On Mark Regnerus and Research about Same-sex Child Rearing

I am on the fringes of a few circles in which there has been some flapping about “thought policing,” “witch hunts,” and “inquisitions” over the case of a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Mark Regnerus is being investigated by his university over questions of scientific integrity following an article he published that included data showing that adult children of same-sex couples have more emotional issues than children raised by heteronormatively “standard” couples.

I’m not really writing here about my stake in issues of academic freedom, or about the best way to characterize the investigation, and any comment I might make about the scientific integrity of the data would be speaking way, way outside my expertise. Rather, I’m writing about some of the assumptions that seem to underlie both sides of the conversation, assumptions that I noticed myself conspicuously not-sharing from the moment I read about the story.

Perhaps it shows just how long it’s been since I drank the critical-theory humanities kool-aid, but my first response upon reading about the whole thing was to wonder why people are so cranked up over this data in the first place. Both the de-bunkers and the defenders seem to share the premise that data of this kind (if not this data) could really show us whether same-sex couples ought to be raising children or not. Science will peel back the veil on nature and we’ll (finally) see for certain what sort of familial arrangement is most conducive to healthy children. That’s a falsely constrained and reductive view of “nature” and the “natural.”

The results of the study at hand just don’t seem all that surprising to me, given that our broader cultural context contains a lot of adamant voices insisting that same-sex couples raising children are not only statistically rare, but morally aberrant. Why should we expect kids to grow up without some maladjustment to society at large when, minimally—assuming that they aren’t bullied or otherwise excluded—their default awareness of the “way the world is” includes the knowledge that a significant segment of mainstream culture believes that their home and the love shared by their family is verboten? Or, on the other side, why should we be surprised when a study shows that growing up in a stable home with two parents grow up to be better adjusted than kids raised in less-stable single parent homes—irrespective of the orientation of the parents?

If it feels as if I’m being dismissive about the discipline of sociology generally, that’s not at all my intention. On some level it’s the nature of our cynical politics that wherever science touches down in issues such as this, it functions (for either side) largely as a political bludgeon, something concrete to lob at one’s ideological opponents. I get that. I think that the point of my frustration with the heat in this conversation is directed at: a) people’s expressions of surprise and anger that data like this should exist; and b) people’s convictions (whether stated or not) that data of this sort is not only a measurement of how things are, but is capable of telling us what we should do, how we ought to arrange our society. There seems to me to be a measure of pretense in the former, and a measure of backwards thinking in the latter.

theologians on television :: irony and testimony

Here is an interview of N.T. Wright on the Colbert Report. The good bishop manages to get a remarkable amount of content out, while simultaneously trying not to sound “too serious.” It’s both heartening and intriguing to watch someone speaking of the gospel in “public” space. Welcome to pop-culture’s gauntlet for serious theological thought. We’ll listen to whatever can be uttered full speed between the ironic and irreverent interruptions of the interlocuter. Colbert never breaks out of his character and therefore appears more “solid” on camera. Nonetheless, in an effort to maintain the humorous distance of irony, he doesn’t remain for long in any substantial position; Colbert’s TV persona is not serious enough to either pray or believe.

Wright is trying to communicate something very important, and makes a valiant effort (in his shoes, I’m sure I’d melt down completely), but the language about “two stages” of salvation probably isn’t all that helpful an improvement on the common-sense conception of “heaven.” Eschatology in six minutes or less—anyone up for the challenge?

H/T flying.farther

varieties of secularism :: comments (3) Taylor as secularist

Series Index

This is the second part of a post that grew too big for its fishbowl (anyone remember Otto?). 

No doubt that Taylor can be read, and should be read in this way. In fact, the greatest payoff of Taylor’s work in my own thinking (and the reason that I turned to his work in the first place) lies along these lines. But A Secular Age is not straightforwardly apologetic, and in many ways the text actually works as a secularizing force upon its readers. The book does not call religious identity into question directly but in the expansive understanding of others that it encourages.

