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Good Without God: Why "Non-Religious" Is the Fastest-Growing Preference in America

Authors Phil Goldberg and Greg Epstein share their provocative views on why a quarter of Americans now call themselves agnostic, atheist or nonreligious.

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The position has existed for about 35 years now, but in my understanding of history, humanism was an almost silent partner in a lot of the discussion that you’ve been describing over the past generation or two. It’s now becoming much more prominent.

It’s much better understood today that when talking about the spectrum of religious pluralism in the United States and the world, you’ve got to refer also to the non-religious -- to the people who don’t accept that the truth comes from any particular religious tradition, but that it comes from human wisdom. President Obama has been very aware in his life and in his speeches that you can find the golden rule, you can find truth and ethics in all religions -- or you can find them in humanism.

McNally: Well he’s the son of an atheist and a humanist, which may or may not be a first, but it’s certainly interesting.

If you could, a little bit of your path? You chose to pursue religion as an undergraduate, and then two Masters degrees -- one in Theological Studies and another in Judaic Studies. Doesn’t sound like the resume of a guy that calls himself non-religious.

Epstein: I like to quote a novel – “I have a very religious personality without a scintilla of religious belief.”

I grew up in an extremely diverse neighborhood. Just being white made me a minority. I had secular Jewish parents, and mixed with people from every religion – Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims – and there was no majority. I saw friends go to different religious holiday celebrations and wear different costumes and eat different foods. There was a sense that we were all good enough people and nobody had special access to The Truth.

But I felt that there had to be something beyond relativism: what your family and their texts say is true, and what mine say is true, etc. That sort of distorts the notion of the word “true.”

I went to synagogues and I had a bar mitzvah, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the Judaism that I’d grown up with. People didn’t seem truly devoted to the words that they were praying. I visited other churches, and had the same experience.

I picked up from my father and his generation the idea that in the East, you’ll find something special and inspirational and unique. I studied hundreds of hours of Chinese in order to read Buddhist meditation texts in the original. Then I traveled to China and Taiwan and found people just as lukewarm about Taoism as the reformed Jews I grew up around in New York.

Humanism is the idea that people created religion, not vice versa. No one religious tradition has access to the truth. We invented it all, and, spiritually speaking, we came up with some very good inventions and some really lousy ones.

McNally: Unlike our inventions in communications or transportation, where we have progressed and adapted, we hold to the same religious inventions thousands of years later.

Epstein: The nature of religion is naturally conservative. Once people have attached the names of their ancestors and their deities to a spiritual insight like “Do unto others as you’d have done to you,” they don’t like to admit, “Oh by the way, 75% of what we wrote in that book we got completely wrong.”

Goldberg: I think it’s perfectly wonderful that there’s a Humanist Chaplain at Harvard because secular humanism is an important perspective to add to this mix. The notion that there are many paths to higher consciousness or ethical behavior or the experience of the sacred, would necessarily include a scientific or humanistic approach. I would bet that your views would be compatible with Swami Tyagananda, the Hindu Chaplain at Harvard, vis a vis the modern world and science

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