For our January 21, 2016 meeting we will read three books. Two by bitter antagonists, Sam Harris and Reza Aslan, and one by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Sam Harris is a well-known atheist author, who considers Islam a dangerous ideology (as he does Christianity and Judaism and other world religions). Reza Aslan is an author on religion and a popular defender of Islam against its critics.
Our group is more oriented towards our private search for non-supernatural meaning. We are trying to forge new connections and find a new language. This is what we might call a positive approach. I don’t want to get us into a negative, “anti-” mode. But I do feel that due to recent events and U.S. presidential campaigns, anti-Muslim bigotry has become ubiquitous. I think it is important to distinguish critiques of religion — understood as supernatural-based ideologies — from acts of bigotry and hate. Where is the balance of harm, in today’s climate? I feel it is an important moment to take this on.
Here are the books:
Islam and the Future of Tolerance, by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawas
On such a potentially heated topic, I want to begin by emphasizing what we all have in common in this group.
I believe that everyone in the Old New Way will agree that:
Human beings should not suffer unnecessarily
–no “honor” killings by family members
–no stoning of adulterers or “apostates” or blasphemers
–no executions of homosexuals
–girls and women should have equal access to education
–no spousal abuse through physical violence or confinement
–no bigotry or discrimination
There should be freedom of inquiry and speech (with minimal exceptions for safety)
–human lives are more important than any sacred books or words
–the most useful ideas are developed and honed through dialogue and even, in many cases, opposition and contradiction
–no one has a monopoly on the truth
Violence is only acceptable as a LAST resort, even in political struggles
— violent “jihad” against people for their beliefs or identities or mere citizenship is not okay
–“martyrdom” operations are not okay
— killing of innocents is not okay (whether by drone or suicide!)
Cultural differences are, in almost every case, enriching and wonderful
–different music, foods, clothing make our world better
–different priorities and social understandings make it more interesting (and we learn from one another)
Western colonialism and resource exploitation did (and continue to do) undeniable harm to people in the Mideast
–artificially drawn national boundaries create tensions politically
–racism was – and continues to be – prevalent in relationship between West and East
— capitalist exploitation (taking oil profits, etc.) goes on
— the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 drove many Palestinians from their homes; the settlements are a forcible taking of Palestinian land
— the U.S.-led Iraq War killed thousands upon thousands of civilians
I list these first because once we establish that we all agree on these emotionally-charged issues, I hope we can have a more harmonious and directed discussion.
The problem, as you all know, is that when people disagree about religion and politics and the like, even small disagreements about how to get there can trigger limbic brain in-group mentalities and ingrained threat responses very fast.
So let’s try our best to avoid that adrenaline-fueled reaction entirely by agreeing, at the outset, that we largely share the same positions (as mentioned above, i.e. against unnecessary suffering, for freedom of inquiry and expression, concern about Western power and hegemony, etc.).
Anyway, our disagreements probably come down to a disagreement about tactics or approaches more than substance.
Having said that, let’s look at this phenomenon of “Islamophobia” a little more closely.
What are its different forms and definitions? (Spoiler: I think the term “Islamophobia” is very unhelpful, since it conflates a number of vastly different concerns.)
Six Different Forms of “Islamophobia”
1. Bigotry, i.e. visceral hatred towards people from the Mideast
This is the most basic of all – it has no ideology.
(A better term for it than “Islamophobia” might be “anti-Muslimism”?)
It is an expression of the limbic brain in full throttle.
For any given bigot (or anti-Muslimist), it might be based on…
— fear/unfamiliarity/disgust with sounds of different language (Arabic, Farsi, Turkish)
— fear/unfamiliarity/disgust with different habits (daily prayers, clothes, food…)
— racism towards people with different color of skin
— rejection of/disgust with Islamic architecture (and/or art)
–feelings of superiority (due to white skin, European history of power, different education, etc.)
2. A Religious Agenda
This one is based on a kind of in-group/out-group, supernatural assessment that Muslims are wrong in God’s eyes
It is expressed by Israeli settlers, Hindu separatists, European-Christian nationalists and many Evangelical Christian communities in the U.S. It does not always overlap with bigotry of the racial kind.
