Hans Joas’s Faith as an Option is primarily concerned with debunking two myths: first, the idea that modernization—advances in technology and the sciences—renders religious belief obsolete; second, the argument that secularization leads to moral decay. Joas, a leading European social theorist, is more than aware that criticisms of these claims are hardly new—contemporary scholars no longer prove keen to establish a law or rule connecting modernization and secularization, and there seems to be little or no correlation between societies with higher rates of atheism and moral decline. Instead, Joas’s study mainly aims to provide a series of illuminating explanations for why these views captured the imaginations of so many for so long.
Posts Tagged ‘Charles Taylor’
In a book out next month, James K. A. Smith offering readers in a world of secularity what the author calls a “hitchhiker’s guide to the present.”
I have always been puzzled by the fact that Charles Taylor starts his book A Secular Age with a long quote from Bede Griffith in order to describe a religious type of experience. It is the description of a scene experienced by the author as a school-boy: trees are blossoming, birds are singing, the author has the sensation that angels are present and that God is looking down on him. My question is: Why this quote? Why choose an image and a language of sunset, trees and birds in order to describe something for which the different languages of theology have worked out precise and elaborate codifications? I understand, of course, that in the context of the introduction to A Secular Age, Taylor uses this quote in order to make a soft claim to the human openness to experiences of transcendental nature. He uses the rest of the eight-hundred pages of the book to explore why it has become increasingly rare and difficult in our secular age to live these kinds of experiences, let alone to look for them in the context of an organized religious tradition. Most of us, he says, live our lives in an “immanent frame” and religious belief “has become one option among many.”
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the wider Islamist movement of which it is an instance, are in many ways a secular phenomenon. If we define “secularity” not only as the weakening of religious belief, but also as the idea that faith becomes one option among others; and “secularization” as the process of institutional and functional differentiation of modern state structures and the resultant marginalization of religious authority, then the Brotherhood, similarly to other Islamist entities, can be seen as a product of modernity and the “secular age.” This transpires in two ways. First, for the Brotherhood, “Islam” is an identifiable set of beliefs that can be actively implemented and used as guidelines to reform society. Second, the parameters of the political order it proposes are defined by the context of the secular, modern nation-state.
The stern visage of Max Weber looms over discussions of modernity and enchantment, as does the sunnier countenance of Charles Taylor. Perhaps they should be joined by the open faced, bluntly spoken, and allegedly poker wielding Ludwig Wittgenstein. This choice might seem counter-intuitive. Wittgenstein did not write much about enchantment, and is more often considered a disenchanter who used the tools of philosophy to dispel illusions brought about by linguistic misuse. As he wrote, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
Brad Gregory’s monumental and erudite book has yielded a wide range of reactions. Highly appreciative remarks (especially from the Catholic side) are countered by rather dismissive, sometimes even venomous reviews (by Ian Hunter, James Chappel, Mark Lilla, and others), as well as by more balanced critiques (those of Peter Gordon, Victoria Kahn, and Adrian Pabst, for instance). I will not dwell on the details of these divergent opinions; I would instead like to focus on the question of whether or not The Unintended Reformation is a genuine work of history. More specifically, I would like to tackle two questions: (1) What is meant precisely by the term “a supersessionist model” of historical narrative in contrast to “genealogical history”? And (2) does Gregory succeed in writing a study in genealogical or analytical history, as he claims to do, or is The Unintended Reformation itself an example of supersessionist historiography, albeit in reverse? My answer is based primarily on a comparison between Gregory’s book and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which are often mentioned in the same breath (cf. Lilla, Hunter, Pabst).
On March 6-8, 2014, the University of Bern will host an international conference entitled “Working with A Secular Age: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Charles Taylor’s Conception of the Secular.”
Guest Editors Camil Ungureanu and Lasse Thomassen are requesting submissions for a special issue of the journal The European Legacy scheduled for late 2014.
For Tricycle, an independent Buddhist publication, Linda Heuman writes on how to understand problems in the transmission of Buddhism to the West, drawing on, in particular, Charles Taylor’s work on secularism.
I am very grateful to the many commentators on my essay “Secularism: It’s Content and Context” for their instructive and challenging responses and I am glad of this chance, in what follows, to try and make my essay clearer and better. It is a measure of the vibrancy of The Immanent Frame that it fetches such a high quality (not to mention, quantity) of commentary, and I hope I will be able to at least approximate some of this quality in my responses.
I’ll begin with some preliminary points which I will exploit in my responses, and then speak to each comment in turn, posting the responses one at a time over the next many days.
Akeel Bilgrami’s essay is important and ambitious. Its importance lies in part in making clear what secularism is and should be—its philosophical foundation one might say; its ambition, in its ability to link these foundations with a wide range of issues that include the implications of giving priority to political ideals; a subtle understanding of the grounds of Islamic fundamentalism; the way in which context might deflate the all too often overextended reach and significance of secularism; the role of reason in history and its link with the moral and epistemological psychology by which even deep convictions are subject to change; the challenge of a relativistic conception of truth; and an understanding of humanism that permits a firm commitment to one’s own view of the truth, while nevertheless embracing a fraternal attitude towards those who deeply disagree with it.
