Review: Grace Without God

Book Review, Humanism, Secular Grace

One of the things I love most about books is that while reading you uncover the author’s thinking and sometimes you find that it matches your own. And as is often the case for me, the author is able to articulate that thinking in a much more precise and engaging way. Katherine Ozment’s Grace Without God: The Search For Meaning, Purpose, And Belonging In A Secular Age is just such a book. While reading it the experience was like recognizing a new friend who has thought through the same problems and come to very similar conclusions.

This is a great segue into describing the book. Grace Without God is about the human need for belonging. Just because we do not have a faith in a god does not mean we do not need to connect and belong with other human beings. Ozment describes her “spiritual”* journey from a nominal Christian upbringing; to leaving religion and faith behind; to an honest and heartfelt search for how secular people find meaning and connection. The subtitle describes it succinctly: The Search For Meaning, Purpose, And Belonging In A Secular Age.

The book is the result of her quest to answer her son’s simple question, “What are we?” At the time he was watching a Greek Orthodox Good Friday procession out the window.

“What are they doing?” my son asked.
“It’s a ritual,” I said, thinking it must be their Good Friday.
“Why don’t we do that?” he asked.
“Because we’re not Greek Orthodox,” I said.
“Then what are we?”

What an insightful, deep and difficult question. Her initial response: “Nothing.” The book traces her rigorous and heartfelt search for a better answer.

Voice of the Nones

With Grace Without God Ozment has tapped into something vital for our moment in history. She is expressing the voice of the Nones. As Pew research has pointed out the Nones are the fastest growing “religious” group in the United States. People are choosing not to affiliate with religious institutions for a variety of reasons. The Nones include a wide spectrum from “spiritual but not religious” to dyed in the wool atheists.

I too sense this is a vast group of people who are essentially “spritually”* homeless but who are honestly seeking meaning, purpose and belonging. Grace Without God is a response from one of our own describing a path forward.

One surprise for me while reading the book, was how much I related to Ozment’s description of her nominal Christian upbringing. Although unlike Ozment, I went on to become an Evangelical for far too long before deconverting, I grew up in a nominal Christian environment. I remember the curiosity I felt hearing others describe some nebulous faith in God. A la Douglas Adams I would ask “who is this God character anyway?” and never got a sufficiently satisfying response. This too may be an expression of the Nones’ curiosity and need to answer the big questions.

Skeptical Chops

In the atheist community there is a natural distrust of anything that sounds too spiritual even up to and including humanism. So I suspect Grace Without God is not the first book on the atheist’s reading list. This is a shame as I think the book has much to offer those of us who identify as atheists. This post an argument for atheists to read the book.

I recently described to Steve Hilliker on the Voices Of Deconversion podcast the resistance I experience from my moniker Graceful Atheist. I chose the moniker because it reminds me that people matter. It is very easy to slip into believer bashing as an atheist pastime. I am also interested in “redeeming” the word grace from a its religious context. But the atheist part of the moniker is just as important. I don’t believe in god(s) and it is import to me to be open about this. Similarly, don’t miss the “Without God” bit by being distracted by the “Grace” bit. Ozment uses it in the truly secular sense.

I am a natural skeptic. I can’t help it. Even when I was a Christian I felt I was an internal critic. So when I read Grace Without God, even though I tended to agree with Ozment from the start, I did not leave my skeptic’s hat on the sidelines.

What struck me most about Grace Without God is how well researched it is. The book is full of interviews with professors, researchers and community leaders. The book can fairly be described as a research project but much more engaging. This is not a book of platitudes by some self described spiritual guru, but rather a skeptics attempt to ask the hard questions and grapple with the lack of answers. Ozment has skeptical chops.

Ozment is not prescribing anything. She certainly doesn’t come off as preachy. In fact, she poses more questions than she answers. In the book, Ozment is descriptive, giving account of how others in the secular community have attempted to solve the need for meaning and purpose.

A non-exhaustive list of topics she tackles:

  • Being good without God.
  • The failure of some secular communities to survive for the long haul and not having the same binding effects as traditional religion.
  • The need for ritual. (Yes, really, read the book)
  • Dealing with death from a secular perspective.
  • The new hotness, philosophical Buddhism. (This is the one I was most nervous about, but true to form it is descriptive not prescriptive)

Heart, Humanism and Secular Grace

Ultimately, I think Ozment would identify herself as a humanist. She describes taking the Beleif-O-Matic online quiz and getting 100% humanist. I also consider myself a humanist, which is probably why I identify so much with the book. After acknowledging lack of belief, humanism is an attempt to answer, “now what?” It is about “being for something” not just “against something.”

