A Secular Age:

After Durkheim

posted by Robert N. Bellah

secular_age.jpgI continue, as I reread it, to have the highest opinion of A Secular Age and to believe that it is among the handful of the most important books I have ever read, to the point where The Chronicle of Higher Education speaks of my “effusive” praise. So it was with some surprise that I found there was a point where, if I didn’t entirely differ from Taylor, I had at least some serious questions to raise.

There are several important and interesting typologies in A Secular Age. We know how central the distinction between secularity 1, 2 and 3 is. Another tripartite typology that does not map onto this primary one but raises important questions in itself is the distinction between paleo-Durkheimian, neo-Durkheimian, and post-Durkheimian social forms. This typology is based on Durkheim’s central insight that religion always is an expression of the society in which it exists, but it is finally clear that he also believes that religion is an essential form that creates and sustains the society in which it exists, so there is a two-way relation between society and religion in Durkheim’s mature theory, in spite of the widespread belief that he was a social reductionist.

The immediate problem with Taylor’s typology for a profoundly Durkheimian sociologist like me, is that a post-Durkheimian social form is a sociological impossibility. The first thing to realize is that Taylor is viewing Durkheim in this typology as a historically situated observer, and only secondarily as a theorist. That is fine with me and works well with Taylor’s conception of the paleo-Durkheimian and neo-Durkheimian social forms.

A paleo-Durkheimian social form is one in which religion is deeply embedded in the entire social structure so that it is not a differentiated sphere, or only very partially one. In this sense most pre-modern religions would be paleo-Durkheimian, and for Taylor’s purposes medieval Europe would be an example of this form.

A neo-Durkheimian social form is one in which religion is partially disembedded from the traditional social structure of kinship and village life but comes to serve as an expression of a larger social identity, namely the newly emerging nation state in the West. The post-Westphalian regime of established churches—one realm, one church—is an example. And it is this regime that is closely related to the rise of modern nationalism, which may or may not shed its religious guise, but to which the churches in many ways remain oriented.

Taylor sees Durkheim, not incorrectly, as involved in a battle between surviving remnants of paleo-Durkheimianism, represented by the Catholic-royalist right wing in turn of the twentieth century France and expressed in the effort to prosecute Dreyfus, and oppose a neo-Durkheimian republicanism. Durkheim was engaged in a lifelong effort to give a quasi-religious basis to the France of the Third Republic, and to favor the disestablishment of the Catholic Church, and in so doing he surely fits Taylor’s neo-Durkheimian category. All of this is fine so far.

But then Taylor posits a post-Durkheimian social form in which radical individualism no longer relates to a social form. Individuals are oriented to their own very diverse forms of spirituality and no longer think of their religion in terms of overarching social formations. Of course, Taylor argues that post-Durkheimian forms never wholly replace earlier ones, which continue to exist, sometimes with significant influence, as is the case of neo-Durkheimianism in the United States, though most of Europe is post-Durkheimian.

I would like to compare Taylor’s typology to one of Andrew Delbanco’s that I commented on in the Epilogue to my Festschrift in 2002. Delbanco organizes his small book, The Real American Dream, into three chapters entitled God, Nation, and Self. These he sees, using Emersonian terminology, as “predominant ideas” which have successively organized our culture and our society, providing a context of meaning which can bring hope and stave off melancholy. In speaking of God as the predominant idea that first organized our culture Delbanco is thinking primarily of the New England Puritans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nation became the predominant idea from the time of the Revolutionary War until well into the twentieth century. Most recently Self seems to have replaced, or if not replaced, subordinated, God and Nation as the predominant idea of our culture.

Delbanco does not argue for strict chronological epochs, seeing many overlaps. Nor does he emphasize quite as much as I would or Taylor would the continuing centrality of Nation as a “predominant idea” in the United States, but who can doubt that, especially among the educated classes, Self has become a powerful focus. With some problems of whether the Puritans were paleo- or incipiently neo- (indeed in my piece I argue that all three forms are incipient in Puritanism) Delbanco’s typology maps rather easily onto Taylor’s.