I want to start with a paradox. In the secular age, as Charles Taylor has amply illustrated, religious belief no longer structures our social imaginary. Instead, it has become one option, one possibility, among others: one of the ways in which we give meaning to our lives. The secular age, then, is characterised by the fact of pluralism—an irreducible pluralism of beliefs, values, commitments. Yet we secular moderns also give special primacy to freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is standardly presented as the archetypical liberal right. So the paradox is this: how (and why) do we protect freedom of religion in an age where religion is not special?
It is hard not to be convinced by Akeel Bilgrami’s careful, patient, and generous exposition in “Secularism: Its Content and Context.” And indeed there is much with which I agree, especially the balance that Bilgrami strikes between a care for truth, on the one hand, and the idea of internal reasons, on the other. My remarks below are offered by way of exposition and clarification, but they are motivated by a spirit of interpretation: it seems to me that the paper operates in distinct tonal registers: a primary register of hope, a secondary register of tragedy, and an unacknowledged third register, which I will call prophetic.
Rethinking Secularism is the title of a striking new collection of essays, edited by Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen that is rich with shrewd, and often detailed and intricate, discussions of the way the political and the social, the public and the personal, are threaded with, and frequently created out of, the interpretive, the symbolic, and the imaginary. It is also a book with whose central claim I could not be in fuller agreement: the religious and the secular do not designate different ends of a historical timeline, much less a simple binary, so much as different inflections of a process beginning, at least in the West, with the slow disintegration of Latin Christendom in the Late Middle Ages, and that we have come to recognize as the longue durée of the modern.
Over at the New Statesman, Jonathan Derbyshire interviews Charles Taylor on his new book Secularism and Freedom of Conscience.
In discussing secularization, it has become conventional to note that the concept refers to various processes, of which three are particularly prominent. First, the gradual delegitimation of natural and revealed religion’s truth-claims in the face of rational critique. We can call this intellectual secularization. Second, the process by which some states have constitutionally disengaged from their citizens’ religious beliefs and institutions. We can call this state secularization. Third, the increase across society of knowledge, activities, values, tastes, and activities which lack religious content, as well as the extent to which, increasingly, people involve themselves with these non-religious forms. We can call this social secularization.
I want to argue that one of the deep reasons for the commonality between religion and the secular is not only historical—that the values that prevailed in a dominantly religious world were not lost during the secularization processes—but philosophical: whether the beliefs that people hold are religious or secular, they are beliefs. As Steve Bruce wrote, “Although it is possible to conceptualize it in other ways, secularization primarily refers to the beliefs of people.” At the extreme edges of secular and religious thought, people deny that they hold beliefs—propositions that they embrace about what is true—and say instead that they have truth.
Broadly conceived the term religion-making refers to the ways in which religion(s) is conceptualized and institutionalized within the matrix of a globalized world-religions discourse in which ideas, social formations, and social/cultural practices are discursively reified as “religious” ones. Religion-making works, sometimes more and sometimes less explicitly, by means of normalizing and often functionalist discourses centered around certain taken-for-granted notions, such as the religion/secular binary, as well as binaries subordinated to it (such as sacred/profane, this-worldly/otherworldly, etc.).
Sean Dorrance Kelly is chair of Harvard University’s philosophy department and has published on topics like cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and aesthetics. For his first general-audience book, though, he teamed up with his former teacher Hubert Dreyfus and took on the Western canon. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, published this year by Free Press, is a daring proposal for a new embrace of ancient polytheism. Looking back to the epics of Homer, they find resources for thwarting the nihilism that has haunted some of the most brilliant thinkers of our time. I spoke with Kelly over cappuccinos in a noisy Midtown Manhattan diner, while he was waiting to catch a train back up to Boston.
I begin with three fundamental features of the idea of ‘secularism.’ I will want to make something of them at different stages of the passage of my argument in this paper for the conclusion—among others—that the relevance of secularism is contextual in very specific ways. If secularism has its relevance only in context, then it is natural and right to think that it will appear in different forms and guises in different contexts. But I write down these opening features of secularism at the outset because they seem to me to be invariant among the different forms that secularism may take in different contexts. It is hard to imagine that one hasn’t changed the subject from secularism to something else, something that deserves another name, if one finds oneself denying any of the features that I initially list below.
Under its congressional mandate to “examine and report upon the facts and causes relating to the terrorist attacks…[and] make a full and complete accounting of the[ir] circumstances,” the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission Report, begins with a narrative timeline. In the simple past, in a voice devoid of interiority but rich in temporal data, the Report tracks movement in time and space.
