Tag Archives: secularism

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.

GUEST POST: The Openly Secular Movement by Shanan Winters

Today Shanan Winters is sharing her experience on what the Openly Secular movement means to her. Please feel free to join the conversation. What does this movement mean to you? How will it affect your life or your relationships?  Can you even be “open”? Every week I hear from non-theists who are not “out.” Unfortunately, some folks don’t feel they have the choice to be openly secular.

As always, I appreciate the many voices and perspectives. Thank you for guest posting, Shanan!

What the Openly Secular Movement Means to Me

When I was little, we moved to the Key Peninsula outside Gig Harbor, WA. I played a game called “By the Power of Gray Cat” with some other kids in the neighborhood. We loved He-Man and I had a Russian Blue named Gray Cat… we’re so creative. My friends and I would chase the cat through the woods brandishing our stick-swords. We would climb trees, and there was a particularly crumbly stump in my backyard that served as our version of Castle Grayskull. We would stand upon the stump, which was a rather difficult climb, and shout, “By the power of Gray Cat, I have the power!”  And then we’d make the death-defying leap, all four feet, to the ground.

Some of our local religious tribe decided we must be witches (you know, “power”… “cat”… only logical conclusion). My family was relentlessly hounded for weeks by these people, and their kids would jump behind bushes, make hex signs and literally HISS at me when I walked by! They would call us every night during dinner, and just spew bible verse over the phone. They pushed my younger friends around at the bus stop, and made all sorts of derogatory comments. They even suggested to my friend’s little sister, who was five or six at the time, that if the “cat” gives her so much “power”, why doesn’t she prove it by jumping in front of the bus?  Fortunately, she was strong enough of character to tell them to leave her alone. The harassment only stopped when my mother threatened to turn them all into toads. And it didn’t really stop; they just became silent and accusatory in their glances, rather than outwardly aggressive.

I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not. I fully understand that their behavior is not “All Christians.” Fortunately for us, not all of the kids in the neighborhood were participants in their harassment, thus we did have friends besides each other.  Most of our friends were, in fact, Christian, and some even attended the same church as our harassers. It was a handful of houses… but it was also half of the kids at our bus stop. For me, the Openly Secular movement is incredibly important work. The way I see my children, I have one who is very secular, and another who leans toward belief (not sure in what yet…) Regardless of where they land spiritually, I want them to have every right and opportunity that would be available to anyone who is “conventionally Christian.” The way our political spectrum is shifting, I see this as less and less of a plausible future for them. Hence my thinking that this Openly Secular movement is extremely important. We need to start dispelling fear, and we need to do it now!

My experience with the neighbors of my youth definitely made a bad impression, but it wasn’t life changing. I’ve never been one to accept a Christian belief structure. I’ve tried… I gave it my best shot at one point, just to “fit in” and “keep the peace” with certain people — who are no longer a part of my life. It’s not me, and it never will be. I harbor no resentment toward those who peacefully go about their lives and live by their faith. I just wish the lack of resentment was reciprocal more often than not. I think it goes beyond “judgment” or lack thereof, as well. I’ve known plenty of people who have said, “It’s not my place to judge, and I don’t… but let me tell you all about my life in Christ. Aren’t you interested?” And I’m like… Um… isn’t that being kind of judgmental in itself? At the very least, it’s extremely presumptuous.

The ability to live a life with or without religion should extend to every individual, without fear of harassment, bullying or attempted conversion. We don’t all have to believe the same thing to get along. Learn who a person is rather than what church he attends. Find out a person’s passions rather than judging her based upon her choice in belief, or lack thereof. And for the love of gods (or none), teach your children to be open and inclusive. Maybe we can still turn this ship around.  Maybe if each and every one of us is “Openly Secular,” we will become less of an unknown, and thus less feared.


Fights worth Fighting

I’m not so concerned about the crosses that are left on public property, especially memorials in cemeteries throughout our nation. Many of these crosses are now a part of history, and while they are not inclusive, I don’t believe they’re particularly exclusive either. I think it’s a waste of time and money to take these issues to court; they also create a lot of unnecessary hostility between believers and nonbelievers.

Money is better spent, it seems, on pursuing more important issues in education and government that affect our future: keeping ID out of science textbooks, God out of the classroom, prayer out of public meetings and religious symbols off public property from this point forward.

