A Secular Age:

The fanatical counterpublic

posted by John D. Boy

<br />What is at stake in the secular age? In A Secular Age Charles Taylor provides us with an answer to this question that is compelling in several respects. The secular age does not stamp out belief as a source of meaning, morality, fullness and selfhood; rather, the crucial changes affect the conditions of belief. As the conditions of belief have changed to allow those living in Western modernity to choose among several paths, the differentiation and privatization of religion and the decline of religious belief and practice became a historical option. Read against the rigid determinism of several philosophers, sociologists and scientists that have written on religion and secularism, Taylor’s account is a breath of fresh air. He provides us an opportunity to see that what is at stake is not exhausted by commonly perceived conflicts such as science vs. religion, or liberation vs. subjugation, or immaturity vs. coming-of-age. He shows that these are in fact spurious distinctions, and that the true issue is more complicated or far easier, depending on how we look at it.

Once we begin to frame the stakes the right way and recognize the complexities of what it means to live in a secular age, we’ll be able to reconcile and set aside the conflicts with which the secular-liberal order currently appears fraught. This gloss on Taylor provides us with two of the key concepts he employs: recognition and reconciliation. The present age is wanting of both, but provides conditions that make both possible.

Here we might become suspicious of the triumphalist overtones of his conclusion. How is it that Taylor can come to the conclusion that our current predicament bears all the seeds of harmonious order? How inclusive is this assessment of the whole gamut of experiences in secular modernity? What is his assumed horizon?

One possible riposte to Taylor is to point to the boundaries he draws around “Latin Christendom” as the locus of his master narrative of western modernity. Due to this restriction, he runs the risk of being blind to crucial connections overstepping the bounds of the West, whether cultural, economic, political, or a combination thereof (as in empire). Taylor himself concedes this is a potential weakness and that additional work is needed. I want to point to another boundary that is drawn in A Secular Age: that within western Christendom against a group Taylor calls “fanatics.” Doing so will help illuminate the implicit politics that inform Taylor’s narrative—an endeavor already begun in prior contributions to this blog by Stathis Gourgouris and others.

Taylor’s primary concern in dealing with “fanaticism” (and cognates such as superstition and enthusiasm) is to show how this category was used by exclusive humanists to discredit religion tout court, and by magisterial reformers to designate individuals and groups with dissenting socio-political views. This, he argues, paved the way for the disengaged stance and the fragilization of views and positions characteristic of the secular dispensation. Reflecting on the emergence of disengagement (in considering the work of English historian Edward Gibbon), Taylor writes:

Think of the force of [Gibbon's] style, which broadcasts an irenic distance, what will later be called “unflappability.” It is so judiciously disengaged, only allowing the meanings which structure the narrative to emerge in understated, straight-faced irony. Part of the power of this style for those whom it grips comes from the stance itself, which can seem (if you’re at all inclined this way) so superior to the hot, hyper-engaged “fanaticism” of so many of the people described. How can you not admire this? How can you not feel that this is a superior epistemic stance?

How are we to understand Taylor’s own position between disengagement and “fanaticism”? Of course, he doesn’t want to side with those who provide closure to the immanent frame by rejecting religion on account of its fanatical excesses. In fact, his emphasis on the need for transformation—the last chapter of A Secular Age is called “Conversions” for a reason—might suggest a certain proximity to fanaticism. The fanatic, always an iconoclast that scorns the representation and asserts the need for authenticity, appears to play an important implicit role in Taylor’s story.

Elsewhere, however, Taylor draws a clear line between the kind of position he finds acceptable, and the fanatics. In his discussions of the tensions of secular modernity, fanatics are clearly on the side of evil and of suffering. Taylor goes so far as calling their faith “idolatrous” and “dangerous.” For the most part he equates these “fanatics” with “the bellicose, hegemony-loving parts of U.S. society which President Bush speaks to”—that is, mostly Midwestern—“values voters” that identify with evangelicalism. It is clear from his discussion that Taylor takes this to be against the “spirit of Christianity.” The tension initially created by Taylor’s ambiguous positioning vis-à-vis fanaticism thus breaks down, and “fanaticism” is located outside the Christian tradition as he understands it.

Taylor’s vigilance may in part be motivated by his attempt to create a conciliatory space for believers and nonbelievers. Liberal believers (such as Taylor) and their exclusive-humanist counterparts certainly concur that the religious right is reprehensible. Against the backdrop of premillennial fundamentalist theology, the differences between mainline Christians and liberal-humanist nonbelievers appear petty. Compared to the untamed ways of the savage, the unrefined table manners of one’s neighbor are downright courtly.

But there is more to it than that. In engaging in this kind of implicit polemic, Taylor replicates a common historical pattern. Since the times of the Roman Empire, adherents of deviant religious forms have been labeled (pejoratively) as fanatici by representatives of the state religion (see Conze and Reinhart, “Fanatismus” in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe). At least since Luther, the term was not merely used to defame heterodox doctrines, but especially the political and social effects expected to ensue from them. In Britain in the seventeenth century, the term was increasingly used to pathologize Dissenters, i.e., those that broke away from the established church. Hobbes called them “pernicious to peace” and asked, “And what is a fanatic but a madman?” As “madmen,” they were no longer political opponents, but psychological deviants who (one can presume) were subjected to the whole range of “treatments” Michel Foucault documented in his work.