When I visited Duke a little over a year ago, J. Kameron Carter began a lecture by pinpointing modernity’s starting date: October 23, 1492. In large part, his argument for this assertion resonates with Taylor’s basic premises in A Secular Age. Carter argued that contact with a people whose history included no interaction with the Christian gospel (who couldn’t thereby easily be assimilated into the larger narrative as infidels who had rejected it) and the accompanying concept of isolable “race” functioned as an “other” whose very existence necessitated a reevaluation of European identity. Thinking “Christian-ness” and “white-ness” as realities clearly confined to a single continent (an “old world”) constituted them as only one option among others and undermined the universality of the narrative self-understanding within which Europeans lived (and placed their “oriental” neighbors).

Taylor argues that secularization is the story of a developing simultaneous plausibility of an increasing number of identities. Secularization is found where I can imagine myself residing within my city (without too much difficulty) as an atheist, as a Muslim, as a pagan. My contact with people who actually do inhabit these identities (and their contact with me as a Christian) helps me in some small part to understand the very different motivations, goals, and narrative boundaries of others, and subverts any inclination to explain those differences away as stupidity or wickedness. When I understand another person’s perspective by trying on his or her shoes, I inevitably see the explanatory power (and thereby, the fundamental plausibility) of another perspective from the inside. That society is more secular which has a larger number of plausible shoes to try on at any given time. Western secularization, then, is the effect of an increasing ability to see things another way. 

Now, Taylor’s project is a force advancing secularization insofar as it seeks to do just that—to see the explanatory power of other perspectives from the inside. As he provides us a window into the motivations of others (and encourages us to develop the same ability), he leads us into the oftentimes perplexing situation where we can interpret an event or a situation in two or three ways simultaneously. Or, as Pascal said of Christian faith in the upswing of modernity, “There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.”

A few days ago, I made it around to reading Wilfred McClay’s review of Taylor’s book in First Things (May 2008). He makes substantially the same point about the ambivalence of Taylor’s book. He says, “[Taylor’s] heart seems to be most fully drawn to something he calls ‘the Jamesean open space,’ a condition of exhilarated ambivalence at… the place ‘where you can feel the winds pulling you now to belief, now to unbelief,’ and where you can feel fully the force of both sides of the problem.” A bit further, he says, “One wonders why this condition of Jamesean openness is not better described as a logical extension of many of the same forces that Taylor has spent his book warning against.”

In the end, then, Taylor’s book does the church a great service by exposing and undermining the monolithic character of claims for secularization, but the church must go further than Taylor has been willing to go. Being faithful to the testimony of Jesus Christ’s good news certainly doesn’t preclude being able to see things from the perspective of another rationality (which is simply charity), but it does mean entrusting one’s whole heart and soul (“losing one’s life”) to the church’s historical claims about Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and his unique relationship to the Father and Spirit. That commitment, in turn, means that the church must speak to those “others” whom it labors to understand in witness to the singularity of the Christian story, and do so by means of argument if necessary. 

varieties of secularism :: comments (2) Taylor as apologist

Series Index

There is a tension latent in Taylor’s work that becomes apparent when one attempts to situate his thought relative to secularization. Is A Secular Age advocating or critiquing secularity? Is reading A Secular Age likely to make a person more or less “secular?” No matter one’s inclination in reply to these questions, plainly the meticulous restraint of Taylor’s argument and his attentive and generous reading of every text mentioned will bear no facile, partisan answer. Taylor’s narratival argument cannot be flattened to platitude nor transformed into the endorsement of one simple trajectory. Secularization is the complex expression of a host of diverse forces before it is either “progress” or “disaster.” No one can inhabit faith naïvely in a secular age, nor can anyone credibly reduce religious belief to the persistence of delusion.

To be sure, the greatest part of Taylor’s project is to describe secularization with richly convincing detail; nevertheless, he is no disinterested party in the matter. Locating the poles of the tension in his argument will be instructive in expressing the value that I find in Taylor’s latest work.

In his paper, John Milbank argued that A Secular Age is a profoundly anti-sociological book that adds plausibility to faith by means of a profound historical and cultural apologetic. In his concluding comments, Taylor did not disagree with Milbank’s assessment, though he enumerated several ways in which his text is much more than simply an apologetic—for reasons I will discuss momentarily. Taylor’s text is only indirectly apologetic.

