Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age

“What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age?” This apparently simple question opens into the massive, provocative, and complex A Secular Age, the latest book from philosopher Charles Taylor. Published by Harvard University Press in late 2007, A Secular Age became the occasion for The Immanent Frame’s first discussion series, with initial contributions from Robert Bellah, Wendy Brown, Talal Asad, and many others (including Charles Taylor himself).

The discussion continues with critical responses to Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2010), edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun.

 

January 7th, 2011

Disenchantment and the mind-dependence of the moral

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At the core of contemporary secularism is the denial of the existence of deities and the supernatural. There is only the natural, as described by our best sciences. This ‘disenchantment’ of the world seems to leave no place for value, and this exclusion of value from the world is, Akeel Bilgrami argues in his essay “What is Enchantment?” one of the central and damning failures of contemporary secularism.

How does secularism crowd values out of our picture of the world?  If we accept a secularist metaphysics, then a necessary condition for the existence of values is that they can be accommodated by our best sciences. But our best sciences do not seem to have any room for values. Values make demands on human beings as actors—for instance, we ought to pursue the good, we ought to avoid the bad, and so on—but science describes no such free-standing “oughts.”

Read Disenchantment and the mind-dependence of the moral.
December 20th, 2010

Immortal mortal

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The first of the four posts in this series argued that if we seek a philosophy that encourages us to love this world, we must look for one that is both transcendent and immanent. Noting that such a philosophy would be contradictory, and thus forbidden by the way of reasoning for which the principle of non-contradiction is the firmest of all, the second post sought to humble this principle. The goal was not to reject it, for without it nonsense quickly follows; the goal was instead to demote it, by showing how inadequate it was to the task of contemplating this world of becoming. The third post next articulated a superior principle, the principle of chiasmus, which includes the principle of non-contradiction, and its characteristic activity, analysis, but harmonizes it with synthesis in a crosswise logic that reveals the concealed and eternal structure of our temporal world. This structure, the Heraclitean logos, turns out to be the encouraging philosophy we set out to find.

Read Immortal mortal.
December 13th, 2010

Crosswise logic

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My previous post sought to humble the principle of non-contradiction, and thus the logic of consistency it defines, finding it inadequate for thinking the temporal world in which we live and breathe and have our being. Parmenides first articulated this principle, calling “equally deaf and blind” those who would not think consistently according to it, those “hordes without judgment, for whom both to be and not to be are judged the same and not the same, and the path of all is crosswise (palintropos).” Without compromise, he recognized the conflict between his principle and our world of change and diversity. Consistently, he rejected time and the logic needed to understand it. His target here was Heraclitus, who claimed that “a thing agrees in disagreement with itself; it is a crosswise harmony (palintropos harmoniē), like that of the bow and the lyre.” This post aims to explain his earlier, contradictory, but nonetheless more accurate logic.

Read Crosswise logic.
December 6th, 2010

Truth in conflict

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My previous post argued that anyone who wishes both to think well and to feel well about the world should seek a way of thinking as immanent as it is transcendent, a crosswise way of thinking that is more capacious than the logic of consistency defined by the principle of non-contradiction. Fortunately there has long been such a way, the way of Heraclitus: “A thing agrees in disagreement with itself; it is a crosswise (palintropos) attunement (harmoniē), like that of the bow and the lyre.” In Becoming God I have argued that Heraclitean logic is not only more ancient, but also more accurate than the logic of consistency that Parmenides and the Platonic tradition deployed against it. This tradition has been dominant from the moment of its founding, thanks in part to the rhetorical genius of its founder, making non-contradiction the supreme principle of reason in the eyes of nearly every philosopher since. This post aims first to humble it before the next seeks to revive its Heraclitean rival.

Read Truth in conflict.
November 29th, 2010

Love and reason

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Anyone who has entered the labyrinth of A Secular Age should welcome this volume as a guide. Its contributors unwind many threads—some leading deeper inside, others promising a way out—but this series of posts can follow only one. Taking up Taylor’s distinction between traditions of transcendence and those of immanence, while remaining sensitive to its subtleties, William Connolly divides these traditions still further, observing that they are constituted not only by the beliefs they affirm about the world but also by the emotions they cultivate toward the world thus affirmed. Not content to delineate merely abstract possibilities, though, he adds that “each tradition is equipped to honor Jesus by offering a distinctive interpretation of his calling and mode of inspiration.” Accepting his invitation, this post (and those to follow) will attempt to offer such an interpretation—from the perspective of the Heraclitean tradition.

