Get You a Graceful Life Philosophy

Blog Posts, Philosophy

Without religion, how do you find meaning? How do you live well? How do you find out how to live well? What is life about, anyway?

Secular Religion

Throughout her book Doubt: A History, Jennifer Michael Hecht weaves the idea of a “graceful-life philosophy.” These life philosophies are formed after a region becomes more cosmopolitan—many cultures living next to each other. Since you can’t escape being confronted with challenges to your own beliefs, this confrontation of views leads to doubting whatever your accepted religion is. But losing your religion, eating, drinking, and being merry aren’t satisfying for most people. The graceful life philosophies provide that meaning. In fact, Hecht calls them “secular religions” since they serve many of the functions of religions.

This week I’d like to talk about these “graceful life philosophies.” In future posts, I’ll talk about how to go about adopting such a philosophy. If you’re anything like me, you might get overwhelmed by the quantity of choices. I recommend starting with curiosity. “Oh, that’s interesting,” instead of, “I need to get started now!!”

The following “secular religions” provide answers, or at least guidelines for:

  • Making sense of how the world works.
  • What life is about; what’s the big picture.
  • What we should spend our time doing.
  • What it means to live life well.
  • How to handle life’s challenges.
  • How to prepare for death.


Some philosophies of life are more fully-formed and can replace religion for most things. Not only how do you pursue a good life, but also how to live with others, how to eat, dress, etc. They may provide community and events. Examples include:

  • Stoicism: fulfillment and happiness come from living according to our nature as humans. This happens when we live as the best humans we can: thinking and acting rationally and living for the good of ourselves and others.
  • Non-theistic Buddhism: you should pursue the Eightfold Path toward a better life for you and those around you.
  • Epicureanism: pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain are natural and normal, so go with the grain and do that well. You can achieve ataraxia (mental and emotional tranquility) if you do.
  • Secular/atheistic versions of established religions, like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism

Some philosophies may be less fully formed but might form the solid core of a life philosophy you build yourself over time. The fact is, we all cobble together our own philosophies of life as we gain experience. These might provide fewer answers to mundane questions about how to eat, dress, etc., but they’re helpful places to begin. Examples of these partial philosophies include:

  • Secular Humanism: We’re human, so let’s work to develop and help humanity and the world around us.
  • The teachings of Ecclesiastes: There is no absolute meaning, no life after death, but life is still good, and one’s own work is good. (Doubt, a History, p78)
  • Existentialism: Ut is up to each individual to create her own meaning and values in life by engaging in the world, by pushing back against oppressions that threaten to limit our possibilities and by getting out there and doing things—not just contemplating what you might do. (How to Be Authentic, Skye Cleary, xii)
  • Absurdism: There is no intrinsic meaning, but we crave meaning anyway. We must face this absurdity by constantly keeping it in front of us and acting against it, living life to the fullest. (The Myth of Sysiphus, Albert Camus, throughout)
  • Pragmatism: What works is more important than what accurately reflects a complex, incomprehensible reality (How to Live a Good Life, p245 and following)
  • Effective Altruism: We should dedicate at least some of our resources to making the world a better place and ensure these resources get put to the best uses they can. (How to Live a Good Life, p256)
  • The Satanic Temple: “The mission of The Satanic Temple is to encourage benevolence and empathy, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense, oppose injustice, and undertake noble pursuits.” (The Satanic Temple website)

Even the teachings of Jesus could be included here if you ignore 2000 years of religious cruft. In his book Jesus for the Non-Religious (which I haven’t read), John Shelby Spong describes Jesus as breaking tribal and religious boundaries and prejudices.

Starting to Get Started

As you’re coming out of religion, wondering what to do, it may be worth learning about various philosophies of life. Here are a couple caveats to bear in mind:

  • You are not behind! You’re not starting from scratch.
  • There’s no race to some finish line. This is about your life, so you can take the necessary time.
  • None of the philosophies are perfect. They all have limitations.
  • They are not one-size-fits-all. You will build your own philosophy of life anyway, and it may be cobbled together from multiple. My philosophy is a strong dose of Stoicism, plus a good helping of Christianity, Epicureanism, Buddhism, and Skepticism.
  • Learn to distinguish life-hack from a life philosophy. We’ll get more into this over time.


Jump in where you are!

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Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.

Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, 7.56.

