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Charles Taylor and secularism


I first encountered Charles Taylor’s work in graduate school when John Peters assigned Sources of the Self in one his seminars, if memory serves one connected to Walter Benjamin.  Taylor, winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize, is one of those scholars whose work always impresses – he is amazingly erudite, one of the few researchers in wide circulation able to speak competently and carefully on topics that require intricate knowledge of whole centuries of intellectual history.  His recent book, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2007), does not disappoint and I’m working my way through it with great interest.  So far for me it lives up to the impossibly high praise of the jacket blurbs (Alasdair MacIntyre: “There is no book remotely like it.  It will be essential reading”; Robert Bellah: “This is one of the most important books written in my lifetime…  This is his breakthrough book”).  And although other very intelligent accounts of these issues are in print (such as Talal Asad’s The Formations of the Secular and recent work by Oliver Roy), Taylor’s is the most historically specific even as it ranges the most widely.

Christopher Insole has expressed the criticism that Secular Age “evokes the same sort of awe and bewilderment that we might feel about a map of the world that was the same size as the world,” and certainly Taylor’s nearly 800-page argument demands sustained attention.  But because one of the central concerns of the book is to understand what secularism means at a time when religiosity seems to have a firmer grasp than ever on public life, this huge historically inflected topic seems to me best explicated by Taylor’s careful tendency to layer artifact upon artifact, resulting in an accumulating sense of an impossibly complex situation made comprehensible.

What are we to make of the conflicting forces that have made religion more attractive to millions than ever (as perhaps most fully signified by the collapse of the atheistic Soviet regime) even while the apparently secularizing force of economic globalizations proceed so fully apace?  Vast emerging middle classes aspire to the attractions offered by broadly secular and religiously tolerant cultures even while millions more fight for the pure doctrines of often fundamentalist faiths.  The result, an apparent relationship of inevitable hostility between secularists and the faithful, perpetuates the sense of an always already polarized back and forth that can never be resolved except at the flashpoints of terror and resentment.

Taylor’s point of entry is, following many others, to examine how the rise of modernism created the conditions for unbelief but also sustained broader commitments to religious faith, a route that would typically lead one to examine the contours of Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment thinking, the debates over the Reformation and the vast reach of the European welfare states, to name a few.  In contrast to these forces, Taylor adds a detailed discussion of the impetus to Reform.  Discontent with religious hierarchy led the church to widen the availability of religious instruction, but this only accelerated the impulses to secularism.  Religious mystery (the dominant motif of a pre-modern world where atheism was essentially inconceivable) was displaced by a tendency toward self-improvement and the possibilities of world re-making, thus producing a disenchanted world where faith continued to attract followers but only by promising human prosperity, and in a way where unbelief not only made increasing sense but might be tolerated as one of a number of available choices.

Such an account positions Taylor to respond forcefully to scholarly accounts that either naturalize the move to secularization as historically inevitable (predicated on a sense that secularism constitutes an awakening realization that God is Dead or on the view that societies will naturally gravitate away from an interest in mystery as they become more complex) or logically inevitable, where modernity is all that is left standing “after the old myths and legends have been exploded” (571).  Taylor’s account also helps explain how secularization creates a culture where religion and unbelief and other religions can coexist without inevitable self-destruction, since at some level both share a common commitment to moral improvement.  This common ethical impulse implies the possibility that societies might succeed in navigating the other complicated cross-cutting impulses of religion and secularism.

In imagining the way forward politically, the old view that the state must actively limit the domain of religious sensibilities has been much attacked by those who argue such a move disenfranchises devout majorities.  The media is saturated by the arguments of commentators like Newt Gingrich and Bill O’Reilley and Ann Coulter who regularly rail against secularism (a new book by John Bolton, the bully who President Bush appointed to briefly represent the US in the United Nations, is said to argue against “the High Minded elite who worship at the altar of the Secular Pope).  And the conservative revival of the last forty years was partly predicated on the sense articulated by Jerry Falwell that secular humanism “challenges every principle on which America was founded,” including “abortion on demand, recognition of homosexuals, free use of pornography, legalizing of prostitution and gambling, and free use of drugs” (qtd. in Miller).  There is also the complication of the American case, which seems to deny the historically popular idea that modernity will always weaken the attractiveness of religious conviction.  With respect to the first concern, Taylor’s argument implies that even the secular state will inevitably appeal to its citizens in ways that connect to underlying ethical systems that possess something of an affinity for the sacred; with the respect to the second, Taylor’s account helps explain how American reformist movements could simultaneously unfold as both mainly secular (Progressivism, suffrage) and religious (Moral Hygiene, temperance) forces.

SOURCES:  Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2007); LIsa Miller, “In Defense of Secularism,” Newsweek, 2/25/08, p. 15; John Gray, “Faith in Reason: Secular Fantasies of a Godless Age,” Harpers, January 2008, pgs. 85-89; Christopher Insole, “Informed Tolerance: How to Deal With Disagreements About Truth in an Age of Fragmented Realities,” Times Literary Supplement, 2/1/08, pgs. 3-5.

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