Interview with Professor Phil Zuckerman – Sociology and Secular Studies, Pitzer College

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Phil Zuckerman is a Professor of Sociology and Secular Studies at Pitzer College. He wrote a number of books including, most recently, The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. Here we discuss secular studies from the personal, and expert, perspective of Professor Zuckerman.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: I appreciate you giving us your time today. Your specialty is in secularism. Was secularism always a topic of interest for you? Were people in your family a major influence? Or was this simply the natural trajectory of a curious mind reasoning things out?

Professor Phil Zuckerman: I am a third generation atheist. All four of my grandparents were non-believers. My father’s folks were very poor Jews who grew up in the ghettos of Warsaw, Poland. As teenagers, they took to socialism as the best route to make the world a better place; they saw religion as hindering human progress and keeping the poor duped and pacified. My mother’s parents were upper-middle class Jews from Bohemia who found literature, art, theatre, cinema, music, and hiking much more satisfying to the soul than religion. So my Dad was a clear-cut atheist and my mom was more of an agnostic or apatheist (just didn’t care or think much about god, either way). My folks weren’t anti-religious, per se. In fact, we were fairly involved with our local Jewish community when I was growing up – but much more in an ethnic/cultural sense: celebrating holidays, eating certain foods, socializing with people from a similar background, etc. Our involvement with the Jewish community was never about God or prayer or anything supernatural. It was about heritage, history, etc. I grew up in a coastal suburb of Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s and religion just wasn’t a big thing. Most of my friends and neighbours were irreligious. No kids in my neighbourhood went to church. I never saw any family pray around the dinner table. But then, when I was 15, I had my first serious girlfriend. She was the daughter of an Evangelical preacher. She believed in Jesus. I was totally flabbergasted by her and her family’s beliefs. They seemed utterly insane. Yet, she and her family weren’t insane; they were kind and thoughtful people. But they believed in crazy shit. I became obsessed with understanding religious faith: how can rational people believe the utterly absurd? I’m still trying to figure this out. Sure, I’ve gained a lot of good insight throughout the course of my studying of religion, but as for really intelligent, well-educated people who are strong believers — I remain truly baffled. And in that state of confusion, I’ve turned to research on and writings about atheism, agnosticism, humanism, and secularism because they all help me articulate my own worldview which is critical of religious faith and supportive of reason, empiricism, scepticism, human rights, women’s rights, true morality, etc.

Jacobsen: How did this interest in secular studies grow into a life long specialization?

Zuckerman: First, it dawned on me about ten or fifteen years ago that no one was studying secular people or secular cultures, specifically. The social sciences are all about studying humans: what they do, what they believe, how they behave, how they act, etc. And while the social sciences have been studying religion since their inceptions, lived secularity has gone almost completely un-studied. How secular people live, think, celebrate, love, raise kids, deal with death, vote, sleep, eat, etc., etc. has been virtually ignored. And yet secular people constitute a significant chunk of humanity. Irreligion, anti-religion, atheism, agnosticism, humanism, indifference, etc. – these orientations and identifications are growing, and they capture the world-views and life-ways of hundreds of millions of people. We need to study them and understand them. Second, when I was teaching classes on religion, such as The Sociology of Religion, I was often deconstructing religion. Taking a critical/sceptical approach. One day, a student said that she had wanted to learn about religion in the world, and not just about debunking religion. She felt like my religion class was falsely titled. And she was right. So I decided to re-tool that class, and make it truly about religion in society (without too much debunking), and then I created a whole new class called “Scepticism, Secularism, and Irreligion.” In that class, I just looked at religion critically, head-on, and examined various sceptical approaches to religion, from the ancient Greeks and ancient Indians up through Freud and Russell and into the New Atheists. The course was hugely popular. Clearly, students were craving courses that debunked religion. From there, other new courses were created, such as courses on secularism as a political force in various nations around the world, courses on the Secularism and Morality, just to name a few.

“I would say that societies get worse when secularism is being forced by a dictatorship with no respect for personal freedom, freedom of conscience, or basic human rights. But, on the other extreme, when secularism is organic – that is – it emerges freely, in a democratic society, things tend to get better.”

Jacobsen: From a historical perspective, what are the origins of secularism? Who was its first adherent or proponent?

