Good Without God: Why “Non-Religious” Is the Fastest-Growing Preference in America

Authors Phil Goldberg and Greg Epstein share their provocative views on why a quarter of Americans now call themselves agnostic, atheist or nonreligious.

May 10, 2011 | Currently more than one billion people around the world define themselves as agnostic, atheist or nonreligious — including 15 percent of Americans. Perhaps more striking, “nonreligious” is not only the fastest growing religious preference in the U.S., but also the only one to increase its percentage in every state over the past generation.

Phil Goldberg and Greg Epstein have provocative perspectives on who these people are, what they believe, and how they arrived at their worldviews and their moral codes.

In February, 1968, the Beatles went to India for an extended stay with their new guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It may have been the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those 40 days in the wilderness.

With these words, interfaith minister Goldberg begins American Veda, his look at India’s impact on Western culture. From Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, succeeding generations absorbed India’s “science of consciousness,” and millions have come to accept and live by the central teaching of Vedic wisdom: “Truth is One, the wise call it by many names.”

Acccording to Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, recent bestsellers from Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris stress the irrationality of belief and what’s wrong with religion, while offering few positive alternatives. In Good without God, Epstein explains how humanists strive to live well, build community, uphold ethical values, and lift the human spirit…all without a god. “It’s not enough to just ‘discover’ the meaning of life. Humanism is concerned with one of the most important ethical questions—what we do once we’ve found purpose in life.”

Terrence McNally: In terms of the influence of Indian spiritualist teachings on American culture, let’s start with one individual American – you. What was your path?

Phil Goldberg: In the 1960s, I was a college student majoring in psychology and a political activist on the front lines, a Marxist and an atheist who thought religion was the opium of the people. But I got pretty disillusioned with those ways of looking at the world. They were not providing answers to big questions or a means to get my life together. That twin preoccupation led to reading about Eastern philosophy and mysticism, yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism. There was something in the zeitgeist that brought the East to the forefront. It was Ravi Shankar’s music, it was the Beatles, it was drugs. And the passion to get answers.

I read the Bagavad Gita and a number of books by western interpreters — Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Houston Smith – who presented ancient teachings in a very rational and sensible way that made sense. I remember saying to myself, “Why do they call this mysticism? There’s nothing mysterious about it.” It makes sense and offers an empirical approach to human development and our place in the cosmos. That got me hooked, and I wanted more and more. Eventually I picked up meditative practices, and they were transforming, changing my life for the better.

McNally: Reading your book, I remembered some of my own experiences. Freshman year in college I visited my best friend from high school at Yale. One of his roommates was Michael Medved, later a film critic and even later, a right wing pundit. His other roommate read me a couple of quotes from Nature Man and Woman by Alan Watts. I bought it, and that was the start for me.

I started meditating in the ‘80s. I can remember taking to the beach a paperback that had been sitting around the house — The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson — a very Western perspective on meditation…

Goldberg: derived directly from the scientific research on TM back in 1970. I was one of subjects in Benson’s first study — just because I was hanging out at the Cambridge TM Center.

McNally: Why did you write American Veda?

Goldberg: I actually wanted to write this book 25 years ago. I could see that principles coming here from India — the philosophy of Vedanta and the practices of yoga and meditation — were transforming people’s lives. I saw it seeping into other areas of the culture in subtle ways – psychology, healthcare, the study of consciousness, even physics and the arts. I saw people affected by these teachings without even knowing it.

McNally: Like fish in water, we talk about “karma” and don’t think about where it comes from….

Goldberg: I suspect this is a much more important phenomenon than people realize. First, more people are affected by what we’ve imported and absorbed from India than is generally recognized. Second, it is affecting how people see the world in a way that I think is potentially transformative to the culture.

The spirituality that we’ve absorbed and adapted from India is a needed antidote to the foolish polarization of atheists on the one side and biblical literalists on the other. It offers a way of being spiritual that is rational, reasonable, and sensible — and matches the kind of pluralistic globalized world we live in today.

