A Comprehensively Secular Life? A Conversation with Professor Phil Zuckerman

MOHLER: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Phil Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. In 2011, he founded and interdisciplinary department of secular studies at Pitzer College, the first of its type in the nation. He’s the author of several books, including Faith No More and Society Without God. He blogs for Psychology Today and the Huffington Post. His most recent work is Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. I’m looking forward to my conversation with professor Phil Zuckerman.


MOHLER: Professor Zuckerman, every book has a story. And my sense is that this book’s story has a great deal to do with your personal story. Can you tell us how they intersect and how the book came about?

ZUCKERMAN: Sure. Well, I’m a third generation nonbeliever. Most Americans were raised with some kind of religious faith, and those that have abandoned it have done just that. They were raised with it, and for various reasons—we could speculate why—they lost it or they walked away from it at some point. I never had that experience. I was never raised to believe in God. I was never told there was a God. My parents were nonbelievers. And believe it or not, all four grandparents of mine were nonbelievers. And I grew up in a pretty secular part of America. I grew up near Santa Monica, California in the 70’s and 80’s. I didn’t know a lot of religious people. I never saw families going to church on Sunday mornings. I actually never went to someone’s house where they said grace around the dinner table. It wasn’t until my first girlfriend, actually, who was the daughter of a nondenominational evangelical pastor who had come out from—I think it was—Kansas that I came face to face with real believers. They were, I should say, a very warm and wonderful family, and I appreciated the time I spent with them. But basically, I didn’t realize how strong religion was for most Americans until after that, until I got older and got into high school and off to college and realized that it’s a big part of people’s lives. And then the big challenge for me was to realize how many stereotypes there were, negative stereotypes, of people like me, nonreligious secular people—that we were immoral, that we had no meaning in our lives, there was nothing to live for. So I knew that wasn’t the case. I grew up with very moral people, very ethical people in a very ethical, moral culture. The milieu I was in cared a lot about the world and making it a better place. While I realized there are a lot of angry atheists out there, or a handful I should say—and maybe there are some nihilists—that was just never my experience, so I wanted to write a book that told America what it really means to be secular, and I wanted to tell the story of secular men and women and how they live their lives. And I certainly drew from my own experience, but I’ve also spent 10 or 15 years now studying secular people, interviewing them, getting their stories, analyzing their worldviews. I don’t want to go on too much, but I was raised in a secular home and a secular culture. And I wanted to write a book that expressed the best of that culture to the rest of the world.

MOHLER: Well, from the book about chapter 2, I came to know that you were at least a second generation unbeliever in that sense. But the background is really interesting. And, just based upon what you’ve said, there’s a lot I want to come back to. But let me just move to this. You have established the nation’s first Department of Secular Studies in American academic institution. That’s a department unlike any department there at Pitzer College. How did that happen? You got a lot of headlines for it. What’s been the result thus far?

ZUCKERMAN: Basically, when I was in grad school, you could study religion. Academia’s been studying religion since its inception. The field of anthropology was born out of the study of religion. Psychology has been studying religion since its inception. Sociology, obviously philosophy, history—I mean if one wants to study religion and religious people, there is an endless array of possibilities—academic departments, journals, academic associations and annual conferences. There’s no nook or cranny of religious life that has not been explored by some academic either historian or political scientist or whatnot. But about 15 years ago, 10 or 15 years ago—it’s a little bit fuzzy for me now—I was going to these conferences because I was very interested in religion. But some of us started to meet and realized, wow, there’s no one really studying nonreligious people. And the numbers are growing. The numbers of people who are saying they’re nonreligious have been increasing steadily over the last 50 years in this country. Now they’re at their peak, somewhere between 20% and 30% of Americans saying they have no religion. And of course, not all of them are convinced atheists to be sure, but many of them are. And there was no academic forum, no academic discipline that was saying—you’ve got departments of Jewish studies, you’ve got departments of Islamic studies, you’ve got departments of Buddhist studies, and these are great. I’m glad they exist. It’s important that we study every facet of religious life. But there’s a huge chunk of humanity—according to the recent pew estimates, they estimate that by 2050 a full 15% of global humanity will be nonreligious. That’s way more than there are Jews. That’s way more than there are Sikhs. So a group of us at these conferences were like, wait a minute, we have no way to study secular people. We don’t know how secular people live their lives. We don’t know about their brains. We don’t about their personalities. We don’t know about their politics. We don’t know about their demographics. And I came back to where I teach at Pitzer College in Claremont, California and found out that several of my colleagues had similar interests, either political secularism or philosophical humanism or whatnot, and we were able, after several gatherings and meetings and retreats, to try to look at what might it look like to actually study secular life as a discipline. And we were successfully able to establish this program. We teach classes in the history of free thought, secularism, political science classes, philosophy, and sociology. And it’s not about pushing or praising secularism. In fact, I teach a lot about some of the horrors that have been done in the name of atheism, particularly in the Soviet Union. So we’re trying to be objective. We’re trying to be unbiased, and we’re trying to be scientifically rigorous in studying this huge chunk of humanity that seems to be growing. And we want to know who they are, and why they are, and what they are, and all that.

