Here is the NY Times review of Living The Secular Life.
I am in the middle of reading Living the Secular Life, by Phil Zuckerman.
The reason I'm reading it is because some dear friends, including my frequent interlocutor and correspondent John Gould, express their secular point of view in similar terms to Zuckerman, and I care about what they think, how they find a balance in life without the faith I know.
My first response to the summary portions, in the first chapters and conclusion (I always read the conclusion first to see where the nonfiction book is going), is that there are many straw men, red herrings, unanswered arguments and ye favored material fallacy du jour. Just like the song Imagine by John Lennon. But both Zuckerman and Lennon are fishing for bigger fish. There are feelings and desires of the heart that everyone who is religious needs to recognize among their nonreligious neighbors. There is a lived experience that Zuckerman is bringing to the table, and he is taking a decidedly civil tone to present his "unbelief" (scare quotes, shall we?) or rather secularity.
One could say that he's trying to be a good neighbor. I can respect that.
The strong point, so far, is that Zuckerman is able to express the normalness of the experience of life as a secular person in America, and probably echoed in the secular cities of Europe; except when their alternative faith-and-life views casts the secular person as an Other, an Outsider. This happens in deeply religious communities like Knoxville, or rural Missippi. When they are so cast, their experience is like that of any other Other, the black person in a white community, the Jew in the Protestant town, the Bible-believing Christian at an ivy league school like Harvard or Yale, or a reflective and aware (i.e., gifted) high school student who takes all the same classes as the rest of the student body (IQ between 80 and 115). Bullying, unkindness, misunderstanding, social isolation.
My own experience as a convert from secularism to Christianity, in the midwest (Ohio) is represented well by the university towns of Bowling Green OH, University of Michigan, Athens OH, East Lansing and cities like Cleveland and Detroit, or Boston, perhaps. This is the social context where religious faith of a Protestant heritage, or a coherent conservative Catholicism faithful to the Holy See, was once the default position. I would add that a Christianity faithful to the ecumenical Creeds (Apostles, Nicean, Athanasias, etc.) was the mostly true view, but that might be presuming too much in this review. The point is that the old view in these places allowed for the free exercise of religion by folks like me, and now the secular population is pressuring the public space to drive us out. (Zuckerman gives a masterful summary of the social pressures to that effect, in chapter 3, Irreligion Rising, pp 55-77.) The recent political and legal actions of the secular state and secular politics and law has all the appearance of a mopping up operation to drive us from site, and to hide in our little enclaves and ghettos and practice our "free exercise of worship" as the President is wont to say, which is quite different than the free exercise of religion.
One excellent point. I think Zuckerman proved one point; I grant that he established one principle by a good argument. That point is that evangelicals have frequently claimed that the rise of secularism in a country/region will lead, in the very short time, to a very bad social climate. In my own words, Smallville has churches and it they close, it will become Metropolis and then Gotham City. Or in his words, Bedford Falls will become Pottersville.
Zuckerman cites mainstream quotes from mainstream leaders in the Believing Christian community (evangelicals and Catholics), academicians, politicians, and radio personalities. He shows that the is actually what we say. Fair enough. Then he shows that Scandanavia is secular and not horrible, but horrible places (with terrorists and murder and poverty, some such mix) like subsaharan Africa has a lot of religion (even Christian evangelical religion).
He grants that, yes, correlation is not causation. I think then that he does not prove anything positive in this display, this argument, but he does refute the common claim that Christianity makes Prosperity In The Short Term, and Unbelieve Brings Disaster in the Short Term.
He doesn't mention "short term" or "long term." I introduce that, because I think that is exactly the point that Christian leaders are making, and Zuckerman merely overlooked it.
My response. I would say that if we drop "short term" and replace it with "long term", that the evangelical common argument would hold. Northern Europe was once "Christian," and now it is not. If a country was once Christian, so called, and achieves prosperity, the next generations will live well and will spend the accumulated cultural inheritance, until it falls into disaster.
Likewise, Jesus as much as said that he came not for the well but for the sick, not for the wealthy but for the poor, the downtrodden, and such. Therefore in the first generation of a massively believing community, we should find much social disorder and dysfunction. We should find many believers in death row, in maximum security prisons, in subsaharan Africa and other third world regions. If the faith takes root there, I am confident that (barring invasions, droughts, disasters) the region will become prosperous. By the same token, we can expect the US to turn into a similar disarray over the course of time, say in the next 50-75 years, if nature takes its course.
Another response. Zuckerman switches terms frequently, a classic material fallacy. He speaks of 'religion' and then will use examples of Islam, Judaism, LDS, and Bible-belt fundamentalism, and mainstream Evangelical Bible-believing Christians, and Catholics, Liberals, Moderates and Conservatives. For Christians the issue is how does one relate to Jesus? For some others, it's how does the community relate to the Covenant?
Even among professing religious communities, there are concrete promises from God that the Jewish community who abandons God will be rejected by God (Deuteronomy 28:15-68, below).
For Christians, we have a similar message from the Resurrected Jesus Christ (Rev 3:14-22, below).
The point here is that Christianity predicts that there will be pockets of communities who once had a Christian identity but will have fallen into disaster. Disaster by my definition includes hardened unbelief, success in the world's eyes and disaster in the eyes of faith. (Such as a backslidden world of former Puritans in New England, pioneering anti-Christian ways of life.)
Implied in those chapters, as well, is that those same communities will experience comfort and plenty for a season, of undefined duration. A sociologist will classify that community as "religious" or even "Evangelical"--in spite of the fact that they are reaping the disaster sent by God on those who forsake Him.