True confession: I have not read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. I have a copy, I started it on the basis of recommendations from smart people, and…I couldn’t make it past the introduction. It’s 800+ pages long, and it’s a solid block of rambling philosopherese. You know how some philosophers think that saying something ten times in increasingly convoluted language is communication? That’s Charles Taylor. It’s also Stephen Meyer, another philosopher who babbles on for 800 pages, but that’s about evolution, so I feel compelled to force my way through the nonsense. Taylor is a Catholic writing about secularism (but with less bias than you’d think, I’ve heard!), and so I lacked the imperative to plow ahead.
But now I’m in luck — a NY Times op-ed writer, which we all know is a sign of quality, has written a summary of the book. Only it’s by David Brooks. So now I get to see what a badly-written, complex book is about, as seen through the comfortably muddled brain of a painfully shallow tendentious thinker and equally awful writer. Others will have to judge whether Brooks summarizes the book fairly; all I can see is Brooks cheerfully wallowing in ideas that he already “knew” were correct.
I can see glimmerings of stuff I agree with, but it all gets a final twist that is most disagreeable. It’s frustrating because I don’t know how much of it is Brooks’ gloss and how much is Taylor. For instance, Taylor rejects a common myth of secularism:
Taylor’s investigation begins with this question: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say 1500, in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?” That is, how did we move from the all encompassing sacred cosmos, to our current world in which faith is a choice, in which some people believe, others don’t and a lot are in the middle?
This story is usually told as a subtraction story. Science came into the picture, exposed the world for the way it really is and people started shedding the illusions of faith. Religious spirit gave way to scientific fact.
Taylor rejects this story. He sees secularization as, by and large, a mottled accomplishment, for both science and faith.
See, phrasing it as a “subtraction story” is what I find objectionable: it’s an additive story. Science and culture grew, adding more richness to society and the world of the mind, and making certain old ideas untenable but replacing them with many more. Why is it being called “subtraction”? I don’t know. At least Taylor is said to disagree with it too, although what the heck does he mean, “a mottled accomplishment” by “both science and faith”? Curse you, David Brooks, you cracked and sooty lens!
Advances in human understanding — not only in science but also in art, literature, manners, philosophy and, yes, theology and religious practice — give us a richer understanding of our natures. Shakespeare helped us see character in more intricate ways. An improvement in mores means we take less pleasure from bear-baiting, hanging and other forms of public cruelty. We have a greater understanding of how nature works.
These achievements did make it possible to construct a purely humanistic account of the meaningful life. It became possible for people to conceive of meaningful lives in God-free ways — as painters in the service of art, as scientists in the service of knowledge.
OK, where’s the “mottling”? This is secularism as an unalloyed good.
But, Taylor continues, these achievements also led to more morally demanding lives for everybody, believer and nonbeliever. Instead of just fitting docilely into a place in the cosmos, the good person in secular society is called upon to construct a life in the universe. She’s called on to exercise all her strength.
People are called to greater activism, to engage in more reform. Religious faith or nonfaith becomes more a matter of personal choice as part of a quest for personal development.
That’s the downside? That now we’re expected to be autonomous moral agents rather than unthinking servants of an established order? Sign me up for more of that. Brooks goes on to list doubt as a negative for religious people. I really don’t get it. I regard doubt as a virtue.
And then Brooks tells us about another problem: malaise.
Individuals don’t live embedded in tight social orders; they live in buffered worlds of private choices. Common action, Taylor writes, gives way to mutual display. Many people suffer from a malaise. They remember that many people used to feel connected to an enchanted, transcendent order, but they feel trapped in a flat landscape, with diminished dignity: Is this all there is?
Whenever a conservative uses that word, “malaise”, you know what’s coming: people are going to be said to be miserable because they aren’t living in a world exactly like the conservative’s ideal of the situation 50 to 100 years ago. That “enchanted, transcendent order” was the Catholic church that has spent the past few hundred years shaming healthy human sexuality while supposedly celibate priests were raping children. I suppose it was great if you were high up in the social ladder — hierarchies are always wonderful if you’re at the top of they pyramid of human misery — but imagine being a woman or poor in Western society at any time in the past: “trapped in a flat landscape, with diminished dignity” is a good description.
Secularism has the potential to break the old order and allow a new flourishing. What sad-faced Brooks describes is not malaise, but a new hope that encourages a restlessness for change, one in which smug overpaid NY Times op-ed writers are probably going to lose a few privileges.
Brooks’ (and maybe Taylor’s) only consolation is that maybe people will successfully find new religious lies to believe in.
But these downsides are more than made up for by the upsides. Taylor can be extremely critical of our society, but he is grateful and upbeat. We are not moving to a spiritually dead wasteland as, say, the fundamentalists imagine. Most people, he observes, are incapable of being indifferent to the transcendent realm. “The yearning for eternity is not the trivial and childish thing it is painted as,” Taylor writes.
Yes, it is.
Maybe Taylor is unable to see it himself since he doesn’t personally share the secular mindset, but yeah, seeking justification for your life in imaginary wish-fulfillment and magic is the real dead-end. When you turn away from that immature dream and look at how wonderful life is, that’s when you’ve grown up and can hope to find deeper satisfaction. I’m reminded of the end of the epic of Gilgamesh, when the hero returns disillusioned from his quest for immortality and realizes how awesome the accomplishments of real people are.
But this refocusing on the real world is not for Brooks. Oh, no; the happy message he takes away is that we’re still spiritual.
Orthodox believers now live with a different tension: how to combine the masterpieces of humanism with the central mysteries of their own faiths. This pluralism can produce fragmentations and shallow options, and Taylor can eviscerate them, but, over all, this secular age beats the conformity and stultification of the age of fundamentalism, and it allows for magnificent spiritual achievement.
I’m vastly oversimplifying a rich, complex book, but what I most appreciate is his vision of a “secular” future that is both open and also contains at least pockets of spiritual rigor, and that is propelled by religious motivation, a strong and enduring piece of our nature.
What the hell is a “spiritual achievement”? How can you have “spiritual rigor”?
I can imagine the relief that Brooks felt on reading a book about secularism and discovering that people are still buying the bullshit the priests and New Age wackos and other spiritual charlatans are selling. The kingdom still has employment opportunities for delusionists, his job is secure.