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Author, speaker, columnist HEMANT MEHTA

During a 2018 interview, David Letterman asked Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai if she thought she had a purpose in life. Given that she had nearly been killed by the Taliban when she was younger, Letterman explained, surely she thought her survival was part of some “higher force at work.”

After pausing for a bit, Yousafzai admitted that possibility existed, but she went on to say she had given herself a purpose in life: 

“I decided that I’ll give this life to girls’ education, and speak out for them, and give it purpose. Because we have to die one day, and so why not do good and do as much as we can to help others?”

While she reiterated that she was still a Muslim, her response was also a textbook explanation of what it means to be secular.

Being secular often requires recalibrating your life so that the supernatural is taken out of the picture. Just consider the questions we all grapple with when we consider our own existence and mortality: What happens after we die? Why are we here? Is anyone watching over us? We’re so used to giving religious answers to those questions that, when we finally realize God doesn’t exist, we have to rethink our answers to the biggest philosophical questions.

While Yousafzai reiterated that she was still a Muslim, her response was also a textbook explanation of what it means to be secular.

And yet the answers most non-religious Americans have put forth—through their actions, not just through their words—go against the stereotype that you need God to be good. 

Consider the question of purpose. Can we actually give ourselves meaning? Absolutely. Once we understand we’re not living for a reward in the afterlife, it’s hardly a leap to simply make the most of this life — for ourselves, our families, and our communities. That means helping others when we can, volunteering our time, giving to charity, and just spreading good cheer. A life without God is far from nihilistic.

Some theologians like to point to the flip side of this idea. Isn’t it possible that atheists, who believe there’s no Hell awaiting them, could spend their lives causing misery? 

Sure it is. Yet even without the safety net of Hell that religion has always relied on, Secular Americans overwhelmingly support “moral” causes, whether it’s fighting for civil rights, defending bodily autonomy, helping refugees and the poor, promoting education, or condemning bigotry in all forms.

Being secular isn’t just about doing good. It’s about doing good for the right reasons. Not because we’re trying to impress God or secure a future spot in Heaven, but because we believe there’s no higher calling than leaving a positive legacy for the future. 

It’s not that godlessness requires us to go down that path. But this is how it has played out for centuries. Our world is a better place because secular people have left an indelible footprint.

Author, playwright, director SIKIVU HUTCHINSON

I came to feminism and secularism as a “baby” atheist growing up in South Los Angeles. My first pangs of unapologetic godlessness were in Catholic school. Sitting in dreary religion classes run by sanctimonious white male teachers made me despise the Bible, its moral hypocrisies, and its violent woman-hating language. It was inane to me that a centuries-old “good book” could dictate that I remain silent, bow down to patriarchs, step back as a chattel, and view my body as an impure vessel of original sin redeemable only through self-sacrifice and submission to a male deity. It was madness that these atrocities could be justified by the unquestioned moral righteousness of a Christian tradition that condoned slavery, rape, and homophobia. The “beauty” and majesty of the good book, and the omnipotent god at the cosmic switch of the universe, were a patent lie in the face of all the suffering and inequality I saw right in front of me. So, while some were able to compartmentalize these fascistic tenets, cherry-pick the good stuff ad nauseam, and divorce the bad stuff from “God,” I decided that it didn’t make sense to give the Bible—nor any so-called holy book that gave supernatural beings dominion over “mere” earthlings—a pass.