MOHLER: This newest book Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions mixes a bit of personal testimony and philosophical musings with a lot of sociological data. Even in your introductory comment, you pointed us to some of that data. Before turning to the larger worldview issues at stake in terms of how you lay out your book, you mentioned you’re a third generation nonbeliever. That’s rather unusual, not unprecedented, but unusual in terms of Western societies and certainly in terms of the United States. But in your book, you point out that the vast majority of children eventually hold to the religious worldview or nonreligious worldview of their parents. I believe the statistic in your book was 85% of children raised in homes in which both parents are secular in worldview, they tend to adopt the same secular worldview themselves.

ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, that’s correct. We know, and I think it’s pretty common sense but we have the data as well, that children tend to adopt the identities and worldviews of those who raise them and love them and protect them and feed them and provide for them. This is a sort of standard sociological, anthropological, and psychological rule of thumb. There are exceptions. You always get the child who goes a different way or rebels. But as a general rule, the percentages and averages are such that children raised in a Mennonite home tend to stay Mennonite. And if they leave Mennonite, they might choose something close to Mennonite. If they’re raised LDS, they tend to stay LDS. If they’re raised Jewish, they tend to stay Jewish. And “tend” is the operative word here. It doesn’t mean always. It just means that’s the observable tendency. But what we’re finding is the same holds true for secular families. So children that are raised in homes without religion also grow up to identify that way and see the world that way. So it doesn’t surprise us, but it’s just something no one’s been studying. And we’re seeing that percentage grow. In the 1950s, for example, fewer than 4% of children were raised in nonreligious homes. Today, it’s at 11%. Now that’s not a huge amount, but still it’s double digits. There’s only about 2% of children raised in Jewish homes—just to give you a sense of 11% of people being raised in nonreligious homes is pretty significant. It’s still a stark minority, but it’s growing.

MOHLER: Yeah, I think just about anyone would concede that’s a significant number and percentage and in all likelihood growing. In your book you cite Steve Bruce and Tony Glendenning who, as you write, found that children raised without religion rarely grow up to be religious themselves. And you quote them as saying, “If someone was not raised in a particular faith, the chances of acquiring one later in life are small.” You ask, “How small?” Their answer: “About 5%.” Now I think whether you are a religious believer or unbeliever, that’s a pretty astounding statistic.

ZUCKERMAN: It is. I will contextualize that. They’re talking about their research on kids in Great Britain. And Great Britain has secularized to a far greater degree than we have—particularly Scotland, where about half the residents say they’re actually nonbelievers in God. You can see that if you’re in Scotland and you’re in Edinburgh and you’re raised by nonreligious folks, the chances of acquiring faith are that slim. I think it would be different here in the U.S. where faith is more abundant. There are more options. There’s more vitality to our religious marketplace. But even here the big story—you know, I just have to say demographically—we know that the more religious parents are, the more children they tend to have. And that works across religions: Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Christian, Catholics, you bet. The more strongly religious people are, the more kids they tend to have. And the more secular folks are, the fewer kids they tend to have. So the fact that we’re seeing this rise of irreligion in America with more and more people saying they have no religion is not a result of births. In fact, it’s contradicting the birth rates. Just in terms of birth rates, secular people should not be growing at all. So what that means is a lot of Americans are rejecting their religious identity. They’re not going to church as much anymore. They’re walking away from their faith. Not all of them obviously lose their faith. They may just not want to identify with a particular religious tradition for various reasons—that might be political or personal or whatnot. But the truth is even here in the United States, yes, children raised without religion tend to stay that way, and even kids raised in religion, we’re seeing an uptick. Just to give you an example, between 18 and 29 year olds, a full 35% now say they have no religion. And that’s according to Pew, which in my opinion is a very reliable source. In fact, that’s the highest percentage we’ve ever seen. People often say, “Well, they’re young, you know, when they get older, when they get married and have kids, they might return to the fold,” which often is the case. However, if we look at earlier aged cohorts, if we look at 18-29 year olds in the 80s, 18-29 year olds in the 70s, in the 60s, we don’t have such a high percentage saying they’re nonreligious. So even if some of these 35% of Americans in their 20’s return to religion, it’s still a larger chunk of nonreligious than we’ve ever seen before.

MOHLER: Professor Zuckerman, in terms of worldview, your attempt in this book is really from cradle to grave. I’ll just leave it at that. To attempt to demonstrate how a secular life can be plausible and fulfilling. Now the need to write a book like this is interesting in and of itself. So prior to you writing this book, Living the Secular Life, did anyone else come up with any kind of comprehensive worldview laid out in just this way, or is this one of these books that only could have arisen in the early 21st century?

ZUCKERMAN: I hate to say it because I think it’s more of the latter. Not to prop myself up a bit. But no, I did think I was offering something new here. I’ll just say this: previously, you had two kinds of books. You had those books that were attacking religion—why religion’s bad, and all the evils it’s done. Or you had books that were attacking theism—arguments against the existence of God, articulating atheist criticisms. And those are all fine and good. I don’t know if they convince a lot of people. Maybe they do, I’ve interviewed people who said they’d read this book or that book that caused them to have some doubts about their faith or whatnot. But in general, that’s really focusing on religion from a critical perspective.

