I was asked after the 2008 Presidential election to make some loose predictions about the future of conservative political religions in the United States. As any handicapper would, I’ve kept tabs as the Town Halls grew first loud and then armed, as cries of outrage were heard in legislatures, as conspiracies once the province of Lyndon LaRouche were given a national airing, and as tea parties were held. I’m not surprised, of course, having written two books about the recrudescence of religious antiliberalism. But I found it very interesting that Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age—a wonderfully rich collection of reflections on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age—should appear in the thick of revived public panics regarding the perceived value of secularism. As bumper sticker-length slogans are hurled like grenades from various corners—celebrating the “divinely-inspired” vision of the Founders or defending their cautions against religious presence in public life—it seems obvious that secularisms are precisely what we should be scrutinizing. Right?
A Secular Age
What would secularity look like if we approached it through the perhaps vague rubric of “indigenous ‘religions’”? . . . Will we ever know? Most considerations of secularity, secularism, and secularization take the Abrahamic religions and, in the South Asian context, Buddhism and Hinduism as their objects, and much discussion in the wake of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has continued this trend. Whether implicitly or explicitly, secularity is usually understood as a “civilizational” condition, and Taylor seems to confirm this by relying on Karl Jaspers’s notion of an “axial age” to mark a major civilizational transformation in thought that took place in China, India, and the Mediterranean world in the last centuries BCE. Hence, one variety of secularism, or one consequence of the varieties of secularism, might be that the practices and “myths” of indigenous religions will constantly defy availability to knowledge. Taking cues from some of the essays collected in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, I want to use this category of indigenous religions to think through the absences in and limitations of Taylor’s book—specifically, its misrecognition of indigenous religions.
The various essays on A Secular Age gathered in Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen and Craig Calhoun’s Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age raise a host of important and interesting questions with respect to Taylor’s account of secularism: Do we really need recourse to a notion of transcendence that takes us beyond the immanence of natural and human life in order to re-enchant our world? What kind of history—or, perhaps better put, story or narrative—of secularism is Taylor offering us? Can one properly define Western secularism in isolation from explicit consideration of the West’s encounters and intertwining with non-Western cultures?
What I think is most intriguing, however, about this book is how it unfolds as a dialogue between various visions of secularism informed by different background beliefs, thus illustrating the very kind of interaction between different options of belief and non-belief that characterizes secularism itself according to Taylor.
The heft of a book would seem proportional to its exhaustiveness. It is no surprise that Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is criticized for failing to be exhaustive, for missing important components of the story it purports to tell. Taylor responds: the book should have been longer. But this criticism and response both depend on a certain ambition—a certain desire for completeness, a certain will to truth—that author and critics themselves find problematic.
There are “others” whose voices must be heard, so the criticism goes. Taylor constructs “Latin Christendom” and the “North Atlantic” as entities that are internally homogenous with unproblematic boundaries. But what about Jews? What about Muslims? What about colonial encounters? What about the complex religious terrain of America? Don’t these differences call into question the exhaustiveness of Taylor’s historical narrative, and of the terms out of which it is constructed? How would Taylor deal with the non-believers, neither secular nor church-goers, of, say, rural eighteenth century America (as Jon Butler queries)?
But this line of questioning is symptomatic of a certain ambivalence, a tension between purported intellectual commitments and the performance of scholarship. The line of questioning is animated by a desire for completeness, by the fantasy that, once all of the data is accounted for, we can rest assured that we will get the world right.
Rich in interdisciplinary breadth, Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age offers an opportunity to reflect on the reception of Charles Taylor’s magnum opus. Edited by an English professor and two social scientists, it includes contributions from a political philosopher, a sociologist, a theologian, and a literary critic. Given the many reviews of A Secular Age in these disciplines, this mix of contributors is not surprising.
Somewhat more surprising is the inclusion of two historians, members of a discipline that has largely ignored Taylor’s book. Three years after its publication, A Secular Age has yet to be reviewed in the Journal of American History and the American Historical Review.
What explains this lack of interest? Writing in Church History, Martin Marty notes that while “the ordinary historian has very much to learn from Taylor’s use of history,” it cannot be appropriated “without undertaking a significant act of translating and organizing the material.”
Charles Taylor has argued that those of us living in North America and Europe are witnessing a shift in our social imaginary from a “Durkheimian” self-understanding, according to which political identity is tied to religious belonging, towards a “post-Durkheimian” view, in which the two are no longer seen as intrinsically linked. In the emerging dispensation, Taylor predicts, “it will be less and less common for people to be drawn into or kept within a faith by some strong political or group identity, or by the sense that they are sustaining a socially essential ethic.” Whatever its merits as an analysis of contemporary European self-understanding—and these are surely significant—Taylor’s reading strikes me as underdetermined by the American evidence…
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.
Charles Taylor’s framework for understanding the advent of a “secular age” in the North Atlantic world offers a useful first draft for understanding the place of religion in Asian modernity. As I have shown in my previous two posts, modern Asian countries have secular states, but, despite efforts of some states to destroy all religion, they still have religious societies. In this post, I will discuss how new cultural conditions of belief give religion a different valence than it had in pre-modern times. Taylor’s framework, however, is only a first draft. [...]
The secularity of modern Asian states has by no means led to widespread social secularity, Taylor’s second secularity, a decline of religious belief and practice among ordinary people. The degree of religious practice varies from country to country, but almost everywhere temples, mosques, churches, and shrines are ubiquitous and full of people, especially during festival seasons. Even in China, where the government actively propagates an atheist ideology and has severely restricted open religious activities, it has been estimated that as much as ninety-five percent of the population engages from time to time in some form of religious practice. Moreover, throughout Asia there have been impressive revivals and reformations of Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian religious beliefs and practices—Asia is religiously dynamic.
In his monumental book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor distinguishes three meanings of secularism, as it refers to the “North Atlantic societies” of Western Europe and North America. Can this analytic framework be applied outside of the North Atlantic world, particularly to Asian societies? Taylor himself would not claim to have created a framework for a universal theory of comparative religion. But this framework, grounded in a particular cultural and historical experience, may nonetheless be useful for cross cultural comparisons.