McNally: One quote that really struck me in the book: In 1952 Arnold Toynbee says —

Goldberg: — “The catholic-minded Indian religious spirit is the way of salvation for all religions in an age in which we have to learn to live as a single family if we are not to destroy ourselves.”

McNally: We’ve just come out of World War II, we’re living in the age of the bomb, and at that moment — years before any significant wave of Vedanta appears — he sees its more open and pluralistic approach fits challenges we face now in the 21st century.

Goldberg: Religious extremism running amuck. People needing to believe – for whatever pathological reasons — that their way is the only way, and they’re going to impose it on others. And here’s this ancient teaching that there are many valid ways of being spiritual in the world, including secular, including scientific.

McNally: Early in the 1990’s in his book, Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, Walter Truett Anderson said the real clash is not between two religions or between two truths. It’s between those who can see more than one truth and those who cannot. In the past, it used to be my truth against yours. Today, whatever your one truth may be, your confrontation is with modernity — which says there are many.

What are some other principles of Indian spirituality that have come to infuse American society?

Goldberg: The first we’ve been speaking of is “one Truth, many names.” Along those same lines is an individuated approach to enlightenment, in which the individual spiritual seeker — or the secular seeker of self-development — should and must carve out his or her own way.

You don’t just “choose your religion.” You also choose the nuances of your personal spiritual life — the practices, the approaches that serve your individual perspective, your personality, your inclinations. This is fundamental vedantic, yogic teaching.

McNally: And that’s why there are four major paths of yoga? And each will be most appropriate for a certain kind of person?

Goldberg: As outlined long ago in the Baghavad Gita: Bhakti yoga is devotional; Karma yoga is the yoga of selfless action; Jnana yoga is yoga of the intellect, of understanding and study; Raja yoga is a sort of psycho-spiritual approach that emphasizes practice, meditation and so forth. But they overlap significantly and lean in different directions at different times.

McNally: But the key lesson is…

Goldberg: It’s individual.

There is also an emphasis on individual inner experience of the sacred or the divine — as opposed to belief systems. What you believe is less important than what you experience within yourself. That is the fulcrum of Vedic spiritual teachings. Beliefs are good and important, faith is good and important, but what matters is individual spiritual development.

In seeing forms of yoga as a developmental process, Indian philosophy and yogic and Buddhist teachings have expanded psychologists’ view of human development.

McNally: Maslow with the hierarchy of needs and so on?

Goldberg: — who was affected very strongly by the Indian mystical texts.

McNally: Your book is not about Hinduism per se, is it?

Goldberg: I use the term sparingly in the book because there’s a lot of confusion about what Hinduism is, and because many associate it with the everyday normative practice of religion in India.

The kernel of Vedic teachings that made it to the US was formulated by people who understood the West, spoke English, had been educated, and were compatible with science. They extracted the essence of Vedic teachings without necessarily retaining the nuances of Indian culture that we associate with Hinduism.

McNally: These things that you’ve pointed out: pluralism, many paths; individuated, different for different people; and inner experience being crucial. These are helpful in our current time, and they seem to be in distinction to the broad sweep of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. What was it about India that allowed this to emerge?

Goldberg: Whatever allowed it to emerge in the consciousness of ancient sages got preserved as an oral and a written tradition. There were people smart enough to preserve it in the midst of colonization and all the rest of the craziness and tragedies that befell India. In the 19th century, people associated with the Hindu renaissance or the Bengal renaissance formulated ancient teachings into modern form, so they could be compatible with science and with a Western perspective on social progress.

McNally: But we don’t know what it was that allowed this open consciousness to emerge as an organized religion.

Goldberg: In the West, ancient mystical teachings somehow got lost and buried in monasteries. We got to the point where the great Christian mystics and Jewish mysticism or Kabalah were seen as esoteric experiences that lay people and even ordinary clergy did not pay any attention to.

McNally: As I was encountering similar teachings and experiences in my own life, I never made a distinction between Buddhist and Vedic teachings. I thought of them together as an Eastern perspective. Reading your book, I was troubled a bit. You seemed to be saying they could be separated or even that one was more important than the other.