But the people I know and live among, they’re not obsessive about religion. They don’t hate religion. They don’t hate God. It’s just not a big part of their life. And that’s a huge distinction between the secularist who’s obsessed with religion, and trying to fight religion and trying to limit its role in society, and trying to disabuse people of their religious faith and convince them that they’re wrong; and the people that I live among who are living their lives, loving their children, enjoying their work, enjoying their hobbies and creativity, nature and whatnot. And they’re not really obsessing about religion and they don’t care if other people believe.

MOHLER: In your book, one of the interesting things you point out is what sociologists refer to as social location. You pointed out this in terms of your own background, but also in terms of where you live right now, teaching in one of the Claremont colleges—you explicitly say in the book that you really don’t run into many traditional believers in terms of everyday life. And, to some extent, that’s more likely on the coast near the campus in a more metropolitan area. But that’s not where most Americans live, even those who will be reading your book.

ZUCKERMAN: Well, most Americans do live in urban settings, to be sure. I mean California and New York combined, and Florida, are the most populated states in the country, numerically. People living in small towns are the minority, but you’re absolutely right. Pockets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Eugene, Vermont, these are atypical. Most Americans live in a culture, as you know, where religion is much more abundant. Little League games start with prayers, there’s prayers in town halls. Religion is much more a part of the culture, part of the media. And in those places you’ll find that secular people tend to be a bit more defensive; they do tend to be a bit more prickly. Whereas when you live in a part of the country, understandably, where religion isn’t that strong, you kind of move onto other things and you occupy your time with other ways. But I wanted to, you know, part of this book was to sort of articulate what it means to be secular in the hopes that even secular people themselves could appreciate it. But I also wanted—you know, my in-laws are believers, they’re born-again Christians—and I wanted folks like them to understand that there is a huge swath of secular culture that’s not threatening, that’s not immoral, that’s not angry, but is fulfilled and ethical. And so I guess I was trying to reach the folks in more broader America where they don’t maybe interact with a lot of secular people and I wanted them to know what it’s all about.

MOHLER: Yeah, and I can see that. Let me ask you another question. William James famously wrote about the varieties of religious experience. In one sense, at least part of your book could be subtitled “The Varieties of Nonreligious Experience,” because you really differentiate between nonbelievers who take the shape of atheist versus agnostics, or those committed ethical culture, or secular humanists, and you don’t seem to be quite at home in any one of those. But explain to us kind of the layout right now in America in terms of the landscape of unbelief.

ZUCKERMAN: Well I love your subtitle. It’s so true; it’s great. You’re absolutely right. Part of the joys of secular studies, as it were, is to map this terrain. We’ve differentiated different types of religious believers for a century. We’ve typologized, and dissected, and we’ve got categories, and everybody knows if you say a person’s “religious,” that could mean so many things. And yet the nonreligious we haven’t scrutinize and dissected to the same degree. So it’s in its infancy; we are starting to do that. If I had to just, right now, I would sort of draw it like this. You’ve got a huge swath of people who John Shook calls “apatheists”; they just don’t care about God. They’re not against God, they’re not non-believers, they’re not atheists, they’re not theists; it’s just not on their radar. They’re thinking about other things. It might be the football game, it might be politics, it might be their neighbor; you just don’t know. And then you have a group of people who are sort of engaged with religion on the church-state issue. These are the folks that don’t want prayers in public gatherings, at graduations. They don’t want to see the Ten Commandments in courthouses. They don’t want the Pledge of Allegiance to contain the words “under God.” They feel like they’re fighting a very vigilant fight to keep government out of religion and keep religion out of government. Then you have another swath of secular culture that’s kind of philosophically engaged with the questions of religion. They want to argue about the existence of God, about immortality, about the existence of the soul. They want to really engage at that level. And then you folks who are on the more sort of secular-humanist area where they don’t want to oppose religion, and they don’t want to talk about what they don’t believe; they want to talk about what they do believe—making the world a better place, human rights, women’s equality, ending racism, ending sexism, fighting against global warming. They want to say well we believe that humanity; that’s where we place our faith. And we know others may think that’s misguided, but that’s where we’re at. So I would say that’s how I would look at it right now—the kind of more secular-humanist types who are advocating principles and ethics and morals and trying to make the world a better place, the church-state folks, the arguing about atheism and theism folks, and then those who are indifferent, the kind of benignly indifferent who just don’t give it much thought.


MOHLER: As Christians we understand that we have the intellectual and theological responsibility to come to understand, truthfully and accurately, what other people and other religious belief systems actually believe. But we as thinking Christians also need to extend that logic to the world of unbelief as well, and that moral responsibility with it. And that means that we have the responsibility to understand unbelief in terms that are equally clear and equally accurate. I think one way to understand this is in terms of Jesus’s command of love of neighbor. If we really love our neighbor, then that love will be translated into seeking to understand what our neighbor actually believes. Of course as Christians, that’s not something that we simply understand in order to leave it there. But that is, we need to note, a necessary place to start.