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

Fellowship of the Ring, p43

You Are Not Behind! Jump in where you are!


Last week I talked about the fact that you have it within yourself to grow your character the way you want. Once you have accepted this, what comes next?

One of the things that overwhelmed me at the beginning of my deconstruction was the fact that so many years had gone by. Wasted. I felt like I was starting from scratch, having misspent my adolescence and adult life so far.

As I was deconstructing, I was exposed early to the philosophy of Stoicism. The Marcus Aurelius quotation above was one of the most helpful things that came up during my initial exposure.

The sunk cost fallacy is the idea that time or other resources already spent should not matter when it comes to decision-making. The fact that time has gone and you cannot get it back means there’s nothing you can do about it. In turn, those facts should not be used when making decisions.

A classic example is standing in line: say you’ve been in line for an hour. Sunk cost fallacy says you should keep staying in line.. you don’t want to “waste” the hour you’ve spent. But whether you stay in line or not, that hour is gone. The sunk cost fallacy leads to bad decision making.

If you can get out of line and achieve what you want even faster, that’s what you should do. It’s better to think, “Starting from here and now, what do I have to spend to achieve what I want?” as if you hadn’t spent anything at all yet.

This is a powerful idea to understand. Let’s apply it to our lives.

Marcus is doing what cognitive behavioral therapists call reframing: he’s choosing a helpful new way to view his current situation. All his life so far is sunk, and he can’t get it back. The decisions have been made and are set in stone.

The TV show “Alone” involves people being dropped into a survival situation with limited tools. It doesn’t do them much good to complain about all the tools they don’t have. Instead, what’s important is to figure out what to do with what they have right now.

Frodo wishes he wasn’t in the situation he was in. Gandalf wisely points out that he doesn’t get that choice, but he does get to decide what to do next.

When I look at my life as if it’s a series of successive moments, one event happening after another, I’m free to look at the past as history. It becomes something I can learn from instead of something that has to keep affecting my present life. The past becomes a kind of property, a thing I have–maybe even a thing I was given–rather than a thing I am. I can’t change the past, but I can make decisions that affect my future.

So as you go forward into the rest of your life, working on character, friendships, and all the things that go into a well-lived life, start with this: Begin again.

You Can Help Yourself

Blog Posts, Post Theism

It’s easy to see that we all have things we wish were different about ourselves. The hard part is figuring out what to do about it. One option is to do what we were raised to do: pray and read the Bible. But most of us no longer believe those things work since they are fake effort.

So what do we do? Let’s start with a simple idea:

You can help yourself.

You have it within you to do the work required to improve your character. It was there all along. After all, whenever you found yourself doing better as a Christian, you were doing the work.

You have the resources you need. You have the intelligence and wisdom to embark on whatever program will work for you, whether it involves reading, therapy, philosophy, or whatever.

The work may be challenging, and it will take time, but you have what you need to get started; you always did.

Over the next several posts, I would like to share some of what I’ve learned about growing in character after Christianity. But the most important thing to remember is: You don’t need me. You need yourself. I don’t know you in all the ways you can know yourself, and you are the best person for this job.

Useful Terms and “Stupid” Questions

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What is “cognitive bias”? What’s the difference between “deconstruction” and “deconversion”?

Deconstruction has been a “thing” on the internet for several years. Joining a movement after it starts might mean there are terms people use all the time without explaining. Moreover, you may feel that asking what they mean will make you look stupid.

I want to try to define a few terms. These definitions may be incorrect in important ways, but they should be less wrong than not knowing. Knowing them may also get you a meaningful part of the way to fuller understanding.

Here goes!


When I use deconstruction, I mean “digging into the hard questions about your worldview AND being willing to consider doing something different based on your answers.” It doesn’t necessarily result in a complete loss of faith, but it usually does result in some significant change in your beliefs.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the word used in a circumstance where somebody became more rigid or conservative. (If you have, please let me know in the comments.)

I have heard it used in place of deconversion. I’m guessing that this mainly has to do with the speed of conversation rather than using a precise definition.


This one is easier to define. It’s a loss of your current faith. Even if lose your faith, you could consider other religions or spiritual paths, not necessarily becoming an atheist or agnostic.

It can happen after a prolonged deconstruction or more quickly after something “clicks,” depending on the person and circumstances.

