Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ben Edward Akerley reviews Good Without God

GOOD WITHOUT GOD: WHAT A BILLION NONRELIGIOUS PEOPLE DO BELIEVE by Greg M. Epstein. HarperCollins, New York. 10/10. 250 pages. $14.99 (paperback)

Greg M. Epstein holds the post of Humanist chaplain at Harvard University. For Good Without God, his Humanist primer, he chose the statistical subtitle to drive home the surprising fact that almost 1/6 of Earth's teeming billions constitute nonbelievers (with a bewildering array of various labels for their skepticism). Even in the U.S. as the developed world's by far most religious nation, at least 15% (approximately 40 million) now claim no religious affiliation with "nonreligious" representing the fastest-growing "religious preference" in all 50 states and an astonishing one in four young adults professing no religion at all.

In 1915, a Unitarian minister named John Dietrich (1878-1957) first adopted the term "Humanism" as the name for his religion since he especially liked that it echoed a connection to renaissance humanists in Europe. Finally, by 1941, Dietrich, together with others of similar belief, founded the American Humanist Association, still the leading body for Humanist activism in America.

The chaplain eschews calling Humanism a religion because it has no divinities and no supernaturalism. Instead, he opts for the European coinage "lifestance" meaning more than just a philosophy but not a divine or revealed belief system. Since Humanists only have faith in humanity, they constitute the true believers because their secular philosophy dictates that our dignity of mutual concern and self-fulfillment through service to humanity's highest ideals offer more than enough reasons that we can and should be good without God, focusing more on the "good" than on the "without God" half of the equation.

Believers and nonbelievers alike have to contend with life's three most pressing concerns: aging, sickness and death. Fear of the latter is incontrovertibly the most intense and provides the most rational explanation of how religion capitalizes on this human frailty by promising solace, comfort and seductive reassurance of immortality. The religious believe in life after death. By contrast, Humanists believe only in life before death with no need of supplication to an imaginary heavenly father.

God is the most important, influential, literary character ever created by Earthlings, but one must know precisely what is meant by God, since the more a word can mean anything, the more it means absolutely nothing. Consequently, the apologist outlines a brief history of the definition of God from Spinoza to modern day theologians whose wildly divergent take on the God question really settles nothing definitively.

Just as anthropologists have never found a culture without some form of religion, a survey of the world's major religions indicates that basically every belief system contains the equivalent of the Golden Rule and the author gives verbatim, side-by-side comparisons of this universal moral principle from eight of the leading faiths. He also undertakes an extensive exegesis of the Ten Commandments and translates the Humanist equivalent of six of them while arguing that even the most ardent nonbelievers can find total concordance with the remaining four (re: murder, adultery, stealing and slander).

Acceptance of Humanism and Atheism was severely hampered and demonized during the last century because of their connection in some cases to socialism and communism. In our new millennium, the demonization comes from the Religious Right, with leaders like Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback megachurch, spearheading the vicious attack. His book, The Purpose Driven Life, has become the best-selling non-fiction book in the history of publishing and its author now ranks as one of the most influential leaders of our generation. The evangelist's condemnation of every nonbeliever to spend all eternity in Hell, constitutes a profound insult and gratuitous affront to all those outside of his "fold" and his statement broadcast on national TV that he could never vote for an atheist president only served to greatly compound the offense.

My only negative criticism of this valuable entry is that as helpful as his excellent appendix is with its list of Humanist and secular resources, in a work of this wide a scope, Epstein does readers a distinct disservice by not also appending an index.

_ _ _ _ _

Related reading: