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The Joy of SecularismReview - The Joy of Secularism
11 Essays for How We Live Now
by George Levine
Princeton University Press, 2011
Review by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Ph.D.
Jul 24th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 30)

I must confess at the outset that this book's title really annoyed me. It brought to mind such titles as "The Joy of Cooking", or "The Joy of Sex", and implied a lack of gravitas. The title also made me curious, and that is why I asked to review it. Still, the connection between secularism and joy does not seem natural to this reviewer. What the authors in this volume mean by secularism is the rejection of supernaturalism, which I usually prefer to call atheism, but why should secularism (or atheism) lead to joy?

The contributors to this book are all distinguished and well-accomplished. They are William Connolly, Paolo Costa, Frans de Waal, Philip Kitcher, George Levine, Adam Phillips, Robert Richards, Bruce Robbins, Rebecca Stott, Charles Taylor, and David Sloan Wilson. Some of the chapters are quite challenging, and require a good knowledge of philosophy and literature. What sets the tone for the book is the fact that seven of the eleven authors are Americans, while two are British, one is Italian, and one is Canadian. This should be seen in the light of general data on commitment to religion. The top 20% of humanity in terms of economic standards and life expectancy are secular, compared to the rest. Insecurity, a short life span, and lack of education are tied to higher levels of religiosity. The United States is the great exception to the generalization that secularization is tied to economic development. It is the only member of the OECD where public commitment to religion is not only a virtue, but a social norm. As we all know, being religious is held by most Americans to be not only desirable, but ideal. The irreligious are treated with suspicion.  A corollary of this attitude is the presumption that secular individuals are lacking in some vital psychic substances, and that is indeed what the book tackles.

The editor of this volume, George Levine, offers an introduction which illustrates the many contradictions in the book.  He admits (p. 4) being in search of "spiritual satisfaction", which seems like a surprising and unconditional surrender to the language of supernaturalism.  He then approvingly quotes James Woods, who is after "a theologically engaged atheism… a brother's account of belief" (p. 10). To me a theologically engaged atheism is like a peaceful war, a strange oxymoron that isn't even funny. Any theological engagement means a commitment to supernaturalism. If atheism is the rejection of supernaturalism, and theology is some elaboration of supernaturalist themes, any combination of the two seems absurd. Levine also seeks secular enchantment, which leaves me puzzled, but joins the call by Philip Kitcher to make secularism a secular humanism, which seems indeed the only chance for human survival.

I found the chapter by Philip Kitcher to be the most interesting. His descriptions of the way religious beliefs are acquired and maintained are clear and convincing. Individuals always regard as natural and obvious whatever beliefs they grew up with, and believers in every one of the tens of thousands of religions in the world make similar claims with much conviction, but fail to persuade those born into other cultures. This is indeed one important starting point for the psychological study of religion (Beit-Hallahmi & Argyle, 1997). Kitcher himself demonstrates the power of cultural bias by taking seriously Christian narratives. He claims that "some famous episodes" in the New Testament are "fiction" (p. 27), as if there is anything there which isn't.  Kitcher footnotes the "Jesus Seminar", which aims at determining what "Jesus" really said, of the many verses attributed to him. This is just as serious an undertaking as determining what "Adam" and "Eve" really said in the Garden of Eden. He also refers to "Saul on the road to Damascus" (p. 10). Without knowing Dr. Kitcher, I will bet that he does not treat the narratives in the Book of Mormon, or the Mahabarata, with this level of respect. There is no realization that all scriptures have been created equal, to serve purely religious purposes.

The authors of these essays are in dialogue with Charles Darwin, Max Weber, and Charles Taylor.  Max Weber's "disenchantment of the world" is referred to time and again.  So are Charles Taylor's calls for re-enchantment. Bruce Robbins rejects Taylor's call for a return to the enchanted state of humanity, in a world populated by "fairies" and "demons", the way it was in the year 1500.  Actually, we are constantly being invited, not only by Christians, to come back to the Middle Ages. Those who want to take us back to 1500 want to resurrect a situation in which the majority of humanity led lives that were short, nasty, and brutish, so we most decline the offer.

In addition to the absence of joy among the secular, in this book often described as "fullness", it has been claimed that absent are also moral values or moral order, as well as meaning. Meaninglessness is assumed to be related to lawlessness. Let's take care of the joy business first, and then turn to more weighty matters. Are people with no religion more unhappy than those with it? According to surveys done over the past decade, a list of the 10 happiest nations in the world always includes Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, and Sweden. Countless similar surveys that cover "quality of life" or "human development" always end up with the usual suspects at the top. What these Northern European countries have in common, among other things, is a high level of secularism and a social democratic regime, which means access to medical care and education, including higher education, without financial barriers. If you look at the bottom of the list, those unhappy places with much poverty and ill health such as Benin, Central African Republic, Togo, or Sierra Leone are marked by high levels of religiosity and low levels of democracy. Studies correlating happiness and religiosity in individuals have shown positive results, but these have been interpreted as being due to the social support offered by congregations, rather than to religious beliefs.

