Disenchantment and Dogma


William Deresiewicz

Ross Douthat ponders why his brothers and sisters in the educated elite are averse to religious affiliation. The answer seems simple to me: because religion is a lie. Douthat is “puzzled” that secular-minded people think the rationality of religion has been disproven. We are puzzled that anyone as intelligent as Douthat (my favorite of the Times opinion columnists, though I often disagree with him) can still believe, not just in a higher power or cosmic intelligence, but in the whole menagerie of dogma: miracles, messiahs, resurrections, angels and demons and heavens and hells, the literal truth of ancient myths. Or, at least, I am puzzled by it. The philosophes saw through the falsehood of faith in the seventeen hundreds; I saw through it, one day in yeshiva high school in the midst of my Orthodox Jewish upbringing, at the age of fifteen. I’m frankly surprised that we’re still even talking about it.

Douthat purports to offer  proofs. “[O]ur supposedly ‘disenchanted’ world,” he writes, is characterized by “a miraculously ordered and lawbound system that generates conscious beings who can mysteriously unlock its secrets” and “who display godlike powers in miniature.” The argument is circular. It rests on terms—miracle, mystery, God—the validity of which it is meant to establish. To assert that our powers are godlike is already to assume that God exists. Besides, it’s hardly surprising that our powers are godlike if, as Feuerbach said, man created God in his own image. As for “miraculously” and “mysteriously,” those are fancy words for “we don’t know.” And why should we? One of the things that I dislike about religion is that it makes us think more of ourselves than we  should. A pack of jumped-up apes we are. The limitations of our understanding are not evidence of God; they are evidence that our understanding is limited.

Douthat’s other proof appeals to subjective experience: “hard-to-explain  encounters,” “mystical  experiences,” “intimations of transcendence.” While I’ve never been  blessed with such moments  myself, I do not doubt that they are real. The question is, what do they mean? Are they proofs of God, or merely, as a materialist might insist, aberrant neurological phenomena, like the hallucinations of a schizophrenic? And if the former, which God? I can understand how someone gets from a mystical experience to a  belief in a world-spirit or divine presence—how they can become, in a much-derided but, in my view, perfectly legitimate formulation, spiritual but not religious. What I can’t understand is how you get from there to the absurdities of dogma—to the virgin birth, or the Night Journey, or the Angel Moroni—and, what’s more, to any particular dogma, to this one rather than that.

Except to recognize that people invest in such beliefs as their culture makes available to them. Whether you arrived at faith through early training, through ratiocination, or through personal experience, you are overwhelmingly likely to be a Sunni in a Sunni environment, a Sikh in a Sikh, a Jain in a Jain. Yet every faith insists that it’s the true one, and that what everybody else believes is nonsense. Douthat speaks as if he wanted meritocrats to return to religion, and that, like Eisenhower, he doesn’t care which one. But as an orthodox Catholic, he undoubtedly thinks that only one is valid. In that sense, he and I are close. I believe that all religions are false; he believes that all religions are false but his.

But Douthat is right about one thing, and it is a very big thing. He is right (the point is only touched on in this particular piece, but he has pursued it elsewhere, and it is the very premise of the kind of argu-ment he’s making here) that secularism leaves us in a moral and spiritual and in some sense emotional vacuum. It doesn’t tell us what to do or how to live; it doesn’t connect us to anything larger than ourselves; it doesn’t bring us into relationship with other people. It leaves us alone with our terrors, our confusions, our despair.

And so we pour our  unsatisfied religious longings into an ever-shifting array of crypto-religious enthusiasms: movements, cults, conspiracy  theories,  New  Age  quackery,  fandom—now, disastrously, politics. Douthat writes that “the American educated class…regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life,” but if there is one thing that is most conspicuous about that class today, it is the volume and intensity of the prescriptions and restrictions it has heaped upon itself: what you must and mustn’t eat, say, think; how you must make love, raise  your children, spend your money, vote. To be a member of the liberal elite today is to live a life that is as regulated as an Orthodox Jew’s and to possess a conscience that’s as tortured as a Calvinist’s.

I have long struggled with the inadequacies of secularism myself, less for personal reasons than because I used to work in, and have continued to write about, the one arena in which those inadequacies cannot be ignored: higher  education. Hybrid institutions, colleges and universities suffer from an unresolvable internal contradiction. As institutions of research—knowledge factories—they are constitutionally  value-neutral. But as institutions of instruction—specifically, undergraduate instruction—they are forced to engage with questions of value whether they wish to or not. What is college for? What should we teach our students? As soon as you begin to address those ques-tions, you are confronted with issues of meaning and purpose that lie beyond the boundaries of the institution and cannot be resolved in the institution’s own terms (that is to say, in reference to the value-neutral creation of knowledge).

