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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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Epstein: Swami Tyagananda and I are friends. Some people trace humanism back to ancient Greece and Rome, but it also goes back directly to ancient India. Philosopher economist, Amartya Sen, who is also a professor here at Harvard, points out there is more atheist and agnostic literature in Sanskrit than in any other ancient language.

We just had a speaker here at Harvard named Lavanam, whose father is named Gora. They both have one name because they removed their second, which in Indian tradition is caste-based. They are leaders of the Indian atheist and humanist community, which is very prominent and very positive. Gandhi had great respect for the community, who often did social work with the untouchables and with widows.

McNally: I can imagine that rejecting a religious tradition -- even a pluralistic one – makes it easier to reject a caste tradition.

Goldberg: Or any of the shadow side of religion that has evolved in all the great traditions. It’s very difficult to separate the historical and cultural elements from the religious, especially in a small village-based culture where they all intertwine.

I understand Greg’s perspective. I was raised by atheists had had a lot less religion in my life than he did. My mother was the most ethical and moral person I’ve ever known and she was a straight-on atheist. Religion does not have a monopoly on these things.

McNally: Why did you write your book?

Epstein: By the way, the book doesn’t declare that you can be good without god. If one still questions that in this day and age when there are a billion non-religious people -- that’s not a question, that’s a prejudice.

So it’s first of all, to dispel that prejudice. Second of all, to explore what it means to be good in a world where a billion of us have given up a belief in God?

What does it mean to be a humanist -- to be part of a positive tradition that says, “We’re going to make our lives and our relationships better. We’re going to make this world better.” Not because God or a religious text tells us to, but because we human beings recognize that’s good for everyone and makes our lives more meaningful.

McNally: The term “humanist” sounds a bit species chauvinistic to me. One of the key understandings of a certain spiritual-and-not-religious worldview is the realization that we are not separate from the rest of nature. Appropriate morals and ethics can arise from the realization that humans exist in a system of dynamic interdependent systems.

Epstein: "Is humanism species-ist?” I say “No,” but it’s fair to wonder.

First, if somebody identifies with these ideas and considers himself good without god, but prefers a different term -- atheist or agnostic, free-thinker or secular -– I say, go in peace. It’s not a big deal.

Terminology is secular. Is it the GLBT movement or the LGBT movement or the gay or the queer? Let’s forget about the acronym and worry about the message.

I like the word humanist, not because it says human beings are the kings and queens, but because it emphasizes the sense that we’re only human. There is no such thing as perfection that we can hope for or that we have to feel pressured to attain. We’re only human. We’re all flawed, we all make mistakes, and we’re trying to help one another.

Second, I like the word humanist because it emphasizes that we’re trying to do good on behalf of all human beings -- and on behalf of the entire natural world that surrounds us and sustains us. That includes all sentient life that we have discovered and that we may yet discover.

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