In saecula saeculorum

I’m normally a fairly quick reader. But it took me about two weeks before I went to Adelaide to read my way through Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s magnum opus – A Secular Age. It’s a whopping 880 odd pages, but it repays careful and considered reading. It’s a very important book indeed – with the potential to completely reframe how sociologists see secularity and secularisation, how we understand the long term contributions of Latin Christianity to our contemporary culture and ideas, and indeed how we think about politics in the West. I’ll have to set aside the pleasure of writing a review until after the election’s done and dusted, but I was forwarded an email today (thanks Michael!) pointing to a dedicated blog about the book and the issues it raises hosted by the Social Science Research Council.

I think that’s a great initiative, and Taylor himself has been blogging there. I’d suggest a look at the introductory post to get some idea of the context (and for links to reviews) and a read of Robert Bellah’s post. The comments threads can be a tad academic, but one of the beauties of Taylor’s work is how accessibly and clearly he writes – perhaps something of an irony for a scholar who cut his teeth on a groundbreaking reintrepretation of Hegel. The blog is well worth a look both as an example of good practice in the dissemination and discussion of academic work, and also for anyone concerned with the very crucial issues around the intersection of history, religion, culture and politics. That’s all of us, right?

Advertisements
Posted in culture, politics, religion, sociology
53 comments on “In saecula saeculorum
  1. silkworm says:

    Taylor writes as if secularism is a problem. He says that the separation of church and state should not be assumed. He is writing as a man of faith, but unable to declare his faith openly. This is being intellectually dishonest.

    I don’t give much heed to the fact that his book won the Templeton Prize. That is for contributions to theology. However, to an atheist, all theology is bunk.

    I would rather read an atheist’s view of secularism.

  2. mbahnisch says:

    silkworm, that’s not a fair comment. To separate your own personal position from your intellectual position isn’t “dishonest” but the basis of intellectual rigour. Of course it can’t be done entirely, and it’s more than appropriate to state where you’re coming from.

    I thought atheists were supposed to be rationalists and therefore open to ideas and debate. To dismiss a carefully argued and complex work on the basis of a few slogans would seem to me to be a position more akin to fundamentalism.

  3. silkworm says:

    Sorry. I wrote my comment based on what I could glean from Taylor’s writings on the link provided. After I posted my comment, I went to Richard Bellah’s blog, where he wrote that “Taylor is clear from the beginning that he writes as a believing Catholic…” So, Taylor wasn’t being dishonest about his motives (and I apologize again for that statement). What Taylor wrote, however, did appear to me to be following a Jesuit line – of Christian apologetics that pretends not to be apologetics.

    You say that the book is “very important indeed”. That may be because you share his faith. I disagree. As an atheist, I say the book is not that important.

    I’d say a more important book is Stephen Law’s The War for Children’s Minds. Law points out the dangers of religion, and especially religious education, which lies in its authoritarianism.

    What does Taylor have to say about the negative effects that religious education has on children’s minds?

  4. mbahnisch says:

    Honestly, silkworm, it’s not apologetics and that’s not a “Jesuit line”. It really would be more helpful in discussing this with you if you made more of an attempt to take his ideas at face value.

  5. silkworm says:

    I’ve done a bit more reading on Taylor, and I’m still struggling to understand what it is he has to say that is of significance. Can you help me out here? Why do you say Taylor is important?

    Why is it important for a non-Catholic to understand the contributions of Latin Christianity (i.e. Catholicism) to contemporary culture? It sounds suspiciously like a prelude to evangelism.

  6. kimberella says:

    You’ve got a suspicious mind, silkworm. I don’t know where you think Western culture came from other than from Christianity given that it’s been the basis of most if not all of our basic intellectual and social assumptions up until quite recently. Avowed anti-Christians such as Nietzsche were well aware of that. It’s a fact not a value judgement.