I would like to raise two questions about whether Taylor’s post-Durkheimian social form is theoretically really post-Durkheimian. The first is whether Durkheim himself was not a major prophet of post-Durkheimianism insofar as he preached the religion, indeed the worship, of the individual. In his famous essay, “Individualism and the Intellectuals,” published at the height of the Dreyfus controversy, Durkheim speaks of the human person (personne humaine) as “sacred in the ritual sense of the word. It partakes of the transcendent majesty that churches of all times lend to their gods. . . It is a religion in which man is at once the worshipper and the god.” Durkheim goes on to say that “this religion is individualistic, since it takes man as its object and since man is an individual by definition. . . Nowhere are the rights of the individual affirmed with greater energy, since the individual is placed in the ranks of sacrosanct objects. . . There is no political reason which can excuse an attack on the individual when the rights of the individual are placed above those of the state.”

At the same time Durkheim wants to distinguish between individualism and egoism: “After all, individualism is the glorification not of the self but of the individual in general. It springs not from egoism but from sympathy for all that is human, a broader pity for all sufferings, for all human miseries, a more ardent need to combat them and mitigate them, a greater thirst for justice. Is there not herein what is needed to place all men of good will in communion?”

Now Taylor’s definition of post-Durkheimianism sees it as a kind of expressive individualism in which “there is no necessary embedding of our link to the sacred in any particular broader framework, whether ‘church’ or state.” Whether that is entirely the case I will want to question momentarily, but first we have to realize that for Durkheim, the religion of the individual or the religion of humanity was in an important, though ambiguous, sense, the religion of France. That is to say that Durkheim’s form of what Taylor calls neo-Durkheimianism, that is a fusion of faith and nation, is almost devoid of any particularism.

Now the French are notoriously famous for thinking that their form of universalism is universalism itself and Durkheim himself engaged to some degree in French chauvinism when he wrote an anti-German pamphlet during World War I in which he compared the universal ideals of France, which stood for civilization itself, with the narrow particularism of German nationalism, elevating the German nation above all others. And in his critique of American pragmatism, mainly the work of William James, which was coming into vogue in France in the early twentieth century, Durkheim condemned pragmatism for not meeting the standards of “clear and distinct ideas” of French thought descending from Descartes.

Nonetheless if one looks at the substance of Durkheim’s religion of the individual, particularly in comparison with any other nationalism of the time, particularly American nationalism with its strong emphasis on Americans as the chosen people, it is remarkably resonant with the substance, not only of expressive individualism as found in what Robert Wuthnow speaks of as the “seekers,” as opposed to the “dwellers,” but also with the substance of what has come to be known as the human rights regime and which provides the ideology for many NGOs and international social movements such as environmentalism, feminism and anti-economic globalization. So I would suggest that Durkheim is a marginal case, on the borderline between what Taylor calls neo- and post-Durkheimianism.

But that leads me to my next point. Durkheim never imagined that his religion of the individual would be post-Durkheimian in the sense that it would be an ideology for individuals without any larger social membership. For him the religion of the individual or the religion of humanity really did involve membership in humanity as such—France might be an exemplar, but it could never be the only expression of this genuinely universal faith. And indeed Durkheim’s thought is particularly resonant with tendencies abroad in the world today. He tempers his strong emphasis on human rights with a deep concern for human sympathy and human communion. We can see a similar emphasis arising from concern that the human rights ideology of today requires an element of solidarity, of genuine identification with others, no matter where on the globe they are.

I think here of some recent work of Jürgen Habermas in which he speaks of the necessity of a global civil society based on what he calls “obligatory cosmopolitan solidarity.” Now both Durkheim and Habermas are Kantians, yet they are able to talk about communion and solidarity as much as about human rights; indeed they see the former as indispensable to the defense of the latter. But this means membership, in Habermas’s sense, in an explicitly global civil society. There is one more moral source here, to use Taylor’s terminology, namely socialism, for which solidarity is a fundamental term. Both Durkheim and Habermas are socialists, which they didn’t get from Kant.

