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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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Currently more than one billion people around the world define themselves as agnostic, atheist or nonreligious — including 15 percent of Americans. Perhaps more striking, “nonreligious” is not only the fastest growing religious preference in the U.S., but also the only one to increase its percentage in every state over the past generation.

Phil Goldberg and Greg Epstein have provocative perspectives on who these people are, what they believe, and how they arrived at their worldviews and their moral codes.

In February, 1968, the Beatles went to India for an extended stay with their new guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It may have been the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those 40 days in the wilderness.

With these words, interfaith minister Goldberg begins American Veda, his look at India’s impact on Western culture. From Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, succeeding generations absorbed India’s “science of consciousness,” and millions have come to accept and live by the central teaching of Vedic wisdom: “Truth is One, the wise call it by many names.”

Acccording to Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, recent bestsellers from Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris stress the irrationality of belief and what’s wrong with religion, while offering few positive alternatives. In Good without God, Epstein explains how humanists strive to live well, build community, uphold ethical values, and lift the human spirit…all without a god. “It’s not enough to just ‘discover’ the meaning of life. Humanism is concerned with one of the most important ethical questions—what we do once we’ve found purpose in life.”

Terrence McNally: In terms of the influence of Indian spiritualist teachings on American culture, let’s start with one individual American – you. What was your path?

Phil Goldberg: In the 1960s, I was a college student majoring in psychology and a political activist on the front lines, a Marxist and an atheist who thought religion was the opium of the people. But I got pretty disillusioned with those ways of looking at the world. They were not providing answers to big questions or a means to get my life together. That twin preoccupation led to reading about Eastern philosophy and mysticism, yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism. There was something in the zeitgeist that brought the East to the forefront. It was Ravi Shankar’s music, it was the Beatles, it was drugs. And the passion to get answers.

I read the Bagavad Gita and a number of books by western interpreters -- Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Houston Smith – who presented ancient teachings in a very rational and sensible way that made sense. I remember saying to myself, “Why do they call this mysticism? There’s nothing mysterious about it.” It makes sense and offers an empirical approach to human development and our place in the cosmos. That got me hooked, and I wanted more and more. Eventually I picked up meditative practices, and they were transforming, changing my life for the better.

McNally: Reading your book, I remembered some of my own experiences. Freshman year in college I visited my best friend from high school at Yale. One of his roommates was Michael Medved, later a film critic and even later, a right wing pundit. His other roommate read me a couple of quotes from Nature Man and Woman by Alan Watts. I bought it, and that was the start for me.

I started meditating in the ‘80s. I can remember taking to the beach a paperback that had been sitting around the house -- The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson -- a very Western perspective on meditation…

 
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