Mark Zuckerberg was probably kidding when he announced that the latest pick for his Facebook book club would be “a little light reading”— The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James.
Then again, he’s reportedly an atheist, so who knows?
Light reading or not, it was an odd pick for Zuckerberg, who started his “Year of Books” in January, inviting Facebook users to read a book he picked every two weeks, then discuss it online. Most books have been by living authors—Matt Ridley’s Genome and Yuval Noah Hararis’ Sapiens among them—which enables the authors to do a Q&A session with participants via the “Year of Books” Facebook page. As for James, if only.
The Harvard-educated philosopher and psychologist died in 1910. The Varieties of Religious Experience, considered by many to be his seminal work, was the culmination of 20 lectures he gave at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1901. It is an exploration not of organized religion, but of spirituality and the impulse that seeks it.
The titular “religious expression” was not, say, the fevered exhortations of a Joel Osteen, but “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” For James’ purposes, this could be God, conscience or morality. This is “religion” even an atheist can get behind.
On his personal Facebook page, and in his public life, Zuckerberg has shown no interest in matters of faith until now. The favorite books he lists on Facebook include no titles that are even vaguely religious, and he appears not to have gotten the memo that Donald Trump did, the one that says if someone asks your favorite book, one must say the Bible. Zuckerberg’s publicly disclosed interests slant Buddhist: “eliminating desire” and “minimalism” and “openness.”
The enigmatic Zuckerberg has not spoken publicly about his faith, or lack thereof. Google reports that he identifies as an atheist on his Facebook profile, but that’s not there now, at least not in the parts of it seen by the public. The curious can only speculate, as Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan did in an article called “Losing Mark Zuckerberg” on Forward.com. (The Forward is a newspaper focusing on Jewish issues, published in New York.)
Kaplan said that Zuckerberg was raised in a Reform Jewish household by “sincere and devoted” parents who attended Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, N.Y. He went to religious school at the synagogue and made his bar mitzvah, she said. But all this was what James would dismiss as a “second-hand religious life,” only vaguely connected to mature spirituality, which may or may not have its roots in parental influence.
“We can only hope that his declaration of atheism was or is part of a youthful rebellion that will fade with time,” Kaplan wrote. For many young people, she said, the Reform strain of Judaism is “too amorphous,” ignoring the scholarly and the scientific in favor of vacuous spirituality. “Math and science nerds, in particular, may be the type most likely to bolt.”
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