Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford, 2012), and Society Without God (NYU, 2008), and the editor of several volumes, including The Oxford Handbook of Secularism (2016) and The Social Theory of W.E.B. Du Bois (2004). He is a professor of sociology at Pitzer College, and the founding chair of the nation’s first secular studies program. He blogs for Psychology Today and the Huffington Post. He lives in Claremont, California, with his wife and three children.
What do I do best?
Manage my time and deal well with apples.
As for time management: I’ve always liked to structure my day so that I get what I need to get done. I don’t like stress and I don’t like things hanging over my head. So I get things done – often even early. Here’s how it works on a day-to-day basis: I keep a master list of all the general things that I have to do or want to do, such as: write my book, write my blog, write various letters of recommendation, prepare various lectures, submit an ad-hoc committee report, make travel arrangements, call my kids’ health insurance to straighten out a bill, etc. That list sits on my desk next to my computer. Then, each morning, I start the day by writing a smaller list on a yellow post-it note that actually outlines that given day’s immediate schedule, like this: 8:00-9:00, work on book. 9:30-10:00, work on blog. 10:00 – 10:30, work on letters of recommendation, 10:30 -11:30, work on lectures, etc. – and then I just do that. I follow the schedule. I know it perhaps sounds maniacal, but for me, it’s actually quite relaxing. I just set up what I need to do and then do it. If I feel myself getting a little distracted, a cup of coffee gets me right back on track. I think this ability to manage my time – to set a schedule and stick to it and do the work I want and need to do on a daily basis – has been a huge part of my ability to enjoy my life without too much stress or worry or grief or regret.
As for dealing well with apples: I worship them. And I know just how to pick them. And I know which are the best kinds. And I know how to slice them perfectly (ask my kids). The single best unsolicited compliment that I have ever received in my life came from my daughter’s best friend, Lily. She and my daughter have been friends since they were two. One day, a year or so ago, they were making food in our kitchen and I overheard Lily say to my daughter, “You always have the best apples.” I felt my veins expand with joy at being recognized and appreciated for something so compelling to me: good apples.
What makes me the best version of myself?
I hate to say it, but I think I’m just naturally happy, most of the time. I don’t take any credit for this. And as an atheist, I don’t think I am “blessed” by some supernatural deity. I honestly think its just the luck of the way I am wired: how my hormones and chromosomes and genes and neurons and peptides and synpses and glands interact. And the luck of where I grew up and the various people and circumstances that shaped me. But whatever the cause, I can’t deny it. I’m mostly happy. Sure, I can get depressed. And angry. And petty. I have had some hard times and very painful experiences. I can feel agony, despair, sadness, anxiety, fear, and the like. Sometimes I don’t act or behave like an adult. Sometimes I check out. Often, I’m un-centered. But generally, most of the time, I’m quite happy. I love leaves. And turkey burgers. And my family. And Nick Drake. And rain. And lilacs. And Edvard Munch. And hot showers. And theater. And fog. And Knut Hamsun. And Ayaan Hirsi Ali. And the British version of “The Office.” I love Oregon. And Vermont. And Scandinavia. I just love being alive. Except for math. Can’t do it. Hate it. Oh, and I also think opera sucks. If life was full of nothing but math and opera I think I’d be quite miserable.
What are my aspirations?
1) to write books that are engaging, informative, provocative, and are read by lots of people who take the humanitsic ideas I articulate and use them to make the world a better, more just, more rational, and more verdant place. 2) to listen to and pay close attention to my wife and children: to see who they really are and respond to their actual needs and be supportive and loving towards them. 3) to speak Danish relatively well. 4) to do what I can to fight global warming, fight mass incarcertation, fight inequality, fight bigotry. 5) to one day move back to Oregon.
My Biggest Success?
Marrying my wife.
My Most Challenging Moment?
Coping with debilitating panic attacks. When I was in my early twenties, I was plagued by an extended period of panic attacks. It started with feeling like I was always having a heart attack. Or that my heart was stopping. They would sometimes hit me in my sleep. They got so bad that I had moments of agoraphobia, and I also wouldn’t fly. I also started to have a hard time with reality. There were a few moments where I began to understand suicide as a plausible solution to a painful life situation. The panic attacks lasted for years. But I chose to get through them and not let them debilitate me so. I eventually managed to understand them, cope with them, and untlitmately not be bothered by them. I still get them every now and then, but they lack any real sting. The solution: a really good therapist (be careful, there are some really shitty therapists out there, so you need to find a good one), a lot of self-exploration and reading about what ailed me, an occasional Xanax (but only when in the throngs of an acute attack), and the help and support of my wife. And perhaps just getting older. And being more honest with myself.