With the growing number of Nones, no matter how diverse the group is, the consistent message is that Americans are rejecting religion. We want it kept where it belongs. So it is particularly irritating when a public official defies a judge’s order and opens a meeting with a sectarian prayer anyway.

Robin Bartlett Frazier, a commissioner from Carroll County in Maryland, opened last week’s budget meeting with a prayer that contained references to Jesus Christ, stating that “she was willing to go to jail to fight the preliminary injunction ruling.”

Take a seat because it gets better. The judge had given the okay to open with a prayer as long as it did not represent a specific religion. These words were approved for use: “…Lord God, our Creator, giver and sustainer of life, the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Heavenly Father, Lord our Governor, mighty God, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, creator of planet Earth and the universe and our own Creator.”

But that wasn’t good enough. Frazier wanted to stand up for her particular brand of belief. She said, “We’ve been told to be careful. But we’re going to be careful all the way to Communism if we don’t start standing up and saying ‘no.’”

Does she mean, standing up and saying no to government officials who think their superhero or their favorite team should be everyone else’s, too? Or maybe she would be happier (as I would be) if the judge just said no to any and all prayer. After all, there are special places for prayer, and they’re called churches, homes and heads. Yeah, a moment of silence would work, too.

I’m glad that Frazier will go willingly to jail since she’s basically given every American the finger in deciding that she and her belief system are above the law.

These are the types of issues we should be fighting.

Christmas Whinery

“I love the commercialization of Christmas because it spreads the Christmas cheer.” Whoa, Mrs. Palin. (It’s that woman again.) No. It. Does. Not.

She’d be hard-pressed to find a preacher who agrees with her.Palin also says, “Everybody should have the right to celebrate the season without a few bah-humbugs.” Yet there are plenty of things to bah-humbug about without signaling out secularists who simply want better boundaries between religion and the state. (Not to mention that “everybody” is not a Christian.)

Christmas is a painful time for a lot of folks, a time of unmet and unrealistic expectations, angry drivers, grumpy shoppers, long check-out lines, huge credit card bills, bratty kids, drunk uncles and unfriendly in-laws. Oh, yeah, and then there’s The Reason, which is different for us but the same for about 83 percent of America. It’s one of two times out of the year that many believers will don coats and herd the family to a brick and mortar church, where people will briefly feel goodwill towards the strangers around them before they get back on the roads and flip those same people off.

This isn’t the Christmas experience for all of us, of course, and not for the rest of us all the time. But you get the idea.

Let’s back up to Palin, though. This year she wrote a book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. (Lovely personification.) She wrote it to fight for Christmas, because, she says, secularists don’t want to acknowledge “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Damn, those meanies.

But hold up. If Jesus is the reason, then why do we give presents to ourselves? Why do we love, honor and obey consumerism? And how does giving stuff to people who already have a lot of stuff spread his cheer? (I’m preaching to the choir, right?) Shouldn’t we just be giving each other a high-five and shouting, “Hell, yeah! We’re saved.”

Silly, I know, but so is this idea of a “war on Christmas.”

So some Christians want every American to celebrate December 25th in the same way and for the same reason as they do because, apparently, we should all be Stepford Christians. That control issue can be handled most effectively with a little counseling, IMHO. Those like Sarah Palin and Rep. Dwayne Bohac (TX) and Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (NJ) need to understand that they can celebrate and say whatever they want about Jesus at home and at church, and it doesn’t take away from their holi/holy-day if some of us don’t celebrate the birth of their savior, too.

However, believers and nonbelievers can be united in the spirit of Christmas anyway. Though you won’t catch us talking to the ghost of Christmas past, we’re very amenable to working together to create “good tidings and great joy.” Jesus Christ, if indeed he was real historical figure who lived a life of kindness and forgiveness, had a message. Help others. Be nice. Reach out. That’s our message, too! (Or for most of us, at least!)

Instead of pushing the commercialization of Christmas, perhaps we should buy our children one or two gifts that they will appreciate, and then allow them to decide where a holiday donation of time and/or funds should be made.

This list would be a good place to start. Then there are the theater tickets (support the arts!), the angel trees and the soup kitchens who need volunteers, just to name a few. (For more ideas, check out SixDegrees.org.) The last few years, we have, in addition to the angel tree, picked the American Cancer Society and our local homeless shelter, which relies only on donations and support from the community. So many ways to spread cheer, so little time.

Let’s not allow some Christians (ahem, Ms. Palin) spoil the true meaning of Christmas. The best gift we can give our children is to teach them it’s not all about them.