Cognitive Bias

This term doesn’t show up often, but you may hear the phrase, “confirmation bias.” This is a kind of cognitive bias.

A cognitive bias is a structural flaw in human reason. It has to do with how people think about certain things. Some examples are seeking evidence that supports our beliefs (confirmation bias), seeking evidence that refutes other people’s beliefs (disconfirmation bias), focusing on negative things (negativity bias), assuming that someone’s character is exemplified by a single action (fundamental attribution error), etc.

This is different from liberal or conservative biases, which have more to do with seeing things through our own worldview. Related, but worth keeping distinct.

The important thing is that it’s common to all humans. Super-smart, rational humans are prone to cognitive biases, just like the rest of us. We all have to fight them. Constant vigilance!


You also don’t hear this term often, but you may if you pay attention to counter-apologetics.

A fallacy is a flaw in an argument. For example, saying an argument is wrong because of where the proponent came from or who they are (genetic fallacy) or saying your argument gets to play by special rules that other arguments don’t (special pleading).

It’s definitely helpful to be familiar with the shapes of these fallacies.

“Stupid questions”

No definition… I want to point out that one of the joys of deconstructing is the pursuit of knowledge; knowledge that was once limited or forbidden. In fact, the even greater joy is the pursuit of knowledge in general, which is one of the most human things we can do.

As a result, it’s worth considering: Is sounding stupid for a moment worth cutting yourself off from these joys?

Suppose you ask “obvious” questions. In reality, you usually don’t sound stupid but curious. And you may do others the service of getting answers to these questions. Win-win!

A whole world of terms exist that I haven’t pursued myself–mostly around sexuality, race, and other topics of the day. I don’t know if it’s because I’m scared to ask or I’m afraid to know the answers.

Are there questions you’re afraid to ask? What other terms may be useful to define?


  • RationalWiki on Logical Fallacy—The tone of RationalWiki is less gracious than I’m going for, but it’s a helpful resource
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman—One of the most important popular works on cognitive biases. It’s also relatively easy to read.
  • The Scout Mindset, by Julia Galef—A very easy and practical introduction into how cognitive biases show up, and what to do about them.
  • Deconversion—A resource on this site that David has put together.

Doubt Is a Superpower

Blog Posts, doubt, skepticism

Christians would like us to believe that doubt and skepticism are dangerous. But they’re superpowers, ways of making you a better human, not a worse one.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve talked about doubtfundamentalism, and problems using words. I want to tie it together and talk about why doubt is safer, healthier, and better for your teeth (two truths and a lie).

I have two main reasons for saying a posture of doubt should be preferred: the limitations of explanations and the fallibility of human reasoning.

Limitations of explanations

One of my mottos is, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” (George Box). You might easily say, “All explanations are wrong,” but what does this mean?

An explanation is an attempt to describe something about the world in a way you can make sense of, even though the real world is overwhelmingly complex and impossible to understand fully.

The problem is that explanations have to simplify the world, which means you lose something in the process, making it “wrong” somehow. At the same time, we can’t live without these simplifications.

Communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson and the late Carl Sagan face this tension in their presentation of science.

This tension even shows up in how we interact with others. How can you truly, deeply know someone when they’re constantly changing, growing, and aging? The best you can do is have a working model of who they are and continuously update it as time passes.

What to do?

Flaws in human reasoning

The more we learn about cognitive biases, prejudice, and the unreliability of memory, the more we should be suspicious of all human reasoning, especially our own. (Philosophers call this dynamic “Fallibilism.”)

And yet we find ourselves in a world where the pressure is on us to be overly confident. If we express uncertainty, people see us as fence-sitters, cowards unwilling to commit. Christianity taught us to have and crave certainty, especially about the most important issues.

What to do?

Tying it together

This is where skepticism comes in. If you hold an appropriately skeptical attitude, you can recognize the limits of explanations and human reasoning and allow yourself to take in new information. Being skeptical doesn’t mean you disbelieve everything you hear. Rather, it raises your standard of evidence. People don’t get to claim something is true without something to back it up. People don’t get to demand that you form an opinion when you’re not ready to.

So embrace skepticism! Embrace uncertainty! It’s part of being a clearer thinker.


Doing Better: The Problem of Words

Agnosticism, Atheism, Blog Posts

Should I have called last week’s blog post No More Fundamentalism, picked a different term, or unpacked it a bit?

