Life is sad for us secular people. Foregoing church and other religious communities, we endure our drab and dreary days without hope, fellowship, joy, or meaning, without anything greater than our sorry selves and empty existences.
So goes the story often told about us.
Secular groups formed around shared interests represent a futile attempt to "reverse engineer" what we're supposed to get from church, contends The Week's Bonnie Kristian. "Church unites us in a shared purpose more meaningful than sports or board games and more comprehensive than volunteering or activism," Kristian writes. "It binds together community and significance.... Church fills a space in our lives that is meant to be filled."
The website for the School of Life, a global organization founded by the secular philosopher Alain de Botton, observes that post-religious societies lack interest
in what we can term transcendence: contact with eternal and grand phenomena in comparison with which our ordinary preoccupations can come to feel unimportant and redemptively insignificant in our own eyes. With the receding of religion there is in general nothing left to awe or relativize us. Our immediate difficulties and burdens, our conflicts and pains are, it seems, all there is--and so they loom ever larger and more desperately in our agitated minds. As goes religion, so goes transcendence, writes Christian theologian Carl R. Trueman in First Things. "For those who have abandoned belief in God, the quest for meaning has proved as chimerical as it has continual.... The quest for transcendence seems to be dying before our eyes."
Humanists shouldn't be shocked by the hand-wringing. Church gives meaning. God equals transcendence. These ideas have been ingrained in Western minds for centuries. We nonreligious people even encourage them to some degree, tending to bar from our vocabularies (and, often, our lives) religious-sounding concepts like "faith" and "transcendence."
We needn't shy away. We have "faith," of course, in that we trust our principles, the scientific process, and the capacity of our fellow human beings for decency, intelligence, and ingenuity.
Contrary to Trueman's false lament, we secular people experience transcendence. If we know where to look for it, that is. If we know how to describe it.
When we focus our eyes and minds, we can see the contours of a new vision of transcendence coming into view. We already intuit this vision, unarticulated though it remains; we already live it out in varying degrees.
"Transcendence" can be thought of as exceeding normal limits or "rising above" the mundane. It's...