Today’s liberal-democratic states employ several more or less overt disciplinary methods of treating deviant forms of Christian faith and practice. For instance, evangelicals (among other “so-called sects and psycho-groups”) have been the subject of a parliamentary commission of inquiry in Germany. The commission used a personality-structure test on individuals drawn to “radical Christian groups.” (Interestingly, this part of the inquiry was led by a pastor in the established Protestant church.) In France an evangelical Christian told a reporter that “evangelicals make [the French] afraid.” The article continues:

Wariness of evangelicals also lingers in the French government, which has a standing special committee to oppose questionable cults of all types. In some areas, evangelical preachers say they have a hard time getting permits to build new houses of worship, a complaint shared by their Muslim counterparts.

What do we make of these state practices directed against “fanatics”? In a previous posting, Hent de Vries questions the notion that what Taylor calls the “immanent frame”—an encompassing frame “common to all of us in the modern West” inclining us to understand the world primarily in immanent terms—is an “open space” permitting unforced choices between several “options.” I agree with de Vries that Taylor’s frame-analysis leaves much to be wished for. There may indeed, as Taylor claims, be such an overarching frame that makes us—in the words of Erving Goffman—“tolerate the unexplained but not the inexplicable.” However, as we learn from media studies and scholars of social movements, it is not sufficient to study the dominant frame; crucially, the process of “frame sponsorship” that promotes some frames while marginalizing others must also be understood. The state practices of which I just provided a few examples are part of this process of frame sponsorship. They, along with the dominant frame, rely on a system of power connected to, but much more diffuse than, the liberal-democratic state. This play of power gets lost in the way Taylor tells the story.

In a slightly different way than this term was intended by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, these regulating procedures are instances of “the democratic policing of Christianity,” that is, efforts to rally Christians behind established state institutions. It is not just the secular republics of Europe that engage in this kind of policing. Even Taylor, otherwise opposed to reductive “subtraction stories” that consign religion to a marginal position, exhibits this kind of wariness of strong religious commitment. There is something fundamentally Constantinian about his project.

We might further ask why Taylor (along with many other liberal commentators) finds it necessary to pinpoint a group that “revert[s] to living in another bubble, enjoying a false confidence in their own hard-edged truths.” Why have polemics against (religious or political) fanatics been such an enduring feature in Western states, particularly since the bourgeois revolutions of the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries? In fact, early thinkers of the bourgeois Enlightenment that used the term in a polemical vein were often quite reflective about it. The French encyclopedists, otherwise confident that the spread of reason would stamp out (religious) fanaticism, wrote that nothing great could be achieved without “outraged zeal” [On ne peut rien produire de grand sans ce zèle outré qui...met au jour des prodiges incroyable de valeur et de constance]. Rousseau and Herder made similar concessions. To Taylor and other liberals, however, the fanatic only figures as a menace to liberty and justice, never as its champion.

In an essay in defense of fanaticism, Hauerwas argues that attempts to distinguish fanatical from non-fanatical stances, like the attempt to distinguish terrorism from “just” war, is bound to fail. Just as there is nothing intrinsically good about (as Alisdair MacIntyre puts it) “dying for the telephone company” (i.e., in conventional warfare), there is nothing intrinsically bad about fanatically bearing witness to a “particularistic” tradition. Attempts to silence such particularistic traditions in the interest of ensuring the peace are counterproductive “because, contrary to liberal sentimentality that assumes if people only come to know one another better violence is less likely, the exact opposite may be the case.” In fact, he argues, traditions that embody alternate rationalities and trigger “epistemic crises” by questioning the legitimacy of the state’s rights to police, punish, and wage war against outsiders are a greater cause for hope than any universalistic ethic entrusted to the institutions of the state.

Polemics against “fanatics” thus seem primarily to be motivated by the need to overcome legitimation crises. That would explain the persistence of these polemics in Western modernity: no social and political order has ever been able to claim universal legitimacy. Every public is an “illusory totality” that always excludes a “counterpublic” (on these terms, see Negt and Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience). While certain counterpublics may be able to penetrate into and alter the public sphere (as Taylor argues), the horizon of possible experiences still remains restricted. Even Taylor has to limit the horizon in his project, even though he is quite generous in terms of the positions he is willing to admit. As any observer of contemporary Christianity knows, “fanatics” constitute a sizable group, for better or worse. One wishes there was some kind of reflection on the ramifications of this in a book the size of A Secular Age. This would have made for a more truthful, if more troubling, image of secular modernity.

