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.
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.