A New Vision for Secular Transcendence

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LIFE IS SAD FOR US SECULAR PEOPLE. Foregoing church and other religious communities, we endure our drab and dreary days without hope, fellowship, joy, or meaning, without anything greater than our sorry selves and empty existences.

So goes the story often told about us.

Secular groups formed around shared interests represent a futile attempt to “reverse engineer” what we’re supposed to get from church, contends The Week’s Bonnie Kristian. “Church unites us in a shared purpose more meaningful than sports or board games and more comprehensive than volunteering or activism,” Kristian writes. “It binds together community and significance.…Church fills a space in our lives that is meant to be filled.”

The website for the School of Life, a global organization founded by the secular philosopher Alain de Botton, observes that post-religious societies lack interest

in what we can term transcendence: contact with eternal and grand phenomena in comparison with which our ordinary preoccupations can come to feel unimportant and redemptively insignificant in our own eyes. With the receding of religion there is in general nothing left to awe or relativize us. Our immediate difficulties and burdens, our conflicts and pains are, it seems, all there is—and so they loom ever larger and more desperately in our agitated minds.

As goes religion, so goes transcendence, writes Christian theologian Carl R. Trueman in First Things. “For those who have abandoned belief in God, the quest for meaning has proved as chimerical as it has continual.…The quest for transcendence seems to be dying before our eyes.”

Humanists shouldn’t be shocked by the hand-wringing. Church gives meaning. God equals transcendence. These ideas have been ingrained in Western minds for centuries. We nonreligious people even encourage them to some degree, tending to bar from our vocabularies (and, often, our lives) religious-sounding concepts like “faith” and “transcendence.”

We needn’t shy away. We have “faith,” of course, in that we trust our principles, the scientific process, and the capacity of our fellow human beings for decency, intelligence, and ingenuity.

Contrary to Trueman’s false lament, we secular people experience transcendence. If we know where to look for it, that is. If we know how to describe it.

When we focus our eyes and minds, we can see the contours of a new vision of transcendence coming into view. We already intuit this vision, unarticulated though it remains; we already live it out in varying degrees.

How so?

Something Greater

“Transcendence” can be thought of as exceeding normal limits or “rising above” the mundane. It’s usually understood as hierarchical and vertical—the “higher power” known as God on top, humans worshiping from below—but transcendence is found on another plane, too.

Humanity’s dicey moment requires us to realize and act on the truth that we are surrounded by much that matters to our left and our right, in front of us and behind us. Each of our lives is set in a swirling teem of people, some near to us but most of them far away, some familiar to us but most of them not. We are inhabitants of a planetary home that is immensely large yet at the same time dwarfed by the vast, vast universe and the strains imposed by our rapacious race. Each of us stands at a pinpoint in a mind-blowingly long span of time that stretches back millions of years and forward for countless more (we hope). All our fates are intertwined across space and time.

This is the transcendence available to the nonreligious. We live it by extending ourselves not to the heavens but to the horizon.

As the venerable Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor contends, part of the problem with secular life today is a failure to put words to the philosophy and morality that many of us intuit and act on. Unlike conservative religionists who bemoan the culture’s secularity and be-true-to-yourself individualism and authenticity, Taylor sees something deep and worthy in the zeitgeist. But he finds fault in those of us who are part of this culture—for not better articulating its nature and merits.

Taylor’s 1992 book The Ethics of Authenticity remains shockingly relevant and largely unheeded today. In it he writes,

If something is true, then it matters to be able to say it.…Articulacy has a moral point, not just in correcting what may be wrong views but also in making the force of an ideal that people are already living by more palpable, more vivid for them; and by making it more vivid, empowering them to live up to it in a fuller and more integral fashion.

Taylor is referring mainly to the compelling case for the moral and philosophical merits of principled individualism and personal authenticity—a case, I might add, that is still waiting to be made a quarter century after Taylor’s book.

But his point applies equally well to secular transcendence. When we name something, we make it more real; we enable ourselves and others to better implement it. When we clearly and forcefully articulate who we are and what we’re about, we begin to correct the misperceptions of those with whom we share society.

Personally, I’m tired of having it put to me, whether in articles and books or conversations with religious people, that it must be depressing to live without the comfort and inspiration of God belief, of participation in church. I’ve had more than one well-meaning person tell me they feel sorry for me.

They needn’t. The truth is, churches don’t always deliver on this aspect of their purpose. And even those that do require a price of admission—a confession of supernatural belief—that remains too high for most secular people, even those who appreciate the value of some of what happens between church walls.

Moreover, the secular sphere, even though it’s in relative infancy, has more and more venues where people do experience community, support, and uplift. As I’ve said to my religious interlocutors, you don’t need to feel sorry for us. Our lives are not bereft. We do have access to meaning, purpose, joy, and transcendence.

