Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Taylor's critique of secularism

Charles Taylor, winner of this year's Templeton Prize

I read here yesterday that Charles Taylor is a Roman Catholic.
I read some of Taylor's essays at uni. He wrote critiques of social theory, and I was particularly taken with his analysis of Foucault. His style had all the best of Anglo-American clarity, infused with a sort of gentleness and patience which was very becalming. I wasn't myself inclined to be so generous with Foucault. I read other essays of his, and was generally impressed. I know that he's something of a Hegel scholar, which in itself would require almost supernatural patience, as well as a certain kind of mind, one far removed from my own.
So, on hearing that he's RC, I'm frankly gobsmacked. I've always been tempted to claim that the term Roman Catholic thinker is oxymoronic, pace the Jesuits and their ilk. I would amend that, though, to RC thinkers about religion. Taylor didn't mention religion in the essays I read, but now he has written a lengthy book called A Secular Age, in which he apparently writes approvingly of the religious mindset while stringently avoiding the issue of God as broached by Dawkins and others. This is hardly surprising, given that as a catholic he must not only believe in a god but in that God, the mass murderer and moral monstrosity later reshaped by Aquinas et al as the sum of all perfections, etc. Presumably he also believes in the trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection and transubstantiation. He may also believe in the infallibility of the pope. Then again, he might be an unorthodox catholic with dissenting views on any or all of these doctrines. I suspect that A Secular Age, in spite of its 874 pages, will answer none of these questions.

The NYT review of the book says this:

[Taylor] argues for “the ‘deconstruction’ of the death of God view” proclaimed by Nietzsche. To see secularization as simply the separation of church and state, the alienation of truth from power, and the rise of skepticism and worldliness, he writes, is to miss the deeper and more enduring residues of religion and the spiritual life, the true “bulwarks of belief” that in his view have hardly eroded. Taylor argues against the “subtraction stories” of modernity, in which religious belief and other “confining horizons” are “sloughed off,” leaving the mind without faith or piety. Instead, he argues, “Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.” Even the old distinction between the sacred and the profane has taken on new meaning. Instead of disappearing, God is now “sanctifying us everywhere,” including “in ordinary life, our work, in marriage, and so on.”

Now, what does all this actually mean? It's not quite as murky as theology, but it's getting there.
Firstly, the Nietzschean proclamation of the death of God is problematic. He presumably meant the death of God as concept, but his rhetoric lays itself open to a type of concrete thinking - and of course Nietzsche played on this. Not only does it paradoxically invoke the death of an immortal, but it plays into the concepts of death and immortality that are part and parcel of all religions - ancestor spirits, transfiguration, reincarnation etc. The 'deconstruction' of the idea makes me shudder, so I think I'll just ignore it.

The key sentence in the above para is, to me, the second one. To see secularization as simply the separation of church and state, the alienation of truth from power, and the rise of skepticism and worldliness, he writes, is to miss the deeper and more enduring residues of religion and the spiritual life, the true “bulwarks of belief” that in his view have hardly eroded.

It's possibly true that 'the bulwarks of belief' haven't faded that much, though those places where they have been most eclipsed have been those most affected by Enlightenment thought. The separation of church and state in those countries, and its spread around the globe, is a very positive phenomenon, as is the 'alienation of truth from power', most particularly the waning power of the Catholic church. Skepticism, too, is a healthy thing [I would say that, but note: nothing in excess], and worldliness has always been a pretty useful survival strategy. Just what the deeper residues of religion are, exactly, is unknown to me, as I'm one of the growing number of people in the West who has no need for religion or spirituality as commonly defined [or, more often, not defined]. That a great many people do profess some kind of 'faith' or adherence to a spiritual life is an interesting and important phenomenon, and one which requires investigation. A number of people are investigating the phenomenon, though these investigations are still in their infancy and a great deal more work needs to be done.

From the point of view of science, religious belief is indeed a confining horizon. Early scientists had to do battle with the confining belief that the Earth must be the centre of the universe, then there was the confining belief that humans were 'special', made in God's image, with 'dominion over the Earth'. Even liberal believers are still contending that the universe must be purposeful, and that the ultimate purpose must be the complexity of consciousness [as exhibited, of course, in homo sapiens]. It seems that this is what faith and piety is reduced to among some liberal theologians, a self-serving view about humanity's centrality in the scheme of things, for which we must thank our supernatural 'father'.

Taylor seems to have been rather more evasive about these terms, which is hardly more satisfactory. In any case, I would challenge his assertion that Western modernity [a too-vague term] is about new constructions of self-understanding, unrelated to 'perennial features of human life'. What are these perennial features? Presumably he's again referring to religious belief and its related rituals. We cannot as yet know how perennial these are [or indeed how perennial are any features in the constant flow of evolving human life and behaviour], but by constructions of self-understanding I suspect he means modern science, an impressive construction indeed. Science has been so phenomenally successful in such a short time-span, that to see it as atypical of or somehow contrary to the abiding concerns of humanity is perhaps forgivable, especially as it has so revolutionised our understanding of ourselves as a species in a mere 150 years. The question is, are these understandings mere ephemeral constructions? I doubt it, and I think the methods by which we arrived at those understandings will bring us many more surprises and revolutions in the years to come.

That'll do for now. I might look further into this review later. I think Taylor will have many interesting things to say in his book, but evading the particularities of religious belief looks like a bit of a problem for him.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

pavlov's cat