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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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Finally, I like the word humanist because I don’t want to just define myself as an atheist or an agnostic. I don’t want to define myself according to a god that somebody else might happen to believe in. That’s not my belief, that’s their belief. I want to define myself not just within somebody else’s terms, but positively according to what I actually believe and stand for. Humanist is a positive term not just a negative non-religious term.

McNally: How old is the term?

Epstein: It’s had different meanings. Just like the word Hinduism. I like to say that the word Hinduism and the word humanism are similar in the sense that they refer to about a billion people, but in each of those cases not all those billion people identify themselves with that word. And the word wasn’t given to those people by themselves. In Hinduism, it was imposed by the British, and in humanism, it’s a word that some people have chosen.

The word goes back to the Renaissance, where some Christians said not all truth is theological truth, there is truth for human’s sake as well. Those people called themselves humanists. It was adopted in about the last hundred or so to refer to a positive way of living life and of looking at life for non-religious people.

McNally: I inferred in your writing a sense of humility. What’s the best we can do with this human life we’ve been given?

Epstein: It’s not easy to live a good life with or without a belief in God. We struggle, and I’m looking for something that admits that; something that doesn’t try to say, “If you just follow my teaching or his teaching or her teaching, you’ll live the perfect enlightened life…” Those things tend to be illusions. It admits that we struggle and we want to struggle together, and it assumes that we can make a lot of progress if we’re willing to help one another.

McNally: I mentioned the notion of good without god to my 16 year-old stepson, and he pointed out that a lot of what draws people to organized religion is the need for community. He said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if opportunities for community existed on a regular basis -- a Sabbath kind of thing -- for those who don’t have religion?” Greg?

Epstein: He needs to come to college in the Boston area. Not only am I working on this at Harvard, but there are others working on this exact idea of creating a positive community for non-religious people. This idea is emerging around the country and around the world. I just visited the Humanist Society of Scotland, and learned that this year the largest number of marriages in Scotland will be performed by the Church of Scotland; second most by the state registries like the justices of the peace; third most by the Humanist Society of Scotland; and fourth most by the Catholic Church.

Scotland is just one country among many where a positive non-religious community is becoming extremely influential. We’re doing weddings and funerals and baby-naming ceremonies. We’re celebrating holidays and practicing meditation and making music. You can do all these things without a belief in a god, without a belief in the supernatural or the magical or even the mystical.

Goldberg: I welcome this. One of my interests has been the spiritual-but-not-religious cohort that has been supported by teachings of the East. But we’ve been missing community.

I would caution that one element that we associate with religion is not necessarily available in secular teachings -- though it’s creeping into transpersonal psychology --the element of transcendence. Access to practices that expand consciousness beyond the limitations of the individual self to an experience of connectedness to a larger whole -- whether you label it religious or scientific -- is a critically important aspect of human growth and development.

 
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