    Bellah sums up what’s distinctive about Taylor’s contribution:

    But Taylor’s focus in this book is on what he calls

    • Secularity 3: “the conditions of experience of and search for the spiritual” that make it possible to speak of ours as a “secular age.”

    As a number of the writers on the blog observe, Taylor is more than fair to positions he personally disagrees with, which makes sense, because his project is to empathetically understand where the various options for and against belief (and there aren’t just two) are coming from and why they’re appealling.

    Incidentally, he analyses extensively the roots and the reasons for the appeal of contemporary anti-religious polemics of which you’re apparently fond.

  7. Amanda says:

    The link from the blog to Bellah’s review says

    “Page Not Found: Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn’t here.”

    Tres amusingly appropriate.

  8. Ambigulous says:

    Thanks Mark,

    when current heavy workload reduces somewhat in a few weeks’ time, will look carefully at this. My impression is that Western life is steeped in Christian theology, whether Roman or Protestant. Hasn’t John Carroll written of this? Whether or not he has, I think it is. So then Marx (for example) may write as a prophet – in an Old/New Testament tradition – regardless of the specific content. Cutural style.

    c.f. Mao takes on trappings of Emperor, draws on Chinese literary antecedents. Lenin & Stalin & Trostsky take on dictatorial powers akin to the Czar’s.

    c.f. Castro & Guevara take on powers WAY BEYOND what their nemesis dictator held….

    Political & social changes take place within a context saturated with historical memories, habits of thought, established practices & laws, etc

    ‘plus la meme chose’

  9. Helen says:

    I don’t know where you think Western culture came from other than from Christianity given that it’s been the basis of most if not all of our basic intellectual and social assumptions up until quite recently.

    I thought the Greek/Roman classical tradition had something to do with it as well?

  10. Klaus K says:

    I’m really looking forward to reading this, having now read through some of the Immanent Frame blog entries. I’m especially interested in the exchange with Wendy Brown (and some of the comments on those posts).

    A book that I found very interesting on debates re: secularism was William Connolly’s ‘Why I am not a secularist’, which I would recommend to anybody who is interested in the problematic of belief. I would like to see Connolly’s response to Taylor’s book and I hope it is forthcoming.

  11. Paul Burns says:

    Modern secularism is very recent, probably post- World War 1. Its an error to think that the Deism and Unitarianism of the European and American Enlightenment were not deeply influenced by traditional 18 C. religious values, or that Xanity was not pervasaive in the West up to WW1. Australia may differ in this case as we were “settled” by the British at a peculiar period in 18C. British history, where, for want of a better phrase, secular libertinism had not yet been supplanted by new wave Evangelicalism, and where one branch of Xanity, Irish Catholicism, viewed another, established Anglicanism,with deep suspicion. Hence, we have tended to be a more secular culture, than say, Britain or America.
    Mark, not having seen, let alone read Taylor’s book, I’m loathe to comment on it. But I hope the above is a useful contribution to the topic and not too historicist (which latter I cheerfully admit to.)

  12. Katz says:

    “Taylor writes as if secularism is a problem. He says that the separation of church and state should not be assumed. He is writing as a man of faith, but unable to declare his faith openly. This is being intellectually dishonest.”

    Lighten up Silky.

    Secularism is a unique achievement of the West. No other culture from any other religious tradition generated secularism despite the fact that several of them had been exposed to classical Greek thinking, commonly seen as the wellspring of secularism.

    From an academic point of view, this is a “problem”. Why did western Christianity cease to make sense?

    Some broad possibilities:

    1. Christianity claimed too much. By claiming a monopoly of truth, Church authorities were then forced to make good their claims for a monopoly of truth.

    2. Christianity contained serious internal contradictions. Major, irresolvable disputes arose over key doctrinal issues. The credibility of Christian dogma was undermined by these disputes.

    3. Christian authorities were unable to crush heterodoxy because of unusual geopolitical circumstances related to the rise of the nation state. Secularism took root under the protection of kings and queens who disputed the authority of anti-secularist churchmen to have these dangerous ideas rooted out. This tendency was particularly powerful in 18th-century Scotland.

