiar with their work. They are serious, substantive seekers trying to apply their understanding and experience to lives lived in community with others.

The book has a similar theme to The Secular City by Harvey Cox (1971) in celebrating the secular perspective. However, this book celebrates secularism as an alternative to religion, whereas the Cox book celebrates the secular world as the location for the action of the sacred.

The authors in this book share a common theme that, as they observe them, religions are, on balance, obstacles to fullness of life in this world and unhelpful in addressing the mysteries of the future. Yet, the authors generally recognize that religions provide the human need for community that must be matched by the secular. For their parts, this new secularism is the beneficial replacement.

The real enemies of these authors are literal understandings of traditional religious doctrines (Kitcher), reductive religious accounts of human life (Taylor), arrogant religious certainty and pursuit of enchantment (Robbins), impractical religious wisdom (Connolly), the distractions of exclusive religious perspective (Phillips), religious humorlessness (Costa), religious essentialism (de Waal and Wilson), religious denial of the reality of evolution (Wilson) and religious denial of secular enchantment (Richards and Stott). Yet, these obstacles are fully acknowledged and opposed by the religious perspective, but we recognize that these obstacles are poorly addressed, articulated and implemented by religions. These are common challenges for all humans.

What these authors are groping for, along with the rest of us, is a common understanding of reality and a common human approach to dealing with the other in daily life as individuals and as communities.

The book provides helpful endnotes and a generally good index and background summary on each featured author. The oddity is that the index refers to Ayn Rand, which is not accurate. To my reading, Ayn Rand is never mentioned in the book and, certainly, not on the referenced pages.

Doubting is a universal of the human condition. We may or may not share doubting with other animals and plants, but we share it among ourselves. This is true whether we identify our religious affinity with any religion or atheism or anywhere in between. Doubting is not pain, just uncertainty. Doubting is a universal among humans. Neither religions (any religion) nor atheism definitively answers the questions about purpose in the cosmos and the meaning of lives individually and collectively. We all do the best we can with our experience, tradition, reason and reflection.

A contrasting view is that there is design and purpose in the cosmos, including this universe, and in each person’s, animal’s and plant’s life and, as a consequence, all of us can trust in the management of the time and later conditions in death, over which we have no personal control. In what we call a condition of grace, time will go on no matter what happens to us. These are traditionally theological issues with theological answers, couched in human language as best they are understood in the contemporary situation. They generate general apprehension and fear in the hiddenness and development of answers. The present uncertainty in many is not a loss, but a gain in clarified understanding. We are disenchanted (freed from magic), which is good. We move in a rational, scientific and secular world and may feel nostalgic for a more dominantly religious past.

Can secularism offer us moral, aesthetic and spiritual understanding of reality and the future? The Joy of Secularism seeks to model a balanced and thoughtful approach for understanding an enlightened, sympathetic and relevant secularist alternative to religion for our lives. The book brings together diverse and thoughtful writers, including historians, philosophers and scientists. To this task, these authors assert that secularism provides a more positive approach and a fuller vision of the natural and complex world, but without miracles or supernatural interventions or religious teaching. They believe that this combined approach and vision is richer, more honest and more accurate than what is offered by any current religions.

The philosophy, evolutionary biology, primate study, psychoanalysis, Darwin and poetry perspectives in this essay collection examine a range of approaches for achieving a condition of personal fullness as they address the meaning, justice, spirituality and wonder of life.

This book seeks to occupy the center of the debate. In their view, this is the space vacated by both religionists and atheists. They assert tolerance and respect for diverse traditions of religious practice and state their alternatives in a measured style. We might call this the “soft secularism.”

Setting aside the categories of intelligent design and the New Atheists, the contributors make the case for a secular view that embraces awe, wonder and reflects passion, emotional integration, mystical satisfaction, happiness, enchantment and ethical discernment and argues for their secular foundation of a purely secular life that is meaningful and fulfilling. It may surprise the reader that such questions are still under debate, but these issues of secular stories still resonate in many hearts and minds.

The premise of this book is that there is an enchantment deficiency or a need for reenchantment that is available through secularism and that this approach is better because it relieves us of the burdens of religion and religious efforts to explain all mysteries. They recognize that there are aspects of traditional religions that must be captured by secularism through humanism to provide fullness in this world and confidence for the next. These authors offer to replace religious reassurance with a group of opportunities for community involvement.

This book contains thoughtful perspective offered as alternatives to those traditionally offered by religions. They join religionists in addressing the universal issues faced by all humans. Secularists and religionists are in the same family that recognizes these issues. Most of the rest of us do not.

The premise of this book is that secularism and religion are contrasting perspectives, separate and distinct. But, secularism is not rightly contrasted with religion. They are different perspectives and emphases in a shared, universal human search. Both self-styled religionists and self-styled secularists recognize the other, notwithstanding denials. Both religion and secularism recognize the reality of the current scientific description of the cosmos and its processes. Both secularism and religion recognize the reality of the numinous and mystery in human experience, that the arrow of time has direction and that there is an imminence of undescribed presence and influence in events and practice. While both secularists and religionists are awkward in using language to describe and explain these universal human experiences, this book is one of the best efforts by secularists to share their perspectives on our universal human experiences.

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