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Secularism: Not as easy as it seems

Secularism: Not as easy as it seems

Columnist David Brooks explores the rise of secularism in a February 3 New York Times op-ed piece, “Building Better Secularists,” challenging the idea that secularism (encompassing atheism, agnosticism and being “without religious affiliation”) is a simple absence of faith, focusing specifically on points made by sociologist Phil Zuckerman in his book, “Living the Secular Life”:

Zuckerman argues that secular morality is built around individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility. Instead of relying on some eye in the sky to tell them what to do, secular people reason their way to proper conduct.

Secular people, he argues, value autonomy over groupthink. They deepen their attachment to this world instead of focusing on a next one. They may not be articulate about why they behave as they do, he argues, but they try their best to follow the Golden Rule, to be considerate and empathetic toward others. “Secular morality hinges upon little else than not harming others and helping those in need,” Zuckerman writes.

Brooks asserts that it’s not that easy. Secularists, in the absence of faith traditions, must build their own moral philosophies, communities, Sabbaths and “moral motivation”:

It’s not enough to want to be a decent person. You have to be powerfully motivated to behave well. Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him. Secularists have to come up with their own powerful drive that will compel sacrifice and service.

Secularism, Brooks says, is based in the idea that humans are rational creatures, which they are not – therefore, secularism must embrace and inspire emotion as well as thought:

Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love. Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.

The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.

Is secularism truly divided from a faith of some kind? Does faith require belief in God? Does Brooks simplify morality? What do you think?

Susan Jacoby’s NYT review of Zuckerman’s book is here.

Zuckerman blogs on the secular life at Psychology Today.

David Brooks
David Brooks
Phil Zuckerman
Phil Zuckerman

Posted by Cara Ellen Modisett


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Philip B. Spivey

If we were in a position to ask, I think our Good Lord would say “I really don’t care how you put into practice your devotion to my principles (because so many only talk-the-talk). I care much more that your “love” for me be a verb, not an adjective.”

A singular danger of secularism is that there is no antecedent; there is no creator, no higher power, we have no origin. Without an antecedent, we humans begin to believe that everything that matters, began with us. And then we make the often fatal mistake of believing we are God. As a race, we need a profound antecedent, like the Trinity, to pull our coat tails when we stray from what’s right.

I’m not even convinced that our Good Lord requires our worship. I believe that He’s more invested in our walking-the-walk to the best of our ability.

Rod Gillis

As usual,David Brooks article is worth the read, but these secularist who struggle, do they have names, such as Goodie, or Abstinence, or Charity, or Comfort, or Assurance or Felicity and so forth? It seems appropriate that they would. After all, isn’t what he is describing simply good, better, best? Camus had it right. We live in an absurd world, and we must make sense of it as best we can, even if our myths provide no definitive conclusive answers. “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

Elouise Weaver

While secularist may be moral by their own standards and can impress man, they don’t impress God (because they don’t give credit where it’s due). Their good deeds are their own reward. Whereas, believers, give God all the glory– it is their faith that guarantees them their inheritance .

‘In his great mercy, he has given us new hope through the resurrection , and into an inheritance, that can never perish, kept in heaven for you…’ from 1pet1.4.

‘For this reason, Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance …’ heb9.15

‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.’ psalm 33.12

JC Fisher

“Their good deeds are their own reward.”

Elouise, I think they would say “that’s the point.”

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