  13. dylwah says:

    silkworm says “Why is it important for a non-Catholic to understand the contributions of Latin Christianity (i.e. Catholicism) to contemporary culture?”
    The graffiti exchange in Monty Python’s Life of Brian wouldn’t make sense without it.

  14. Zarquon says:

    silkworm says “Why is it important for a non-Catholic to understand the contributions of Latin Christianity (i.e. Catholicism) to contemporary culture?”
    The graffiti exchange in Monty Python’s Life of Brian wouldn’t make sense without it.

    Ah no, that’s the English boarding school tradition. You need to read Molesworth for that.

  15. silkworm says:

    Latin Christianity’s greatest contribution to contemporary culture is torture. The medieval practice of drowning witches has made a big comeback in the Alberto Gonzales (a Catholic) approved technique of waterboarding.

    Another great Catholic contribution is the concept of crusade, which the Bush administration has reinvented in its war on terror, but which others have called the clash of civilizations.

    Taylor has nothing to say about Islam. Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great is more relevant.

  16. Liam Hogan says:

    No other culture from any other religious tradition generated secularism

    [cough] China [cough]

  17. jinmaro says:

    “No other culture from any other religious tradition generated secularism”

    Iran, Turkey, Russia, Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, etc.

    Islam arguably is a secular religion. Which is why the institution of the monarchy came into being around 2000 BCE in Mesopotamia and spread to all of the the modern world.

  18. Martin B says:

    I don’t know where you think Western culture came from other than from Christianity given that it’s been the basis of most if not all of our basic intellectual and social assumptions up until quite recently.

    Greek rationalism and Roman jurisprudence, for starters. Much of this content was later absorbed into Christian philosophy, but it is wrong to say that it “came from” Christianity.

  19. mbahnisch says:

    You can make a good argument that the classical heritage almost disappeared from the picture in the West in the 6th century, and didn’t really reappear on the scene until the revival of Roman law in the 12th century and of Aristotelian philosophy somewhat later. But both were refracted through the church – with canon law and scholastic philosophy respectively. Roman traditions of governance were, of course, preserved largely through the church as an institution.

    But more broadly, most of our cultural and ideational heritage is shaped by Xtianity, and that’s Taylor’s argument.

    As Kim said, Nietzsche and other anti-Xtians accepted this as a fact.

    It’s just intellectually sloppy to deny it, and pointless to single out the reprehensible as the only heritage worth mentioning… as if anyway, torture and religious war were unknown before the Catholic Church and didn’t occur outside Europe.

  20. Katz says:

    Ahem. Mandate of Heaven.

    You ought to get that nasty frog in your throat seen to Liam.

    Certainly, China adopted secularism, but under the influence of Western models.

  21. silkworm says:

    Secularity 3: “the conditions of experience of and search for the spiritual” that make it possible to speak of ours as a “secular age.”

    This is a reversion to the original meaning of the secular as the laity of the church. All it means is that the common people are no longer relying on the priesthood for their access to the divine or “spiritual experience”. This is problematic to a Catholic such as Taylor why?

  22. Martin B says:

    “Shaped by Christianity” I’m comfortable with. It is indeed undeniable that most of Western Europe was Christian for most of the last millenium, including almost all of the powerful individuals and institutions.

    However I don’t like implications that our culture has only been influenced by Western Europe, and that all of the ideas in Western Europe originated in the Church. I think that is just as intellectually sloppy.

  23. mbahnisch says:

    Taylor is very clear that he knows that, and that for a number of reasons he’s choosing only to talk about Western Europe.

  24. Martin B says:

    I wasn’t suggesting that either Taylor or any contributor here was making that implication. However I have seen elsewhere, many times, the argument slide from “christianity had a major impact on Western culture” to “all of Western culture can be traced to christianity”.