Indeed, for centuries, the answers to those questions were reli-gious ones. Colleges were church-affiliated institutions and understood their mission within that context. With secularization, in the late nineteenth century, the crisis set in. What would henceforth be the rationale that organized the undergraduate curriculum and the college experience more broadly? One answer, for much of the twentieth century, was civic. Colleges were seen as being in the business of preparing students for citizenship within (or at the most prestigious institutions, leadership of) democratic society. Another, not incompatible, was humanistic: the development of the “whole person”—of each individual’s capacity for human flourishing—through the study of literature, philosophy, and the other humanities.

The 60s put an end to both. The civic mission was discredited by Vietnam. The humanistic mission, which rested on the study of the Western canon, was attacked as elitist and ethnocentric. At that point, colleges basically threw up their hands. Core curricula decayed to dis-tribution requirements, general education was cannibalized by growing majors (especially in STEM fields), and each department went its own way. As Allan Bloom wrote in 1987, “There is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is.” As Harry R. Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College, wrote in 2006, “Universities are having a hard time making the case that the education they offer is about anything in particular.”

Into this vacuum stepped the rationale that was always also operating underneath the higher ones, and that the ideology of neo-liberalism, which took hold in the 1980s, elevated to a philosophical principle: the commercial. Students went to college now for the exclusive purpose of maximizing their future earnings, and the public supported the enterprise for the exclusive purpose of supplying the needs of the labor market. This was secularism at its worst: materialistic, individualistic, transactional, devoid of moral or spiritual content, hostile to ideas and ideals. It left unaddressed the ineluctable hungers of youth: for purpose, for meaning, for belonging, for belief in something larger than the self. And so, into that vacuum, has lately stepped the ideology of “social justice,” with all the certainties and all the furies of a new religion on the march. Not only students but their institutions, which had been equally in search of purpose, have been quick to take the hint. With stunning speed and unanimity, colleges and universities have rebranded themselves en masse as seminaries of social action, places where you go to learn to “change the world.”

In following this course from the dominion of the church to the ascendancy of Twitter, higher education has mirrored the vagaries of society as a whole and, in particular, of the educated elite. Civic religion; the religion of art; the twin-headed, empty-eyed beast of postmodernism and neoliberalism; now, the Great Awokening. For me, the path of art, of the humanities, has  always seemed the right one, in or out of academia. It was the place that I discovered, eight years after my anti-conversion experience in yeshiva high school, what for lack of a better word I’ll call my spirituality, my route to meaning and connection. Through books, through film, through dance, through art, through music—through the ways that visionary spirits have sought to give shape to the human  experience—I have found a measure of purchase on my own experience and have discovered a way to place myself in relationship with the human whole. And it is this path that I’ve tried to show my students.

But I have also long recognized what art, what the humanities, cannot provide them, or me. It cannot provide us with the stability or certainty of creedal religion (including the certainty that it is, indeed, the right path). The only structure humanistic study offers is the classroom; the only guidance, a welter of ambiguous representations. You read a book—and then what? You graduate from college—and then what? Art enlarges our capacities, but it doesn’t tell us what to do with them. It develops our ability to figure things out for ourselves, but we still have to figure things out for ourselves. Our wisdom is always tenuous; our convictions are always tentative. We are never sure of anything, including ourselves.

As a replacement for religion, humanism has not fulfilled the hopes that people had for it, and neither has secularism in any of its other manifestations. They never can, and they never will. And so modernity is fated to be raked by periodic gusts of religious enthusiasm—Romanticism, communism, spiritualism, even the 60s itself, with its social crusades, its shamanistic drugs, its rock and roll revival meetings. Like all millenarian movements, each enthusiasm thinks that it’s the final one, the end of history and the transfiguration of the species, and each one falls in turn. I have no doubt that, whatever their social residues, both woke-ism and the cult of Trump will go the same way.

But if the substitute religions of modernity have not fulfilled the hopes that people had for them, then neither has religion. And I don’t just mean the transcendental hopes. Institutions molder; orthodoxies ossify; the spirit dwindles; the people thirst. Religions also know their periodic gusts of madness and renewal: in Douthat’s own Catholicism, the Cathars, the Hussites, the Reformation itself; in American Protestantism, the First and Second Great Awakenings; in Judaism, Shabbtaism and Hasidism—to name just some. The certainties prove not so certain. The stabilities turn out to be unstable. Against our doubts and needs, no wall can hold.

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. And from that search, conducted in whatever state of anguish, have come the triumphs of modernity: liberal democracy, the movements for civil equality, the profundities of modern science, the glories of modern art. For death, for grief, for sin, for guilt, these boons bring no relief. But compared to the promises of supernatural religion, they do have this to recommend them. They are real.