Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book review: 'Good Without God' a well-written case for non-belief

By Bill Williams

Books by atheist authors have flooded the market in recent years, and some, such as Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, exhibit a stridently anti-religious tone.

Now comes a more nuanced and balanced book written by Greg M. Epstein (at right), the humanist chaplain at Harvard University. Good Without God critiques religious belief in a respectful way and lays out guidelines for how people can lead ethical lives without believing in a supernatural being.

An estimated 1 billion people identify themselves as atheist, agnostic or nonreligious, and 15 percent of Americans claim they are nonreligious, a subgroup that is growing faster than any religion, according to Epstein.

“Humanism rejects dependence on faith, the supernatural, divine texts, resurrection, reincarnation, or anything else for which we have no evidence,” Epstein writes.

Leaders of the various religions often assert that without belief in a Supreme Being, people will descend into moral chaos, but Epstein maintains there is no evidence to support this view.

Epstein credits the world’s major religions for embracing the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, a moral standard wholeheartedly embraced by humanists, too.

The book covers well-trod territory when it faults religion for senseless sectarian killing, oppression of women and acceptance of slavery. Slavery demonstrates why ethical standards must evolve as understanding and compassion grow. No one today would argue in favor of restoring slavery in the American South, yet most religious people, including Christians, embraced the practice before the Civil War.

For Epstein, a moral life begins with recognition of the dignity of all people, which leads to compassion for those who are suffering. He cites the recent international effort of religion scholar Karen Armstrong, who is promoting a Charter for Compassion and is actively seeking input from all religions and humanists about ways to promote the Golden Rule.

Many members of religious groups have only vague notions about the meaning and nature of God. Some no longer believe in a Supreme Being who answers prayers. Others frankly identify themselves as agnostic or atheist.

Epstein cites the work of a young Detroit rabbi, Sherwin Wine, who in 1963 founded the first synagogue that explicitly rejected belief in God and later wrote Judaism Beyond God. The movement known as Humanistic Judaism has now spread around the world.

Humanists have no holy books such as the Bible or the Koran, although they do have a short manifesto that says “working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.” In other words, the path to a happy life involves helping others.

No one should expect that religion will die out, Epstein says, because it provides important connections to an individual’s unique ancestry, heritage, memory and identity.

Nonreligious people “may not need God or miracles, but we are human and we do need … some form of ritual, culture and community.”

That frank admission provides a clue as to why humanism has not attracted more followers. Humanists generally go it alone. Epstein argues that humanists should follow the example of religions by celebrating important life cycle events, such as births, marriages, deaths and holidays.

Good Without God is a thoughtful, well-written book, but I wish the author had spent less time discussing moral reasoning throughout history and more time on today’s practical ethical issues. He makes a brief pitch for greater interfaith cooperation on global warming and church-state separation, and pleads for inclusion of non-believers in interfaith gatherings.

Epstein’s discussion of Buddhism is somewhat misleading. He says that Buddhists use meditation “as an escape from worldly suffering,” whereas the opposite is more accurate. Buddhists meditate to get in touch with suffering and thereby increase their compassion.

That aside, this book is a worthwhile addition to the growing literature of atheism and agnosticism. People of faith need not feel threatened by it. Just as believers cannot prove the existence of God, neither can atheists disprove it.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, by Greg M. Epstein, 250 pp., Morrow; $25.99.

1 comment:

Makarios said...

Many members of religious groups . . . frankly identify themselves as atheist."

In other words, gutless, hypocritial atheists.