Taylor reserves his sharpest polemic comments for advocates of what he calls the “subtraction account.” He has little patience for those who see secularization as the stripping away of all the metaphysical dross that taints and obscures what is essentially human, some rational or natural core that underlies the confused visage of even religious people. And rightly so—positing secularization as the outcome of some inexorable progress (be it scientific, political, social, or economic) ignores the extent to which secularization is the expression of a whole network of contingent historical events and thought patterns, played out across large segments of society. When that context is left out of the picture, secularization conceals its own genealogy and purports an intimidating inevitability (by which its strongest proponents are especially seduced) that recasts religious allegiance as something parochial and antique.

Insofar as Taylor’s work exposes the clandestine sources of the secularizing impulses that reside within each of our minds, he tells a story that empowers believers to “see through” the forces that undermine faith. Secularization is the expression of cultural impulses—not the will of the Weltgeist. Genuine Christian faith (or any other form of religion) is no less inherently plausible than other culturally-bound expressions of the meaning and purpose of human life, including the convoluted and parasitic value system of reductive materialism. And insofar as many reductive modes of thinking remain—in one way or another—parasitic on religiously grounded worldviews for their ethical motivation, Taylor stands opposed to ideological secularism because it undermines the self-understandings that provide moral orientation and social coherence. On this level, Taylor’s project is a critique of secularization that deflates its pretensions of inevitability and thus, functions apologetically on behalf of believers. 

[This post outgrew its own britches, and thus, is continued in another installment]

varieties of secularism :: session five

Series Index

In the fifth session of the conference last weekend, Nilüfer Göle and Courtney Bender offered papers with sharper criticism of Taylor and Taylor’s method than any of the previous presenters. Unfortunately, I did not get very good notes from Bender’s presentation, so I’ve omitted the fragments rather than posting them. [Why am I posting my notes?]

**Nilüfer Göle – SECULAR SPACES OF THE REPUBLIC

“Law” has been banning the access of Islam in public spaces, so giving this presentation in a Law school is a bit odd.

Islam has an odd undesirability and invisibility. Islam is entering the conversation here in the penultimate session, where all three panelists are women. Here come a number of hidden and marginalized groups.

What does it mean for a Muslim to live in secular European spaces.

The immanent frame seems “given” and “natural” we are captive to the “picture” that we have, so it is difficult to see around or outside this frame.

It is more difficult to question the secular from a Muslim perspective.
This is first of all because the two seem radically inimical, contradictory.
Muslim secularity, then, is often a paltry imitation of Western models, cf. Derrida’s “iterations.” Turkey’s secularism is modeled on France’s

What would a non-Western secularism look like?

What Göle wants to do is displace the conversation by looking at secularism from the perspective of a Muslim in Europe, and from Turkey (a secular Muslim nation).

Where Muslims bring their religious identity into public space in Europe they become identified as “Muslim migrants” and are differentiated from “European Natives”

Watch Pope Benedict mention Islam (uproar). Watch R. Williams mention Sharia law (uproar). The religious dialogue of these two important figures becomes “unpure” when they offer comments on Islam and scandal erupts. Islam is an uneasy figure within European identity. Intercultural conversation de-centers traditional identity.

Turkey and France – Two Secular Republics

Thinking about these two can help us move beyond the immigrant/native divide.

Thinking about these two can also help us transcend colonial/post-colonial polemics and helps us think secularity from the inside.

The ban of the headscarf in both countries has been the center of the conversation in both countries.

We can understand French Muslim secularity through understanding the Turkish variety.

1. Secularism as a universal claim
2. Secularism as way of life, result of didactic efforts, “discipline.”
3. Women’s visibility as a marker of secularity in their sexual corporality—women as the markers of embodied secularism. Photographs of unveiled, athletic, corporate women are symbols of secularity. Where are head-scarved women allowed and where are they not? Which spaces are secular? When markedly religious people enter these spaces and act, performative events take place which unsettle the status quo.

Islam can function as a new form of religiosity, for migrants, practicing Islam can be a way to distance oneself from national identities. Sometimes those national identities are sources of embarrassment, where Islam allows people to identify themselves in other ways.

varieties of secularism :: session four

Series Index

The fourth session of the conference was by far my favorite, both José Casanova and John Milbank’s papers were excellent, thought-provoking, and close to my own area of interest in Taylor’s work. As an added bonus, Milbank included the line, “Humanism without a party no longer obtains.” Enjoy. [Why am I posting my notes?]

