Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age
BOOK BY KATHERINE OZMENT
HARPER WAVE, 2016
320 PP.; $25.99
With ample statistics, concise historical references, and reliance on social research, Katherine Ozment sets the stage in her recently published book, Grace Without God, for determining whether secularists who seek connection and an understanding of life can find them in ways that are equally rewarding as for those who rely on religion and faith. But make no mistake: this is not a dry read. Ozment is an astute journalist with a keen ability to draw relevant and revelatory stories out of the like-minded individuals she meets while traveling the United States to research this book. Ozment weaves her own personal journey throughout Grace Without God, making it relatable to anyone who once had religion in his or her life and who often feels like something’s missing without it.
What set Ozment’s inquiry into motion was a simple question from her then eight-year-old son. While watching a religious procession take place outside their window he asked, “What are we?” Her hurried answer was, “We’re nothing.” But to Ozment, the answer was unsatisfactory and nagged her. It didn’t take into account the traditional yet secularized holidays and rituals they undertook as a family, or the fact that she and her husband were raising their children to be kind, empathic individuals without religion. It also highlighted their lack of any kind of values-based community and connection to others when it came to traditions, rituals, and moral frameworks—a notion that no longer sat well with her.
Like Ozment, for a portion of my childhood I was raised in one of the Christian faiths, became an unwavering nonbeliever along the way to adulthood, and now have a child (Ozment has three) who wants her own deeper understanding of what life means and whether it has any purpose. I also sense that we as a family (and I as an individual) are missing some kind of necessary connection with a community that focuses on these themes. This is precisely what drew me to Grace Without God, and Ozment’s ability to tackle this subject is something I appreciated.
The book is divided into three main sections, each containing intriguing snippets of Ozment’s discussions with pertinent secular and religious scholars, experts, leaders, and lay people who are all feeling their way (some further along than others) on the continuum of a more secularized society. In the first section, “Losing It,” Ozment describes her own early connection to religion, the growing number of “Nones” in the United States, and the evolution toward more progressive thinking that’s already taking place among some religions in order to remain relevant.
The next section, “Goodbye to All That,” highlights how religion has long attempted to answer some of life’s larger questions (Why are we here? Who made us?), how it creates systems of accountability within communities through sets of moral rules and a regular practice of empathy, and offers a sense of meaning and purpose to individuals. For many, this is the allure of religion and faith, and why it can be difficult to leave.
Ozment also devotes a few pages to the importance of maintaining religious literacy when embarking upon a secular life path, and explains that none of us can ever truly let religion go if we are to understand or interpret the basis and origin of much of our history, culture, art, literature, and so forth. It’s a short chapter that could easily be developed into a much longer and separate thesis or book of its own.
In the last chapter of this section, Ozment touches on what is perhaps the biggest void that many secularists encounter (myself included) after disengaging from religion: an unfulfilled sense of deep belonging and attachment to a larger community, one tethered together by time and values. As Ozment notes from her research, greater meaning (and often identity) in our lives is achieved when we feel like we’re part of a group that supports us, perhaps especially in the wake of something like birth, marriage, illness, or death. For those with a religious upbringing, problems often arise when religion is no longer the source of that sense of belonging.
For me, the heart and the most formidable portion of the book is in the second half, specifically the final section, “The Path Forward.” Here Ozment gets at the nub of her primary inquiry: Are there meaningful ways for secularists to find sources of morality and community, similar to how our religious friends do? In short, the answer seems to be an encouraging maybe. Some of the individuals Ozment interviewed and observed are thriving, if not fulfilled, with alternative and often cobbled-together groups and individual practices they’ve created to fill the void. We get glimpses of one family’s “kitchen table Sunday school” as well as the more organized, community-based approaches used by Unitarian Universalists, Sunday Assembly, Parenting Beyond Religion, Hearth, Ethical Culture Society, secular humanists, and others. Ozment candidly notes her own sense of ambivalence after participating in and observing some of these various approaches, wondering if they are sustainable for the long term or able to truly fill the hole left by the absence of religion as she once knew it.
It’s clear that, like for many of us, the practice of meaningful rituals is important to Ozment to the extent that they’re often nostalgic and connect us to our childhoods and past generations. But they also help us celebrate milestones during life and at death with the goal of marking time and fostering meaning in our lives. Ozment deftly contemplates and explores whether these can feasibly take place outside of organized religion and offer an adequate substitute, particularly when a loved one dies. Before closing out the section, she highlights how the natural world and the practice of mindfulness can often induce the kind of profound awe, wonder, and grace that others find through God and religion. In the end we’re left with Ozment’s honest assessment that despite her research and deep contemplation, she still doesn’t have answers to the more profound questions we all ask ourselves.
The author’s candor, open-mindedness, and reflection are strengths throughout the entire book. She provides solace to the reader struggling with similar issues in their own lives, respectfully honoring the ghost of religion rather than writing it off. She pays attention to the notion that for so many, religion was once a source of connection and belonging, both within families and the larger community, and that its absence shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Understanding that the search for nonreligious substitutes will be different for each of us, and perhaps ongoing throughout life, Ozment curates a hefty list of books (including for children), websites, podcasts, and organizations for further exploration. Indeed, by necessity, the author had to pare down what could have been a massive text on this subject. But this is precisely why Grace Without God succeeds: it succinctly and thoughtfully jumpstarts the long overdue conversations both with ourselves and with other secularists seeking to connect and belong while we honor the milestones and wonder of our lives.