There is an even more interesting link here: Durkheim’s use of the term communion has Christian overtones. We might remember that in the remarkable meeting between Habermas and then Cardinal Ratzinger, about a year before the latter became Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger remarked that he had always admired social democracy and felt that the teachings of social democracy had been a positive influence in Europe, and that indeed they are close to Catholic social teachings. That might be obvious to some of us, but might cause headaches among some conservative Catholics, especially in the United States. And we must remember that social democracy is a movement that involves membership, though, struggling at the moment to perpetuate itself.

But I would like to raise the question as to whether, at this moment in world history, the kind of moral consciousness that Taylor describes as post-Durkheimian might not just be the chrysalis of global solidarity and global civil society. Taylor quotes Jean-Paul Schlegel as saying that the values today constantly emerging from studies of young people are “human rights, tolerance, respect for the convictions of others, liberty, friendship, love, solidarity, fraternity, justice, respect for nature, humanitarian intervention.” If these values are seriously held, they are well on the way to Habermas’s cosmopolitan solidarity.

Another element that Habermas touches on that might point in the same direction is that the decline of nationalism in Europe might be precisely an opening to a genuinely transnational or postnational solidarity. He speaks poignantly of “we [Germans? Europeans?], the sons and daughters, and grandchildren of a barbaric nationalism.” Having (largely) outgrown barbaric nationalism there is still a need for a larger solidarity, or so Habermas thinks.

Unhappy us: we Americans are not the sons or daughters or grandchildren of barbaric nationalism—we are still barbaric nationalists. It is this that leads Taylor to characterize us, relative to Europe, as still largely neo- rather than post-Durkheimian. It is this that makes us such bad citizens of the world, failing to sign countless international treaties and covenants that the rest of the world now adheres to, or, if we do sign, adding so many codicils and qualifications that we almost entirely exempt ourselves from any obligations. Who can tell a barbaric nation what to do? Yet there are many Americans, not all of them young, who hunger deeply for a humane and solidary world in which our nation can participate but not dominate. We are far from entirely isolated from tendencies that now reverberate around the world as fast as a computer can click.

Yet there is still another, more ominous aspect of the world today that must inhibit any undue optimism about wonderful ideas that have been around for a long time in the great religions and in modernity at least since Kant’s essay on universal peace. That is the stern Durkheimian warning that ideas cannot float too far from a viable social base if they are to be effective. Durkheim’s individualism was ethical, indeed was, in Talcott Parsons’s words, “institutionalized individualism” (though many today would think that individuals and institutions are in principle antagonistic), that is embodied in social solidarities at a number of levels. But an individualism come loose from social solidarities is also a social product. Taylor himself, without using Michel Foucault’s still remotely Durkheimian language of the “social production of the individual,” comes close to it in the following paragraph:

My hypothesis is that the post-war slide in our social imaginary more and more into a post-Durkheimian age has destabilized and undermined the various Durkheimian dispensations. This has had the effect of either gradually releasing people to be recruited into the fractured culture, or in the case where the new consumer culture has quite dislocated the earlier outlook, of explosively expelling people into this fractured world. For, while remaining aware of the attractions of the new culture, we must never underestimate the ways in which one can also be forced into it: the village community disintegrates, the local factory closes, jobs disappear in ‘downsizing,’ the immense weight of social approval and opprobrium begin to tell on the side of the new individualism.

My question here is, how far can this negative post-Durkheimianism go? At what point does a fractured society, one without common values and increasingly without common norms, cease to function? There are, I believe in my sociological heart, certain clear Durkheimian constraints against too much fragmentation. Classically it is at this point that new forms of solidarity, ones based on fear, such as those promulgated by Putin or Bush, begin to take over. So I see a deep tension between solutions to the problem of deep social fracture: regression into classic authoritarianism such as has been all too common at all times and places and especially in the last 100 years, or a movement toward new and larger solidarities, that will not replace the old ones but that just might reinvigorate them.

The idea of global solidarity and global civil society has become a regulative idea without which many of us would find it hard to hope at all, but it remains to be seen whether it is an idealistic pipe dream or the only realistic future we have. Perhaps it is too much to ask that Taylor in this marvelous and richly informative book answer this question, but that he doesn’t finally even seem to ask it is a problem.

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