MOHLER: In the book, as you lay out your argument, I think you start and end pretty predictably in this sense. I would think that if I were writing a book in order to defend a secular worldview over-against the preconceptions, especially of those who aren’t unbelievers, then I would have to start out with morality, and that’s exactly where you start out. And so I want to set this up by saying many times evangelical Christians seeking to think these things through and to think biblically and genuinely in terms of the Christian truth claim about this, they will say—or perhaps I should say we will say—that atheism makes it impossible to be truly moral. Now I want to start out by saying I don’t think it’s a good argument, but I think it points to a good argument. And so before I get to what I think is a better argument, let me just say that I think it’s wrong for us to speak about individuals and say that an unbeliever can’t be a moral person. And yet before a follow-up on that, that really is something that you see as an obstacle to increasing the influence of unbelievers in America today. You hit that head-on in your chapter.

ZUCKERMAN: Wow, that’s a big one. You got it, the morality question is huge. It’s the first thing most nonreligious people are asked. Well how can you be moral if you’re not religious, or how can you be moral if you don’t believe in God? So you’re right, I did want to approach that head-on. Let me see, how can I approach this? I would start by acknowledging the many studies that show that religiously involved Americans give more to charity than those who are not religiously involved. They donate more time, more money, more energy to the charities—religious and secular charities. We have to acknowledge that on a certain level religiously engaged, religiously involved Americans they tend to report higher levels of subjective well being. They live longer; they have lower suicide rates. So there are a lot of benefits related to morality, as it were, or wellbeing that we see with religious life. But what’s interesting about those statistics and surveys is that they all involve religious involvement, not belief in God specifically. In fact, you can control for that, and when you measure people who believe in God but don’t go to church or synagogue they actually don’t have the same levels the charitable giving and well being. And conversely, when you study atheists who do go to church because they are married to someone or they have a relative or whatever, they have the same level the charitable giving and altruism and so on and so forth. So it does seem to be this communal aspect of religion that has the moral benefits as opposed to just belief in God per se. Now I kind of just wanted to throw that out. Now as for the belief in God and morality, I’m not sure where you want me to go here. Do you want me to explain secular morality?

MOHLER: No, you do that pretty well in your book. Let me go ahead and go to part two here. What I wanted to say was that I think it’s important that Christians think and speak carefully about this, and I think that the wrong way to put it, and if this is of interest to you, I’ll simply say I think the wrong way for Christians to put this is that an atheist can’t be a moral person, that is can’t operate by moral standards and be an upright citizen, a wonderful next-door neighbor, and stop at red lights and stay outside of a life of crime. So I think that’s the wrong way to put it, and you do make that case—I want to acknowledge that.

ZUCKERMAN: Thank you.

MOHLER: But what I want to press on is where then is the origin of a moral code that actually can produce a moral life. Because it seems to me, that is the weaker part of your argument. Where in the world does this morality come from?

ZUCKERMAN: Okay, well that’s a huge age-old question that philosophers have been discussing forever, and I’ll try and do my best. I’m actually not a philosopher by training I’m a sociologist, but I do dabble in those realms. I’ll start with a little anecdote, and then I’ll try to be more direct. You can imagine if there was a flight taking off from LAX this morning heading to Indonesia that were to crash, and let’s say that plane were to crash on an island somewhere, and miraculously or what not, you know there were 100 survivors, and the island uninhabited. Well we’ve got these hundred survivors, and you know people are to be hungry; people need food and there’s water to be found and there’s food to be had because there’s fish and other animals on this island and there’s springs and whatnot. We’ve also got to have a signal so we can be rescued. You can imagine that those hundred or so folks could sit around and think about what some rules we want to live by here? Well everyone’s got to take a turn getting freshwater and everyone’s got the take turn taking care of the few kids and everyone’s got to take a turn fishing and if someone is sick…okay? We could easily sit around and decide what would be a fair, just way to secure a pleasant life while we’re waiting to be rescued. Now someone’s got to man the fire signal and someone’s got to chop down the wood. And it wouldn’t be necessary at any point for someone to say, “Oh, and by the way, we have to believe that all these rules came from invisible, magic deity.” One could go there; it’s not necessary. We could imagine these hundred people could very realistically and easily come up with an ethical code, to use your words, or moral code, and it would come from those people themselves, based on their experience, based on their sense of empathies. So that’s the way I would enter this conversation. What I would say is for us, humans are this source of morality, and we have to decide and we have to figure out what is moral; and we do that using our brains which have evolved with the capacity for empathy so we can understand someone else or something else is suffering, and the secular morality is really about empathy and treating people the way we would want to be treated and limiting suffering in sentient beings and increasing fairness and justice—and then we have to debate and discuss. There is no stone-code tablet we can look to. We have to figure that out ourselves and sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we get right, but the faith of the other compels us. The suffering of other humans compels us; and so, no we don’t believe there is an eternal moral code that has been handed to us from a nonhuman source, and maybe that means we’re doomed to moral chaos. I just don’t see it that way. In fact, I would argue that if morality comes from somewhere else then really we’re just being obedient. We’re guilty of moral outsourcing. We’re not looking to our own consciences and our own experiences to determine what’s right and wrong; we’re just receiving orders, and that may be moral to some people, but it is not moral to me. And if morality comes from God and God says, “Kill your son,” you do that—and that’s exactly what Abraham does, and yes God stops him but that’s not the point of the story. The point of the story was would you even kill your own child if God says so, and if you really believe God is God, then yes that’s what you do. And humble me, sitting here in my office in current California I’d have to say “no” to that order. I don’t care how big this God is—how many planets he’s created, even if he created me, I wouldn’t kill my son just because of the command. So I guess we have to choose between obeying commands or constructing our morals ourselves and I see strengths and weaknesses in both choices. I don’t think secular morality has all the answers, but I’m terrified of theistic morality because I don’t think obeying commands—that’s not how I understand morality.

