Book Review: Grace without God by Katherine Ozment

Grace without God is one woman’s search for meaning, belonging, and purpose without religion. The author, Katherine Ozment, interviews expert after expert in an attempt to answer some of life’s big questions. The reader follows her along to these interviews as a proverbial fly on the wall.

About halfway in, I struggled to finish reading, for Grace without GodI became increasingly frustrated by the rose-colored religious glasses through which the book is written. Although dozens of experts were interviewed, there was no examination of the underbelly of religion, no balanced analysis of *why* religion and belief can also be a problem. Sure, in modern America, religion can offer a warm, fuzzy place to hang your hat. But there is no mention of the harm that religion has also brought into the world, of the terrible damage and fear it brings daily. There’s no mention of the shame many believers feel nor of the exclusion and loneliness people feel who are different, even though they sit in the pews week after week.

The premise for Grace without God is that living without religion makes us no more than driftwood afloat in an indifferent world. (Which is true regardless of what you believe.) “Could my family and I find valid alternatives to all the good that religion gives?” Ozment asks. The entire book is a long yearning for “…a religious moral grounding, timeworn rituals, and a community… “ Even in the last two pages of the book, the author writes, “Occasionally, I take myself to church…..Beneath the cavernous vaulted ceiling, only the sound of our voices lifting up, I feel at once infinitesimal and valuable beyond measure.”

For Ozment, living without religion is a problem. For me, living without religion is a solution.

Perhaps the most frustrating sentiment was expressed here: “The truth is that belief in a supernatural god or gods works exceedingly well when it comes to cultivating morals within a group. We act better when we feel we are being watched, as by a God.” All I could think was: suicide bombers, Catholic priests, hate crimes, a truck in Nice, France. These folks all thought god was watching them.

There is no mention that the morality created by religion is a superficial, selfish structure, one in which believers do “good” only because someone is watching and only because they are promised with the reward of heaven or the punishment of hell. In some religions, believers don’t even “do good;” they “do bad” over and over and just ask for god’s forgiveness. Or, worse, they “do bad” under their god’s supposed direction. What kind of morality is that? Western religion tells us that we are born sinful as the offspring of parents who disobeyed God. So much for a loving, forgiving God. It also tells us that all we have to do is ask for God’s forgiveness when we’ve had impure thoughts or committed crimes, no matter how many times. All these points are overlooked in the book, with the idea being that the loss of a religious community is unnatural and problematic. Yet from where I’m standing, it is not unnatural and problematic to take religion and belief out of our lives, it is unnatural and problematic to force them in.

Having said all this, we all realize this is just one person’s opinion (mine). Maybe I don’t “get” this book. Maybe I have no love left for the institution of religion. There are folks out there who might really enjoy, Grace without God. There are folks who might love it. The prose is well-written, and it could be a good read for someone on the fence about whether to leave religion or not, someone who is not quite sure what they believe or if they have the fortitude to go it alone. However, it might also help some of those believers remain in their religion.

*This review was not paid, although I did receive a free copy of the book in exchange for giving my feedback. I am a full-time employee of a technology company and do not work in the publishing industry.

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22 responses to “Book Review: Grace without God by Katherine Ozment

  1. Thanks for reading this book so I don’t have to. 🙂

  2. Darn. And here I thought that was such a great title for a book supporting atheism.

  3. The title seems incredibly misleading. I’m glad I saw your review. As someone who suffers with layers and layers of religious trauma, I now consider myself to be an anti theist, atheist apostate. I have no use for any god or cult/religion. Of course, many tell me “well, that’s your expereience, but that’s not mine.” To me, it’s all the same….toxic. The sooner we decide to evolve as a society the less need we’ll have for religion. We’ll simply see it as phase that was needed up until a few decades ago. However, it is irrelevant to our modern age.

    I’ve missed you, Debbie. I always appreciate your posts. Have a good week.

    • Great to hear from you, Charity. I remember you sharing your religious struggles. For sure, everyone did not grow up in a “feel-good” church. Hope you are doing well.

  4. Sounds to me as if the author of the book had a premise before she started writing, and it wasn’t to show that you can have grace without god. I’m glad you read and reviewed it so I won’t waste my time. And it’s great to see you writing again, Debbie. Hope you are well.

  5. For Ozment, living without religion is a problem. For me, living without religion is a solution.

    Brilliant line and so true on so many levels.

  6. Thanks for the review Deb. Wish you would start coming to local events again but i suspect you are super busy in your “new” job.

