David Brooks on secular Americans

Something I just read pointed me to an interesting opinion piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks published in early February under the title “Building Better Secularists” (link).

In it, Brooks favorably remarks on a book by Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman titled Living the Secular Life. I haven’t read it, but I gather it’s on the same general subject as Nonbeliever Nation, the book by David Niose I reviewed yesterday (link).

Brooks writes, “Over the past few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people who are atheist, agnostic or without religious affiliation. A fifth of all adults and a third of the youngest adults fit into this category.” I think he’s referring specifically to the United States, and if so these numbers are in keeping with others I’ve seen, though as I noted in the review of Nonbeliever Nation the percentages vary somewhat depending one’s definitions and sources.

For the most part what Brooks has to say strikes me as reasonable if not always well-informed, but I think he goes off track a bit partway through, when he suggests that the nonreligious have to create for themselves things that religious persons have by virtue of their faiths. Brooks errs both in imagining that the nonreligious equivalents don’t already exist and in supposing that the religious ones necessarily do. In particular, modern notions of right and wrong are broadly shared across the spectrum of belief and unbelief and even across diverse cultures. Sexual morality is the one obvious exception, and even there I think the great majority of secular and religious persons have a lot in common when it comes to actual practice. Brooks, on the other hand, seems to think that every secular individual must construct his or her own system of ethics from scratch, and that’s just not what happens. Some secular persons may indeed ponder ethical questions, but no more or less than religious people do. In fact, our broadly shared notions of right and wrong have evolved quite a bit over time (consider such ideas as the rights of women and of various minorities), which would not be the case if religious ethics were based solely on unchanging revelation.

Brooks oddly suggests that the nonreligious even need a Sabbath without explaining why. We all do need time off, yes, but for most of people in the U.S. (outside a retail, sports, entertainment, emergency services, and a few other sectors), Friday evening through sometime late on Sunday constitutes a sort of shared two-day Sabbath, which some must consider an improvement on the original single day of rest.

Naturally, some secular folks were put off by Brooks’s lecture. David Koepsell was one of them, and his entertainingly annoyed reaction can be read here.

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