An Ex-Orthodox Defender of Secularism Relies on a Leap of Faith of His Own

January 13, 2022 | Micah Mattix
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In a recent essay, William Deresiewicz—a former Orthodox Jew who claims that he “saw through the falsehood of faith . . . at the age of fifteen,” laments the effects of secularization on American society, and especially on the students and graduates of elite universities. Micah Mattix responds:

Secularism, “at its worst,” Deresiewicz writes, reduced everything to a commercial transaction, . . . “materialistic, individualistic, transactional, devoid of moral or spiritual content, hostile to ideas and ideals.”

But is this secularism at its worst—what would that mean exactly?—or secularism as secularism? What is the secular basis for not treating others like a pound of flesh? Deresiewicz is right, of course, that politics has become a religion, and he’s far from the first person to suggest so. But I’m curious as to why he is so convinced that secular humanism is true even though it “has not fulfilled the hopes that people had for it, and neither has secularism in any of its other manifestations.”

This is what he writes at the end of the essay, which has a religious ring to it: “No, secularism cannot reassure us that the universe is governed by a benevolent deity, or that the wicked will be punished and the good rewarded, or that our souls will be clasped after death in the bosom of Abraham. But in leaving us to our devices, it does something better, because it does something truer. It forces us into the search: for truth, for beauty, for justice.”

This seems rather close to claiming that secular humanism is true despite the evidence. It is true despite failing to give a coherent account of what is obviously a universal longing for transcendence, despite failing to provide any sort of definition for the very things Deresiewicz evokes here—truth, beauty, justice—as worthwhile objects of study, despite contributing to the decline of families and communities, and despite making many people much worse off (and, no, we don’t have secular humanism to thank for science).

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