I want to draw out one (of many) difficulties with words: The tensions between…

  • correctness and convenience,
  • writing something technically correct and writing something people will read,
  • having a genuine and thorough conversation and having a conversation people will actually participate in till the end.

Imagine the following two blog titles:

  • No More Attitudes Toward Knowledge That Allow for Areas of Belief That Are Untouchable and Therefore Leave Certain Areas of Knowledge Permanently Unfixable: A Manifesto for Myself
  • No More Fundamentalism: A Manifesto for Myself

I’m overstating the difference, but the tension should be obvious. On one end of the spectrum, there’s a simple, concise title that may make the wrong impression. On the other end, there’s possibly getting things so technically correct that nobody reads the whole thing.

The tension is real.

A reader rightly commented on my recent blog post that using terms like Fundamentalism can be problematic. There’s a real risk that if we label something “fundamentalist,” we take the emotion we feel for our former religion and transfer it onto that thing. And when that happens, we give ourselves permission to dismiss it. We halt rational thought we could have had. This is both dishonest and stops growth.

At the same time, I’m not sure what else to call it–especially in a post I’d like people to read. See the trouble?

This tension shows up in another place: Do you call yourself an atheist? Agnostic? Or do you avoid labels altogether?

So what to do? Here’s a list of ideas:

  • Embrace the work. Religion allows us to get away with sloppy thinking about complex issues. This can lead to harm and we have an opportunity to do better.
  • When in a conversation with someone, consider working with them to define terms. What is a “fundamentalist” to your interlocutor? If you’re writing, consider the word itself: Is “fundamentalism” too problematic to use?
  • Consider skipping the words or labels altogether. Maybe it’s better to not even use the word “fundamentalist” but instead use the words describing what you mean by it.

If anybody asked, I used the term “fundamentalist” in the previous post mainly because I didn’t think through the implications (oops!). On review, I’m still OK with the word, though I see the potential for misuse. I’m leaving it up to you, the reader, to learn with me as I’m on this journey out of Christian Fundamentalism–a way of thinking that has core tenets, assumed 100% correct and therefore, untouchable.


Top-right image: “Yellow Tree – Daily Tree day 2” by fireytika is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.

No More Fundamentalism, a manifesto for myself

Blog Posts, Humanism, Secular Grace

This is a manifesto, mostly written for myself, but perhaps it may help you.

The temptation is strong. Fight it!

Coming out of Christian fundamentalism, there is a temptation to jump right to the next fundamentalism. Angry Atheist is the first one that springs to mind, but there are others. Once you are used to having a community that tells you what to think, it is difficult to move away from that and do more of the thinking for yourself.

And that’s the thing. You have to think for yourself, or you may end up committing to yet another ideology that betrays you.

You don’t have to fight Christianity; it doesn’t need to be a war.

No idea is untouchable

Avoid living in a way where some rules or ideas are untouchable. You do or believe things because the group says you do them, but you haven’t dug into exactly why these things are done or believed.

Be curious. Seek to understand. Follow your doubts. Doubt your doubts. But do it all rationally.

Think for yourself as much as you can

Avoid the temptation to follow a group because it’s easier than figuring things out on your own.

Do learn and process things in a community–where you can–but be mindful about it.

People are more important than ideas

Learn to connect to your fellow humans for their own sake. Everyone has a story, some might even share with you. Everyone can benefit from a listening ear. People aren’t “projects and objects.” They’re people (hat tip to Matt, in his episode). People from your former faith are still people, our fellow humans.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. In short: I don’t want to go back to being a fundamentalist.

What Even Is Doubt?

Blog Posts, doubt

We talk about doubt a lot, but what is it? Is it good or bad? Helpful or harmful?

First, “doubt” is almost entirely in relation to religion. Geoffrey Wallis made the point that once you’re out of religion, “doubt” is just a kind of curiosity. Meh. No big deal.

But religious people see doubt as an unfortunate—but inevitable—occurrence; the sort of thing you should expect to happen every so often, but not a place you want to stay for very long. It’s like having “the talk,” or buying insurance. “We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike.” – James KA Smith, quoting Paul Elie, in How (not) to Be Secular, p11.

I see doubt as a kind of confusion or curiosity about some conflict between beliefs you hold. Another way of putting it is, “that feeling when you have cognitive dissonance.” As David puts it, “Something doesn’t quite feel right.” It’s a check-engine light.