Read Love and reason.
September 9th, 2010

The sun shone fiercely through the window at Starbucks (Part I)

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Let us recognize, from the outset, the delicious perversity of inviting comments upon comments about the comments about Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, itself a commentary, magisterial in scope, about the inability of Anglo-Europeans to end a certain cycle of commentary about themselves, their religion, and their humanity. Nevertheless, of the many thoughtful responses and salvos found in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, I was most struck by Wendy Brown’s pointed and potentially devastating piece on the shortcomings of Taylor’s “odd historical materialism.”

Taylor’s sense of the material world is not unrelated to his not always implicit commitment to (or perhaps nostalgia for) the ideals of a self that flourishes, unfolds, and, at the end of the day, can be sufficiently liberated from history so as to be able to take the measure of itself—in concert, of course, with others, as they liberate themselves sufficiently from those very same forces.

Read The sun shone fiercely through the window at Starbucks (Part I).
September 6th, 2010

Understanding disenchantment

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Jane Bennett’s sympathetic yet critical commentary on my essay “What is Enchantment?” (published in the volume Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age) describes the notion of disenchantment that I present as primarily addressing the theological displacements that emerged with the rise of the new science. Her own work, she says, offers a quite different focus, one of a mood or affect that “circulates between human bodies and the animal, vegetable, and mineral forces they encounter.”

I don’t doubt that this interesting focus is quite different from mine, though I think it would be wrong to represent my view as being focused on the theological. In my analysis, the theological had only a central genealogical role to play in the process of “disenchantment.”

Read Understanding disenchantment.
August 18th, 2010

On the call from outside

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In Akeel Bilgrami’s contribution to Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, “enchantment” refers to the historical belief that God or his divine expression is accessible to the everyday world of “matter and nature and human community and perception.” Correspondingly, “disenchantment” refers to that shift in perspective (encouraged by early modern science and its mechanistic model of nature) by which God was exiled from nature.  Bilgrami’s ultimate aim is to “reenchant” the secular age by affirming the “callings” of a world laden with “value elements.” I will say more below about this interesting notion of a call from outside and its role in ethics; let me point out now that the processes of “enchantment” and “disenchantment” are for Bilgrami, as for Charles Taylor, essentially shifts in theological orientation, different views of the relationship between God and nature.

Read On the call from outside.
July 8th, 2010

Commentaries on our age

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Each contributor [to Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age] delivers a reading of Taylor’s work, helping to evaluate its significance, critical flaws, and lingering questions. They are companion pieces, then, and work best with a knowledge of the book. Their strength as a whole lies in the seriousness with which they address Taylor’s grand narrative and the sprightliness with which they point puzzled readers to related topics and avenues. Does Taylor’s book deserve such scrupulous attention? I am inclined to weight this question from the opposite side. Some of the essays in Varieties are so thought-provoking that I feel grateful to Taylor for having occasioned them, even if his own book is rather more exasperating than, as some of his readers would have it, major or magisterial.

Read Commentaries on our age.
June 7th, 2010

Ubuntu, reconciliation, and the buffered self

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Like many contributors to Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, I share the sense that Taylor’s account of Latin Christianity demands greater attention to its global entanglements. Specifically, I am concerned with tracking the processes whereby reconciliation was bound up with the concepts, practices, and vocabulary of ubuntu during South Africa’s transition to non-racial democracy, and how, in turn, ubuntu has come to inflect the social imaginary of Taylor’s Latin Christianity.

Read Ubuntu, reconciliation, and the buffered self.
May 20th, 2010

Circling the line

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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 Agea 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?

Read Circling the line.
May 12th, 2010

Politics of misrecognition

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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.

Read Politics of misrecognition.
May 7th, 2010

Casting away our crutches

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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.

Read Casting away our crutches.
May 3rd, 2010

What Taylor misses

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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.

Read What Taylor misses.
April 30th, 2010

Higher times in the Bible Belt

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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.”

Read Higher times in the Bible Belt.
September 23rd, 2009

Multi-religious denominationalism and American identity

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secular_age1Charles 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…

Read Multi-religious denominationalism and American identity.
March 12th, 2009

The fanatical counterpublic

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<br />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.

Read The fanatical counterpublic.
February 12th, 2009

Hybrid consciousness or purified religion

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<br />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. […]

Read Hybrid consciousness or purified religion.