February 6, 2015
In his editorial column of February 3, “Making a Better Secularist”, David Brooks has made three terrible mistakes. In responding to Phil Zukerman’s vision of secularists, Brooks has overlooked reality.
First, he accepts Zukerman’s idea that “religion” is equivalent to conventional Christianity or Judaism. He makes this clear in his second-to-last paragraph when he gives only Jewish and Christian examples when speaking of a need to “exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action.” In reality, religion is rich and complex, offering many responses to the realities of human existence. To assume there is but one alternative to so-called secularism is to overlook the glorious abundance of religious diversity, including non-theistic forms. My religious tradition is part of this diversity but is not part of Brook’s article.
Secondly, David Brooks has accepted the illusion that all so-called ‘secularists’ are purely atheistic individualists. In reality, Zukerman’s Secularism is one current in the mighty river of humanism. Humanism centers morality, like Brook’s secularists, on “individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility”. Humanism appears within religious traditions and outside of them. But most importantly, humanists have long understood that each person makes moral choices within a network of relationships, shaped by human culture, and as a small, linked, strand in the infinite, interconnected, web of being.
Finally, Brooks accepts the false idea that, as he puts it “You either believe in God or you don’t”. Beyond the fact that there are many understandings of ‘God’, there is another option. We place moral purpose and spiritual experience at our communal center. In my congregation, both non-theists and theists (and even atheists) together, shape the meaning of life, find shared identity, and choose common purpose. The “better secularist” that Brooks imagines has long existed and thrived in such communities.
At the end of his article, Brooks invokes an “enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second.” He imagines “secularism” becoming “less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.” The better secularists that he imagines have existed in our congregations for a long time now.