varieties of secularism :: keynote address

Series Index

Below are my notes from Charles Taylor’s presentation at the end of the conference a little more than a week ago. I’ve put a bit more effort into filling in the gaps of these notes to make them more intelligible than the notes from the previous sessions. Hopefully that effort pays off in increased understanding. [Why am I posting notes?]

VARIETIES OF SECULARISM IN A SECULAR AGE

Apologies for an “incomplete” book. [!] It’s unapologetically a master narrative—an attempt to tell the whole story. Master narratives are unavoidable because we all live within them. We all tell the story of our world (in however proscribed a manner) in order to “place” our lives in context. The only way to beat a bad master narrative is with a slightly better one. This book is an attempt to trace the master narrative of secularization, the book is introduced at a time when the old narratives were crumbling. Forty years ago many people expected us to have progressed beyond religion altogether. The more a society develops, so the story goes, the more secular (in the sense of atheistic) it becomes.

What was wrong with the “old” narratives of secularization is that they were subtraction stories. Once inhibitions to “secularity” (like superstition, disbelief in science, parochialism) are gotten rid of, then the secular simply comes to the surface, secularity is taken as “basic” or “natural” for humanity in a question begging way. In other words, the presumption of many people is that “rational” or “natural” human beings have no religious commitments; religious commitments are something added to humanity, an unnecessary accretion.

Against this kind of story Taylor asserts that we all “construct” a way of being in the world. What distinguishes modernity is not only what we have lost, but what we have created. Secularity is not the result of getting rid of the impediments to secularity, but rather is one way of constructing human social patterns among many.

The enchantment which was “un-done” by modernity (i.e. “disenchantment”) is not the same as the enchantment which is being reasserted in the present. Taylor is attempting to look back through history to find the “boundaries” at which we began to see things differently. We cannot go back. If by “re-enchantment” we intend to restore the possibility of naïve or unreflective belief in the transcendent comparable to what we imagine to be the case for people of the past, we will only be disappointed. Re-enchantment of that sort is a project that cannot be attained because we cannot simply change the way that we see the world; we have crossed a boundary which enables (and forces) us to see in a new way.

It is not totally clear what the boundary is between the spiritual and personal. In an enchanted world, the self is porous, and includes the possibility of things like possession by spirits. In our “self-understanding,” our “selves” are simply not porous in this way. We have buffered selves, and in that we have lost a sensibility and a sensitivity toward the transcendent in our daily operations. The difference lies not in ideas, the difference lies in (at least) two ways of experiencing the world.

The immanent frame:

What is a “social imaginary”: an attempt to describe the way in which a whole society or group understands what is acceptable, meaningful, and worthwhile. It is the understanding we share about society. It is what people have to have a grip on in order to make sense of their own actions. [This seems quite similar to what Taylor calls elsewhere the “background.”]

An example of a shift in social imaginary: 17th c. revolutions were justified by looking backwards—they were efforts at restoration. The American Revolution starts this way (the violated rights of English-folk rather than the dream of a glorious “land of the free”). But the Declaration justifies a revolution on the basis of a forward-looking stance. Revolutions today can only be justified publicly by articulating what they will accomplish; they are forward looking events. Our conception of “what justifies a revolution” has shifted. When did those shifts take place and what were the underlying logical steps that led to the shift?

Taylor’s use of the word “fullness” has been widely misinterpreted. Taylor only means to signify a quality of life that we all seek to attain. Our distinction between “higher” and “lower” points in our life (and our attendant desire to have more of the “higher” and less of the “lower”) points to what Taylor means by “fullness.” We all make these distinctions and make our life choices in these terms, regardless of what we have in mind when we think of something analogous to “fullness.” We fail to understand other people (especially Other people) when we fail to understand their particular notion of a motivating life-intensity (i.e. “fullness”).

The main thesis:
Reform Master Narrative (in Christendom): the attempt to bring the masses up to the ideal, real, best, most authentic, expression of Christianity. The first seeds of the RMN show up in the high medieval period. The RMN came to be seen as genuinely plausible. The RMN is the first seed of secularization in the N. Atlantic world. Attempting to bring everyone “up” to the higher expression of the faith changed the perception of the faith to those who were preached to. It made a distinction between “the way things are down here” and the way that they should be “up there” (in the higher, ideal sense). All of this leads to the immanent frame. What we think of as the Lower, (the way things are) is something can be understood on its own terms (and must be in order to be brought “up”). In the “old” world understanding things within our immanent frame simply would not have made sense.

Conditions of Belief:

The galloping multiplication of the “options” of belief. The presence of a multiplicity of plausible identity and belief structures makes living within any single account feel narrow, cramped, or implausible. In other words, it makes believing anything difficult.

