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Review of Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, by Katherine Ozment

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Review of Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, by Katherine Ozment

Since 1990, more and more Americans have been leaving their churches and synagogues, and today nearly one-fourth of Americans claim to have no religious affiliation at all. In the thirty and under crowd, it’s a full one-third who categorizes themselves as nonreligious. In her new book, Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, Katherine Ozment examines this cultural shift away from organized religion and investigates alternatives for finding community and spirituality in the secular world.

I was really excited to read Grace Without God because, like Ozment herself, I consider myself spiritual but not religious. Ozment says that before she and her husband had children, she thought they’d “raise them in a colorful blend of religious pluralism – a little Zen Buddhism here, a visit to a Quaker meeting there, a smattering of secularized Christian and Jewish holidays throughout the year from which they would learn the basics of their heritage.”

That’s pretty much what my husband and I have been saying for the past few years, too. We figure we’ll have “spiritual time” with our kids each Sunday in which we’ll read a Bible story or a Greek myth or some other spiritually-minded text, talk about how to be a good person, then do a little meditation.


But, as Ozment explains, “vague plans are hard to enact.” When their kids were born, she and her husband forgot about their ambitious plans: “We held no bris or baptisms. We neglected to sign up for Hebrew school or seek a friendly nondenominational parish. We skipped most religious rituals all together.”

And then, five years ago, her eight-year-old son was watching as the parishioners of the Greek Orthodox Church across the street performed a Good Friday ritual, and he asked, “what are we?”

“We’re nothing,” she said. This answer sent Ozment into something of a crisis. In that moment she “felt at a loss to describe who we were, what we believed, and where we fit.” She decided to go on an exhaustive search to figure out the answer.

Ozement’s book is both a diligently-researched and highly-personal account of how she went about trying to make sense of religion, spirituality, and belief – both for herself and for her children.

Grace Without God cover


The first half of the book examines why people are leaving religion and the voids this can leave. Religion gives people a community and a sense of belonging. Religion gives people a value system and an opportunity to volunteer their time or receive support in times of need. People who have left religion often report missing the rituals and traditions that made them feel part of something larger than themselves. And lack of religion may be affecting the values of young people. According to Ozment’s research “two-thirds of children today think it’s more important to pursue their own personal happiness than to be good people.”

And when we try to create secular communities, rituals, and value systems, it can be difficult to do without the history and tradition that the major religions are rooted in. “Without religious belief,” Ozment writes, “we have to redefine what is sacred and then commit ourselves to nurturing and maintaining it.”   I felt the book got redundant about this point. Over and over again Ozment emphasized how religion provides us important things, and how it can be really hard to develop a sense of community and spirituality without it.

That’s why I was happy to get into the second half of the book in which Ozment stops agonizing over the problem and begins offering solutions. She describes alternatives to mainstream religion such as secular humanism, atheist groups, and secular rituals. I enjoyed learning about a Buddhist coming-of-age ceremony, the gift circle at the Ethical Culture Society, and nonreligious funerals. It was interesting to read about all the options out there for people who are looking for something to replace religion.

Reading Grace Without God made me re-think the vague plans my husband and I had made about “spiritual time” with our children. Maybe, before we have kids, we need to get clearer in our beliefs and values and figure out the best ways to provide our children with community, ritual, and opportunities for spiritual growth.

Perhaps that’s why my favorite two parts of the book came at the end. There is a large section of resources at the back of the book with questions to ponder, books to read, and websites to peruse.

And I loved the Epilogue, which is Ozment’s letter to her children. In it she sums up what she has learned in her years of research, and her advice to them is both poignant and practical. “Grace,” she says, “comes from knowing that to be alive and conscious in this world is a rare gift. If we are open to it, we can see that there is grace all around us, with or without God.”

tlc tour host

I received this book for free from TLC!


About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

2 responses »

  1. I’m glad that this book inspired you to be more purposeful about your goals for your children – vague plans never seem to come to fruition in my experience.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!

  2. This is a subject that is of great interest to me, and I’m seriously considering buying the book. But I think it’s important to emphasize that the problem is not only lack of ritual (which is fine, and does have its place), but more importantly, lack of shared belief-systems and ideals around which communities of people can gather. Furthermore, the persons in such communities need to *be responsible* for each others’ welfare based on those beliefs and ideals. The problem with “online communities” is that this key ingredient of mutual responsibility is almost always absent (since it is so easy to “unsubscribe” from one whenever a person wishes), which is why they can’t serve as any kind of adequate substitute for genuine, real-world communities.

    Also, I think it’s a mistake to think that these ideals must necessarily revolve around the concept of “God” in some way for the ideals to be considered “religious” (which is what the title of the book seems to suggest)—especially given the fact that, in practice, different people mean very different things when they use the word “God.” I believe that the primary purposes of a religious community ought to be to provide its members with guidance for how to behave, clear and definite mental direction, and an overall “world-view” and sense of meaning and purpose; and that if it is able to provide these things to its members, then it ought to be considered “religious”—regardless of whether or not the members of the community believe in “God” per se, or, if they do, whether or not they choose to spend very much of their time talking about their idea of “God.”

    With my website, I am making an attempt to replace the conceptual dichotomy that exists in most people’s minds, so that it is no longer “secular versus religious,” but instead “non-esoteric religious versus esoteric religious.” (I favor the non-esoteric religious approach.) I think the idea of “religion” in general has gotten a bad name because of the esoteric nature of just about all of the world’s traditional religions (so that their sacred writings contain lots of cryptic, confusing, and meaningless symbolism and allegory); and I think it is the esotericism in religion that people are actually objecting to, rather than the idea of religion per se—but, because in people’s experience the two are almost invariably found together, they assume that the two must *necessarily* accompany one another, when it’s just not so. I don’t think human civilization will even be able to survive without “religion” as I have defined it; but not only can it survive without the *esotericism* in religion—I think it would do far, far better.


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