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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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.”
The other day at work, Brian tended to a woman who was so drunk that she was essentially unconscious; when she arrived at the ER, her pants and underwear were down below her knees and her body was covered in bruises. The day before that, a man came in with diabetes and advanced cancer—large tumors all over, including his liver and spine. The day before that, a man came in who had been shot by a shotgun at point-blank range; his left shoulder was gone, and his left lung was collapsed. The day before that, a woman came in who had been stabbed multiple times. Day in and day out, Brian helps and comforts people in literal life-and-death situations. “Just recently a woman came in—she had a history of ulcers and colitis. She came in with a perforated bowel—one of the ulcers in her colon ruptured . . . huge infection, lots of internal bleeding . . . and we said, ‘We’ve got to get you to the operating room immediately and we can save you. . . .’ And she said, ‘No, thank you.’ She was about fifty-five. Her sisters had come in, and they were just pleading with her to have the surgery. And she said, ‘No.’ So I watched this woman exercise her most profound right—the right to decide her own fate. She just kept saying, ‘I’ve had a good life. And up until recently it’s been really good. But now I am suffering. I don’t want to live like this. I’ve had a good life, and I am prepared to die.’ So I watched her die. And it wasn’t a pretty death. Her two sisters were in the room just bawling—really freaking out. And when she died, she just threw up tons of blood—all through her mouth—it was an ugly situation. Fecal matter, blood, the whole thing. And I cleaned her up, gave her sisters as much time as they needed, checked in with them frequently, told them they could have as much time with their dead sister as they wanted. That’s really intense, right? But I actually feel privileged to experience such things. It’s life. It’s death.”
Yes, and it’s really heavy. It’s got to take a toll. How does he keep at it? What keeps him going?
“It gives me real job satisfaction to have positive interactions with people day after day, and I love the amazing sense of teamwork that takes place when someone comes in and they are in real dire need of care—when it is a life-or-death situation—and we’re on it and we help them. It can be really heated and really intense, and you can’t take things personally at those times—but the interdependence is incredible, and it all comes together. And of course, it seems sort of obvious to say, but it feels really good just working with and helping people. Just helping people. The helping aspect. I enjoy that.”
What underlies Brian’s personal morality? What’s the source?
“I don’t know the exact answer to that, to be perfectly honest. But I look at the world through the lens of evolutionary biology. I got my degree in biology. And if you’re asking how I can be ethical—how we can have ethics without religion, or without it all being handed down by the word of God—from a natural selection viewpoint, we are social creatures, and in small communities, way back when, people needed to work together and contribute to the greater good, to the group, which was the key to survival.”
But if there is no God—no ultimate divine being that establishes morality—then how do we live according to a moral system?
“I would argue that the Golden Rule prevailed long before we decided that it came from a God. And for me, I just look at it in terms of our human evolution. If you take a group of humans living in a situation where they need to work together, need to band together in order to defend themselves from predators and find food and water and shelter, and you throw in the mix someone who tries to manipulate the system for his own good and rob or steal, I think, sure, he may thrive for a little while, but if suddenly more such people emerge and grow and now you have a community of people who are only inclined to rob and steal from one another, well, that community is going to fail. They’re not going to be able to get their food, water, and shelter. And they’re going to be preyed upon. So natural selection has selected for humans who believe ‘I’ll watch your back if you watch mine and I’ll do unto you as I want you to do unto me and if we don’t, we’re fucked.’ To me, that’s how human morality started and that’s what we’ve inherited. Being a moral person means not screwing over my fellow tribe members, because I wouldn’t want them to screw me over. It’s that simple. I don’t need to complicate the issue with the notion of a God.”
When Brian speculates about the natural, adaptive evolutionary underpinnings of human morality, he is in good company: a growing number of developmental psychologists, evolutionary biologists, historical anthropologists, and primatologists are discovering more and more evidence that bolsters just such a perspective. For example, Matt Ridley, in his book The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, shows how human trust, mutual aid, and ethical cooperation naturally evolved over time and that such primal instincts helped early humans survive, both as individuals and in groups. In his book Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, Frans de Waal similarly argues that primate morality, both among humans and our closest primate relatives, is indeed a naturally evolved trait, and that cooperation and humane behavior have been evolutionarily key to our success as a species. De Waal adds more depth in his latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, arguing that human morality does not come down to us from the heavens, but develops within us naturally as a product of evolution.
Additionally, Cristopher Boehm, in his book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame, asserts that while selfishness certainly has its evolutionary advantages, so too does cooperation. Boehm analyzes the evolutionary role of altruism, arguing that selflessness and mindfulness of others’ needs have most definitely played positive roles in the evolution of human thriving. Such research is mushrooming at the moment, and as scientists J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer sum up, this new research indicates that human morality developed as “an adaptive strategy handed down to us by natural selection.” For as psychology professor James Waller explains, since the small social group has been one of the few constants in our evolutionary history, that means that we “have evolved in the context of group living. . . . What are some of the psychological adaptations that enhance the fitness of individuals within a group . . . ? Love, friendship, cooperativeness, preferential and reciprocal altruism, nurturance, friendship, compassion, communication, a sense of fairness . . . in short, the things that hold society together.” For any social species, be it early humans or bonobos, the rewards of being part of a group that shares, cares, and looks out for one another generally outweigh the benefits of selfishness.
Excerpted from Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions by Phil Zuckerman. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Phil Zuckerman, 2014