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Secularism and its discontents

posted by Richard Amesbury

In the current issue of the New Yorker, James Wood reviews The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now (Princeton, 2011), a new collection edited by George Levine, featuring essays by Philip Kitcher, Charles Taylor, William E. Connolly, and Frans B.M. de Waal, among others:

Sometimes one feels that the center might be a little too serene. The emphasis on “joy” and “fullness” inevitably asks secularism to provide what Bruce Robbins calls an improvement story—to bring the good news about the consolations of secularism. Yet Lily Briscoe’s (or Terrence Malick’s, or my philosopher friend’s) tormented metaphysical questions remain, and cannot be answered by secularism any more effectively than by religion. There are days when Philip Larkin’s line about life being “first boredom, then fear” seems unpleasantly accurate, and on those days I might be more likely to turn to a tragic Christian theology like Donald M. MacKinnon’s than to this book, in which the tragic or absurd vision is not much entertained. Thirty years ago, Thomas Nagel wrote a shrewd essay entitled “The Absurd,” in which he argued that, just as we can “step back from the purposes of individual life and doubt their point, we can step back also from the progress of human history, or of science, or the success of a society, or the kingdom, power, and glory of God, and put all these things into question in the same way.” Secularism can seem as meaningless as religion when such doubt strikes. Nagel went on to conclude, calmly, that we shouldn’t worry too much, because if, under the eye of eternity, nothing matters “then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.” This is impeccably logical, and impishly offers a kind of secular deconstruction of secularism, but it is fairly cold comfort in the middle of the night.

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One Response to “Secularism and its discontents”

  1. avatar Jason Blakely says:

    As someone who is completing his dissertation on Charles Taylor at UC Berkeley, I was disappointed by some of the error and lack of knowledge of Taylor’s philosophy that Wood’s New Yorker piece exhibited.

    For example, Woods writes: “Taylor’s essay seems a narrative of loss and lament, even as he protests that it is not. It would be better to lay the problem of reductionism at the doors of specific forms of reduction (many of those doors little more than temporary storefronts), rather than at the very large door of “post-Galilean science.””

    The problem with this is that Woods has clearly failed to look into Taylor’s philosophical background. It is widely known not only in philosophy departments but also in the social sciences that Taylor spent the first 25 years of his intellectual life toiling over specific, concrete, devastatingly detailed critiques of particular reductive programs in the human sciences. These include critiques of everything from psychological behaviorism (in 1964’s The Explanation of Behavior), to cognitive psychology (in 1983’s “Cognitive Psychology”), to modern political science (in the still extremely influential 1972 essay “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man”).

    Accusing Taylor of not attacking particular forms of reductivism is like criticizing Michael Jordon for not knowing how to dunk a basketball.

    More to it, this means when Woods writes that “this is a little like decrying a conspiracy theory because it has damaged a sacred truth, instead of attacking the conspiracy theory as simply untrue,” Woods is quite mistaken. Few people have done more to attack the specific “conspiracy theories” than Taylor. This is one of the reasons his influence has been growing in much of academia.

    Also, Woods’ opening two sentence summary of A Secular Age gets the main point of Taylor’s argument wrong. Far from Taylor arguing that secularists don’t have experiences of “fullness”, his point is precisely that all human beings experience such maximum moments.

    Yet Woods writes that Taylor believes “modern Godless man … finds it hard to experience the spiritual ‘fullness’ that his ancestors experienced.” That is simply not Taylor’s position. To the contrary, he works very hard to show that such experiences are part of all types of human life.

    What he does criticize secularism for is closing the door on further spiritual discovery about what these moments of fullness might be telling us about ourselves and the world. Taylor believes they close the door on what he calls “the transcendent”—on the possibility of a reality beyond the immanent. But far from saying secularists aren’t capable of fullness or “find it hard”, Taylor is saying that they share these experiences with theists but have too hastily narrowed what kinds of realities such experiences engage.

    I admit I found Woods’ piece frustrating to read. Not because he criticized Taylor, but because he did not show an adequate grasp on his thought before he began to pass what reads like rather breezy judgment.

    There are other problems in Woods’ piece (e.g. “Taylor’s essay seems a narrative of loss and lament”—read his work on modernity to get his complex view of the modern era as one of both gains and losses). But I hope I’ve made my point.

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