David E. Cortesi - Secular Wholeness

I'm not at the 'right' point in my life to give this book the degree of praise that it would warrant for some at other places along their life's journey. The book, in my opinion at least, serves two primary audiences. One audience would be those about to give up on religion, or who have just recently moved beyond a religious tradition, and are now seeking some sort of confirmation that life outside the only box they've known (religion) is not as horrible and hallow as their religion described the secular world. (In Mormonism, for instance, members are told to avoid being 'of the world.' That doesn't seem to stop Mormons from becoming consumption junkies, however.) The other audience that Cortesi seems to be aiming at is the non-religious person seeking a self-help book. I imagine there are even fewer in that crowd.

Self-help topics covered from a secular viewpoint include:

If you've been a secular humanist for a while then you probably have already incorporated Cortesi's suggestions and insights into your life quite naturally and without the need for a self help book. There probably isn't anything here that will come as a shock or revelation if you've been around the block a few times. However, as mentioned above, this book may be of significant value to the new kids on the block.

I have to agree with Cortesi that a secular life expands and enhances the richness that life has to offer. Although he doesn't spend much time critiquing or contrasting a secular life with a religious one, the few thoughts he does offer on the subject are well put. For instance, the diminished role that mental gymnastics has to play when viewing the natural world from a secular viewpoint provides a greater peace of mind and sense of reasonableness to the world. On this thought I'll close my review with a quote from page 18.

If, as some people like to say, "everything happens for a purpose"--some very uncomfortable conclusions have to follow. For one, we would have to acknowledge that the same plan that produces splendid specimens like us also mandates children with Down Syndrome, spina bifida, and neonatal cancers, to mention only three of many tragic possibilities. And, in order to give some people their natures, the plan requires that their formative experiences should include disaster, privation, and physical and emotional abuse.

It seems to me that this idea alone is a good deal less comfortable to live with than existential dread. I would much rather think that things like birth defects, diseases, and child abuse are the outcome of contingent circumstances, than think that some supernatural being plans [or allows] them.

from the publisher:
Some of the smartest people in America are unmoved by conventional religions, but they need not do without the comforts that believers draw from their creeds. So claims David Cortesi, who applied professional research skills and the rigorous logic of a computer programmer to a search for rational, secular sources for the benefits of religious belief. The result, a “sourcebook for skeptical seekers” is Secular Wholeness: A Skeptic’s Paths to a Richer Life.

“I’ve always been a skeptic and rationalist,” says Cortesi, “which puts me in good company as so are two-thirds of American scientists, by a recent survey. Yet I’ve known many devout believers, not least my late parents, and it’s plain that a genuine religious practice confers benefits. I set out to show that those same benefits are not uniquely religious, but are accessible to anyone, whether they find religious stories convincing or not.”

Some of the benefits usually found in a religious practice, but shown in Secular Wholeness to also have natural sources, include:
- Existential validity, the sense of belonging in the world, a special challenge for rationalists because it means coming to terms with being a “mere accident” rather than an intentional creation.
- Community: the religious devotee is automatically a member of a supportive group, while the skeptic, for his or her own longevity and happiness, has to create one.
- Ethics: “Some American writers have said flatly that you can’t be a moral person without religion, which is just nonsense,” asserts Cortesi. But creating and justifying a personal code, let alone living up to it, is not simple.
- Facing death: a clear-eyed appreciation of death neutralizes fear. The book shows how we can prepare to comfort the bereaved and serve the dying, and it urges readers to prepare to leave a legacy of serenity and love to their survivors.

Additional chapters include essays on meditation, on the value and pursuit of mystic experience, on constructing meaningful family rituals, and on what science knows about happiness. The book offers an extensive bibliography, end notes, and indexes.

“The examined life is never easy,” the author says. “A devout person’s religious practice occupies a big slice of life, and a secular life practice, to produce equivalent security, contentment, and health, needs as much. But the benefits are there for the taking.”