The strongest argument for religion in the age of secularization is the pragmatic one. Apologists for religion remind us of its power to control humans by producing internal and external order, keeping drives in check, and supporting positive moral values. The same defenders suggest that humans could not be moral and compassionate in the absence of religious beliefs. A look at the psychological literature on moral judgment and moral development (Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Albert Bandura) teaches us that religion is simply irrelevant to the subject.  Frans de Waal reminds us in his essay that empathy, the basis for humanity and morality, is found among our ape relatives, and we also know that cooperation exists in all biological systems and precedes any human consciousness.

The defenders of religion will have us believe that there was a point or a period in history where things were just great, possibly in the year 1500, when life was full of happiness, morality, and meaning thanks to enchantment. Then came secularization and the decline of civilization. Violence, war, and genocide are the consequences of secularization, because without religion humans are morally rudderless. This reading of history is groundless. We know that the Age of Faith was the age of barbarity, and that secularization has been accompanied by the greatest moral revolution in history, with the coming of the Enlightenment and the advent of democracy and human rights. The Roman Catholic Church, to look at one example, fought the ideas of democracy and individual rights for as long as it could. In 1864, Pius IX issued the Quanta Cura encyclical, with its syllabus of errors, which condemned such modern ideas as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and general elections.

The world has failed to heed such condemnations, and today most nations proclaim their adherence to equality and individual rights, though in reality terrible crimes are committed by governments claiming to be democratic. Everyday life in most Western nations is governed by secular laws, and so we can observe the presumed effects of secularity on morality. Given the dire predictions of religionists, we should expect to be attacked by marauding gangs of atheists if we travel beyond the borders of such religious nations as the United States. The record shows that secularized Europeans experience levels of crime and violence which are significantly lower than those encountered by  more religious Americans. If less religious Europeans are suffering from anomie or meaninglessness, this does translate into immoral acts. The United States boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world (743 per 100,000), the average for Europe is one eighth of that and for Secular Scandinavia one tenth.

How has secularization come about? Levine gives credence to the idea that science plays a role in the rejection of supernaturalism. "Science will figure importantly in the arguments that follow because it is our best instrument for discovering how the world works" (Levine, p.  2). Do we need to know much science to reject stories about gods and fairies? Does it take a Ph.D. in biology to reject stories about virgin births or the resurrection of the dead, which have been so popular for thousands of years?  (Beit-Hallahmi, 2010). I don't believe the Genesis creation accounts not because I am an expert on astrophysics, and no such expertise is needed to evaluate the claims of the Book of Mormon or Rudolf Steiner, or thousands of scriptures held sacred by believers around the world. Suggesting that the rise of science has led to secularization ignores the greater importance of economic and political changes leading to loss of power by religious institutions. Science also gets blamed by Paolo Costa (p.  135) for creating a "dispiriting vision of reality".  If people are dispirited, is it because they have been reading the literature on quantum physics and black holes? Most humans have little knowledge of science. What determines their mood  is the immediate experience of everyday life, often marked by threats and insecurities. Why blame science, which is so remote, and not political upheavals and economic insecurity, which are so close?

It is disappointing to find in this book the old canard about Hitler representing secular leaders. The historical record shows that Adolf Hitler was a Catholic in good standing to the last day of his life. He was never excommunicated and never left the church. His official biography as the head the German Reich mentioned this quite explicitly. If you want to claim that Stalin or Mao were atheists, you are on solid ground, but their bloody record pales in comparisons with the thousands of religious rulers in history.

This book demonstrates once again how relative and gradual secularization has been in this world. After tens of thousands of years in which Homo sapiens has been immersed in religion, getting rid of it is not an easy task. But if you want to see how far some have traveled on the road to secular humanism, just read Jude the Obscure (published in 1895).



Beit-Hallahmi, B. (ed.) (2010). Psychoanalysis and Theism: Critical Reflections on the Grunbaum Thesis. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.

Beit-Hallahmi,  B., & Argyle, M. (1997). The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. London: Routledge.


Dr. Beit-Hallahmi has written on the psychology of religion, psychoanalysis, and recent history. Forthcoming from him are Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity and Utopia and Injustice: Prologues to the Palestine War.


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