**José Casanova – Georgetown University – A SECULAR AGE: DAWN OR TWILIGHT?

We live “esti deus non daretur.” Self-sufficient and self-contained attempts toward fulfillment.

Modern unbelief requires the perfect tense. “We have overcome belief.” Implicit in unbelief is the narrative of “having been” a part of a believing culture that now sees other options.

All analytical and phenomenological accounts of modernity are always grand narratives. They are genealogy and they tell us who we are by giving us something of a lineage by which we can trace out our own figure against the background of those who came before us.

4 genealogical accounts of modernity:

1. Emancipation. The narrative of “progress.” Taylor does not dispute the positive claims of this account, but critiques the extent to which it thinks that it has “moved beyond” and not grown out of Christianity and faith. He also distances himself from any assertion of progress being a series of necessary changes (from “progress” as eschatology).

2. Intellectual deviation. Modernity is a problem and a significant going-astray. At some point things went off the rails and now we are stuck with the cultural morass that is modernity

3. Modernity equals Protestantism.

4. Modernity is the bastard child of Christianity. The seed conditions of secularity are present in Christianity and it thus grows out of the faith (before it turns to attack it).

[Interesting to try to place Taylor’s account in this scheme. Casanova may have made a suggestion, but it was subtle enough that I didn’t catch it. I would argue that Taylor’s retellings of modernity in Sources of the Self and A Secular Age combine elements of both the second and the fourth type.]

Two Questions to raise:

1. How are we to understand the explicit aims of Taylor’s “summa,” but also its unintended consequences? Will he be remembered as the prophet of exclusive humanism?

2. How is one to account for the radical secularity of European society, and the persistence of religious belief in a widespread way in the United States? Both sides of the Atlantic live within the immanent frame, and we are all humanists. So what accounts for the difference?

a. Perhaps the religious persistence in the states can be explained by the fact that there was no church establishment to “overcome.”

b. For this reason, American politics and American civic consciousness has rarely, if ever, had the anti-Christian edge that it has carried in Europe.

c. The “age of authenticity” came early to America because of the predominance of dissident believers and marginalized pietists. Thus the “imperative to authenticity” did not drive Americans away from belief in the way that it drove Europeans away.

How does globalization affect a secular age?

Can the immanent frame and secularity take root in places with alternate cultural backgrounds? Or will it be recognized only as a Western force growing out of Christianity (and thus as some odd extension of colonialism).

Dichotomies and mediation. Repeated attempts to eliminate the gap between the immanent and transcendent. Attempts to overcome the secular space, turning the secular religious.

Two patterns of secularism, two different patterns of modernity. Will we discover other modernities and other secularities “under” or “out of” other religions? Casanova aims at something like a “global denominationalism” where we recognize the “otherness” of various other bodies and the parochiality of our own perspective.

Race and religion are the two ways of organizing identity in America—from the first boats in the beginning to the present. Notice the difference between Senegalese immigrant communities in Paris and in the Bronx. The latter maintain their religious identity while those in Paris are often stripped.

**John Milbank – University of Nottingham
 — WHAT IS ORDINARY LIFE? TAYLOR, CATHOLICISM AND MODERNITY

A Secular Age could only have been written by a North American. Any European would not have been able to balance the German, British, and French strands of thinking and would have come off as a partisan.

When a new book comes out, often the big idea is so big that no one is able to recognize it for some time. Taylor’s book is anti-sociological in a radical way, and no one has yet recognized it. Anyone who cannot see Ivan Illich as the hero of the book hasn’t understood it.

Impersonal order. This book, astoundingly, says that we only live in an impersonal order because Christianity has betrayed itself. Chrisitianity is supposed to be incarnational, and yet has produced the most excarnational culture in history.

Why is this book anti-sociological:

Sociological accounts talk about “putting religion in its place.” Taylor respects sociology, but refuses its marginalization of religion as an inhabited (and inhabitable) perspective. Non-sociologically, Taylor claims that secularization is an entirely contingent event, one that can only be explained by a historical narrative that points toward its happening-to-us. The heroes of the book are historians and not social theorists (because the of the extent to which the latter press a prefabricated and ossified notion of “society” upon us).