Goldberg: I point out in the introduction that the Buddhist thread that came to America is just as important as what I focused on in the book. But it would have made the book twice as long and twice as complicated. Histories of Buddhism in America have been written and written very well. This had not.

I focused on teachings that came via Hindu texts, but you’re absolutely right, they overlap. People like you and me, and I would venture to say most of the “spiritual but not religious” have drawn from both traditions — and from Sufism, and others. We’re a pragmatic people who do what works.

McNally: So it’s not enough simply to believe in pluralism, best to actually practice pluralism.

Goldberg: And in a sense Buddhism is also a Vedic tradition because it arises from India. Buddha was a reformer in the way Jesus was a reformer of the Hebraic tradition. The Zen teachers who came here made people more open to India, and the Indian teachers that came here made people more open to Buddhism.

McNally: You make the point that the Vedic tradition and Indian spirituality is in some sense scientific, empirical. Speak a bit about religion and science.

Goldberg: If you look at all the major gurus who came here, they made a very big point of saying, “I am not asking you to convert to Hinduism. I’m giving you a science of consciousness.” Here are precepts or hypotheses. This is the Vedantic, yogic view of the world.

If you practice these techniques such as meditation, you can verify it for yourself. It is compatible with a scientific rational perspective, and I think that’s one of the main reasons it appeals to people. There is nothing in Vedantic teachings that contradicts evolution or any of the major thrusts of scientific progress in the world.

McNally: Your story kicks off with Vivikananda visiting America in 1893, so for most of the time you cover, science has been moving toward relativity and quantum physics — a view of reality very congruent with vedanta.

Goldberg: Vivikananda was well educated in science, as was Yogananda. Vedas affected Emerson and Thoreau and others, who were well versed in Darwin and found it perfectly compatible. In the 20th century, people uncovered relativity and quantum mechanics and those seemed compatible as well — to the point where physicists like Schrödinger and Oppenheimer were essentially drawing metaphysically from Vedantic texts. Later people popularized it — Fritz Capra’s Tao of Physics and Carl Sagan talking about Shiva on Cosmos.

McNally: Capra followed Tao of Physics with The Turning Point on systems thinking, which I think is also congruent with science and spirituality.

Goldberg: The awareness of interconnection comes with an expansion of consciousness — an awareness of something vast beyond ourselves. A flexible mind is able to comprehend the best of science and the best of spirituality, and see that they’re not incompatible. I think people who realize that there’s more than just religion and atheism, end up with this kind of pluralistic perspective.

McNally: I’m going to bring Greg Epstein into the conversation now. Greg, can you pick on what Phil was just saying?

Greg Epstein: His line, “There’s more than just religion and just atheism” is a good transition to my book and the work that I do. I grew up with this conversation. Age-wise, I’m the next generation. My father was experiencing some of the same transitions that you’ve been talking about. The bookshelves of the New York City apartment that I grew up in were full of mysticism — the Baghavad Gita, and East Asian, African, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, as well as the psychological and historical studies of all of that stuff.

I grew up wondering: with all of these diverse paths, what’s really true? Is there something I can hang my hat on?

McNally: Your title — humanist chaplain of Harvard University — what does that mean and how long has such a position existed?

Epstein: I’m a chaplain at Harvard University for humanists, atheists, agnostics and the non-religious. I’m working with people based on something that I and many others call humanism, which is, in short, the title of my book: Good Without God. It is the idea that this natural world is the only world we can ever know, and we have both the ability and the responsibility to make our relationships with other people count, to make our time in this world count — and to leave it better than we found it.

The position has existed for about 35 years now, but in my understanding of history, humanism was an almost silent partner in a lot of the discussion that you’ve been describing over the past generation or two. It’s now becoming much more prominent.