It can take the form of
— arguments that Muslims are aligned with Satan or the anti-Christ
–concerns that God promised Jerusalem as the Jew’s “eternal city”
–apocalyptic rumblings about the return of Jesus and the Rapture (and the Jewish people’s prophesized return to their homeland)
–sometimes it is even accompanied by a sincere urge to convert and win over
3. Threat Assessment
This is (presented as) a fear-based response to geopolitical events
It is strongest in right-wing parties in Europe and Russia and the U.S. (but it is also present in the Mideast itself, in terms of justifying “strong men” governements and leaders)
It claims to argue not against Arabs et al. as a ethnic/social/cultural group, nor in religious terms, but rather in terms of “objective” security concerns… (this one, by the way, is Donald Trump’s stated position – as he says, “…until we figure out what is going on…”)
Often it includes
–arguments that ‘radical Islamists’ are infiltrating society through refugee status, immigration, etc.
–arguments about military strategy (e.g. “red lines,” the need for a show of force in the Mideast, checkpoints, etc.)
–even arguments for gun rights (see Marco Rubio’s Christmas eve purchase of a gun to protect his family “against ISIS”!)
4. Concerns about Religion Generally
The focus here is on the supposedly deleterious effects of supernatural thinking and organized religion, Islam being a case in point.
These may include:
–concern about perfectionism (as opposed to incrementalism, appreciation of hard choices, trade-offs, the need for compromise and understanding…)
–concern about the enshrinement of outdated cultural norms in a ‘sacred’ book
–concern about the fostering of in-group/out-group mentality
–concern about the culture of lies encouraged by supernaturalism (not looking to evidence, not developing critical thinking, habits of verification and falsification)
–concern about the ingrained habit of certainty (instead of the celebration of doubt)
–concern about abusive child rearing/indoctrination/control
–concern about sexual shaming/control
–concern about emphasis on afterlife at cost of this life
Note that when you view religion as merely a form of ideology, and not worthy of protection by taboo, then there are distinctions to be made between religions (just as their between ideologies). In terms of advocacy for peaceful coexistence and tolerance, for example, Islam does not come out on top. (Probably Jainism does? Or forms of native American shamanism?)
Then again, Islam is better on social equality between men-who-are-unequivocally-part-of-its-faith-tradition. So there’s that.
5. Concerns about Assimilation
This is sometimes merely a weak-tea version of bigotry and terrorism/security threat assessment… but it does have another, more substantive aspect as well, I believe.
This is the “high-minded” argument rolled out by the National Front in France or conservative commentators in the U.S…. when they want to sound as reasonable as they can.
It comes into play when their concerns are based on the sense that there is (or should be) a unified cultural community among citizens.
With this in mind, they express
–concern that Muslims “cocoon” themselves off in homogenous communities
–concern that values of free speech and pluralism may be anathema to the religion of Islam (or Mideastern culture?).
–concern that Muslim populations therefore, unintentionally or not, degrade the healthy civic life in the host country.
In theory, though not in practice, this concern would apply with equal force to any minority community that did not assimilate, such as Afrikaners in South Africa?
6. Concerns about Immigration Generally
This is similar to Concerns about Assimilation, above, but with a slight difference of emphasis: the argument is often more about jobs and crime.
This form of “Islamophobia” expresses
–concern that foreigners are taking native-born peoples’ jobs (Muslims from the Mideast being one such potential immigrant group)
–concern that new immigrants will undermine wages by agreeing to less pay, or organize themselves into collective groups that keep out native-born workers
–concern about welfare dependency of new, poor immigrants (and higher taxes to support such dependency)
–concern about increases in crime, drug use, sexual assault, etc. (see recent events in Cologne, Germany, and the strong reaction of the average German)
So these are some of the different concerns grouped under the label “Islamophobia.”
Considering that this is a non-supernatural group, I think perhaps we should now turn to looking in more detail at #4 (Concerns about Religion Generally), in the context of Islam.
That, I am guessing, is where most of us find ourselves (though some of us may also be drawn, perhaps against our better judgment, particularly after a terrorist event, to #3 and #5?).
The question I posed for this meeting was: Is it possible to criticize the religion of Islam without being a bigot, i.e. without denigrating the social/cultural aspects of Muslim life?
Or is it a fool’s errand to try to separate these different strands of Muslim identity, and you will always slide into hurtful bigotry if you try?
Criticisms of Islam
We read three books. Here is a brief summary of the relevant arguments of each.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Heretic
Hirsi Ali divides the Muslim community into three “sets”:
This is the name that she gives to those Muslims – the majority world-wide – who are inspired by the more inclusive and spiritual-minded Koranic verses from Muhammed’s early years in Mecca. Many of these verses in the Koran emphasize equality and fairness and self-discipline and moral rectitude (along with submission to Allah).