Taylor writes as a Catholic, but he is trying to start a conversation with everyone. He is trying “explain” in a larger sense. Taylor’s kind of Catholic has a calling to understand very different perspectives, and especially the concept of fullness within those other perspectives.

We don’t understand ourselves until we drop the crutches of narratives that paint the other perspectives in negative terms. Until we cease to regard people who view the world in ways very different from our own as “irrational” or “unnatural” then we don’t authentically understand the degree to which our own views of rationality and naturalness are equally contextual. There are better and worse ways of seeing the world and we should talk about these, but our own views don’t actually grow any more plausible simply by denigrating the views of others without making at least minimal efforts to understand where they are coming from.

It is possible to build friendship across these boundaries, based on a sense of what motivates the other. Taylor is not looking for an “average” position that is somehow more foundational than distinct traditions (by means of transcending them—this is the myth of modernity). But an “agonistic” friendship across the boundaries is a worthwhile goal. “Agonistic” not because conversation ought to tend toward battle, but because we all come to the table thoroughly owning our own positions and intent on both understanding and being understood across difference (rather than around it…) A reconciliation across differences.

Is the book an apologetic? It can be read that way. And Taylor is speaking to his co-religionists along with many, many others. He’s not a big fan of “Catholicism from high places.” But the book is also bigger than an apologetic project for the faithful, it’s a book for all of us. We need enough people who have a gut sense that there is something valuable in the Other that merits an understanding across the boundaries of difference.

Charles Taylor :: secularization conference

Tomorrow morning Carolyn and I are going to drive over to New Haven in order to spend a few days listening to people interact with Charles Taylor’s recent book, A Secular Age. Taylor has become something of a hero to both of us in the last year or so, and we are both looking forward to meeting him there. In particular, Taylor (along with Alasdair MacIntyre) has helped me to articulate the instincts and patterns of thinking that foment doubt. Situating those patterns of thought historically and culturally  does not make them go away, but it strips them of any claim to absolute objectivity—and in so doing, increases the plausability of faith (which nonetheless always remains a “leap”). This is not the place to go into the exact shape of my doubts, but by “patterns of thought” I am referring to fairly common tendencies in our culture; a penchant for reductive explanation, instrumentalizing and pragmatist thought, and the critiques of characters like Feuerbach and Freud.  Taylor did not set out to write an apologetic in either Sources of the Self or A Secular Age. Nonetheless, both of these books have allowed me to see through my own doubts in fairly significant ways—which is something I count as a great gift. 

In the next few days, I intend to post basic outlines/notes from a few of the sessions at the conference (a schedule is available here). I am not sure whether we will have internet access in New Haven, but regardless postings will appear soon. Your thoughts and comments are not only welcome but solicited. 

To start things off, I’ll offer a few quotes that adumbrate the basic argument behind Taylor’s attempt to tell the story of secularization in a new way in A Secular Age:  

“The change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith. There will be people who feel bound to give it up, even through they mourn its loss. This has been a recognizable experience in our societies, at least since the mid-nineteenth century. There will be many others to whom faith never even seems an eligible possibility. There are certainly millions today of whom this is true…

“Now in this regard, there has been a titanic change in our western civilization. We have changed not just from a condition where most people lived ‘naively’ in a construal (part Christian, part related to ‘spirits’ of pagan origin) as simple reality, to one in which almost no one is capable of this, but all see their option as one among many. We all learn to navigate between two standpoints: an ‘engaged’ one in which we live as best we can the reality our standpoint opens us to; and a ‘disengaged one in which we are able to see ourselves as occupying one standpoint among a range of possible ones, with which we have in various ways to coexist.”

For Taylor, the story of secularization is not primarily the story of the removal of religious figures from positions of political power (the disestablishment of churches and the separation of church and state), nor is it the story of the decline of religious belief and practice (however that may be measured), rather the story of secularization is the story of the plurality of plausible interpretations for human experience, and the inability to reach a perspective where one can finally and decisively inhabit one interpretation or another. As such, Taylor is arguing that secularization is not the result of the inevitable march of scientific knowledge or changes in political and economic structures; rather, it arises as the result of the surfeit of plausible self-understandings, some of which have no recourse to any transcendence.

The thesis of the text, (which will likely need some unpacking in the next few posts) is this:

“I would like to claim that the coming of modern secularity in my sense [the third “story” in the paragraph above] has been coterminous with the rise of a society in which for the first time in history a purely self-sufficient 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. Of no previous society was this true.”

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Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3, 12, 18.