Arts & Culture » Book Review

All the virtues of religion, minus the ‘religion’ part

In Grace Without God, local author Katherine Ozment searches for a meaningful life that doesn’t require theism.



While peering out the window at a procession of Greek Orthodox faithful on Good Friday, Katherine Ozment's eight-year-old son wanted to know why their family didn't partake in the ritual. He learned from his mother that the reason was because they weren't Greek Orthodox. "Then what are we?" he asked. Ozment, a former senior editor at National Geographic, was stumped. She tried answering her son's question and fumbled royally. "We're nothing," Ozment told her child. She immediately sensed his disappointment.

After that, Ozment spent five years researching the growing phenomenon of the "Nones"—the Pew Foundation's term for religiously unaffiliated Americans, who jumped from 16 percent of the population in 2007 to nearly 25 percent in 2015. The inquiry resulted in her first book, Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age. Ozment's writing is supple and accessible; critical to the book's success is the author's ability to segue between two stories—her enlightening journey with the Nones, and the wondrous moments of her family life. By the time she began conducting research for Grace Without God, Ozment had long since ceased to subscribe to any religion. Still, she was of the view that "parents who don't want their kids to profess a creed and pledge allegiance to a faith tradition have to thoughtfully create meaning themselves." She now wanted to know more about how similarly inclined Americans were doing just that.

Ozment, formerly Presbyterian, didn't abandon Christianity owing to any fundamental disagreement with its teachings, but strayed from the faith gradually for reasons unclear even to her. (Her husband Michael similarly shed his Judaism, as opposed to breaking with it.) At some point, the author realized she didn't believe in God. Yet in addition to still finding hints of the numinous in certain religious ceremonies, Ozment wistfully recalls the sense of meaning and community the faith-based congregations of her upbringing provided.

In other words, this isn't the story of a woman looking for an alternative to traditional religion because she has a beef with it. If anything, Ozment has often felt drawn to groups that share core values with the Christian congregations of her past. Although the author dislikes certain aspects of religion, particularly its "tribalism," she nevertheless retains a rosy view of its potential for edification, which she expresses in somewhat muddled language: "The practice of religion itself has as its bedrock the kind treatment of others, at least in principle if not always in practice." Yet Ozment wanted to find groups whose outlooks are not structured around belief in a deity or deities.

The voyage she embarked on took her from university professors' cluttered offices in Boston to San Francisco's countercultural Glide Memorial Church—which famously, or infamously, removed the cross from its sanctuary—and many points in between. Much of what she encountered was an attempt to retain or tweak the values, ceremonies, and rituals of a religion while redefining its dogma—or even dispensing with it entirely. The faith in question needn't be Christian. For example, at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, Stephen Batchelor, a former Buddhist monk, presents one with a form of Buddhism shorn of all mystical elements, such as karma and reincarnation, which he claims are later accretions to the Buddha's teachings. Other outfits profiled here range from support groups to atheists' circles. In Chicago, Ozment met with Jim Lasko, coartistic director of Redmoon, the now-defunct theater company that sought to encourage a sense of community by bringing art to public spaces.

This investigation gives Grace Without God its momentum while the insights of social scientists add depth. "Can there be a church of the Nones?" muses public policy professor Robert Putnam, one of several Harvard academics interviewed by the author. Then, alluding to the fact that the staying power of groups that form around secular alternatives to religion isn't guaranteed, he answers his own question: "We won't know for another three hundred years."

In the meantime, there are some unsettling issues to consider. Ever one to ponder the consequences of social transformation, Ozment laments what a large portion of American society is losing as a byproduct of its move away from religion. Younger people's lack of familiarity with the Bible, which has exerted a profound influence throughout Western history, can be remedied through secular education. Unfortunately, to avoid controversy and charges of proselytism, teachers at public schools across the country often shy away from acquainting their students with the subject.

Ozment also considers the effect of receding piety on common national values and narratives. Of course, Americans have long been a religiously diverse bunch, but within most religions on the American scene adherents have shared similar conceptions of life—and, often, an afterlife. Now, not only are Americans straying from traditional religions, but they aren't necessarily all gravitating toward the newer ones Ozment discusses in this book. Many of the Nones seem to have given up on religion altogether. "How do we form a story of us," the author asks, "if we are averse to joining not just religious institutions but all institutions?"

Ultimately, the specific choices Ozment and her family made, while often interesting, matter little in the grand scheme of things. Her intellectual curiosity and diligent research led her beyond the confines of her domestic life and into religious meeting halls, spiritual retreats, and atheists' gatherings across the country. This ensures that Grace Without God doesn't merely evoke the early-21st-century "Nones-on-the-rise" American Zeitgeist, but dives right into it.  v

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