MOHLER: That is really interesting and I do think that you—and you may or may not be thinking in these terms—that that’s really not an accurate representation of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition that starts out with God making us moral creatures as we are made in his image. And yes, the issue of obedience then comes because he is the divine lawgiver, but he does expect us to be moral creatures, in the sense of obeying him, but also in terms of thinking thoughts after him, insofar that we would want to obey him, and it is fascinating you bring up Abraham, because Abraham trusted in God’s character to be superior to his own moral autonomy, and that’s why he’s valorized, and of course the apostle Paul too. That raises a fascinating issue. I had an atheist philosophy teacher who one time pointed out, I thing very perceptively, that every nonbeliever is a specific kind of nonbeliever. That is generally, there’s a rejection of something, whether it is Judaism or Christianity or a variance thereof of Catholicism, or a you name it—but in that sense, and I’ve looked at all your other academic work as well, I’ve read all your books and read a lot of your academic research articles, and looking at one in which you compare unbelief in America and in Scandinavia—there’s some really interesting material that didn’t make it into the book and I found it captivating frankly—and that’s where you say that one of the issues that leads to increased levels of unbelief is a sense of security, and you’re talking about this in economic terms and criminal justice terms and the rest. But it leads me to ask you a question. The kind of unbelief you’re talking about here—does that really require a Judeo-Christian moral tradition behind it to produce even the kind of structures and security that would make organized, increasing unbelief possible?

ZUCKERMAN: You know, I think there’s something to that—I appreciate that. And I guess I differ from some of my colleagues on this front. I do look at the trajectory of civilization and I look at, where are human rights the strongest? Where is democracy the strongest? Where is freedom the strongest? It’s in societies that have had a Christian presence for many centuries, particularly a Protestant Christian presence. I’m thinking of Scandinavia. I’m think of the Netherlands, although there’s some Catholicism in there too. And if I look at the world today where there’s the worst situation for human rights, it tends be an Islamic society. So I am not—I think there’s a lot of good in Christianity in the past and in the present; and so yes, I’m amenable to that theory of, you know, secular humanism in and of itself could be an outgrowth of a certain—under Judeo-Christian worldview and tradition and heritage. And I agree with you, or I agree with your atheist professor, that every nonbeliever is a particular kind of nonbeliever. You bet, because these things are— you know it’s always a cultural context, you’re always grappling with what’s around you and in front of you, and having lived in Denmark for two years I actually don’t know if I would be as interested in secularism as I am because of the kind of way that religion and Christianity plays itself out there is so different from my experiences here in the United States, and that would surely have changed my own identity and sense of self. I know that we are maybe we are short on time. I appreciate too—I’m no theologian, I’m not up on the latest or even the oldest discussions of morality from a Christian viewpoint. So I didn’t mean to reduce all of theistic morality to, you know, obedience to a sky god. So I appreciate you pointing that out.

MOHLER: That’s the value of a conversation, in terms of even when we disagree, having a mutual understanding of the terms at stake, in what the other believes, which leads me to say about your book, this new book Living the Secular Life, it’s very well written. I found it very interesting, and I really appreciate the way you mix in your own personal experience, even references to your wife and to your three children, and there’s obviously a great deal of meaning in your life. That’s very clear. So, I want to come back in and, if you’ll allow me, just press the issue. If I understand your worldview in terms of why there’s something rather than nothing, and where everything is headed, and if death is just the end—do you think it’s really possible to reduce all of that to a purely materialistic or a naturalistic understanding? It seems to me that’s actually a greater philosophical challenge, or it would be to me, even in the question of morality.

ZUCKERMAN: Well thanks for your compliments, first off. I appreciate these deep questions! I love talking about this stuff and I could do it all night and I’ll just say—let me see if I can articulate this. There was a philosopher, Wittgenstein, and he said something—and I’m going to butcher this—but he said something like, “Of things that we don’t understand we ought not speak.” In other words—and I think that captures my understanding here—if I could get to your question, I think what you’re saying is if I really thought that all this life—my children, my endeavors, my wife, and my loved ones in the whole world here—is nothing but material particles spinning around, just a bunch of carbon, how can I attach any great meaning? I do attach great meaning to my life, into the trees that I’m staring at right now outside my window, and the mountains, and the clouds. I feel tremendous meaning in existence. How could I do that if I really thought this was all just a bunch of material atoms? And I would say, it may be more, but what that more is, I have nothing to say about. It’s beyond my comprehension. It’s beyond my understanding, and all I can do is focus on the things of this world that I can try to understand or try to grapple with. And I think one of the problems I had with religion growing up was I felt like it was often the imaginations of humans from long ago who were trying to explain things given their limited perspective, and their explanations and their stories just don’t ring true to me today. If they ring true to others, bless them. How lucky! But, when I read the Bible, it doesn’t speak to me the way the collected works of Shakespeare do, for example. So, all I can say is, I don’t think Shakespeare’s came from another plane or from heaven, but his insights give meaning to my life in ways that the Koran or the Bible never have been able to do. Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology, described himself as “religiously unmusical,” and I always thought that was a great way to say it. I guess it just—the melodies of religion have never quite worked for me. They just don’t ring true and so, all I can say is I can’t tell you, I can’t say, “Well, here’s why life has meaning for me. X, Y, and Z.” It does. I’m lucky in that sense, perhaps. Or I’m blessed, to use my mother-in-law’s parlance, but I really don’t understand—and this is not a critique, this is an honest admission—I never quite understood why life would somehow have more meaning if there was a God or an afterlife or my soul lived on. To me it was always a non sequitur, sort of like, why would that somehow make life more meaningful? If anything, it would make this like a little less meaningful for me. I’d kind of be tapping my feet waiting for the real show to start, you know, thinking “Well, this is all temporary, and impermanent, and just material. I can’t wait for the real show to take place. What do I got? 40 more years? 30? Well, maybe I’ll get hit by a car tomorrow and it’ll really start!” Again, I’m not trying to be facetious or critical. I’m just saying, from my perspective, I never quite understood that leap.