Zuckerman: That’s nearly impossible to say for sure. After all, what does one mean by “secularism”? As I see it, “secularism” can and does mean numerous things. For example, we can talk of political secularism, which is basically about the separation of church and state and government abeyance or neutrality concerning matters of religion. The most notable modern articulations of this would be found in the First Amendment of the US Constitution for instance, or article 20 of the 1947 Constitution of Japan.

But there is also what we could call philosophical or sceptical secularism, which is about critiquing religion, debunking religious claims, and attempting to disabuse people of their religious beliefs. Evidence for this form of secularism goes way, way back: there was the Carvaka/Lokoyata, who lived in India during the 7th century B.C.E, were a group of materialist thinkers who rejected the supernaturalism of ancient Hindu religion and were vociferous in their mockery of religious authorities. They were essentially atheists who saw no evidence for the existence of god or karma or any afterlife whatsoever. There was the Jewish philosopher known as Kohelet of ancient Israel (3rd century BCE), the presumed author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, who suggested that all life is ultimately meaningless and that there is no life after death. Emergent agnosticism, anti-religiosity, and an all-around debunking orientation are also very well-represented among the ancient Greeks and Romans of the classical age (Lucretius, Epicurus, Democritus, etc). These individuals criticized the claims of religion and articulated a very secular and this-worldly ethos. From within the Islamic world, there was Muhammad Al-Warraq  (9th century C.E.), who doubted the existence of Allah and was skeptical of religious prophets; there is also the freethinking, anti-religious assertions of Muhammad al-Razi (10th century C.E.), and Omar Khayyam (11th century C.E.).

Finally, there is what we might call socio-cultural secularism, which entails the weakening or diminishing of religion in society, in day-to-day life. We’re talking things like more stores being open on Sundays, time spent on the internet replacing Bible study, television shows or Broadway musicals making fun of religion with little backlash, etc. At root, socio-cultural secularism is both a socio-historical and demographic phenomenon whereby a growing number people start caring less and less about religion. It involves greater numbers of people in a given society living their lives in a decidedly secular manner, utterly oblivious or indifferent to supernatural things like God, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, etc., baldly disinterested in religious rituals and activities, and less inclined to include or consider religion as a significant or even marginal component of their identity.

Your question is huge – where do these various forms of secularism originate? – and I simply don’t have the time (or expertise!) to delve into it at length. I’d suggest starting with Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History. Or perhaps Calum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain.

Jacobsen: How do societies get worse and better with more secularism rather than less?

Zuckerman: First off, it depends if that secularism is forced or not. By “forced” I mean, in the 20th century, we’ve seen quite a few secular dictatorships take over a country and force/impose their dogmatic version of secularism on a captive population. These have often been violent, repressive regimes that tried their hardest to suppress religion by jailing and torturing religious leaders, killing religious people, bulldozing churches and mosques, etc. Communist Albania was one such nightmare – the corrupt and insane atheist dictatorship there even made it illegal to name your baby a Biblical name! So I would say that societies get worse when secularism is being forced by a dictatorship with no respect for personal freedom, freedom of conscience, or basic human rights. But, on the other extreme, when secularism is organic – that is – it emerges freely, in democratic societies, things tend to get better. Of course, this is just a correlation. But we know that the most highly secularized societies tend to be among the best in the world, at least according to standard sociological measures. The best countries in which to be a mother, the most peaceful countries, those countries with the lowest murder rates – their populations generally tend to be quite secular. And this correlation holds true for nearly every measure of societal well-being imaginable, such as levels of corruption in business and government, sexually transmitted disease rates, teen pregnancy rates, quality of hospital care, environmental degradation, access to clean drinking water, etc. We can even look at various studies which measure subjective happiness; year after year, nations like Denmark, Norway, and Sweden – the least religious countries in the western world — report the highest levels of happiness among their populations, while countries like Benin, Togo, and Burundi – among the most religious nations on earth – are the least happy.

One scholar who has researched this matter extensively is Gregory S. Paul. He created the “Successful Societies Scale”, in which he tries to objectively measure a whole array of variables that are indicative of societal goodness and well-being. When he measures such factors as life satisfaction, incarceration rates,  alcohol consumption rates, inequality, employment rates, etc., and correlates them with religiosity/secularity, his findings are unambiguously clear: aside from the important but exceedingly outlying exception of suicide — religious societies have significantly lower suicide rates than more secular societies — on just about every other single measure of societal-goodness, the least religious nations fare markedly better than the more religious nations. But again, it is a correlation only. And it very well may go the other way: it may be that as societies improved, they become more secular – not the other way around. Norris and Inglehart’s book Sacred and Secular is a great, data-rich source for this line of thinking.