It’s much better understood today that when talking about the spectrum of religious pluralism in the United States and the world, you’ve got to refer also to the non-religious — to the people who don’t accept that the truth comes from any particular religious tradition, but that it comes from human wisdom. President Obama has been very aware in his life and in his speeches that you can find the golden rule, you can find truth and ethics in all religions — or you can find them in humanism.

McNally: Well he’s the son of an atheist and a humanist, which may or may not be a first, but it’s certainly interesting.

If you could, a little bit of your path? You chose to pursue religion as an undergraduate, and then two Masters degrees — one in Theological Studies and another in Judaic Studies. Doesn’t sound like the resume of a guy that calls himself non-religious.

Epstein: I like to quote a novel – “I have a very religious personality without a scintilla of religious belief.”

I grew up in an extremely diverse neighborhood. Just being white made me a minority. I had secular Jewish parents, and mixed with people from every religion – Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims – and there was no majority. I saw friends go to different religious holiday celebrations and wear different costumes and eat different foods. There was a sense that we were all good enough people and nobody had special access to The Truth.

But I felt that there had to be something beyond relativism: what your family and their texts say is true, and what mine say is true, etc. That sort of distorts the notion of the word “true.”

I went to synagogues and I had a bar mitzvah, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the Judaism that I’d grown up with. People didn’t seem truly devoted to the words that they were praying. I visited other churches, and had the same experience.

I picked up from my father and his generation the idea that in the East, you’ll find something special and inspirational and unique. I studied hundreds of hours of Chinese in order to read Buddhist meditation texts in the original. Then I traveled to China and Taiwan and found people just as lukewarm about Taoism as the reformed Jews I grew up around in New York.

Humanism is the idea that people created religion, not vice versa. No one religious tradition has access to the truth. We invented it all, and, spiritually speaking, we came up with some very good inventions and some really lousy ones.

McNally: Unlike our inventions in communications or transportation, where we have progressed and adapted, we hold to the same religious inventions thousands of years later.

Epstein: The nature of religion is naturally conservative. Once people have attached the names of their ancestors and their deities to a spiritual insight like “Do unto others as you’d have done to you,” they don’t like to admit, “Oh by the way, 75% of what we wrote in that book we got completely wrong.”

Goldberg: I think it’s perfectly wonderful that there’s a Humanist Chaplain at Harvard because secular humanism is an important perspective to add to this mix. The notion that there are many paths to higher consciousness or ethical behavior or the experience of the sacred, would necessarily include a scientific or humanistic approach. I would bet that your views would be compatible with Swami Tyagananda, the Hindu Chaplain at Harvard, vis a vis the modern world and science

Epstein: Swami Tyagananda and I are friends. Some people trace humanism back to ancient Greece and Rome, but it also goes back directly to ancient India. Philosopher economist, Amartya Sen, who is also a professor here at Harvard, points out there is more atheist and agnostic literature in Sanskrit than in any other ancient language.

We just had a speaker here at Harvard named Lavanam, whose father is named Gora. They both have one name because they removed their second, which in Indian tradition is caste-based. They are leaders of the Indian atheist and humanist community, which is very prominent and very positive. Gandhi had great respect for the community, who often did social work with the untouchables and with widows.

McNally: I can imagine that rejecting a religious tradition — even a pluralistic one – makes it easier to reject a caste tradition.

Goldberg: Or any of the shadow side of religion that has evolved in all the great traditions. It’s very difficult to separate the historical and cultural elements from the religious, especially in a small village-based culture where they all intertwine.

I understand Greg’s perspective. I was raised by atheists had had a lot less religion in my life than he did. My mother was the most ethical and moral person I’ve ever known and she was a straight-on atheist. Religion does not have a monopoly on these things.

McNally: Why did you write your book?

Epstein: By the way, the book doesn’t declare that you can be good without god. If one still questions that in this day and age when there are a billion non-religious people — that’s not a question, that’s a prejudice.

So it’s first of all, to dispel that prejudice. Second of all, to explore what it means to be good in a world where a billion of us have given up a belief in God?

