Living without God

Here’s an interesting new book: Ronald Aronson’s Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided.

It’s not a book that argues against the gods. Instead, Aronson writes for the reader who is already skeptical, but who is affected by the loss of confidence in secular politics and life stances that characterizes our time. He wants to start a conversation about where we can go and what we can do when we (secular people) can no longer subscribe to the myth of Progress or that somehow we are on the cutting edge of history.

The strongest part of the book is the first couple of chapters, where Aronson has a compelling description of the problems secular thought encounters today, where the notion of progress has become much more elusive.

Given the eclipse of progress, secularists are today faced with a task more daunting than that of attacking religion: the need to develop meaningful secular worldviews that are no longer explicitly or implicitly tied to the belief in human and societal advancement. (p. 40)

This is correct. I somewhat resist this concern; after all, whether we can construct satisfying or “meaningful” worldviews has little to do with whether supernatural claims are correct, and that is what interests me the most. I don’t even like the idea of caring about “meaning” too much—it strikes me as a distraction. Nonetheless, if nonbelief is to have any significance outside of an academic ghetto, the ethical, and more broadly speaking, political aspects of nonbelief have to do the heavy lifting.

Aronson sketches out the directions he thinks are promising. He starts with a discussion of gratitude, which I don’t find convincing. He addresses ethical and political matters, where I tend to agree with his sensibilities, but I am doubtful about whether the notion of responsibility can carry as much weight as Aronson wants it to do. I also wonder how readers who are not quite as politically leftish as Aronson and I would respond. He also talks about cultivating the right attitudes to appreciate knowledge, about which I can’t have many complaints. He rounds it all up with a couple of chapters on “Dying without God” and “Hope.”

In the end, I found myself wondering whether Aronson was really reintroducing an attenuated version of progress. Perhaps it is not so easy to be a secularist without some notion of worldly progress, however uncertain. That doesn’t mean progress is a reasonable hope; I also find myself drawn toward more perhaps nihilist views such as John Gray’s Straw Dogs. I don’t know if I have much I can contribute to answering such questions, but they’re interesting.

I recommend the book, not because I expect it to be convincing to everyone, but because it clearly makes the case for an interesting kind of conversation, and gives his side of it.