Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided

In the introduction to Living Without God, Ronald Aronson assumes a problem that many religious skeptics would quickly dismiss as not their problem. And yet it’s one to which I suspect many would welcome a personal solution.

“To appreciate our problem,” Aronson writes, “atheists, agnostics, and skeptics need only recall the hesitation and stammering of their most recent personal conversation with anyone who is religious. Even after reading Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens, secularists have difficulty discussing what it is we believe in, if it’s not God.” Aronson, who is Distinguished Professor of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University, goes on to differentiate between what he calls the “principled tentativeness” of nonbelievers and the firm beliefs, morality, deep sense of belonging, and the “confidence in dealing with life’s mysteries and uncertainties,” of their religious counterparts. “Why,” he asks, “are we [nonbelievers] unable to be more persuasive? Besides disbelief, what do we have to offer? What should we tell our children and grandchildren as we see them swept up in a pervasively religious environment?”

Many disbelievers and nonbelievers would, I am sure, bristle a bit at this and say they do indeed have personal philosophies that replace and even go beyond religion, and humanism would surely be in the forefront. Yet the very terms nonbeliever, atheist, agnostic, and skeptic are negatives and don’t, in themselves, point towards any unifying set of positive principles. There was once the belief in progress that partly filled this role, Aronson avers, but that has become untenable or at least unsatisfying in the present.

Living Without God is Aronson’s attempt to provide the substance of a unifying set of positive principles for nonbelievers. As the author or editor of nine books on philosophical topics (he is an internationally recognized authority on Jean-Paul Sartre), Aronson here proposes to formulate a coherent secular philosophy by returning to and updating Immanuel Kant’s three great questions: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?

He starts with the middle of these and offers extensive discussions of gratitude and our responsibility for others: “Giving thanks, central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is virtually absent from our secular culture. But this deprives those who live without God of much of life’s coherence and meaning. For there is much to be grateful for.” Instead of thanking God, Aronson says, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology tell us that gratitude for life and the pleasures we take in it “open a window of awareness into some of our intimate yet impersonal relationships with the cosmic and natural forces and processes that make us possible.”

Does the awareness that things don’t operate according to the whim of a god who works in strange ways give rise to a sense of gratitude? Yes, says Aronson, offering as an example our “subjective reasons for taking pleasure in the sun,” which he says “are linked to objective facts…Any greater or lesser distance would make it too cold or too hot to sustain life.” We can surely be grateful for that.

Another example Aronson cites is evolution, to which we owe not just our existence, but our human existence. For this we can feel a sense of gratitude and kinship with every species on earth. (I might add, and Aronson implies, that this also inspires gratitude to Charles Darwin and all the other intellectual giants who have helped us to understand our place in nature.)

“What does our belonging to nature, history, and society require of us?” Aronson asks next. This question is, for him, an inquiry into the source of morality in the absence of God. He immediately and presumptuously moves to the topic of guilt and resentment in regard to inequality. “I am situated,” he writes, “between guilt induced by my own unearned privileges and resentment at how richly endowed others are compared to myself.” The answer to his question and his personal dilemma hinges upon “our belonging to a world larger than ourselves. Our dependencies confer obligations upon us–these are built in to being human…Being grateful is about seeking our links, our connections, our identity. This should lead to accepting our responsibilities towards all that makes us ourselves.”

Aronson’s basis for morality stems from his political activism and his commitment to socialism. It also places him squarely in line with the Christian idea of original sin whereby each of us is born with guilt and an obligation to love our neighbor. It leads to a tedious and stultifying genealogy of guilt in which Aronson holds himself and everyone else responsible for the plight of black Americans, the Holocaust, and “the disaster in Iraq.”

This, for me, is the weak point in the book, but it has an implication about godless morality that is important to consider. A purely secular morality is based upon meta-ethical, ethical, and moral principles that are subject to some disagreement among well-intentioned and reasonable people. They will also be open to, and indeed require, as Aronson subsequently points out, rational analysis. They will be, consequently, far better based and ultimately subject to less disagreement than those based upon “revealed” religious texts and faith.

Aronson then tackles Kant’s first question, “What can I know?” He places himself squarely with those “who maintain both a sense of objective truth and a conviction about people’s ability to arrive at it.” But just as human beings may be intelligent, self-directing, and free by their very nature, we can also choose not to know. He uses creationism as one example: “Almost half of Americans reject evolution, and they do so not after close study and careful consideration, but because of their religious faith.”

“The choice to know, to reveal, to use reason actively, to synthesize what one knows, is also a decision to give up any pretense to absolute knowledge,” Aronson concedes. Still, we can know “enough to live by–if we choose to know.”

So, what can nonbelievers hope for? For many believers, says Aronson, this is the decisive question. He separates personal hope from collective hope, noting that in recent decades hope in collective enterprises has been fading. He ties his hopes to a renewal by people of their nature as social beings. Living Without God is recent enough that Aronson cites the popularity of Barack Obama as a sign of possible new hope in people working together in community. It isn’t recent enough, however, to consider the deep recession we’re in and witness how personal and collective fear–the opposite of hope–are commingled. Interestingly, President Obama, though personally religious, has tied none of his own rhetoric of hope to anything but human effort and cooperation. That, in itself, is hopeful.

The value of Living Without God lies more in its raising important questions than in providing answers to them. Its encompassing question–what kind of unified philosophy can nonbelievers offer to counter religion and God?–is, however, somewhat flawed, insofar as religions themselves offer no united philosophy or morality outside of a belief in a god.

Nevertheless, the questions Aronson raises and his extensive discussions of gratitude, cooperation, responsibility, choosing to know, dying, and hope are definitely thought provoking, and I think that was the author’s chief intention with this book. It also makes for worthwhile reading for all shades of nonbelievers to start, restart, or continue working on a personal philosophy that could translate into a more respected public persona.

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