Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and a contributing columnist for USA Today. He is the author of the brand-new book Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower (Convergent 2016). He will give a talk at the Washington Ethical Society on Tuesday night, October 4, on what he calls “The New (But Uncertain) Secular Moment”—and his surprising approach to filling the potential vacuum of meaning and inspiration in secular America. More information on the event is available on the Washington Ethical Society website.
In the following Q&A, Krattennmaker discusses his talk, his new book, and the larger themes to which they connect.
In your talk Tuesday night, you’re talking about the “new secular moment.” What is this moment?
I think it’s a heady moment. According to the latest data, the so-called “nones”—people with no religious affiliation—have risen rapidly as a percentage of the population, to the point where we are one-quarter of all Americans. The figure is significantly higher among millennials, suggesting this percentage will only keep growing in the coming years. The nonreligious demographic has not had these kind of numbers—and the clout that could presumably go with them—at any time in recent history.
But it’s also an uncertain moment. The nonreligious have nowhere near the political impact you’d expect from such a large and growing demographic group. The secular world also has a long way to go toward offering a positive articulation of nonreligious life and nonreligious community. As we say at the Yale Humanist Community, there’s more to being nonreligious than what you don’t believe. OK, so what is it that seculars do believe? What are we for, and how can we make a positive impact on our communities and world? What will be our governing body of ethics, and how we will implement it in our lives and our engagement with social issues?
We are making progress but we still have a way to go in answering those important questions.
As you spell out in your new book, you have a source of inspiration and input that will probably surprise people given your location on the theological spectrum—the figure of Jesus. Why would a secular person follow Jesus? Isn’t that for Christians?
I agree it might seem odd at first glance. But I’m hoping that when people hear me out, they’ll understand that this practice of following Jesus, even as a secular person, is not only eminently do-able, but enriching—enriching for our individuals lives and the communities we are part of. I’m not one to say that the figure of Jesus is the only place we can look for wisdom and insight—there are many!—but, to me, Jesus’s body of work is the most profound and inspiring. And I find it amazingly applicable to so much of what’s going on today.
As to the legality or appropriateness of this, I have an obnoxiously pragmatic answer. There is literally no one or nothing that can stop a secular person from following Jesus. And given how positive and transformative this can be, why would anyone want to?
What draws you to these subjects as a writer and citizen?
These subjects are inherently fascinating. And they’re vitally important to wrestle with as our society tries to come to grips with the profound changes we are undergoing. The respected writer Phyllis Tickle has written that the seismic shift happening right now in the Western world is the most profound we’ve gone through since the Reformation 500 years ago. I, for one, think she’s probably right.
A big part of that shift is the receding of religion. This has been most pronounced in Europe, of course, but we are seeing it happen now in the U.S. as well. This is not something I celebrate even though I’m a nonreligious person myself. Much is lost to society as religion recedes. What’s going to take its place?
I’m struck by what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sees in this. He’s the former chief rabbi in the U.K. and winner of the Templeton Prize. When he gave his acceptance speech at the awards ceremony—this was just a few months ago—he talked about how civilizations begin to fade when they lose the “moral passion that brought them into being in the first place.” One sign of this decline, he said, is the loss of faith in old beliefs and no new vision to take their place.
You can see how this applies to our cultural moment. I think the secular community has a job to do to make sure something good—something compassionate, humane, and life-enhancing—fills in where religion has receded.