  25. mbahnisch says:

    True.

  26. silkworm says:

    We are still to hear from anyone what the positive contributions of Latin Christianity to contemporary culture are. I’m at a loss to come up with even one.

  27. mbahnisch says:

    Secularism. 😉

  28. Martin B says:

    Needham argued that Chrsitianity, by having a creation and eschatology but locating the central actor between these, provided an arrow of time for western culture that was more pronounced than other societies’, which in turn proved fundamental to the development of physical sciences.

    Can’t say I was ever persuaded by that one though… 🙂

  29. silkworm says:

    Secularism? Ha ha ha! Why don’t you throw in Protestantism as well.

  30. mbahnisch says:

    Needham I think draws a fairly long bow, and that’s generally recognised now. There would be some who’d dispute the basis of the premise of the question “why did only Europe develop science?”…

  31. mbahnisch says:

    Protestantism gave rise to secularism, silkworm, in a very real way.

  32. silkworm says:

    Mark is saying: Catholicism gave us Protestantism, which gave us secularism, therefore Catholicism gave us secularism. Huh? Can anyone besides Mark spot the absurdity of this argument?

    Since secularism is based on a rejection of religion, and primarily the Catholic religion, the argument goes that Catholicism gave the Western world its rejection of religion! This is another absurdity.

    Furthermore, this secular rejection of religion is problematic, if you are a Charles Taylor, but a positive thing, if you are a Mark B. Catholics need to make up their minds whether secularism is a good or bad thing.

  33. mbahnisch says:

    Taylor argues, silkworm, that the reformist impulse within Latin Christianity predated the Protestant reformation, and that its final destination was the emptying out of a certain “enchanted” world view and thus modern secularity. Similarly, secularism as such has its origins in the distinction made in Augustinian thought between “the city of god” and “the city of man”. It could, of course, be traced back earlier. None of this is particularly controversial in historical and sociological scholarship. I’m not going to bother responding to any more of your points because you refuse to engage with sophisticated arguments and just fall back on attempted rhetorical traps and fundamentalist atheist slogans and talking points.

  34. Katz says:

    “Islam arguably is a secular religion. Which is why the institution of the monarchy came into being around 2000 BCE in Mesopotamia and spread to all of the the modern world.”

    I’m amazed by how powerful Islam must be Jinmaro, having as it does the enormous influence on the creation of kingship more than 2600 years before Mahommed was born!

  35. silkworm says:

    Why stop at Augustine? Why not go back to “Render unto Caesar that which is caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s”? This statement presages the separation of church and state.

  36. Klaus K says:

    Christianity gave us the modern concept of progress, for better or for worse, as a way to frame and understand change. In spite of centuries of revision, the structuring assumptions of this concept are largely maintained in present usage, especially amongst those ‘of the left’ and even where we no longer cling to grand narratives or explicitly assert historical inevitability.

  37. Crispin Bennett says:

    Silkworm, in his last book Taylor was trying to trace the course of a very specific historical development — ie. ‘Western’ secularism — and he concluded, not terribly controversially, that it developed out of cultural forces internal to Christendom.

    He was in no way denying that that-which-developed (ie. secularism) was different in kind from the previous cultural order. In fact, on my reading he thought the change has been far more fundamental than Enlightenment thinkers or their opponents realised, deeply altering the phenomenology of value of our entire Western populations by the 2nd half of last century (a theme suggested earlier in the somewhat shorter ‘Sources of the Self’, which would be a good Taylor starting point).

    I haven’t read the whole of ASE yet, but nowhere so far, nor in SOTS does Taylor suggest himself as occupying some kind of counter-revolutionary position. Rather he’s trying to suggest that along with all the indisputable social, intellectual, and material gains, there has been some loss also. Again, that’s not vastly controversial, and needn’t be opposed by secularism-celebrating atheists. Indeed, many such who study hunter-gatherer societies have made similar observations about the nature of modern consciousness (check out Hugh Brody’s ‘The Other Side of Eden’). Some modern secular Buddhists make similar critiques.

