This book is a long answer to a short question. Here's the question: Can you build a vital, fulfilling life experience using methods and ideas that are purely secular, not based in religious doctrine?

If that seems like a pointless question to you, you are probably one of the majority of Americans who profess a religious belief. You naturally assume that when you need an answer to one of life's big questions, you'll find it in that belief -- and probably you will. But some of us do not find any religion satisfactory, and I am one. Although I am content with my choice, when I watch people who diligently practice a religion, I see their practice yielding important benefits. I had to ask: are those benefits uniquely "religious" and so unavailable to people like me? Or do they have secular sources? Are all the routes to wholeness, to an integrated life practice, exclusively religious? Or can a secular life practice lead to a meaningful, satisfying life?

This book is my answer, to be shared with others who want to deepen their lives and who find religious ideas unhelpful.

If you are comfortable in a religious belief, understand that this book is about finding secular sources for things that your religious practice ought to be giving you. If you aren't getting them, I respectfully suggest you look deeper into your own faith. But you are certainly welcome to walk along with the rest of us on our quest!

The goods of religious practice

When I observe the life-styles of devout people, I see their religious practice delivering these important values:

These are the benefits for which I hope to find secular sources. As a skeptic by inclination and training, I have been quite selective in my search. I only tell you about things I have personally tried, or things that are documented in respected scientific journals, or things that, like the philosophy of Epicurus, are both satisfying to common sense and visibly harmless.

Chapter summary

Here is what follows this Introduction:

Notes and References

A numbered reference like this[1] refers to one of the notes that begin on [this line]. Some notes only give a citation for a quote or statement, but others expand on the main text, or shed a sidelight on it, or take off at a wild tangent to it. Your rule can be: if you want to know more about the sentence with the note, turn to the note; if not, skip it.

On [this line] you'll find a list of books that can take you deeper into any of the subjects I touch on. A bibliography of print and internet references follows it.


The following people made constructive or challenging comments on early drafts: Marian Cortesi, Gloria Gatlin, Katie Hover, Nancy Howe, Thane Plambeck, Pam Sogard, Jon Thompson. The book is far better for their input.

I was very fortunate to be able to wander amid the amazing riches of the Green Library at Stanford University; without it, I could never have finished this work.