After Muhammed was driven from Mecca to Medina, his faith became more of a persecuted faith and a war-hardened faith. There are therefore many verses in the Koran that emphasize persecution, group solidarity, enforce rules and punish offenders.
This is the name Hirsi Ali gives to those Muslims and former Muslims, like herself, who are actively attempting to reform Islam. (She includes an Appendix in which she names many others whom she admires.)
Hirsi Ali addresses the question of why there has been no Islamic reformation – i.e. why the Modifying Muslims have made so little headway.
First, she says, Islam is not hierarchical, so change is dispersed and slow to catch on.
Second, there are fierce strictures against any and all critiques of Islamic religious doctrine.
Yet she still believes it can happen.
Hirsi Ali suggests five specific amendments to Islam that would initiate the reform she seeks.
Reject Muhammed’s infallible status and literal readings of the Koran (this rejection of literalism has largely been achieved in the other Abrahamic monotheistic religions but has been resisted in Islam).
Emphasize human lives as lived, over dreams of the after-life.
Reject the authority of sharia law.
Call into question the practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law themselves.
Abandon the concept of “jihad,” or holy war, entirely.
There are, of course, many challenges to reform:
All Muslims form a single community of believers (“ummah”), which makes them have a strong in-group/out-group mentality across the globe.
Traditional Arab culture is driven by a shame dynamic (instead of a guilt dynamic) – so one individual’s criticism, even if valid, is easily seen as an attack on the collective as a whole.
The Koran is sacrosanct. Unlike the Torah or the Bible, it is not a narrative but a series of commands, embedded socially through their recitation.
The Koran emphasizes divine omnipotence over human free will.
In many places, the text justifies violence. (Muhammed himself led his followers to victory numerous times on the battlefield.)
The concepts of martyrdom and the after-life are deeply embedded in it.
Sharia is understood by Muslims as a moral order (not merely a legal one).
The Koran empowers each Muslim to “command right and forbid wrong” himself or herself – i.e. it elevates all Muslims to the position of religious enforcers.
There has been an erosion of the idea of a zone of privacy in Muslim culture.
Jihad is in the Koran as a “spiritual struggle,” but also an outward one. One cannot deny the second imperative.
Global jihad is attractive to many disaffected youth as an easy “one size fits all” solution.
But Hirsi Ali cites these hopeful developments:
New information technology is exposing many to ideas outside their close communities.
The Arab spring, though brief, indicated growing unrest among many.
Reza Aslan, no god but God
Like Hirsi Ali, Aslan believes that there is a Muslim reformation underway. But unlike Hirsi Ali, Aslan does not see the Koran or the Islamic faith as presenting a unique challenge to reform.
On the contrary, he sees Islam as ripe with the possibility for reform and revision.
He insists that a religion is not a faith; it is the “story of a faith.” (This seems to suggest to him that it need not be factually true, so much as inspiring.)
So, with this in mind, Aslan sets out to tell us the story of Islam.
It begins with the story of a charismatic, handsome 25 year old, Muhammed, who impresses and marries a wealthy widow 15 years older than him. He then has a revelation in a cave and hears the voice of God giving him verses that speak of a new monotheism. Muhammed begins to proselytize, as a “prophet.”
Eventually, he marries others too (one wife, Aisha, is only six when she comes into his home, but we are assured that he did not consummate the marriage until she was nine – well, that’s a relief!). His followers soon have to escape the authorities in Mecca, the powerful Quraysh. In the dead of night, one by one, they flee to Medina, a small agrarian village many miles away.
Aslan describes the many threats faced by Muhammed and his followers when they in Medina. He explains that the outward-looking and aggressive forms of “jihad” are in the Koran because they were crucial for Muhammed in establishing his community. He acknowledges that this term of jihad has “been manipulated” for use by radicals and militants, but insists that most Muslims do not understand it this way (p. 81). Aslan also argues that the verses that seem to suggest Muslims “slay the polytheists,” etc. must be understood in a very narrow context of Muhammed’s conflicts with the Quraysh and others (p. 84).
He also minimizes the relevance of Muhammed’s mass execution of hundreds of Jewish Arabs in Medina – explaining it away as a matter of treason, not genocide (p. 94). He points out that Christians and Jews were not routinely killed when conquered by Muslims, nor were they even forced to convert (as polytheists and pagans were). Instead, they were merely compelled to pay a special tax (jizyah) under an Islamic state. Oh, and they were not allowed to openly worship or proselytize their faiths in public.