One that I came up with is this, “To ourselves, we are what we think and feel. But to everyone else, we are what we do and say.” The point is that we often have problems in life – and with other people – because our subjective experience is not what others are privy to or what they actually have to contend with. They contend with and react to our actual behaviors. We need to be always mindful of that.
Another one comes from my wife: “Live in reality.” Buddhism teaches that pain and suffering come from desire. I disagree. I think pain and suffering come from failing to live in reality: to see people for who and what they really are (not what we want or wish they were), to own and accept our true and real feelings (rather than deny them, ignore them, or pretend they aren’t what they are), to accept the realistic limits of our budgets and finances, to accept the reality of given situations -- be they at work or at home or in the wider world – and act accordingly. And if being secular means anything, it means living in reality.
Finally, I learned this one from a hitchhiker in Santa Cruz, “Don’t take what you don’t want.” Its so true. Time and again I am reminded of it. When we do things out of some sense of obligation or guilt, or because we think we are “supposed” to, we usually always reget it.
My Favorite People/Role Models?
Casimir Liszinski – he was a Polish-Lituianian philosopher who, in in the 1680s, wrote a treatise titled “The Non-existence of God.” It was one of the first books ever published in Europe proclaiming that God is a fiction and that all religions are merely the creations of people. To proclaim such truths back then was extremely dangerous, and Liszinski paid dearly for his truth-speaking: his mouth and tongue were burned with hot irons, his hands were burned over a slow fire, and he was then burned completely to death. I so admire such early free-thinkers – people like Jean Meslier, Baruch Spinoza, Denis Diderot, Baron D’Holbach, David Hume, etc. – for daring to say what they (and I) so deeply believe. But would I have the courage to proclaim such things if I faced the threats that they faced? I doubt it.
Ernestine Rose – born in 1810, the daughter of a rabbi in Poland, Rose became an atheist in her teens, went to court to successfully break off an arranged marriage, moved to the USA where she fought tirelessly for the rights of women, fought against slavery, and promulgated the truths and ideals of atheism/freethought. A true hero for human rights.
W.E.B. Du Bois – born in Massachusetts in 1868, Du Bois was the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard, a founder of the discipline of sociology, a prolific author and editor, the founding leader of the Niagara Movement (the first Civil Right organization in the USA), the founding leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the founding leader of the Pan-African Congress. Du Bois publicly fought against lynching, discrimination, and colonial exploitation and tirelessly advocated for women’s rights, Jewish rights, and workers’ rights. Not only was he a principal architect of the Civil Rights Movement, but he also supported the arts and various critical cultural expressions as a founder of the American Negro Academy and one of the supporting pillars of the Harlem Renaissance. What an amazing human.
Hannah Senesh – she was a young Jewish woman living in pre-statehood Israel/Palestine who, at the age of 22, volunteered to join a small unit of paratroopers and be dropped into nazi-occupied Yugoslavia to fight against Hitler’s henchmen and save persecuted Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz. She was eventually captured, tortured, and killed by firing squad. To me, she represents raw courage and altruistic good-will in the fight against brutality and savagery.
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
Scandinavia: Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. I love for the Nordic world, with its lakes and fjords and mountains and lichen and woods and fields and brooks and snow and moss and beautiful language and humane societies and progressive politics and egalitarianism and modern design and moving literature, art, and film. So deeply peaceful there.
More closer to home, I feel the best when I am in Oregon.
More closer still, the 50’s diner in my hometown. Always makes me happy.
My Favorite Products/Objects?
Two things that are dying: Books and CDs. Yes, I still buy books and I still buy CDs. I enjoy them so much. Funny how these things are going the way of the horse and buggy. But who cares? I dig them. I also cherish my computer. I work on it every day: writing what I need to write, communicating with people, watching videos, listening to music, etc. Finally, I dig chewing on small corncob pipes. I’m chewing on one right now. And I’m also typing on this here computer. And I was just reading a book. And I just ordered a new CD, “Behold and See” by Ultimate Spinach. So all’s good.
My Current Passions?
Morality and Ethics. I have been reading a lot of philosophy and evolutionary psychology and social psychology and sociology – all about what it means to be moral and why we are moral and how none of it has anything to do with any god. Morality and ethics are natural, cultural enterprsises, rooted in human evolution, experience, and reason. As a result of this passion, I’m teaching a new class called “The Social Construction of Morality” and I’m writing a new book about what it means to be moral in the absence of any god. Its fun and engaging and I’m learning so much.