A Secular Age, Religion in the public sphere:

What holds us together

posted by Robert N. Bellah

secular_age.jpgIn his response to my concern about whether “post-Durkheimian” is a viable category, Charles Taylor goes part way in answering my query, but, in my view, not far enough. When he writes “I don’t think it’s possible to have a successful, modern democratic society without some strong sense of what unites us as citizens,” he is conceding my basic Durkheimian point, that a society without common values is not a viable society. It is his next move that gives me pause. That is, “How to define what holds us together, while specifically abstracting from any particular religious affiliation, but also from any over-arching ‘lay’ philosophy.” If there is to be no religious aspect to the sense of what unites us as citizens, how can that sense avoid being in some sense a “lay” philosophy, even if different from the inherited lay philosophy of Jacobin republicanism? In short, what Taylor offers us sounds, when he speaks of “abstracting from” previous particularisms, very close to what Jürgen Habermas calls “abstract constitutional patriotism.” I guess I just don’t believe that anything abstract, lacking in symbols drawn from either the religious or the political ideological past, can ever provide enough energy to succeed in “holding us together.” Though such an abstract common commitment is still, in my sense, Durkheimian and not post-Durkheimian, which would imply the lack of any common agreements whatsoever, it is still such an eviscerated Durkheimianism that I doubt it can do what it is supposed to do.

While I agree with Taylor that what we need at the moment is neither paleo- nor neo-Durkheimianism as he defines them, I would argue for a more substantive and less abstract alternative. For one thing, I think symbols drawn both from the religious and the ideological past can, if phrased properly, help us move from the past into the future. In my initial discussion of Taylor’s use of the idea of “post-Durkheimianism” I suggested that Durkheim himself, in his religion of the individual or religion of humanity, was already moving into a new phase that would transcend both the old established church ideology and modern nationalism. He did so not by rejecting, but by redefining inherited symbols. He spoke of the inherent rights of individuals, in principle immune to state interference, but also of communion and solidarity that would provide a social basis for individual rights. He was thus drawing from both Enlightenment and Christian symbolic vocabularies.

In my view, both Taylor and Habermas, however each uses the word “abstract,” are using quite concrete and historically grounded symbols for the kind of common consciousness they are advocating. Habermas speaks of “obligatory cosmopolitan solidarity,” and Taylor has long affirmed the international human rights regime. What I think is happening here is that both of these extraordinarily influential thinkers are implying that the common consciousness that must undergird any viable society can no longer be limited to the boundaries of that society. So if one is to describe an inclusive Canadian citizenship that will include all Canadians regardless of ethnicity, religion or ideology, it can only be a sense of Canada as embodying ideals that now transcend Canada or any particular nation and that are, in principle, global. Durkheim’s effort to think of France not as a particular nation but as the embodiment of universal values was phrased too narrowly given the limitations of his time, but he was on the right track. If we are to give up religious exclusivism and barbaric nationalism, then we must move to a next higher level of global solidarity and human rights. This level will not be “abstract” but can be phrased in quite powerful symbolic terms. It can legitimate any group, including any nation, that adheres to it, while it also affirms that none of these particular groups can claim absolute allegiance or solidarity, for the only allegiance and solidarity that have a claim to ultimacy today must be global. I am aware of how easy it is to claim universalism for some limited particular position, and particularly the danger of Western nations using universalism to legitimate imperial claims, so the global universalism of which I speak must involve the full participation of all the great world cultures and will have symbolic contributions from many of them. But though I think the great cultural transition we are presently experiencing will not be easy or free from conflict, I would still argue that what must replace paleo- and neo-Durkheimianism is a global Durkheimianism.

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2 Responses to “What holds us together”

  1. avatar Avi Bernstein says:

    In the 1940s and 1950s Mordecai Kaplan, an American Jewish philosopher, rabbi, and Professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, argued that Jews should see themselves as members of two religions–Judaism, to be sure, but also the religion of democracy. For Kaplan, who took Durkheim and sociology very seriously, the point of invoking the category of religion in democracy’s case was precisely to make readers consider the solidarity function of religion. For Kaplan “the religion of democracy” would aim at building solidarity with an international movement, and to strengthen a human rights regime which would protect minorities, and non-conformists.

    “The inner weakness of the democratic peoples,” Kaplan insisted, “have been a factor in fanning the ambition of agressors.”

    In 1945 in the context of the then well-known “Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion in their relation to the Democratic Way of Life,” a major gathering of political intellectuals in the United States, Kaplan also sought to devise an Aristotelian “cultural esperanto” in order to provide a philosophical anthropology for this vision, as an international vision of cultural reconstruction. This makes Kaplan’s concrete efforts all the more interesting for this reader, as his Aristotelian interests recall the more recent writings of MacIntyre, Taylor, and Robert Bellah himself.

    Kaplan also took the trouble to try to move beyond what Robert Bellah alludes to as an “abstract consitutional patriotism” (Habermas) in realizing his distinctive brand of Durkheimian thinking. In The Faith of America, which he edited with J. Paul Williams and Eugene Kohn, he actually gave us a liturgy for the American civil-religious calendar, and challenged Americans to cultivate a democratic piety, an appreciation of these days and their liturgical meanings as sources of self.

    Certainly, many people looking at The Faith of America today would find it unbearably quaint, dated, and provincial; and, alas, this is just the sort of difficulty that becoming concrete, in the way Kaplan did, brings to mind.

    This is not, to be sure, an argument against the undertaking–Jeffrey Stout’s recent exploration of Emersonian piety comes to mind as an exceedingly modest, if interesting, beginning at cultural concreteness in its enthusiasm for Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” and Ralph Waldo Ellison’s Invisible Man; but taking a proposal like Kaplan’s into consideration can be a sobering reminder of the challenge of concreteness.

    Avi Bernstein
    Hebrew College
    Newton Centre, MA

  2. avatar Brad Simcock says:

    As I read this comment by Robert Bellah and Avi Bernstein about the possible futures for what Durkheim called the religion of humanity, I found myself looking for signs in the world today where commitments to it are being acted out in concrete ways. There are many emergent iconic moments of heroic and self-sacrificing commitment that have gathered force over time. They have become continuing, global touchstones of response for people from many nations to the cause of a true religion of humanity.

    Many of these sites have acquired a virtual as well as concrete reality thanks to the archiving and access to their imagery on the web. I think of the man alone confronting a tank in Beijing 20 years ago. And the photo essays of the streets of Tehran today. These images are many and everywhere present.

    Then there are the actual sites that continue to draw millions: the Holocaust museum and in Germany itself, the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, not to mention Berlin itself, a stirring site of continual sacred recommittments to the lessons of WWII. (Germany has never had more projects under construction to memorialize this sad epoch in its history than it does in 2009).

    Finally, there is the Memorial to the students slain in Mississippi at Western College, Miami University of Ohio, where they were trained and then sent forth to die for the cause in very short order. This year is a special year of commemoration, but every year their sacrifice becomes more resonant, not less. Like all forms of Truth, for the commitment to have a religious element, people must be prepared to die for it. And their deaths must be remembered on a global scale. There is a globalization force at work in the movement towards the truth of the religion of humanity, even if it does not always move with as much force and effect as we would like.

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