Religious people are both wildly Dionysiac (in touch with crazy transcendent realities) and Puritanical (extremely well-behaved). Sex and violence both lie close to religion because both deal with wild energy. There is a reflection on ethics running throughout Taylor’s book and he is right to pay attention to both sex and violence.

What happens when we lose the “pre-ethical” religious framework behind ethics? A founding of a “tame” in the “wild.” The tameness of ethics is best grounded in the wilds of religion. Yet we’ve lost the wild energy (religion) that holds the tame (ethics) together, and so our wildness takes on a religious air—it’s where we look for meaning.

Ivan Illich—attempts to institutionalize and “tame” love. We’re trying to do without the mystical roots that make sense of and hold together our ethics. All we’ve got left is codes of civility, order-producing, bland, value-less bureaucracy. Many of us then blame this on a (rule-making) God, when in fact; it is the distance from religion that makes secularity so insipid.

Right at the end of the book, Taylor connects “reform meta-narratives” with “intellectual deviation” story of modernity. Med. Fransciscan theologians became suspicious of Greek elements, separated reason and faith, and flattened the world.

It is a certain type of piety that wants to “disenchant” the world. The animation of the world is idolatry. Anti-celebratory anti-festive sorts of religion (Calvinism, certain sorts of Evangelicalism, Wahabism, etc) are actually furthering the progress of secularity and disenchantment.

The instability of liberalism. The thinness and inadequacy of liberalism. Liberalism does not stop torture—we can see that now. Have we moved beyond the age where the driving narrative of secular humanism functions?

A link between the ethical and the festive is necessary. Humanism without a party no longer obtains. It has no way of believing in human beings, trees, or ordinary things. Religious believers are once again holding the “common-sense” vision against the “rational economic male” or the buffered self. The stance of suspended neutrality is fading away.

My question for Milbank (connecting back to his question at the end of session two):
Does the attempt to detach ethics from ontology, end up speaking of a different kind of love. A love that knows only total self-emptying (a total loss of self, rather than utter obedience)? Does making love bureaucratic and “taming it” also lead to a loss of hope? Is the best model of Christian love really utter self-emptying, or is that an appropriation of modern thinking? Would it be better to speak about committed obedience?

varieties of secularism :: session two

Here are my notes (lightly edited) from the second session of the conference this weekend (why am I posting my notes?). Papers were given by Jon Butler and Colin Jager. A response was offered by Craig Calhoun. John Milbank asked a particularly provocative question. 

** Jon Butler – GSAS Yale – PEOPLE, HISTORIANS, AND THE PHILOSOPHY PROBLEM

Historical vs. Philosophical. [A methodological quibble?] Butler is going to argue that history is primary to Taylor’s argument, even the philosophical parts.

The Philosophy problem:
The world is moved by ideas. Taylor seems to argue that ideas, and almost ideas alone seem to drive history. Taylor does a better job of doing history than merely doing intellectual history.

Historians (Butler included) will find the argument “too philosophical.”

Around 1500 the rupture occurred that will set “modernity” against everything that came before.

Belief and unbelief are “neat” philosophical terms that don’t always jive well with what happens on the ground in history.

Religion and History:

The distinguishing features of secularity is not unbelief but choice.

Taylor washes over too much differences in belief and unbelief. Who was calling who an “unbeliever?” And who was believing in which God, for what reasons, and to what end? Who is the “God” that is being believed in or disbelieved. Where did accusations of heresy come from?

Is the inconstancy of belief before 1500 as rare as Taylor seems to argue. In what way is the nature of the world’s medieval “enchantment” a slippery term? Does Taylor presume a total Christianization of Europe that history cannot bear?

Taylor’s argument against subtractive theories of secularization is valuable, but is perhaps correct only because subtraction implies a substance to begin with. Butler is not sure just how Christian the West ever was.

Butler thinks that Taylor over stresses the late modern, post-industrial age, and overstresses the role of ideas in moving Western society toward secularism. He understresses the role of environmental factors, social factors, economic factors. These economic changes had more to do with secularization than the ideas did. Taylor seems to argue for secularization without industrialization, bureaucratization, urbanization, etc.