    Taylor was not taking sides in some imaginary (or desired) war between secularism and religion, just trying to analyse carefully what has happened, and what it has meant. This was philosophy (using a historical method), not cultural commentary a-la Hitchens.

    Truly, it’s far more productive (not to mention convincing) to read a book before rubbishing it. Try Taylor’s SOTS. Even if you end up disagreeing, you’ll have followed some fascinating lines of thought, and it might be enough to make you want to read more Taylor.

  38. jinmaro says:

    Katz, Muhammad’s Islam was almost entirely derived by oral tradition from Christianity and Judaism. The early civilisation of Mesopotamia, i.e. a non-Western civilisation, developed the monarchy which is a secularised form of religion. It did so for economic-political purposes. This political form was later adopted throughout the world, including the Islamic world, preceding the Middle Ages.

  39. Peter Kemp says:

    Similarly, secularism as such has its origins in the distinction made in Augustinian thought between “the city of god” and “the city of man”. It could, of course, be traced back earlier. None of this is particularly controversial in historical and sociological scholarship.

    Well Mark I haven’t had the benefit of an academic study of philosophy, and it may well be that secularism historically does have its origins in Augustinian thought, but on wiki’s entry:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_City_of_God

    The book presents human history as being a conflict between what Augustine calls the City of Man and the City of God (a conflict that is destined to end in victory of the latter). The City of God is marked by people who forgo earthly pleasure and dedicate themselves to the promotion of Christian values. The City of Man, on the other hand, consists of people who have strayed from the City of God.

    I fail to see the origins of secularism there.

    Perhaps you could shed further light on De Civitate Dei contra Paganos as the antecedent of secularism?

  40. mbahnisch says:

    Wikipedia’s wrong, Peter.

    Augustine was writing to respond to claims by pagans that the sack of Rome in 410 was a judgement on the city and Empire’s conversion to Christianity and thus spurning the gods who had protected Rome. He argued that there was no perfect city or polity on Earth, and that the “City of God” was to be identified with the Church Triumphant (that is to say, the community of believers after the eschaton). Government, or politics, is a necessary evil because of human sinfulness, and functions to restrain human wickedness, but is not to be identified with the divine realm. So, in effect, the logical direction of his thought is to create a secular space for the realm of politics sundered from the sacred space of the religious.

  41. silkworm says:

    The functions of government have always been secular. Augustine didn’t invent them.

    The creation of secular “space” was made by Jefferson with his wall of separation between church and state.

  42. mbahnisch says:

    That’s quite wrong, on both counts. It’s only been very recently that government and religion have been distinguished – think of the notion of the divine right of kings and the anointing that went with coronation ceremonies, or way back at the origins of the state which you were referring to previously – in Mesopotamia – the priestly or sacrificial role of rulers.

    Similarly, long before Jefferson, the emancipation of the state from religious authority began with the “investiture dispute” of the 13th century. You can plot a lot of other landmarks along that path – including the principle of cuius rego, cuius religio and the French Revolution.

  43. jinmaro says:

    Mark is being very undialectical. The sacred and the secular are not that easily or simply divisible.

    Never have been, never will be.

  44. mbahnisch says:

    I agree, jinmaro, I’m just trying to spell it out in the terms of silkworm’s comments, with which I’m getting rather frustrated! That’s precisely part of the point that Taylor is making with his reconceptualisation of “secularisation” as “secularity”.

  45. Peter Kemp says:

    Thanks for that Mark.