MOHLER: You know, Augustine, the great Christian theologian of the 5th century, and the fall the Roman Empire, in his great book City of God, he actually dealt with that in a way that, I think to our shame many believers, Christian believers, actually never get to, and that is the hard question: If the city of God is indeed the ultimate destiny, and that’s where ultimate meaning is to be found in the in the direct rule of God, then why indeed are we in the city of man? And why is it important? So, I appreciate the questions you’re asking. I really do. I found your book fascinating because it really does attempt to present a worldview for unbelief, expressed through the various big questions of life, including how you raise children. And we kind of started out with that, in terms of the influence parents have on children, and also dealing with whether there’s any meaning. You talk about “awe-ism.” You do have the experience of awe and—I just have to say as a Christian—I just wonder how far does that go? In other words, does awe not somehow point to the giver of what brings that awe, or is it just a given-ness?

ZUCKERMAN: You know, it’s different for everybody. With that kind of transcendental feeling or experience, one can only speak on one’s own subjective terms. I can’t say what it means to others or what kind of conclusions they draw. I can say that the times in my life where I have found a deep sense of awe at being, at life, at the wonder and the majesty of it all, have been very powerful moments and very sublime. They just don’t point me to anything. They just are what they are. I don’t know how else to explain it. They just are what they are, and I don’t know if other people have them, or have them more, or have them less, but I at least can understand those folks who, for them, if it does point to a god or a savior, I can understand that. It just hasn’t happened that way for me, but it’s certainly important and a wonderful part of life. And I don’t know, I just, I really want to commend you. You’ve said a lot of nice things about my work, but I just want to turn it around and say that I’m just so happy that you’ve reached out to me and felt like having this conversation. It’s really so important. I think it’s important for us understand each other as Americans, and just as fellow humans. So I really do respect where you’re coming from and I appreciate that you’ve shown an interest. And these questions are so wonderful.

MOHLER: Well, that’s also very kindly said and I appreciate it. I appreciate the way you’ve engaged the conversation. I think this kind of thing is altogether far too rare. And I also want to say, I think you approach this with the kind of openness that marks a clear distinction when compared, for instance, with the so-called new atheists, the Richard Dawkins kind of absolute, condescending dismissal of even the questions. And I appreciate, in reading your book, I knew that at least you understand and affirm the importance of many of these questions, and that’s a place to start in a conversation.

ZUCKERMAN: I agree. I couldn’t agree with you more. And I don’t know how anyone can be so dismissive of religion unless they’ve just never really experienced the good of it. Because fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to experience a lot of good religious people. I’ve been to a lot of good churches and it’s those faces that pop into my head the minute that people start going on a tirade about religion. I think of that Lutheran Church I spent the morning with up in Solvang. I think about my in-laws. I think, “Hold on here!” I think about Martin Luther King. If I was still an atheist I’d say, “Hey, read Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love and then get back to me and you tell me how awful…” You know, and that’s not to say I don’t sharpen my tongue sometimes and throw out a lot of criticism in my work and in my lectures, but I do try to recognize that much of the world is religious and much the world is quite good. We don’t get anywhere by demonizing each other.

MOHLER: Let me ask you to speak as a sociologist, in particular, for a moment here, and a sociologist who is head of the only interdisciplinary department of secular studies in the United States. Speaking to evangelical Christians—and that would include church leaders, and others—chart for us what you think, sociologically speaking, is the future, because the trends, as you mentioned in the in the Pew Religious Landscape Study, the trends are increasingly secular, but tell us where you think this is going.