Mark Oppenheimer discusses Charles Taylor’s work and its reception in a wide-ranging essay in The Nation.
In the Frankfurter Rundschau, Hartmut Rosa hears the echoes of Pink Floyd in the work of Charles Taylor.
The German translation, by Michael Adrian, of The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere will be published by Suhrkamp Verlag in October.
To say that religion has power in the public sphere is not to say that it can be easily absorbed or that it should be. It is a basis for radical challenges and radical questions; it brings enthusiasm, passion, indignation, outrage, and love. If enthusiasm is sometimes harnessed to unreflective conviction, passion is also vital to critical engagement with existing institutions and dangerous trends. The public sphere and the practice of public reason have power too. And they not only take from religion but also offer it opportunities to advance by reflection and critical argument.
Abraham Rubin reviews Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age at the blog of the Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization, Cardozo School of Law.
El poder de la religión en la esfera pública, the Spanish language edition of The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, will be released late this month by Trotta Editorial.
In my previous post, I discussed the ambivalent legacy of the Catholic Church in Québec in light of the recent canonization of the province’s first homegrown saint. I suggested that the post-sixties rise of Québécois nationalism emerged largely at the expense of this Catholic identity, which many blamed for Québec’s longtime passivity in the face of English-Canadian domination, even as the Church also played a key historical role in the survival of French-Canadian culture. In this post, I would like to suggest the ways in which this complex politico-religious legacy has shaped current debates over the “reasonable accommodation” of immigrants in Québec.
The latest issue of The Utopian is now online, featuring essays by Michel Houellebecq, Michael Goldstein, Damon Linker, and Alexander Lee, an interview with Charles Taylor, and new translations of poems by Heinrich Heine and Theognis.
This “religion in the public sphere” thread has featured debates about whether citizens of liberal democratic societies can offer religious reasons for public laws that will be coercive on all citizens, or whether they must use, in John Rawls’s terms, “public reason.” . . . This normative debate is about what people should do in public debates, but knowing what people actually do would allow theorists to develop greater nuance in their analyses. When we see what people actually do, we can further inquire as to whether there are social structures that are pushing people toward good or bad behavior. For example, it is possible that the normative structure of the contemporary public sphere works so strongly against certain normative proposals that they should just be abandoned as utopian. Moreover, it is possible that we may gain normative wisdom from the collective practices of citizens. In any event, given the many hundreds of normative analyses, some empirical examinations may usefully agitate the debate.
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.
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.
Although Charles Taylor is currently on trial for allegedly funding and fueling the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone, the question of criminal trials for war crimes in Liberia has been hotly debated since the release of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) final report in 2009. . . . While some argue that a war crimes tribunal would cost the Liberian people and government a great deal of time and money, others question the connection between reconciliation and a war crimes tribunal on religious grounds.
As I transition my SSRC research from Senegal to the Philippines, I am constantly ruminating over the question: why compare these two places? Developing some coherent answer to this inquiry is a crucial task for helping me build theory on the idea of After Secularization.
Since our previous dispatch from the IWM Summer School in Cortona, we have settled back into our real lives in London, New York, and Washington, DC, respectively. But the discussions inspired by the summer school have continued—over email and group chats—and we wanted to share with you one recent exchange that followed from our course on “Religion and Multiple Modernities,” taught by Dipesh Chakrabarty, Sudipta Kaviraj, and Charles Taylor. The course drew on examples from European and Indian history that prompted us to think about the relation between modernity (a concept that itself was called into question) and secularism.
Religion and the sex scandal are still closely linked, though the targets of public outrage have morphed: it is often religious authorities and bearers of traditional morality whose sexual desires and actions are publicized and condemned. With so many religious institutions and their authorities rocked by sex scandals in a litany of abuse and victimhood, it behooves us to ask what, precisely, is being exposed and denounced, and, conversely, what is being protected and perhaps even obscured. What aspects of “religion” are under fire in these scandals? What role does “spirituality” play in this discursive reconfiguration of sexuality and religion?
In between my research trips to Senegal and the Philippines, I will be staying in Cortona, Italy, for a two-week summer school on religion and democracy with the Institut fur die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM). . . . The IWM is hosting a remarkable blend of scholars and students grappling with many of the same questions that drive our SSRC DPDF After Secularization group: religion, democracy, the secular, and modernity. The chance to spend a couple of weeks with scholars like Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel and Dipesh Chakrabarty—and in the Tuscan hills no less—is a little slice of grad student heaven.
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.
One of the things that intellectual historians show us, although often only implicitly, is the fluidity of the terms of debates that we take to be self-evident. In An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought, Stefanos Geroulanos shows us this fluidity by focusing on the French history of objections to (and reformulations of) humanist discourse from 1929 to 1952, a history that suggests that the rigidity of the categories of “religion” and “humanism” in Anglophone discourse is exceptional and unnecessary.
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.
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.”