What does it mean to be a humanist — to be part of a positive tradition that says, “We’re going to make our lives and our relationships better. We’re going to make this world better.” Not because God or a religious text tells us to, but because we human beings recognize that’s good for everyone and makes our lives more meaningful.

McNally: The term “humanist” sounds a bit species chauvinistic to me. One of the key understandings of a certain spiritual-and-not-religious worldview is the realization that we are not separate from the rest of nature. Appropriate morals and ethics can arise from the realization that humans exist in a system of dynamic interdependent systems.

Epstein: “Is humanism species-ist?” I say “No,” but it’s fair to wonder.

First, if somebody identifies with these ideas and considers himself good without god, but prefers a different term — atheist or agnostic, free-thinker or secular -– I say, go in peace. It’s not a big deal.

Terminology is secular. Is it the GLBT movement or the LGBT movement or the gay or the queer? Let’s forget about the acronym and worry about the message.

I like the word humanist, not because it says human beings are the kings and queens, but because it emphasizes the sense that we’re only human. There is no such thing as perfection that we can hope for or that we have to feel pressured to attain. We’re only human. We’re all flawed, we all make mistakes, and we’re trying to help one another.

Second, I like the word humanist because it emphasizes that we’re trying to do good on behalf of all human beings — and on behalf of the entire natural world that surrounds us and sustains us. That includes all sentient life that we have discovered and that we may yet discover.

Finally, I like the word humanist because I don’t want to just define myself as an atheist or an agnostic. I don’t want to define myself according to a god that somebody else might happen to believe in. That’s not my belief, that’s their belief. I want to define myself not just within somebody else’s terms, but positively according to what I actually believe and stand for. Humanist is a positive term not just a negative non-religious term.

McNally: How old is the term?

Epstein: It’s had different meanings. Just like the word Hinduism. I like to say that the word Hinduism and the word humanism are similar in the sense that they refer to about a billion people, but in each of those cases not all those billion people identify themselves with that word. And the word wasn’t given to those people by themselves. In Hinduism, it was imposed by the British, and in humanism, it’s a word that some people have chosen.

The word goes back to the Renaissance, where some Christians said not all truth is theological truth, there is truth for human’s sake as well. Those people called themselves humanists. It was adopted in about the last hundred or so to refer to a positive way of living life and of looking at life for non-religious people.

McNally: I inferred in your writing a sense of humility. What’s the best we can do with this human life we’ve been given?

Epstein: It’s not easy to live a good life with or without a belief in God. We struggle, and I’m looking for something that admits that; something that doesn’t try to say, “If you just follow my teaching or his teaching or her teaching, you’ll live the perfect enlightened life…” Those things tend to be illusions. It admits that we struggle and we want to struggle together, and it assumes that we can make a lot of progress if we’re willing to help one another.

McNally: I mentioned the notion of good without god to my 16 year-old stepson, and he pointed out that a lot of what draws people to organized religion is the need for community. He said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if opportunities for community existed on a regular basis — a Sabbath kind of thing — for those who don’t have religion?” Greg?

Epstein: He needs to come to college in the Boston area. Not only am I working on this at Harvard, but there are others working on this exact idea of creating a positive community for non-religious people. This idea is emerging around the country and around the world. I just visited the Humanist Society of Scotland, and learned that this year the largest number of marriages in Scotland will be performed by the Church of Scotland; second most by the state registries like the justices of the peace; third most by the Humanist Society of Scotland; and fourth most by the Catholic Church.

Scotland is just one country among many where a positive non-religious community is becoming extremely influential. We’re doing weddings and funerals and baby-naming ceremonies. We’re celebrating holidays and practicing meditation and making music. You can do all these things without a belief in a god, without a belief in the supernatural or the magical or even the mystical.

Goldberg: I welcome this. One of my interests has been the spiritual-but-not-religious cohort that has been supported by teachings of the East. But we’ve been missing community.

I would caution that one element that we associate with religion is not necessarily available in secular teachings — though it’s creeping into transpersonal psychology –the element of transcendence. Access to practices that expand consciousness beyond the limitations of the individual self to an experience of connectedness to a larger whole — whether you label it religious or scientific — is a critically important aspect of human growth and development.