The persistence of religious faith in America is a very significant event. What is new in our time is simple indifference toward religion.

** Colin Jager – English @ Rutgers – CHARLES TAYLOR’S ROMANTICISM

What would a non-transcendent enchantment of the world look like? What would it mean to experience the world that way? Secular spirituality.

Taylor’s method of telling the story of history is phenomenological. Taylor is really interested in a first-person perspective and moves periodically from first to third. Taylor’s method is Herderian, he is always trying to “feel his way in” to other ways of experiencing the world.

What is the place of literature in the argument about secularization. What is the changing role of literature? What happens when people are encouraged to read scriptures as “literature.”

Romanticism:
A period in which “literature” replaces religion. (but telling the story this way, while partly helpful assumes “literature” as an already-formed object waiting for “religion” to get out of the way).

Taylor’s contribution is not to be found in the plot, but in the details. A Secular Age is a book which cannot be summarized, but must be read. It must be lived through. In that sense, his book is “literary.”

Relationship between Literature and the Secular: Reading the Bible as Literature

Herder:

  • Primary Romantic figure. “Feel yourself into everything.”
  • Primary proponent of reading the bible as literature. Reading the bible as a literary text is a crucial aspect of the new understanding of literature in the late eighteenth century. Reading the OT as inspired poetry—by reading through a “feeling” hermeneutic, one can be united with the spirit in which it was written.
  • Hebrew poetry: Herder notes the centrality of Verbs
  • Lack of vowels: writing the inessential; omitting the essential (the breath, the spirit).

Spiritualization of literature and the expressivist turn.

Wasserman—the loss of a public poetry. The lack of a “background” that we all share out of which deeper metaphor and meaning can be drawn. On this count, the Romantic poets have to invent a new language in order to describe reality. In this “restructuring” a space is opened up that feels “neutral” or “free” in a way that foments disenchantment, even secularization. Seeing the world in one way and not another becomes a choice, something that one selects. The posture of selection is one of standing back at a distance, in open/neutral space. Romantic poetry starts, from a certain perspective, starts to look like trying to live without ontological commitments, something that starts looking more sinister more dubious to Taylor.

There is a tension between Taylor’s humanism and a genealogical imperative (to discover the roots, history, and context of all).

Nietzsche’s anti-humanism that feels the imperative for genealogy would be a very helpful point for Taylor to hang on to, while the Romantic humanism might actually undercut his position.

Literalism and Literature:

Wordsworth vs. Boyle: counter-accusations of idolatry.

Wordsworth wants to pen a “philosophic song” – tell the story of the world wrought with meaning. Describe the world in such a way as to bring life and depth to what seems, superficially, dead.

Boyle thinks that attributing anthropocentric qualities to inanimate objects (i.e. meaning!) is the source of idolatry.

Jager argues that Taylor is trying to fill the world with meaning—to write a philosophic song.

** Craig Calhoun – President SSRC

Taylor’s book performs what it speaks about. By placing opposing views in juxtaposition he often undermines their claim to objectivity; he subjects them to “secularizing” forces (in the sense of a surfeit of options).

Taylor’s way of doing philosophy depends on a narrative. This is neither a history of philosophy, nor a history (as such).

Critique: Along with Butler, Calhoun thinks that Taylor is too much reliant on a top-down model and places too great a weight on ideas as the prime movers of history. Butler’s main point is that “variety” cannot do the work that Taylor’s ascribes to it because there has been variety of belief-patterns all along (therefore variety itself is not inherently secularizing).

Taylor’s historical narrative hinges on providential Deism and the notion of an impersonal order. By impersonal, we might understand purposeless.

Reform movements encourage a sharpening of positions and a policing of boundaries, as well as an emphasis on the internal integrity and coherence of a movement.

Putting our story within a narrative.

** John Milbank:

Why did Christianity largely back mechanism against vitalism? Something like Boyle’s argument—that “meanings” had accreted to inanimate objects that was something like idolatry. In this Christianity is attempting to purge itself of its own ineluctable pagan parts (and feeding secularization in the process).