“An insightful mixture of academic research on shifting American religious views, his own experience as a parent, and interviews with others facing moral crises without God… this book is a humane and sensible guide to and for the many kinds of Americans leading secular lives….” —Susan Jacoby, New York Times Book Review
“In this fascinating work, Zuckerman (Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion), professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, explores the moral and ethical foundations of secularism, addressing the question of whether you can live a good life without God or religion. Anecdotal evidence abounds; interviews with former religious adherents who have moved into secularism, both within and outside their religious communities, offer a compelling argument for the non-necessity of God in the pursuit of a moral life. “—Publishers Weekly
“With recent polls reporting 30 percent of Americans are nonreligious, while other studies find atheists the least-trusted people in the country, isn’t it high time to blow away the myths about the nonreligious? Answering affirmatively, the sociologist founder of the first secular-studies program at Pitzer College presents real secular people as peaceable, productive, and living happily….He also shows that secularism isn’t bipolar—believer or nonbeliever—but includes many with some supernatural beliefs but who aren’t religiously observant. And there’s not a proselytizer or zealot among this group—the point being that secular people are not all—indeed, hardly ever—Christopher Hitchens or Madalyn Murray O’Hair. May one more prejudice fall.” —Booklist
“The author brilliantly weaves stories and reflections together with empirical sociological research to create a rich portrait of secular America….Highly recommended for all readers, both religious and nonreligious, seeking a more accurate understanding of this ever-growing segment of the American population.”—Library Journal
We can call it the “matter of moral outsourcing,” and it comes from Milton, age forty-six. Milton’s take on secular morality goes something like this: People who base their morality upon their belief in God, or who think that morality comes from God, are guilty of “moral outsourcing.” Morality—in the view of secular people like Milton—is essentially about the decisions and choices one personally makes for oneself, based on contemplation, weighing of options, understanding alternatives, accepting possible consequences, and navigating complex life questions via one’s own conscience. Morality is about listening and adhering to one’s own inner moral compass concerning what is right or wrong, just or unjust, compassionate or cruel, and then acting accordingly in relation to others.
But if God is the source of morality, then a person doesn’t need to consult his own inner moral compass—one simply looks to God for direction. And looking to God for guidance about how to be moral is basically absolving oneself of doing the heavy lifting of moral deliberation. It is obediently deferring to a higher authority. It is seeking moral guidance elsewhere, outside of one’s self.
To many secular men and women, that is, in essence, a major abdication. A serious eschewal of ethical duty. A deep deferment of moral decision making. It is, in short, a cop-out. Secular morality allows for no such cop-outs; you have to make your own choices about how to treat others and how to live your life in a way that reflects your own personal conscience. That, many secular folk will argue, is true morality. In the words of philosopher and humanist Stephen Law, “It is our individual responsibility to make our own moral judgments rather than attempt to hand that responsibility over to some external authority.”
By predicating his morality upon his own conscience, Milton gets by quite well, or at least as well as most of us. And one obvious benefit to the secular morality embraced by people like Milton—at the larger, societal level—is that it is less likely to lead to blind obedience to those in positions of authority or to mob mentality. When people such as Milton refuse to outsource their morality and instead rely on their own conscience, they are much more likely to foster independent thinking, personal responsibility, skepticism toward hegemonic propaganda, and a sober self-awareness of why one chooses to do right over wrong—all of which are virtues highly compatible with and indeed essential for a healthy democracy.