Review: Living the Secular Life, by Phil Zuckerman

This book is intended as a guidebook to living without religion.  It does that by using anecdotal illustrations for secularist beliefs, and sprinkling in various institutional helps for how one might live as an avowed atheist.  Along the way, it unintentionally reveals the utter bankruptcy of the secularist point of view.

Zuckerman writes for materialists who need reassurance that “religion is definitely not the only avenue for people to live good, meaningful, or inspired lives.”  That’s an interesting formulation.  It’s as if we first decide how to live good, meaningful lives, and then choose the reality necessary to get us there.

And why “inspired?”  Other religious words are sprinkled here and there, too; words like “spiritual” and “transcendence.”  This borrowing of religious words is an effort to rake back meaning for life, after it’s been given up.  Religious concepts are borrowed and attached to materialism, in order to attempt to imbue the depth, purpose, and nobility that religious concepts have, and that materialism lacks.  If materialism is true, let’s leave the lipstick off the pig and stop trying to bootstrap human purpose from a fiction.  It’s not right to dress materialism up in religious imagery to make it more attractive, because doing so also serves to obscure truth.

The starting point for Zuckerman’s treatise on how to live as an atheist is in his insistence that atheists are not without morality.  He is writing this book to shore up materialists’ self-confidence on this point, but he also views it as proof of the truth of materialism.  In his view, the chief Christian objection to atheism is that atheists have no source of morality.  It isn’t.  The chief Christian objection to atheism is that it is not true.  Of course atheists have morality.  They have a conscience, just as Zuckerman says.  But it comes from God.

What Zuckerman doesn’t see is that the problem of morality is not that atheists lack morals, but that they believe their morals are tethered only to their conscience, and that conscience, as Zuckerman rather startlingly argues, is both unique to each person, and made up of the combination of influences upon that person’s life.  Every man is a law unto himself, but every man’s law is developed from the zeitgeist.  Far from seeing the horror in this state of affairs, Zuckerman proclaims it proudly.  This is about as clear a statement of moral relativism as one can make.  The precipitous decline of our society comes straight from this sort of philosophy.

The problem is not that individual atheists can’t be moral.  The problem is that whole societies decline in morality, as atheism becomes more prevalent.  Zuckerman would benefit from the wisdom of Peter (not Christopher) Hitchens:  The decline of civility in societies is the direct result of “the rapid vanishing of Christianity from public consciousness and life.”  (See the review of Hitchens’ book, here).  Zuckerman and those who think like him fail to understand just how fragile our civilization really is.

So, on to the source of secularist morality.  The Golden Rule is the bedrock, Zuckerman tells us.  “Not harming others – and helping or assisting others, should they seek such assistance or help – is pretty much it.”  Further, “secular morality hinges upon little else than not harming others, and helping those in need, both of which flow easily and directly from the Golden Rule’s basic, simple logic of empathetic reciprocity.”  This is an alarming contention.  Several observations.

First, religious morality requires much more.  For example, Christ taught not just that we are to not do unto others what we would not have done to us, but that we are to affirmatively do to others what we would have them do to us.  Indeed, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We’re even to love our enemies!  Why be satisfied with the lesser standard?

Second, a broad sweep of activity properly considered immoral is left out entirely:  self-destruction through drugs and alcohol, sexual profligacy, waste of individual resources, destruction of the environment, the list goes on.  But not for Zuckerman.  Remember, the Golden Rule is “pretty much it.”  Secular morality hinges on “little else.”

Third, Zuckerman’s explanation for the existence of empathetic reciprocity apart from God is unsatisfying.  It is ultimately an explanation that the Golden Rule pre-dated Christ’s teaching, therefore it must be universal.  It is certainly an element of many religions and ethical codes.  But that does not prove that it somehow exists apart from God.

This is why Zuckerman is so completely wrong to accuse Christians of “moral outsourcing.”  How ironic.  Individual consciences come from the subtle teaching and influence of parents, teachers, and society at large, Zuckerman says, but it is Christians who are engaged in “moral outsourcing.”  Zuckerman actually works himself around to the conclusion that you can’t be truly moral unless you’re an atheist!

Zuckerman devotes much space to how good societies flow from secular belief, and bad ones from religious belief.  People in prison are more religious.  Religious people are more prejudiced.  On and on.  Even while recognizing the flaw of equating correlation to causation, Zuckerman engages in it, relentlessly.  He is tone-deaf concerning history, even as he assumes a progressivist arc to it.  He speaks in liberal pieties, without evidence, warrant, or logical basis.  It turns out that society-wide, Zuckerman believes liberal politics are more moral; conservative politics immoral.

What a nice, tidy little world to live in.

(See, Living the Secular Life, by Phil Zuckerman (Penguin Press, 2014))


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