“Aside from the important but exceedingly outlying exception of suicide — religious societies have significantly lower suicide rates than more secular societies — on just about every other single measure of societal-goodness, the least religious nations fare markedly better than the more religious nations.” 

Jacobsen: Is secularism beneficial or harmful for women‘s rights and human rights? 

Zuckerman: No question here: wherever religion weakens, the status, freedom, and power of women improves. Wherever secularism is strong – even when forced, oddly enough – women’s health, occupational opportunities, electoral access, etc. improve. Not only are women’s status, power, wealth, and life choices stronger/better in the most secular societies on earth today, and weaker/poorer in the most religious, but secular men and women are – on average – more likely to support women’s rights and equality than their religious peers. As for human rights, well, as I said above, in situations of forced secularism under Communist dictatorships, human rights suffer terribly. But in situations of organic secularism, where people simply stop being religious of their own free will, human rights tend to thrive. And as for political secularism – the separation of church and state – things most definitely improve for the minority religions, and for the non-religious as well. In the contemporary world, where most societies have a situation of religious pluralism (more than one religion existing), then political secularism is the only viable option because to privilege one particular religion over another, or over non-religion, inevitably leads to inequality and injustice.

Jacobsen: I assume, based on some observations in my personal and professional life, that the irreligious are thought to be less trustworthy and more immoral than the religious. Does the data back this up? 

Zuckerman: Yes, religious people in America view the non-religious as immoral and less trust-worthy (lots of data showing this, particularly from the work of Psychology Professor Will Gervais), and no, research shows that they are in fact not less moral or trustworthy. Catherine Caldwell-Harris, professor of psychology at Boston University, found that there exists no differences between atheists and theists in terms of levels of compassion or empathy. And studies from both the United States and the United Kingdom have reported that atheists are under-represented in prisons. Additional studies have shown that atheists and agnostics, on average, exhibit lower levels of racism and prejudice than their more God-believing peers, as well as lower levels of nationalism and militarism, and greater levels of tolerance for those they disagree with. Or consider research that specifically illustrates atheist morality in action: a recent international study looked at children and their likelihood of being generous or selfish in six different countries. Some of the kids had been raised Christian, some had been raised Muslim, and some had been raised without religion. The non-religious kids were the most generous – giving away, on average, a higher number of their stickers to kids they didn’t know– than the Muslim or Christian kids, who tended to be more selfish. Sure, it was just one study involving kids and stickers. But it effectively points to a much larger and important reality: that the vast majority of atheists of the world are decent and humane.

“When life is harsh and hard – when people don’t have access to health care, education, jobs, and society is riddled with corruption and crime, then people will turn to religious fantasies to help them cope.”

Jacobsen: If you had to have an elevator pitch in support of secularism, or those in support of a theocratic society or a government tending towards the theocratic, what would your elevator pitch be in support of secularism?

Zuckerman: First, I would sing “Imagine” by John Lennon. Then I would sing “Dear God” by XTC. Then I would say: morality should be based on empathy and compassion, not obedience to an invisible magic being – that’s moral outsourcing. Additionally, it is always better to base your beliefs on evidence rather than faith. Furthermore, scientific research has done far more to cure illness and alleviate suffering in the world than prayer. Additionally, the most secularized democracies today are doing much better than the most religious, and finally, if you find personal comfort, affirmation, and security in your religious faith, so be it – I don’t want to take that away from you. But please keep it out of our government and our public schools, and understand that no one has the right to impose their religious faith on others.

Jacobsen: What are perennial threats to secularism? What are the immediate, big issues surrounding secularism and its implementation?

Zuckerman: Well, which secularism are you referring to? The biggest threat to political secularism comes from religious fundamentalists/theocrats who wants to force their religion on the rest of society. The biggest threat to philosophical or sceptical secularism is when people live insecure, unsafe, precarious lives – in such situations, they understandably turn to religious faith for comfort. That is, when life is harsh and hard – when people don’t have access to health care, education, jobs and society is riddled with corruption and crime, then people will turn to religious fantasies to help them cope. They simply will not care about reason, rationality, empiricism, etc. And the biggest threat to socio-cultural secularism? There isn’t one. It is marching on, undeterred. The internet is a huge player in this.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time today, Professor Zuckerman.

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About Author

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Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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