Epstein: We don’t rely on a dogmatic teaching of how things should work. If there’s reasonable scientific evidence that something like mindfulness helps us to cultivate compassion, humanists basically say let’s do it. We’ve got a group in my community that does meditative and contemplative practices from all the world’s religions in a way that’s compatible with scientific research. More and more humanist groups around the country are adopting such ideas.

McNally: I’m going to read from an interview I did with Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s great atheists as well as one of the world’s great evolutionary biologists:

Unweaving the Rainbow, which I wrote in the late 90s, was my answer to those people who say that science, and, in particular, my world view in The Selfish Gene was cold and bleak and loveless. Let me read a few words from the opening of Unweaving the Rainbow which I’ve set aside and asked to be read at my funeral.

We are going to die and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they’re never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. In the face of this stupefying odds it is you and I in our ordinariness that are here.

Here’s another respect in which we are lucky: the universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time, the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, the present century. The present moves from the past to the future like a tiny spotlight inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight, are the same as the odds that a penny tossed down at random will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere on the road from New York to San Francisco.

You are lucky to be alive and so am I. We are lucky to be alive and therefore we should value life. Life is precious, we’re never going to get another one, this is it, don’t waste it, open your eyes, open your ears, treasure the experiences that you have and don’t waste your time fussing about a non existent future life after you’re dead. Try to do as much good as you can now to others; try to live life as richly as possible during the time that you have left available to you.”

I suspect most people do not know that’s the way Richard Dawkins sees things.

Epstein: I think that’s the beautiful side of Richard Dawkins. I’ve had some disagreements with Richard in terms of what non-religious people should do in terms of critiquing religious people. He’s a little bit more inclined to go out and — his words – “make fun of” religion. I think we’ve got to acknowledge when you make fun of religion, you’re also making fun of a cultural inheritance goes along with it –- people’s stories and memories and families. But I really agree with the message that you just read, that the more we understand about science and understand about ourselves, the more inspired we truly are.

Goldberg: He’s evoking a sense of wonder and awe that is the core of the religious impulse, one that Einstein also addressed. It is possible to approach the sacred and the divine through secular scientific ways.

McNally: Finally let me share a quote from Stuart Kaufman in Reinventing the Sacred:

“What we think of as natural law may not suffice to explain nature. Partially beyond law, we are in a co-constructing, ceaselessly creative universe whose detailed unfolding cannot be predicted. Therefore we truly cannot know all that will happen.

In that case, reason, the highest virtue of our beloved enlightenment, is an insufficient guide to living our lives. We must reunite reason with our entire humanity, and, in the face of what can only be called mystery, we need a means to orient our lives. How much vaster are our lives understood as part of the unfolding of the entire universe? We are invited to awe, gratitude and stewardship. This planet and this life are God’s work not ours.

If God is the creativity in the universe, we are not made in God’s image, we too are God. We can now choose to assume responsibility for ourselves and our world to the best of our limited wisdom — together with our most powerful symbol, God — as the creativity in the natural universe.”

He’s basically saying we are part of the ceaseless creativity that is God.

Goldberg: A very Vedantic point of view.

Epstein: I’m all for the idea that we need to look for sources of inspiration beyond reason. Human life is about so much more than reason. We are profoundly emotional beings, and we need to connect with one another perhaps more than we need anything else.

As to Kaufman’s idea that God is mystery and creativity, I already have a belief about God. God is to me the most influential literary character that human beings have ever created.

Podcast Interview

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Phil Goldberg is an Interfaith Minister, director of outreach for and blogs regularly on Huffington Post. He is the author or coauthor of 19 books, including Roadsigns On the Spiritual Path and The Intuitive Edge. You can learn more at Greg Epstein holds a B.A. in religion and Chinese, as well as an M.A. in Judaic studies from the University of Michigan and an M.A. in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. He is a regular contributor to the online forum “On Faith.” Good without God is his first book. You can learn more at



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