ZUCKERMAN: All I can do is look at the data up until now and see which way the arrows are pointing. That doesn’t mean they can’t reverse in five years. The ones that are pointing up might start pointing down, and vice versa. But it does look like right now more and more Americans— individualism and on the rise. This is not about secularism per se, but secularism is a manifestation of it. People are, as Robert Putnam talked about in his famous Bowling Alone book, we’re not joining as much anymore. We’re not hanging around each other as much anymore and it is affecting religious life as well. I think the Internet plays a role here to be sure, but people are—I think you’re seeing church attendance is going to continue to go down, particularly for Catholics and mainline Protestants. The places we’re seeing some upticks, of course, are the more Pentecostal traditions and the more conservative evangelical traditions seem to be maintaining their numbers. They’re not going up, but they’re not going down to the same degree as the other traditions. But what is, again, rising is the number, the percentage, of Americans who say they are nonreligious. They don’t want to identify with any religious tradition. You know, back in 1990, that was 8%. Today, that’s somewhere between 20% and 30%. Pew is looking around 25% now, which is a pretty good conservative estimate. And when we asked people what is causing this, the number one—one of the most prominent responses is that they don’t like the politics of the Christian right. And again, I’m speaking here not trying to condemn anyone, I’m just telling you what the data shows us. So, for example, when Mike Huckabee said he’s going to oppose gay marriage, and he says, “Hey, I may be on the wrong side of history, but I’m on the right side of the Bible,” I think he’s correct! He’s assessing the situation. He may be on the correct side of the Bible, from his reading, and he’s also not—I mean, this gay-rights issue, I think, is really harming religion. And what I mean by that is—and I’m not trying to pick a position here, either way. I do have my position, but that’s not what I’m saying here. What I’m saying is, the more that evangelical Christians obsess about fighting gay rights, I think they’re just going to be shooting themselves in the foot. I think it’s the wrong issue to be obsessing about. Surely there’s other things in there related to God’s will that could be more important and can be more successfully fought about. I just think, I can only say, I teach college students. I see them every year. Year in and year out, they just don’t have the same issue or problem with homosexuality as previous generations did. I think it’s a losing issue and I think it’s causing a lot of people to turn off. I saw this in an LDS community, too, when I interviewed apostates from Mormonism. The vast majority of them said it was the gay marriage issue. They didn’t say anything about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, the golden plates. It was all about, they were upset about the Mormon church’s focus on fighting gay marriage and it turned them off. I guess if I were speaking to evangelical Christians I would say on the one hand, yes, you have to be true to your faith, whether it’s popular or not, whether it’s contemporarily cool or not, I get that; but, on the other hand, I think if you pick certain issues, it could be detrimental. Again, I’m not an expert here.

MOHLER: I understand. I asked the question so, again, I do appreciate the candid response. Let me ask you one final question as we go. What’s your next project? Because, I can tell, given all the things you’ve been involved with in the past, you certainly have another project in line.

ZUCKERMAN: Don’t tell my wife that, she wants me to take a break. She keeps urging me to stop writing and go swimming for a little bit, or go for a walk. So, I’ve got a few things floating around in my head. You know, it’s tricky. Part of me wants to—I am interested in, I have to say, in these children that are raised with no religion at all. And by that I mean, they were never taught to identify with the faith. They were never taken to church, and they were never taught to believe in God. Their belief, behavior, and belonging is purely secular. I’d like to study these folks. Who are they? What can we learn about them neurologically, psychologically, and sociologically? And that’s the demographic that I’m particularly curious about, because a few of them are starting to show up in my classes. You know most kids would be like, “Yeah, I was raised Catholic, but I stopped going to church in high school” or “Yeah, I was raised Jewish, but after my bar mitzvah I gave it up” or “Yeah, my folks are Christian, but you know, not really”—that is the common thread. But I’m now getting a few students here and there who just sit in my class and say that they were raised with no religion at all. They were never told they were anything, they were never taken to any youth groups, and they were never taken to any summer camps. And I want to know a bit more about that one third. I think that’s where I’ll go next, but I’m not a hundred percent sure yet.

MOHLER: Well, I’ll be looking for it Professor Zuckerman. In the mean time thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

ZUCKERMAN: Well, it was really my pleasure. Thank you for having me.


MOHLER: The Christian faith is now more than 2000 years old. Behind it stands the legacy of Judaism, and as we’re looking at the Christian faith, we recognize that there have been millions upon millions of sermons preached. There have been hundreds of thousands of books—now also into the millions—that have been published. There have been successive generations of Christian argument and Christian teaching. There have been creeds and confessions of faith and councils. There has been the development of systematic theology, and of course in more recent years, sustained attention to the development of a comprehensive and biblical Christian worldview—a way of life based upon plausibility structures that are distinctly Christian upon the ways of thinking that grow out of Christian faithfulness and principles of thinking that are commensurate with what is revealed in Scripture, a truly Christian biblical way of thinking and living in the world.

What makes this book by Phil Zuckerman so interesting, and I think even important, is the fact that it represents one of the first efforts to try to lay out a comprehensive worldview for someone who operates from unbelief rather than belief. I first grew to be interested in the work of Phil Zuckerman when I came to understand that he had developed this first department of secular studies in any institution of higher education in the United States. That gained a lot of headlines nationwide. It got a lot of attention in the secular and in the religious press, but more in the secular press, where at least there was a great deal of interest in what exactly a department of secular studies would study. And when we look at Professor Zuckerman’s work, we understand that he has made a big contribution to understanding the world of unbelief and the contours of unbelief. He is a very serious scholar. As a sociologist, he’s done really, really interesting work, especially as he has compared secularization and its effects culture-by-culture and society-by-society. His book written a few years ago entitled, Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, really is in many ways a sociological preface to his newest book, Living the Secular Life.