We reach them on the horizontal plane: in our relationships with other people, in our love for the ocean and mountains and green life budding on the tree branches each spring, in our appreciation for the stories and life that have unfolded before us and, we hope, will long outlast us.

More Than 
Me, Here, Now

In the fast-growing secular population, where God-focused transcendence is not our lot, we do get outside ourselves, we do taste the transcendent. The question isn’t whether, but how, and to what extent. There is potential for a more robust engagement with transcendence. We begin to fulfill this unrealized potential by further extending ourselves laterally, spherically, horizontally:

To our fellow humans. To hear it from alarmed religionists, lives without God are lives consigned to the trivial, self-defeating pursuit of the almighty “me.” But the selfless service of innumerable nonbelievers, from activists to nonprofit leaders to founders of socially beneficial businesses, shows a different truth. As secular America grows beyond the anti-religion fixations of a decade ago, positive and philanthropic forms of secular life gain strength. We’re showing that there is so much more than me.

To our planet. Many people proceed today under the illusion that the devastation of human habitat is happening 
“there” and that they, in their sheltered enclaves, are immune. They aren’t. We’re all on the same boat, it has no life rafts, and if it goes down, we all go down together. As if to fulfill the nightmare of the Rolling Stones’ classic “Gimme Shelter,” 
the fires are sweeping and the floods threatening, setting in motion ever-larger masses of migrants and refugees whose will to survive cannot be stopped by walls. It’s clearer and clearer that in an age of climate change, the fate of our “here” is inextricably bound up with what’s happening “there.”

To a longer timeline. Live for the moment, we’re told. But wisdom teaches us that lives of meaning are not confined to now. In our pursuit of transcendence, we’re compelled to recognize our debt to those who came before and our obligations to future generations who we rely on to continue humanity’s long story.

This is a vision of transcendence available to secular people today, waiting to be grasped and lived. It is my sense that we already intuit this broader engagement with life.

But how do we actually live it? By extending ourselves to our fellow human beings, for starters. Many of them are hurting, and because of contingencies that could just as easily have befallen people with privilege, they need support. Humanist charities and relief efforts like the Foundation Beyond Belief (profiled elsewhere in this issue) show us exactly what this form of engagement looks like in practice.

But let’s not fancy ourselves secular saviors. When we extend ourselves to other cultures, we receive as well as give, and the knowledge we gain is often more than the knowledge we impart.

This was my experience when I became a friend of the Muslim community in my former city of Portland, Oregon. I wanted to use my USA Today column-writing platform to tell their story and defend their rights against an unconscionable onslaught of political hostility. What I didn’t expect—but received—was a world of friendship, hospitality, delicious food, and incredible generosity into which I was welcomed. I will never unlearn the education I received on the benefits and joys of being part of a tightknit and vibrant community and, at the same time, the onus some people bear for being part of a besieged religious minority.

Equally, horizontal transcendence connects us to human beings in the generations to come. What kind of societies are the current inhabitants of the planet going to bequeath to those who follow? Lest we stick them with a world governed by the angry nationalism and dark authoritarianism that are currently gaining ground, we must win the fight for global cooperation and democratic values.

These are worth saving and passing along as ends in themselves—but also the means that are needed if humanity is to have any chance of containing the existential damage of climate change. It should be a source of shame, and motivation, to know that the generation in charge is currently being sued by young people for the gross irresponsibility of damaging the planet and its ability to sustain future generations. That’s no joke. A lawsuit filed by two dozen plaintiffs, aged ten to twenty-one, compelling the government to combat climate degradation cleared a key hurdle in the federal court system in July. This, against a backdrop of record-high temperatures, massive floods, and vicious forest fires around the world, all made more likely by human-caused climate change.

Yes, there are threats to quell and work to do. But there is joy as well—not only from the satisfaction of a job well done but from all the good things, large and small, that we are able to receive when we widen our vision and enlarge our perspective.

“Today, the transcendent is real, but disorganized and fragmented,” de Botton’s 
School of Life site states.

There continue to be opportunities to meet the transcendent but for the moment they seem to be left to individual chance. The power to bring a consoling (perspective) to our troubles is not harnessed by any powerful institution that has our best interests in view. The consolation is there, but we live unconsoled, waiting for the transcendent to be mastered and applied to our inner squalls and sorrows.

De Botton is right as far as he goes. From the perspective of principled humanism, we want consolation and perspective not only for ourselves but for our fellow humans as well. Horizontal transcendence stretches us in their direction, for their good, for our good.

So, no, meaning hasn’t vanished in the spaces where religion had receded. Transcendence isn’t dying before our eyes. But there’s more of it to be cultivated, lived, and shared. We know it’s out there, off toward the horizon. If we train our eyes we can begin to see it, if we stretch ourselves we can better grasp it.