I have just finished reading Katherine Ozment’s Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age.
The book opens with a scene that is all too familiar to me, and probably many of you: Ozment’s eight-year-old son, observing a religious ritual, asks her, “Mom, what are WE?” (My daughter asked me the same question when she was about the same age — I wrote about it here).
Ozment told her son, “We’re nothing.”
And that’s such an unsatisfying answer!
The latest research tells us that when asked their religious affiliation, about 25% of Americans now identify as “unaffiliated” or “nothing.” They have been dubbed “the Nones.” (You have to be careful when you say that label out loud, lest someone think you’re speaking of your local convent.)
As a fellow None, I can relate to Ozment’s discomfort with a category that defines you by what you are NOT. And that’s perhaps why Ozment’s book focuses so much on her feeling that something is missing from her life without the structure and community provided by organized religion; the only thing Nones ostensibly share is the absence of something most Americans have.
Unlike Ozment, and many of today’s Nones, I was not raised in a faith tradition that I subsequently abandoned as an adult. My parents had already rejected religion by the time I was born, and they chose to raise their (unbaptized!) children with no religious affiliation. We had books about Jesus and Buddha and crystals, and religion was a frequently discussed topic in our home, but there was no Sunday School, no midnight mass, no confirmation, no youth groups.
Ozment wonders what her children are missing now that she and her husband have abandoned their childhood faiths. Are they missing a loving community or a moral compass? Are they missing out on awe and ritual and transcendence, which are fundamental components not only of religion, but of the human experience?
I can only speak for myself, but I have never felt the absence of “religion” in my life as, well, . . . an absence. I had a loving family with meaningful rituals and a strong ethical foundation. Christmas and Easter were different for us — celebrating human life and family and love — but they were still meaningful and created a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves. Now a mother myself, I work with my children to create our own rituals that help us cultivate gratitude, mindfulness, humility, compassion, and social responsibility.
I’ve written previously that I think a big part of our problem today is a misunderstanding of what religion even IS. This notion that religion is a set of ideas to which you must adhere is a distinctly modern one. For thousands and thousands of years of human history, religion was just . . . LIFE. Humans cried and danced and laughed and talked and sat in silence together. They looked at their world with awe and reverence.
Ozment points out that as human populations grew larger and state systems emerged (c. 5000 years ago), what we know today as “religions” became codified and transformed into ways of monitoring people’s behavior. And it’s precisely these prescriptive elements of religion that most “Nones” cite as their reason for leaving.
Ozment sets out to explore the many options that have emerged in the last several decades to fill the religion-sized hole in many Americans’ lives today: Ethical Culture, Humanist societies, Unitarian Universalism, Parenting without Religion, and more. My family and I have dabbled in a few of these as well; none of them have really “stuck.”
I absolutely loved Ozment’s interview with Harvard lecturer Marshall Ganz, who teaches leadership and public narrative. He tells her, “The question of religion is less about ‘What is God?’ than it is about ‘Who are we in relation to each other?'” He teaches his students to construct a public narrative for their life, which consists of three parts:
- a story of self: our personal values, experiences, and pivotal life moments
- a story of us: connecting our story to a larger one (to what purpose are we working? to whom do we belong? (this could be a religion, a social movement, a profession…)
- a story of now: “the nexus of a present challenge, choice, and hope;” (how do you and your group interact with the current political, social, and economic climate? what will you do?)
I adore this exercise — it gets us into the angst and existential turmoil of our one human life, leads us to find meaning in our personal and collective past, and binds us to others with whom we will work to address challenges in the present and create hope for the future through choiceful action.
For many, this narrative is precisely what is lost when religion is cast aside. Ozment writes in the introduction that her quest from which this book was borne came from the fact that she “had never created a cohesive narrative for the life [she] had chosen to live.”
And we don’t need religion to do that. We can create our life along a sacred secular path.
If it seems strange for something to be sacred and secular, bear with me.
sacred: regarded with reverence; immune from violence or interference (from Latin words meaning “SET APART”)
secular: worldly (from Latin words meaning “of an age,” i.e., NOW)
Ozment discusses the modern “mindfulness movement” as one of the religion-alternatives that Nones have sought out in recent decades, noting especially that the teachings of the Buddha over 2500 years ago seem to align pretty neatly with modern understandings in psychology and neuroscience. (Perhaps that’s why I sometimes describe myself as an “unaffiliated secular mindful person.” It sounds a little bit better than being a None.)
Mindfulness — paying attention to the present moment with curiosity and acceptance — is a perfect “secular sacred” practice. We focus on the NOW with reverence, for this moment will never arise again. When the NOW is SET APART in this way, we can see clearly — and we can choose skillful and compassionate action. (Another thing religion is big on).
Lastly, awe, reverence, and even transcendence are not “religion required” experiences. Ozment interviewed Lawrence Krauss, a professor of theoretical physics, who asserts that “the godless life has the potential for more awe and wonder, not less” [emphasis added].
We may just be matter, but it is extraordinary that the matter making us up even exists — much less that it can walk and talk and think and love. In fact, life in the universe makes up just one millionth of one billionth of all matter. Not only that: Every bit of our own human matter is connected not just to all life on earth but to the very stars in the sky. That’s because life on earth is composed of nitrogen, oxygen, iron, and carbon — but the only elements that were made in the Big Bang were hydrogen, helium, and a little bit of lithium. That means that the elements in our bodies didn’t exist in the universe at the time of the Big Bang. They had to have been created in the nuclear reactions in the cores of stars. If stars hadn’t exploded, Krauss says, we wouldn’t exist. . . . The path to wonder is paying attention to what is right in front of us, he said, not making up something we can’t see.” [emphasis added]
Pay attention, and you will see that we are all made of stars.
YOU are stardust.
It’s hard to feel like there’s something missing from your life when you look at it that way.
* Grace Without God is now available in stores and online. It’s a great read for those who are searching for secular paths to sacred experience, and anyone interested in the “rise of the Nones.”
I received a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for a review; all views expressed here are my own, and I have not been compensated for this review.