Is this confusion or curiosity bad? It depends: Do you want to resolve your inner conflict toward finding out what’s really real? Or do you want to defend a position you already hold? Do you want to be a Scout or a Soldier?

So when someone tells us to doubt our doubts, one way of interpreting that is, “Are you confused by conflicting beliefs you hold? You should second-guess that confusion and definitely not investigate.”

Doubt is only bad if you’re committed to a particular way of thinking. Otherwise, it’s just an indication it’s time to dig further–an opportunity to learn and grow and possibly get better!

Double Down and Doubt Your Doubts! A Double Standard

Blog Posts, doubt

Being told to doubt your doubts sets up a double standard, and you don’t have to play along.

A recent commenter in our Facebook group described how they were starting to question their motives in deconstructing their Christianity. What stood out to me was the insight that it might be “the old evangelical self-reproach” at play.

Have you been told (exhorted) to “doubt your doubts”? I have.

I’ve read it in books. I’ve been told it by former pastors. I’ve been encouraged to do it by friends.

First, doubting your doubts works to keep you in Christianity because of the white, Evanglical, God-shaped hole in our hearts that was drummed into many of us through constant teaching, singing, punishment, and other forms of reinforcement.

Doubting your doubts only works because of that hole. Feeling like you should doubt your doubts probably happens because of that hole.

Second, are the people telling you to do this actually willing to doubt their own beliefs? To lean into their doubts? I…er, um…doubt it. They’re setting up a double standard.

So by all means, doubt your doubts! Or, even better, examine why you used to believe, why you no longer believe, and why you believe what you do now. But also–as soon as it’s safe for you to do so–examine the claims of Christianity, why Christians believe what they believe, what evidence that they have.

This is the path of radical self-honesty, and the path of clear and rational thinking, and self-honesty and rational thinking are part of secular grace.

But whatever you do, don’t give your former religion the privileged place it wants to claim. It can have a seat at the table (in fact, it may show up uninvited!), but the only privilege it has is the privilege of that X-shaped hole in your heart, which isn’t something you asked for anyway.


PS – I’m sounding a bit polemical lately. Maybe just grumpy? My real goal is to encourage those who are hurting, confused, grieving, and perhaps even being accosted by loved ones and acquaintances. Including myself! Eventually it should fade a bit, and your response to apologetics will hopefully be, “meh.”

Praying is Pretending to Do Something

Blog Posts

Did you know that elevator buttons usually don’t do anything? Yes. They are actually programmed to do nothing while you’re hammering on them, willing the doors to close, dadgummit.

Then why do elevators have them? Mainly to give you a sense that you have some influence over your situation–to make you feel like you can do something. I heard once that ATMs make their whirring noises to keep people from kicking them to make sure they’re doing something, though that may or may not be true.

Elevator buttons and ATM noises are about you, not about elevators or ATMs.

Why am I talking about all this?

Many of us were raised to pray for everything. When you pray, you feel like you’re accomplishing something.

  • When someone says they have cancer, saying, “I’ll pray for you,” gives you a warm feeling of helpfulness.
  • When you hear news of a school being attacked by some terrorist, praying gives you a sense that you’re fighting back against an evil world.
  • When you have an anger problem, parying about it makes you feel like you’re solving your anger problem.

But prayer isn’t helping someone with cancer, making the world a better place or solving your character flaws.

It merely makes you feel like you’re doing those things. It’s fake effort.

Cue Captain Obvious: Life is hard, and having a “thing we can do” in the face of overwhelming complexity may help us cope. So, like elevator buttons, prayer is about us.

At its best, prayer can help us work through our thoughts. But at its worst, it can make us feel like we’re doing something while keeping us from actually doing something.

What other kinds of fake effort are there? Many of us were raised to feel guilty for things. But feeling guilty isn’t undoing the past; it isn’t solving our problems and it isn’t making things right. It’s fake effort.

Like elevator buttons, guilt is about us. At its best, it may motivate us to get up and do something different.

But at its worst, guilt accomplishes nothing and harms yourself in the process.

So, beware fake effort! Don’t forget the real goals you’re going toward and do the work.

– Jimmy

PS – If you want a real mind-trip, look up “moral licensing.” All this fake effort plays right into it.