by Katherine Ozment
I was asked to read and review this book by TLC Book Tours.
The book’s genesis, apparently, was a particular night some years ago during which the author and her young son witnessed a religious procession through their neighborhood. Her son asked her what the people walking up the street holding candles were doing, and she explained to him that it was a religious ritual.
“Why don’t we do that?” he asked.
“Because we’re not Greek Orthodox,” I said.
“Then what are we?”
“We’re nothing,” I said.
Ozment’s response to her son’s question unsettled her so much, that she spent the next few years searching for a better answer. She interviewed dozens of people, including scientists, scholars, and religious leaders, searching for her own meaning to life (it seemed to me) absent religion.
I will confess that, as an atheist and former “believer,” I had a lot of difficulty relating to this book. Ozment mostly seems to lament her loss of religion, and to operate under the assumption that those who don’t have religion are missing something essential and sacred – which begs the question: why did she give up religion then? She spends a great deal of the book discussing all the benefits and positives that religion bestows upon people and society, and very little discussing the very real harm that religion and religious belief brings to individuals and society. I kept getting the sense that she lost her religion very much like someone misplaces their keys – it seems that she feels that there is a real need for religion, or at least some substitute for religion, and she would be happy if only she could find hers again.
My own letting go of my religious beliefs was a process of reflection that took awhile, but once I did let go, I only felt liberated and at peace. I’ve never felt like something is missing, and I’ve never felt that I am somehow cheating my kids by not raising them with religion or faith. I actually feel quite the opposite: that to grow up without the shackles of religion and faith, to have the freedom to decide one’s own purpose, is a gift. I suppose there are agnostics and atheists who struggle with feelings of loss and searching similar to Ozment, but all of the “Nones” I know have come to understand, exactly by letting go of religion, that, yes, traditions, family stories, morals and values, community, and identity do exist apart from religion, and perhaps more richly so.
It saddens me that Ozment told her son that “We’re nothing.” It was undoubtedly a knee-jerk response to a question she wasn’t prepared for, but certainly not belonging to a religion, or not believing there is a god, does not make one “nothing.” In any case, even telling her son that they’re “nothing” didn’t have to be so unsettling; it could have simply been the springboard for further conversation with her son about what they are, or better yet, how her son has the freedom to decide for himself what he is and what he will be.
While I think Grace Without God is well-intended and well-written, I’m just not sure what the need for it is.