Now as we look at this, there are so many issues that evangelical Christians should come to understand. In his academic and research work, Professor Zuckerman has given attention to some really, really interesting questions, and he has drawn out a lot of really interesting data. For example, he has taught two years in Scandinavia, and he looks at the different shapes that unbelief has taken in Scandinavia versus the United States. And that’s why I was able to come back and ask him some questions based upon his own research about such issues as what he points to as security being one of those catalysts for an increase in unbelief. Now, from a Christian worldview perspective, that makes perfect sense to me. My reading of the development of organized and more systemic unbelief in western societies is that this only could have come in a time of relative prosperity, in a time of security as is now experienced in much of Europe. To put the matter bluntly, when you look at parts of the world that do not have that kind of security, you find very low levels of unbelief, certainly in terms of atheism or agnosticism. It turns out that perhaps—and it was really interesting to hear Professor Zuckerman reflect on this—that it is indeed that sense of economic security, the product of something that comes before it, that allows for the development of this kind of unbelief.

And as a Christian theologian, here’s what is really striking about that. It appears that when you’re looking at the way that western nations have adopted more secularized patterns of thinking, when you look at the rise of the “nones”—that is, those with no religious affiliation—you’ll notice that this comes with the inheritance of the Judeo-Christian worldview behind it—specifically of the worldview in western societies that is shaped explicitly by Christianity. And so, even when we’re looking at the development of social democracy as it’s known in so much of Western Europe, especially in northern Europe, you’re looking at a civilization that still is explainable only in terms of its explicitly Christian roots.

That led to the very interesting conversation we had about morality, and that’s one of the most interesting sections of Professor Zuckerman’s new book. Because when you look at the questions of morality, again, as I told him, I think Christians have to be particularly careful how we frame the argument. While we’re speaking to an atheist, we should not say that it is impossible for that atheist to live according to some moral code. Furthermore, in terms of actual moral life, to live a life that is ethically superior to at least some who would claim to be believers, even explicitly Christians. That’s to the potential embarrassment of Christianity, but it’s embarrassing also to make arguments that just do not hold. One of the arguments that do not hold is that an individual atheist cannot live a moral life. It seems to me that the far more basic and urgent question is, how in the world does even an atheist know what the moral life is? How is there any understanding of morality that would be binding upon us and binding upon our neighbors? And how is it that we all of the sudden have emerged as moral beings in the first place? At points in his book, Professor Zuckerman is clearly premising his argument upon a more naturalistic understanding, especially in terms of atheism and evolution in modern cosmology. I understand that. But it seems to me that even in reading his book at face value, it is really hard to come up with how in the world we can be such moral creatures concerned with such deep, urgent, and inescapable moral questions, and how we can actually come to so much moral consensus; if we are indeed the autonomous, moral cells operating in a non-moral universe that his book implies.

I learned a lot reading Professor Zuckerman’s book, and one of the things I’ve learned is how we should be listening to unbelievers around us and understanding what they’re actually saying, and also understanding what we would know ahead of time; and that is what we would see to be the inherent limitations of trying to construct an essentially comprehensive, secular way of looking at life and of living that life of understanding morality in meaning and wonder, and even the raising of children. But, even just sociologically speaking, there are some bracing facts in this book, some very interesting data look to at. One of them I thought was most interesting and should certainly be of interest to Christian leaders, Christian churches, and Christian parents—the interesting fact has to do with the statistics indicating just how unlikely it is, statistically speaking, that someone raised in a comprehensively secular background will ever hold any worldview that isn’t essentially secular. Professor Zuckerman told us that approximately 11% of American children are being raised in those households right now, and all the statistical indicators, well, they tell us that those numbers are likely to increase. That percentage is likely to grow.

Finally, embedded within the book are some other really interesting arguments. In one section he talks about the correlation between low levels of religious belief and high levels of support for assisted suicide. Then he also points in terms of the factors or catalysts leading to increased secularization and even increased percentages of people leaving the faith. He points to the issue of homosexuality, and in particular the issue of the legalization of same-sex marriage. It’s interesting how he came to the conclusion there. He said, “I guess as evangelical Christians, you have to hold to what you believe are basically revealed truths.” He said, “I get that. But if you’re going to be looking at marketing, this is a very bad way to market.”

That’s essentially the point he was making. That’s a point that we would have to concede if indeed what we’re looking at is a faith to be marketed. Then, in a postmodern, post-Christian, and increasingly secular America, we would have to come up with a completely new way of packaging the Christian faith. But, of course, understanding that comes from a very different worldview—a worldview that is based in the existence of God, and not just the existence of God, but of the speaking God who speaks to us in Scripture. And so the Christian faith is not some kind of system of meaning to be negotiated, but it is rather a divine revelation that is to be received, and there’s that word that came up again and again in this conversation, to be obeyed. Indeed, any honest reading of the Old and New Testaments points to the continuing theme of obedience as what the creature owes to the Creator.

I really did enjoy this conversation with Professor Zuckerman, and one of the things it demonstrates is not only our responsibility to understand how others think, but also the fact that we think better as Christians when we face these same issues, and look at the same questions. I do look forward to meeting Professor Zuckerman in person and continuing this conversation. I’ll certainly hope for that. In the meantime, I’m indebted to him for joining me for Thinking In Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.