Jewish Secularism

Is Jewish secularism possible?

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Final Form of Secularism--Humanism

This last form of secularism concerns such questions as these: what is it to live a good human life, to regard oneself as living well? We all, to different degrees, reflect on such questions; to never even consider this manner of question is to pursue a life that is almost unrecognizable as a human life (for example, I wouldn't know how to go about writing such a life in my fiction).

It is a risible calumny (one that is nevertheless quite often pronounced in religious quarters) to claim that secularists don't--or even that they can't reflect on such questions of ultimate value. Nonsense. Secularists obviously aren't committed to not seeking answers to questions about values that no human can really help asking in the course of a lifetime, questions about what constitutes a life well lived. Rather a secularist is committed to not seeking theistic or supernatural answers to such questions about values.

Secularism in this third, and normative sense, often goes by the name of humanism. Characteristically, secular humanists unpack their normative answers from the idea of human flourishing. In fact, it is almost impossible to see from what other source a secularist might unpack her normativity, since appeals to the transcendent are ruled out on principle. (And, of course, one need not be a metaphysical secularist in order to be a normative secularist. One might believe in the existence of God and yet argue that morality is self-grounding.)

The philosopher Charles Taylor, in his recent book The Secular Age, contends that it was a self-contained and coherent form of humanism that made the secularization of society possible. (He means by secularity something different from any of the senses of "secularism" that I've discussed. Secularity, in his sense, is not a point of view that one can choose to adopt (or not) but rather has to do with the background assumptions prevailing in a society.)

A secular age in Taylor's sense is one in which belief in transcendence isn't a perceptual 'given', as he (interestingly) claims it was before the modern age. "I would like to claim that the coming of modern secularity in my sense has been coterminous with the rise of a society in which for the first time in history humanism came to be a widely available option, I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing," which seems to me a perfect summing up of what I mean by normative secularism.

So there we have it: three forms of secularism, all of which consist in a different rejection of the transcendent in answering their respective questions: what is the best way to organize citizens into polities? what, if anything, is the ultimate explanation of our cosmos? what is it to live a fulfilled human life? For all of these questions there is the transcendent (or religious) answer, and the respective secularism commits one to the rejection of the transcendent answer.

Secularism, as a coherent world view, typically combines both metaphysical and normative secularism. This means that secularism is committed to a humanism that accepts, in Taylor's words, "no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing."

Which brings me back to secular Jewishness and the nature of its own special normative component, the importance that it places on the perpetuation of people who will self-identify, in a significant way, as Jews.

As a normative statement, secular Judaism projects itself out beyond sociology and also out beyond statements of personal taste and psychology. Its normative component doesn't reduce to the commonsense advice: if you feel that Jewish group identification is important to your personal flourishing, then you ought to find ways to identify as a Jew (comparable to: if you feel most at peace when you're out in nature, then you ought to make time for being out in nature).

Secular Jewishness promotes Jewish group identity as a value that is projected beyond any individual's own psychological makeup (which is of course what makes it a normative proposition)--a value that it is particularly concerned to project into the unlimited future. What it regards with horror is a future in which nobody will require, for his or her own personal flourishing, to self-identify as a Jew in any significant way.

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Rebecca Goldstein

Rebecca Goldstein is a novelist and professor of philosophy. She has written five novels, a number of short stories and essays, and biographical studies of mathematician Kurt G?del and philosopher Baruch Spinoza.