In my Why I Am A Humanist post I point out how difficult it is to avoid cloying platitudes when attempting to describe Humanism. Happily Grace Without God (dare I say) gracefully avoids this. Ozment acknowledges the real struggles to build secular community. The elements that bind religious communities together can sometimes be missing in secular communities. But secular communities are needed just the same.

Ozment visits Sunday Assemblies and humanist student groups. She visits secular parent groups and death cafes. She is reporting on the myriad ways secular people are attempting to recapture secular grace. But rather than coming across as dry or distant Ozment’s writing is full of heart and pops off the page. One cannot help but relate to her honest questioning and searching. She is telling my story … our story.

I appreciated, as well, that she expresses a lack of satisfaction in the answers. It is not that this or that solution is the right way or only way but rather that they are all pointing at something significant. And the continued search for that significance is the point.

I have written about Secular Grace and my attempts to use the term to describe the human need for connection. Ozment takes it one step further and tries to capture something deeper and for a lack of a better term “spiritual.”*

Ozment poses a provocative question:

I had felt a bit of what I thought of as grace—an abundance of gratitude for something freely given—that day gazing at my tulip and, later, at my family from across the street. But it wasn’t related to God. It was a wholly secular experience. What was it I was feeling? Could I train myself to recognize and prepare for such moments of secular grace—not to just wait for them to wash over me, but to create them myself?

Is it possible that rather than just passively waiting for moments of grace, we can actively seek grace out?


This is the type of book that I wish I were capable of writing. And to be clear, I am not. I recognize it as a is a bit of grace to come across a book and an author that articulates my thinking better than I can. My biggest problem with the book was not trying to highlight the whole thing. The hardest part of reviewing it is not plastering quote after quote.

The book is worth its price just for the epilogue, “A Letter To My Children.” In which Ozment describes her own 10 “commandments” of how to live life and seek out meaning.

Grace Without God is well worth a read.


* I am using the word spiritual here for lack of a better term. I don’t think I am alone in struggling with terminology in the secular community. I mean the term in the naturalistic sense of human beings need for meaning, purpose and belonging. No supernatural implications are intended, thus the scare quotes.

Why I am a Humanist

Deconversion, Humanism, Naturalism, Secular Grace

This blog has primarily been about what I do not believe and what I am not. The entire premise of the blog is about my deconversion and letting go of faith. But as has been said before by myself and others, saying “I am an atheist,” tells you almost nothing about me. In technical terms it tells you one and only one thing: I lack a belief in god(s). My recent (poorly named) series Communities of Unbelief has focused on ways I do not identify myself with titles like “Why I Am Not …”

This blog post, however, is about what I do believe in and how I do identify myself. I am a humanist. First and foremost, this means that people are more important than ideologies: religious, political or otherwise. It means the thing I  believe in is quite down to Earth: people. I believe in humanity. I believe that human connection is the most precious commodity in the universe.


It is quite easy to slip into cloying platitudes when attempting to describe humanism. I’ll do my best to avoid this, but feel free to call me out if I fail in this endeavour.

How about this for a start, I have always said, even in my Christian days, that all moral or ethical discussions should begin with confession. So, I’ll start by saying, that I am not a very good humanist. I aspire to have the needs of others in mind. I aspire to empathy for those outside of my tribe. But I often fall short of these ideals. I can tend toward the misanthropic and the local. I relate, probably more than is healthy, with the character of the doctor in The Brothers Karamozov:


I would state it like this:

The problem with humanism?

People are difficult. People are fallible. People may break your heart. As a Christian professor of mine rightly used to say:

Love necessarily involves pain

How is that for cloying platitudes?

Basis for morality and ethics

Who on Earth would base their morals, ethics and source of meaning on human beings? We already do.

Humanism is not new. Humanism is actually the basis of all religious moral frameworks. The evolution of religious and moral  philosophy can be traced back to evolution itself. There was some benefit to homo sapiens (and our ancestors) cooperating. Beginning with the small family unit. Just like modern families there were rules of behavior. As families grouped together into tribes, more behavioral rules needed to be established for the benefit of the whole group. This process continues growing and expanding as groups got bigger and bigger. The concept of an observer helped enforce the rules when group members were out of sight. God becomes an extremely effective concept to keep group members in line. Eventually we get formal religions. Over time religions add on dogma and doctrine to ensure no rules are broken. Leading ultimately to the complicated religious structures of today.

From this short description you can see a god and religion do not come into play until late in the game. We have developed our moral and ethical codes based on how we treat each other as humans. How we treat each other IS morality.