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2 Responses to “The fanatical counterpublic”

  1. avatar Thaddeus Kozinski says:

    There are real fanatics, and I would define these as people who are gnostically certain about “truths” they can’t be that certain about, for cultural, epistemological, and/or ontological reasons, and who are prepared to act upon these truths, but who aren’t able to see that they do not know what they think they know, and thus shouldn’t act in the measure they think they should act. Such gnosticism is usually the result of mental disorder. Liberalism itself, in the way MacIntyre would define it, is a gnostic, fanatical sect, but not because it is a mental disorder, but for all the epistemological and moral reasons MacIntyre discusses. It leads to a kind of deliberate unknowing regarding fundamental human and divine truths

    Yet, fanatical liberals demonize as fanatical ALL non-liberals, not just the poor gnostics (both the explicitly religious and not). Now some non-liberals are truly fanatical, but this is, as I suggest, more of a psychological and spiritual fanaticism, a true mental disorder. But fanatical liberals paint with too broad a brush, including in their picture not only the mentally disordered and unstable, but also the genuinely non-liberal among us who are non-liberal precisely because we are NOT gnostics, and precisely because we are spiritually and mentally ordered (or, perhaps, because we are able and willing to see and admit that we are not quite as ordered as we think we are)—by the grace of God. The non-gnostic, non-liberal fanatic seeks the healing that comes from participating in an authentically Christian (I would say, as a Christian, non-liberal) liturgical culture, however particular and small scale, that is, from being formed experientially in milieus that embody what Eric Voeglin calls “existence-in-truth,” including immersion in the non-liberal philosophia perennis and traditional Christian orthodoxy.

    The solution, then, is somehow not to have fanaticism in power or in authority, neither running things politically or culturally, nor being looked to for guidance to run these. What can provide such genuinely non-fanatical power and authority? And how to know if one has got it when the ruling authorities are always telling us it is someone else who is the real fanatic? Well, I think secular liberalism has failed to provide this. What would Taylor prescribe?

  2. avatar Allie Trionfetti says:

    The historical roots of Taylor’s “implicit polemic” against fanatical religion convey a modern (Western?) trend so extensive it may appear useless to iterate. I am speaking here of the rise of psychology with special attention to psychoanalysis. Past attempts to “pathologize Dissenters” and reconstitute their political transgressions as the mentally suspect transgressions of “psychological deviants” represent a larger modern crisis of identity, one that continues to rise with globalization.

    Secularism indeed relates to the growing need to account for the modern destabilization of notions of the wholeness of identity, to avoid the violence often implicit in totalizing notions of wholeness and certainty with regards to individual and group identity. There is a pervasive carefulness, a need for “conciliatory space[s]” for “recognition and reconciliation” not only of the various totalities and “wholenesses” we variously ascribe to, but it would seem, to the very variety and non-totality of identity itself. Perhaps the fear of fundamentalist religions exists not just at a political level, but also at the level of identity locatedness in the modern age.

    With little teaching in religion both in my personal and intellectual histories, I am left to reflect on Boy’s pointed response to Taylor as it informs my own current (and unfortunately preliminary, for those readers of this post) proximity to memorial at the level of the state, a topic whose proximity I owe to a collegiate seminar on memory I am currently enrolled in. In my unfolding response, I would like to explore the particularly modern trend toward counter-memorials and their attempts to destabilize traditional notions of memorials as sites of surging patriotism and national idolatry, both of which play into secure notions of that identity wholeness so problematic to modern times. I suppose this connection to modern memorial was initially forded in Boy’s use of the aforementioned phrase “conciliatory space.” This connection became especially salient when I considered Boy’s culminating problematization of Taylor’s presentation. He (Boy) writes: “The state practices of which I just provided a few examples are part of this process of frame sponsorship. They, along with the dominant frame, rely on a system of power connected to, but much more diffuse than, the liberal-democratic state. This play of power gets lost in the way Taylor tells the story.”

    I would like to suggest that “the way [Taylor] tells the story,” is the way we continue to tell the story of identity and belonging in the modern age. This telling echoes in the dominant trend toward counter-memorial. Indeed, the present motion toward memorial designs that frame multiplicity, irresolution and often anxiety and destabilization seem to hide (to use a stronger corollary to Boy’s verb: lose) a “sponsorship” of an embedded “dominant frame,” namely: that conviction that ultimate conviction (absolutism) cannot stand in the modern era. With this lies an implicit attack on those continued threats to this modern fluidity of identity: fundamentalisms.

    State-sanctioned memorials are inevitably “regulating procedures.” Their shift from national idolatry to a more reflective modern consciousness relates to the “emergence of disengagement” Taylor and Boy speak to. Perhaps these aesthetic and political moves against “policing” (as precariously near to those forms of authoritarian absolutism being policed) do their own more covert “policing” of indoctrination and cult (here, I allude especially to the French news story Boy’s cites), thereby reiterating the modern predominance of a fluid conception of identity.

    In speaking to memorials, I hope I have not done injustice to the themes Boy and Taylor have centered on, but rather called attention to what perhaps stand as national answers to the void left in the wake of the separation of church and state.

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