  7. Rob Partridge

    You might well have saved me the trouble of learning more in-depth what this book attempted to convey, though I honestly doubt I’d have picked it up in any event. The truth is, Deb, that even before our ‘modern’ established religions, all the thousands of religions practiced before them were of the same premise and with the same intention: to regulate human society – that is, to modify and control behavior because in the State of Nature humans tended to be unreliable, selfish, and cruel in the pursuit of their own survival. What every book on religion “doesn’t get” … and what each should be obligated to point out in the maintenance of credibility … is that the more modern “Social Contract” supersedes religion in every area of the practice of daily life. Only in the area of ‘an afterlife’ *(if one believes in that) does religion play a more important role. Keep in mind, however, that the most likely reason every religion has an “afterlife” component is to coerce – no, to compel – human beings to do as their taught and told by those various scriptures. It’s a hostage situation, in effect, that you will pay the ultimate price for not following these rules and teachings. But a literal practice of Christianity or Judaism or Islam today – as evidenced by worldwide news events – brings only conflict and hatred of non-believers. So in the end, once again, Grace comes more often without a god, rather than the other way around. I hope my little addendum helps you realize you nailed the review spot-on! Rob P.

    • No, your “little addendum” is further proof that a conversation is much better, much more rich, with more voices. Thank you for the insightful comment.

  8. As an existentialist, I think we make our own grace! I think if humans are adults, psychologically, living without god(s) is natural. After all, which of us – as parents – would want our children to forever be dependent? Yet the pathologically “jealous” God of the monotheists demand precisely that – forever obedient, frightened, subservient children! I grew up and stopped choosing an abusive “father” – that was grace enough for starters!

  9. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book for the tour.

    • Heather J. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to review the book. I really wanted to connect with it…..I spent a lot of time rereading and rewriting…. The book was a bit confusing because the author seemed to still be emotionally attached to religion and to finding a substitute “people.” Atheism is not about replacing god and church. Perhaps the title was misleading….It’s really a book for the nones.

  10. I consider myself a firm atheist and I have enjoyed the book thoroughly. I used to be so angry at religion and still get angry at all the horrible things people do because of religion. The author did mention a few times how religion hurts people and she does consider herself a “none.” Also, another point she was making is that, there is something that draws people towards things that inspire the feelings of awe and it’s my interpretation that she can’t ever be a “believer” but she feels like she’s missing something that religion used to give her. Even though, I have so many scars from my religion, I do have fond memories of holding candles and singing hymns and breaking our fast on Holidays. It can be devastating leaving your family and community. I often feel a longing to be part of the rich community I left but I can never have that back. It is the path I have chosen and yes, I have lost much because of that choice. However, I would never give up the knowledge I have gained either. I personally would like to start a community that gives us everything that religion offers but no lies.

    • Thanks for your comment, EvaC. It always helps to have other perspectives.

      I have to wonder, however, what you mean when you write, “I personally would like to start a community that gives us everything that religion offers but no lies.” What does religion give besides lies? You’re told to believe in this big guy in the sky, to follow his “word” that was mysteriously transmitted through humans, to fear this god, to hope that, if you fear and follow him, you will be transported to heaven when you die….What part of that would you want to keep? Perhaps what you desire is just a ready-made group of people you can call friends; in which case I say, you have many other options that will not steal from religious traditions that didn’t make sense in the first place.

      • I’ve encountered this same wish from many ex-religious people and I think what they’re referring to when we flush out the nostalgia is the feeling that most closely correlates with the emotional sense of loss from being a child in a family to growing up and leaving home, the sense that someone else was once going to take care of you, take care of problems, accept you as part of the family in exchange for you submitting to the family rules and fully joining the family tribe… but keeping you a child nonetheless. I think this emotional nostalgia is what so many ex-believers who miss elements of being part of a church are really talking about.

        • @tildeb I can see that – In some ways, religion does delay emotional development. There is also a codependency between the church and believers. For some, it must be scary to venture outside that safety net.

          • I think humans naturally crave community but I don’t mean it as an emotional delay necessarily (although I think does happen far too much in the sense that people have to give up their moral autonomy and personal responsibility in order to be ‘born again’ and/or submit to the House Rules) so much as I mean it as a sense of longing for a simpler time, for our own childhood feeling of belonging, of being taken care of, having a sense of security and safety (hopefully), of knowing one’s place in the order of things, in the small community that is family. Again, it is this feeling that I think is the emotional draw of religious community, with Daddy merely away at work (but He loves you and keeps you in mind and will return home sometime later).

  11. I am the Director of a Secular Humanist Jewish Sunday School and Adult Community.(Jewish Children’s Folkshul: 90 years in existence). We teach Jewish values, culture and identity in a joyful, non-theistic, social justice- oriented vibrant and supportive community. We have many members who are atheists, agnostics, inter-faith, multi-cultural, questioning, believing, and other. Our community celebrates Jewish holidays and rituals with an emphasis on our personal responsibilities for ourselves and each other and making the world a better place. We have no Rabbi or other traditional symbols of Judaism and we are lay led. Located in Philadelphia, we collaborate with other secular groups as well as our local Jewish Federation. We also belong to a national and international organization of Secular Humanistic Jews (CSJO). It is possible to combine the goals of community, morality, identity, and culture, without the trappings of a religious institution and still thrive within todays rapidly changing world.

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