What religions do really well is facilitate community and a sense of belonging and the creation of a moral tribe. Is it the supernatural or the connection with other people that causes that sense of belonging and purpose? My argument is that it is the connection with people. This is what I call Secular Grace. The concept of Secular Grace acknowledges that there is nothing more valuable, moral or ethical than people loving and accepting one another.

The world is shrinking by the day. With modern communications borders are becoming weaker and weaker. We must learn to work with each other across national, cultural and religious boundaries. We must work with each other as people united in humanity.

If one of the most significance aspects of religion is morality, it is worth noting the utter failure of religious morality in the modern world. Attempting to apply the first century (and older) morality of the Judeo Christian scriptures is a futile effort. This form of morality has been on the wrong side of history time and time again.

There is a simple reason this is true. Any moral system that looks backward in history without evolving with the present environment will fail. We are not first century Aramaic speaking Jewish fishermen from a small town. We are a vast complex web of humanity that is coping with 21st century moral and ethical challenges.

Humanism recognizes this and focuses on human dignity. Regardless of one’s gender, sexual orientation, cultural background or nationality, one deserves respect, dignity and care just for being human. Inalienable rights are grounded on common humanity and not from a mythical god.

Humanism encompasses all the best of the social gospel without the supernatural and archaic moral baggage. Much of what attracted me to the Jesus of the New Testament was how he treated people. I am still attracted to that. If Jesus existed today, he would be a humanist.

We are meaning makers

Why are we here? The big question. We want desperately for there to be an external answer to that. There may not be one, in fact, if I am being honest, I do not think there is. But since we are here, maybe not the answer, but an answer is to be with each other.

There may be no meaning or purpose to the universe.
But my purpose is to make meaning and purpose.
That is the most human thing to do.

To be homo sapien is to make meaning. It may be the quintessential human activity. Rather than looking for meaning from an external source like a god, we must recognize the creation of meaning is the essence of humanity.


The Copernican principle has taught us that we are not the center of the universe. We live on an average planet, next to an average star, in an average arm of the spiral galaxy, in an average part of the universe.

Though this is true, it is also true that consciousness is exceedingly rare in the universe. As far as we know, we are the only conscious beings in the universe. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, “humanity is the cosmos aware of itself.”

Consciousness is so painfully rare that even if you were stuck on a deserted island thinking your thoughts in isolation your consciousness would be the most precious thing in the universe.

But most of us are not stranded on a deserted island. We have the great privilege to experience relationship with other conscious human beings. And that is meaningful.

Humanism’s focus on people allows us to derive meaning from each other. I do not know why we are here, but since we are here we should enjoy each other.  We have everything we need for meaning, purpose and awe in nature and each other.

No supernatural confusion

Humanism rejects supernatural explanations for phenomenon. It embraces science and a naturalistic view of reality. Free from the need to justify belief without evidence humanism can focus on rationality, evidence and the scientific method. I have written about how freeing an epistemology based on evidence rather than faith can be.

I have also written in this series about why I am not a liberal Christian. To summarize that article, more of Christianity has to be thrown away than kept. Using terms like god that can be defined a thousand ways is more confusing than it is helpful.

The ABCs of secular “spirituality”
Awe, belonging, connection

It is much simpler to say I am a humanist. It conveys both that I care about people and that I reject the supernatural. I particularly love Jennifer Michael Hecht’s term, humanism is a “graceful life philosophy.”

What next?

For me, humanism was the answer to the question, “what next?” after I deconverted from Christianity and became an atheist. It gave me a way to ground my morality, ethics and purpose.

I have started the hashtag #HumanismIsPeople to highlight people who exemplify humanism. It is also a reminder that people do miracles not myths.

A few years after deconversion I am still asking what next? As in what can I do that is good for the world? I am currently obsessed with trying to figure out what unites us as a secular community. Many have died on this particular hill before me. Atheists, skeptics, free thinkers and humanists are not joiners by nature. It is like herding cats trying to get everyone in the same room, let alone on the same page.

However, just because you have walked away from religion, does not mean you no longer need human connection and belonging. These are fundamental hard wired human needs. These needs often were met in the past by religion and now need a replacement.

What would bring us together and unite us with a sense of belonging?

I am particularly concerned for those leading up to, going through and recently passed through the deconversion process. It can be incredibly isolating and lonely when you first realize you no longer believe. It may cost you your entire social support structure. What can we do as a community to ease that process and provide opportunities for all of us to have a sense of belonging?

I am interested in building community. I am considering ways to bring people together online. There is no substituent for in person connectivity, but for many that is not always possible. The secular community can be sparse in some areas of the country.

Face to face hangouts would be a possible substitute that would allow people to tell their stories and grow a support group of humanists. Let me know if you are interested by commenting or emailing me at gracefulatheist at gmail dot com.