Aslan (to my ear, chillingly) summarizes Muhammed’s actions in this episode in the following way: “Worried that the rejection of the Jews would somehow discredit his prophetic claims, Muhammed had no choice but to turn violently against them, separate his community from theirs” (p. 95; emphasis added).
The question of the succession of leaders after Muhammed’s death takes up another chapter. After a few Caliphs come and go, Aslan is happy to report that one, “Abu Bakr’s was a short but highly successful reign… His principle achievement as Caliph was his military campaigns against ‘false prophets’ and those tribes who had ceased paying the tithe tax…” In other words, “successful,” to Aslan, is apparently defined in terms of a wider conquest and the expansion of the Muslim caliphate…
I was surprised at how war-like and troubling the story of this faith turned out to be, even in Reza Aslan’s favorable telling. He admits to the severity and misogyny of the interpreters of the Koran, but he emphasizes how much it has been manipulated and distorted in the process. I am sure he is right. But that doesn’t give me much confidence that it will be reversed and corrected, despite Aslan’s assurance that this will happen in due course. For, as far as I could glean, he does not seem to give much evidence for this course correction.
Sure, Aslan names a few reformers through the centuries. And he writes at length about Sufism. But that is not a dominant form of Islam (in fact Sufism is not even considered Islamic!). Aslan also describes the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism across the Mideast, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in particular, as being largely a result of Western colonialism and exploitation. Here too I am inclined to agree. But neither does that explain how such extremism will be eradicated or reduced with time. Nor does that fully account for its emergence (there are many parts of the globe that have been subjected to colonialism and exploitation of resources but have not seen the emergence of an ideology of violent “martyrdom” and totalitarianism).
In the final passages of his book, Aslan concludes that the West is “merely a bystander” to an internal struggle in Islam, which has “finally begun its Fifteenth Century” (p. 248). He announces this with a kind of awe and optimism.
Aslan’s hopes seem to be pinned to the idea that Islamic tradition has long had an appreciation for pluralism: see, for example, the jizyah tax on Christians and Jews instead of forced conversion. He believes that within a clear “Islamic moral framework” a pluralistic state, even a democratic one, is possible. He concedes cheerfully, however, that “there may be some circumstances in which Islamic morality may force the rights of the community to prevail over the rights of the individual” (p. 264).
But this concession, made in passing, gives away the game, doesn’t it? Notice the abstraction behind the words: “Islamic morality may force the rights of the community…” But of course, a “morality” would not be able to “force” anybody to do anything; rather, it would be certain individuals who would maintain control over that “morality” and its terms, and enjoy the monopoly of authority in order to enforce them. And anyway, a “community” does not have rights; individuals do. That’s the point of rights: that the aggregate doesn’t get to assert special high-powered rights that trump one person’s!
Aslan ends by saying that the “cleansing” of Islam is inevitable (p. 266). This strikes me as an unfortunate term, “cleansing,” loaded with the kind of perfectionist thinking that I deplore (and I believe religion promotes). The term “inevitable” here also sticks uncomfortably in my ears in this context of violent upheaval. It suggests a strangely passive approach to present-day suffering.
Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance
Nawaz runs an organization in London, Quilliam, dedicated to the cause of reforming Islam. Harris is a well-known atheist and writer. The book mostly reads as an interview by Harris of Nawaz, with occasional commentary thrown in by Harris when he feel compelled to push back. This structure was fine with me, because I was impressed throughout with Nawaz’ clarity of expression and thought.
Nawaz makes it clear that his organization, Quilliam, is focused on encouraging Muslims to embrace the universality of human, democratic and secular values (he uses the term “secular” here in the limited sense of keeping religion and politics separate – not at all to suggest a renunciation of religion). He believes that this one change – Muslims coming to accept the universality of these values – could and would run parallel to religion without necessarily disrupting it. In his view, this development would provide a protected zone of critical thinking and privacy – and so, in turn, hasten the reform of Islam. Nawaz does not look for a sudden transformation of Islam anytime soon; rather, it will be a gradual, grinding process.
When they first met, Harris urged Nawaz to be more “honest” and call out the radicalism inherent in the Koran. But Nawaz strongly rejects this formulation of the situation he faces. He explains that he doesn’t believe that any written text “says” any one thing – so to call out some radicalism, as Harris wants him to do, would be incorrect. What Nawaz wants, instead, is to join others in encouraging an interpretation of the Koran which allows for a separation of Islamic faith and a person’s political identity.