    It’s also interesting to contemplate the input of the Islamic golden age on western secularist development. The religious freedom afforded Christian Jewish Islamic and other [atheist? :-)] scholars:

    During this period the Muslim world was a cauldron of cultures which collected, synthesized and advanced the works collected from the Chinese, Persian, Egyptian, North African, Greek, Spanish, Sicilian and Byzantine civilizations [Wiki citation: Vartan Gregorian, “Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith”, Brookings Institution Press, 2003, pg 26-38 ISBN 081573283X]

    While it could not in any way be said that the golden age of Islam was a secular society as we know it, the freedom for independent thought, (a precursor to modern secularism) was accommodated much better than say a Galileo in Christian society some centuries later. Of note was the hadith “the ink of scientists is equal to the blood of martyrs”–not something we hear much of today in the Islamic world, but a remarkable statement given its 8th century promulgation/application.

    Latin Christianity yes, has had a profound influence on “our contemporary culture and ideas” but many other influences had an oar in as well, and I think the Islamic one is not given the recognition it deserves.(That’s not necessarily a criticism of Taylor’s tome which I haven’t read.)

    (Having said that and off topic a bit, can’t resist, go Dawkins and the new secularist/atheist movement!!!)

  46. mbahnisch says:

    Taylor, as I’ve observed before, is quite sympathetic in his discussion of where Dawkins et al are coming from. That’s why I thought it might be interesting to discuss his ideas – because he really does reframe a lot of the fairly sterile disputes that normally cluster around these issues.

  47. mbahnisch says:

    I should point out though, Peter, with ref to your last para, you don’t need to be an atheist to be a secularist!

  48. Peter Kemp says:

    you don’t need to be an atheist to be a secularist!

    True, but it helps a lot. 🙂

  49. Katz says:

    “I should point out though, Peter, with ref to your last para, you don’t need to be an atheist to be a secularist!”

    One of the issues that has confused discussion so far is the question of the possible relationships between the sacred and the secular.

    The hard line atheist is inclined to assert that the secular and the sacred are at war with each other, and that secular knowledge trumps superstition.

    The hard line theist is inclined to assert that the secular and the sacred ar at war with each other and that revealed truth trumps human understanding.

    There is a middle path, however, which proposes that religions have nothing to say about certain subjects. Secular knowledge shines light into places unimagined by religion. This knowledge does not supplant religion. Rather, it outflanks it.

    This latter was a position that secularists took when they were relatively politically weak and faced the danger of persecution. With the growing power of secularism, this position is viewed by many as being too timid. Now is the time, they believe, to crush the claims of religion.

    Interestingly, recently Pope Benedict XVI has criticised secularism, declaring it to be the source of relativism, a huge intellectual and moral failing, according to him.

    So, it looks like the Pope isn’t interested in the compromise of different spheres of knowledge. He’s coming out swinging.

    So, it appears to me that is is growing more difficult to hold the position of two unrelated, if not coequal, forms of knowledge. However, once upon a time a pope making such a pronouncement would have sent shivers down many spines. These days it’s more of a giggle.

    If the Pope wants a big stoush between religion and secularism, it seems to me that there can be only one winner.

  50. Zarquon says:

    If the Pope wants a big stoush between religion and secularism, it seems to me that there can be only one winner.

    Yeah, how many divisions does the Pope have?

  51. Katz says:

    At a guess, fewer than Pius IX.

    Remember Pius IX?

  52. Zarquon says:

    By the way, there’s now a Secular Party of Australia

  53. jinmaro says:

    “As long as humanity exists, the struggle will not cease between dogma and free investigation, nor between religion and philosophy. This is a desperate struggle in which I fear triumph will not be for free thought, because the masses dislike reason and its teachings are only understood by the elite, and because science, however beautiful it is, does not completely satisfy humanity, which searches for the ideal, and which likes to exist in dark and distant regions that the philosopher and the scholar neither perceive nor can explore.”

    I think these truths apply equally to all religions and all peoples, including the ostensibly non-religious.

    Sayyid Muhammad Ibn Safdar al-Husayn (1838-1897) was one of the founders of Islamic modernism, and a political activist and Islamic nationalist in Afghanistan, Iran Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamal_al-Din_al-Afghani

Comments are closed.

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.
%d bloggers like this: