A Nurse’s Case for Secular Morality

One man finds secular morality in the longstanding Golden Rule, which he argues prevailed long before we decided that it came from a God, drawing from an evolutionary necessity.

| February 2015

Back in the 1950s, fewer than 5 percent of Americans were nonreligious; today 30 percent of Americans have embraced secularism. With Living the Secular Life (Penguin Press, 2014) Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies, offers a thoughtful exploration of secular culture and how one lives a moral, connected and meaningful life without religion. The following excerpt from chapter one takes a look at how a nurse who has abandoned his Catholic upbringing makes finds moral direction.

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Good Without God

The findings of social science, when it comes to revealing the degree to which secular people can be moral without faith in God, are important—nay, essential. The survey data, statistical averages, and opinion polls summarized above provide concrete evidence concerning contemporary secular moral predilections and proclivities.

But in order to get a richer, deeper, and more personable sense of lived secular morality, I’d like to shift away from sociological averages and surveys and introduce you to two living, breathing individuals: Brian Mackelroy and Paula Hendricks. They are both ER nurses who spend their days caring for others in need. Their lives illustrate some profound truths and realities concerning the nature of secular morality.

I’ll begin with Brian, who works as an ER nurse at a hospital in one of Wisconsin’s larger cities. Brian is thirty-seven years old, married, and the father of twin boys. He was raised a Catholic but started having doubts about his faith in his late teens. And then, when he was twenty-one, he took a philosophy course on existentialism at the University of Wisconsin. At the heart of existentialism is the insistence that each individual, through her own consciousness, must create her own meaning in her life, and there is in fact no grand meaning to the world other than what we ourselves give to it. While it is certainly possible to be an existentialist and also a Christian believer, many people, like Brian, find existentialism to be inimical to traditional religion. “After reading this philosophy, I was, like, ‘Oh, wait a minute!’ ” he says, laughing. “I’ve been an agnostic with atheist leanings ever since.”

Brian’s loss of faith did not result in feelings of alienation or despondence—quite the opposite. “It was actually very liberating, losing my faith. It made me want to seize the day more.” And his sense of responsibility toward others only strengthened. “We are social creatures. We are interdependent. I think it is just part of our evolved human nature to want to be with each other and to help each other.”