Given our recent theme of exploring non-theism and secularism, it seems useful to publish a slightly reedited version of this March 2012 review of George Levine’s The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now (2011)
The book’s cover is cute in making visual reference to the cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer (1946). The implication is that secularism is a kind of recipe for happiness, well-being, 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. [ See Notes for more on these writers. ]
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. Religions, as they observe them, are on balance obstacles to fullness of life in this world and unhelpful in addressing the mysteries of the future. However, 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).
However, these obstacles are fully acknowledged and opposed by thoughtful religious people, even though 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.
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 affinity with any religion or with atheism or with anywhere in between.
Doubting is not pain, just uncertainty. Doubting is a universal among humans. Neither religion nor atheism definitively answers questions about purpose in the cosmos or about 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 for this universe, and for each person’s, animal’s and plant’s life. As a consequence all of us can trust in the management of the time and later conditions after 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 can be understood. They are issues which generate general apprehension and fear. However, the uncertainty in of the present age is not a loss but a gain in the effort to clarify our understanding. We are disenchanted (freed from magic), which is good. We move in a rational, scientific and secular world, even if we 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.
For this task, these authors assert that secularism provides a more positive approach and a fuller vision of the natural and complex world, 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, Darwinist and poetic perspectives in this collection examine a range of approaches for achieving a condition of personal fullness while they address the meaning, justice, spirituality and wonder of life.
This book seeks to occupy the center of the debate. In the view of the essayists, this is the space vacated by both religionists and atheists. They all 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. They argue for the 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 re-enchantment that is available through secularism, and that this approach is better, because it relieves us of the burdens of religious efforts to explain all mysteries. The essayists 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.
The Joy of Secularism contains thoughtful perspective offered as alternatives to those traditionally offered by religions. The authors 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.
These authors argue that secularism and religion are contrasting perspectives, separate and distinct. Yet secularism is not rightly contrasted with religion. They represent two alternative perspectives and emphases in a shared, universal human search.
Both self-styled religionists and self-styled secularists recognize the other, notwithstanding denials. Both are capable of recognizing the reality of the current scientific description of the cosmos and its processes. Both are capable of recognizing the reality of the numinous and mysterious in human experience.
The arrow of time has direction and there is an imminence of indescribable 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.
The book provides helpful end notes and a generally good index and background summary on each featured author. An 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.
- Philip Kitcher, Philosophy, Columbia University
- A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor (Harvard University Press, 2007)
- Bruce Robbins, English, Columbia University
- Why I Am Not a Secularist, by William E. Connolly (University of Minnesota Press, 2000)
- “Adam Phillips, The Art of Nonfiction No. 7,” an interview by Paul Holdengräber in The Paris Review No. 208, Spring 2014
- “A Secular Wonder,” by Paolo Costa on Academia.edu
- Frans de Waal, Psychology, Emory University
- David Sloan Wilson, Evolution, University of Binghamton
- Robert Richards, History, University of Chicago
- Rebecca Stott, Literature, University of East Anglia
- Hubble Mosaic of the Majestic Sombrero Galaxy, from website of the The Hubble European Space Agency Information Centre
- Civitas Humana, banner for Civitas Humana, a blog dedicated to discussing and promoting secular humanism as an ethical worldview in conjunction with a naturalist metaphysical worldview