A Case Against Secularism

August 6, 2021 Rabbi Benjamin Sendrow
My friends, the Hebrew month of Elul is just around the corner, which means the fall holidays will be upon us soon.  If ever there is a time to ponder some of the ultimate issues of life, now is that season.  I would like to talk about a fundamental issue tonight.

One of the most basic questions one must answer in life is what will be the source of your values?  Two possible answers are secularism and religion.  Choosing secularism over religion —a relatively new phenomenon in the Western world—immediately begins the erosion of religion and could ultimately lead to the death of religion.  You see, ironically religion is not only important to the religious.  It is as least as important to much of the secular world, because they spend so much thought and energy attacking religion.  I suppose I have to admit that at least to some extent, I do the same with regard to secularism.  I’m doing it right now.  I want to make the case against secularism and I’ll start with this: after the death of Christianity in much of Europe, we got Fascism, Nazism, and Communism.  It begs the question: once people stop believing in JudeoChristian religion or whatever religion you want to name, what do people believe in?

The answer is not “nothing.”  No human being is devoid of beliefs. Everyone believes in something, even if that something is atheism (I would argue that atheism is in fact a religion to those who hold to it).

Many secularists believe in humanism, which posits that people are born good and need nothing more than nurturing to become a good person.  As a father of three who regards parenthood as one of the greatest blessings of my life, I can tell you from experience that there is no more egocentric, selfish being on earth than a human infant.  Judaism has it right—goodness needs to be taught and practiced.  That is how we become good people. So how do we teach goodness?  How do we know right from wrong?  The answer is wisdom, which leads to another question: what is your source of wisdom.

Again, the answer is not “nothing.”   Everyone has a source of wisdom, for better or worse.  It is a problem how often the sources people use for wisdom are inadequate at best and harmful at worst.

Some might say that wisdom comes from life experience.  I think there is certainly truth to that, but it cannot be all there is.  If wisdom came solely through life experience, it could not be taught to someone by others. If that were the case, that wisdom cannot be taught, among other things we should raise the voting age from eighteen to at least twenty-eight!  But I do not believe that life experience is the only path to wisdom.

A great many people would say that their values come from within, or as they frequently express it, their values come from their hearts.  It sounds good. How can something that comes from your heart not be good?  But the Torah sees it otherwise, “…you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.”  And the Torah is right.  Where did Mein Kampf come from if not from the heart of its author?  Why did 9/11 happen if not for what was in the hearts of the terrorists?  Obviously, example after example could be cited.

My friends, this is the time of year for soul-searching.  I suggest beginning with square one: what is the source of my morality?  What is the source of my values?  From what source do I draw wisdom?  And as you ponder this most basic ultimate issue, remember what was said by G.K. Chesterton, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing.  They believe in anything.

© 2021 by Rabbi Benjamin Sendrow