Why not cut out the theological claptrap and chuck gods altogether? Why not concede that the crazy quilt of theistic belief systems, creeds, and dogmas that sprawl across cultures and nations was a far greater testament to human artfulness than godly omniscience? As a twelve year- old, accustomed to hearing about how that conniving temptress Eve screwed up folks’ residence in the Garden of Eden, it was clear to me that much of the policing of femininity that I and other girls encountered had a strong basis in Christian religious dogma. From the moment we’re assigned the female gender at birth, girls’ sexuality is a commodity, an object, an asset, and a “liability” to be marketed, bought, sold, and controlled in a birth-to-death cycle in which girls and women are straight-jacketed by a litany of dos and (mostly) don’ts. Don’t sit this way, walk this way, talk this way, dress this way. Don’t go there, hang out with them, drink, smoke, act like a bitch, act like a ho, act like a dude, get yourself raped or knocked up. And when you get older, supposedly beyond the regime of the sexualizing male gaze, don’t ever think you will be relevant, whether you have kids or not. At every stage, organized religion, through the language of a grindingly policing theism, is there to impose boundaries and limits. In this toxic climate of unrelenting white Christian nationalist assaults on civil rights and reproductive justice, I am happily not “blessed”, unchurched, and terminally heathen.

Adapted with permission from Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical, Pitchstone Books, 2020

Author, sociologist, professor of secular studies PHIL ZUCKERMAN

Steve is a long-time friend of my brother-in-law. Burly, ripped, and very blonde, he makes his living helping at-risk youth. He’s been a part of our family get-togethers for decades, and is like an uncle to my kids. 

A couple of years ago, his beloved beagle died. Steve was devastated. Then he heard about a “canine psychic” who can communicate with dead dogs that dwell in heaven. Steve paid him $500 to learn the wonderful news that his deceased beagle was doing well in the afterlife — and even sending his love.

When Steve told me about this, I was dumbstruck. Flabbergasted. Downright dwaddle-thubbed. I just couldn’t believe that 1) there’s actually a con-man out there who makes a living on such an obvious absurdity, and 2) that there are smart, thoughtful, and otherwise very normal people out there who would pay for such nonsense. 

Of course, I didn’t express these sharply skeptical sentiments to Steve. I try not to be an asshole. And after all, if he found comfort in the aftermath of his dog’s death by paying for such a pseudo service, what’s the harm? But did he really believe that his dog was existing in some eternal nether-realm, chewing cloud-bones, scratching heavenly fleas, and communicating through an earth-bound psychic? If so…um…what the fuck? 

Thus, we come to a main pillar of secularity: a raw, visceral, unfettered inability to believe the manifestly unbelievable. 

Throughout history, and all over the world today, the peerless mother of manifestly unbelievable claims is religion, with its array of miracles, curses, deities, gods, demons, heavens, hells, purgatories, djinn, spirits, witches, talking animals, resurrections, eternities, messiahs, prophecies, and so on, ad nauseam (truly). I am secular because I do not believe in such religious inanity, and I only believe extraordinary claims if they are based on extraordinary evidence. Even when I was told that I might have cancer; even when my wife was laying unconscious suffering from a stroke; even when my cousin was buried deep under a mudslide…I have never once believed that there is an all-powerful, magical being who lends a divine hand if one begs him with enough plaintive desperation. And even if such a religious belief were to provide me with a modicum of comfort—I just don’t buy it

Now, does religion do a lot of good in the world? Are there plenty of wonderful, moral religious people? Sure and you bet. But as for the supernatural beliefs that are at the core of religion — they leave me baffled. And when people devote their lives to such supernatural beliefs, I am dismayed. And when they rely on those supernatural beliefs to limit the rights of others, I am angered. And when they use those supernatural beliefs to justify violence, I am horrified. 

Steve’s beagle—like everything else that has ever lived—died. Why? I don’t know. 

Why are there dogs? I don’t know. 

Why are we here? I don’t know. 

What does it all mean? I (spoiler alert) don’t know. 

But there are many things I do know, such as: love feels good, lies sting, hunger is horrible, pine trees smell right, justice is desirable, suffering should be alleviated, and so forth. 

The time we have on this earth is, at root, mysterious. And acutely finite. And unavoidably bittersweet. To live the best we can amidst such knowledge—guided by reason and compassion, aided by humor and education, kept company by friends and family, committed to something beyond ourselves, and wholly unencumbered by religious sound and fury—that is what it means to be secular.

Sikivu Hutchinson is an American feminist, novelist, playwright, and director. She is the author of The Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic (2021), Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical...

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.

Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...