Unfortunately, both Harris and Nawaz begin by describing the Islamic faith community as a series of concentric circles… (I found this description to be problematic, as I will explain below.)
In the center circle, they both put ISIS and Al Qaeda and all the other radicals dedicated to violent jihad, spreading the faith by way of the sword.
The next circle out is the Islamists, who seek to spread Islam through political action.
The next circle out from that is the conservative Muslims, who may or may not support the Islamists or even the jihadis actions, but are more focused on issues of private faith and morality (e.g. the traditional role of women, etc.).
Finally, in the outer ring, there are the moderate Muslims who want to live their lives by modern values: the sales reps, lawyers, street-cleaners, engineers, mothers and fathers, etc. who are Muslims mainly by cultural tradition.
Within the Islamists, Nawaz goes on to distinguish three subcategories: political, revolutionary, and militant. The political ones want to achieve their goal through the ballot box, the revolutionary ones in one fell swoop, and the militants through global violent jihad (in their radicalism, these last ones drop into the inner concencentric circle).
As I said, I think this whole visual lay-out is a distortion. I do not think it is fair to place ISIS and Al Quaeda at the CENTER of this description of Islam. Can’t we place the conservatives at the center, with the moderates near them, and the jihadis and the political Islamists as bubbles at the edges? Wouldn’t that be more accurate? Why must the most radical take center stage?
In the next section, Nawaz and Harris talk about indoctrination. Nawaz says that there are four stages in recruitment: grievance, identity crisis, a charismatic recruiter, and ideological dogma.
Nawaz point out that religious dogma is a motivator, but not the only motivator. So we have to look at all of these factors. Harris pushes back and argues that the unique dogma of Islam is sometimes sufficient to motivate a person to become radicalized to do violence in its name.
Their next subject is the rise of a Western “regressive liberalism,” in which any criticism of Islamic radicalism is labeled “Islamophobia” and bigotry. They both agree that this does huge harm to efforts to reform Islam from within. Nawaz acknowledges that bigotry is a problem, but he insists that “our challenge is to expose and undermine the ‘fellow-travelers’ [regressive liberals] while at the same time opposing the bigots” (p. 54). This is the needle they are trying to thread. Harris laments that the “liberals don’t see that they have abandoned women, gays, freethinkers, public intellectuals and other powerless people in the Middle East to a cauldron of violence and indifference” (p. 55). Both Nawaz and Harris agree that there needs to be careful distinction made between real grievances (employment discrimination, violence against Muslims) and perceived grievances (offensive cartoons in Charlie Hebdo).
On the text of the Koran, Harris is more adamant than Nawaz that it contains prescriptions for violence and intolerance that can’t easily be avoided. Nawaz maintains that it is a matter of interpretation – just as in the Torah or the Bible there are severe passages which have been interpreted more favorably. Harris says yes, to a degree — but some text cannot be softened or ignored. There is no way, for example, to interpret the Koran as encouraging the eating of bacon, no matter how hard you try.
Nawaz suggests two ways of loosening the literal (“vacuous”) readings of the Koran that are currently prevalent. One would be to understand it as open to interpretation (this recalls the first of Hirsi Ali’s “five amendments”). The other is to shift from understanding the text as a legal injunction to more of a spiritual guide. Nawaz looks at the command to kill “apostates” (which appears in the hadith, or classical commentary on the Koran) and discusses how this might be reinterpreted to eliminate the threat of violence, by way of these methods.
Harris articulates the two central themes in Islam that he finds the most problematic. One is the frequent demonization of infidels, and the other is the emphasis on paradise. Nawaz acknowledges that these are challenging aspects to Islam. But he insists that with enough pressure these themes too can be reworked.
They conclude in agreement that the reform of Islam is daunting, but it must be achieved through a clear-eyed commitment to secularism both in the West and in the Middle East.
For our next meeting, on Wednesday, February 24, 2016, we will examine the experience and meaning of aging.
From a non-supernatural perspective, what is the significance of the inevitable deterioration of everybody’s bodies as we grow older?
Of course there are the wrinkles, the hair loss, the many aches and pains… But also there is the deep knowledge of people, the recognition of patterns in human behavior, the long commitments sometimes bringing with them great sentiment, even love.
What does it mean to be “old”?
Do our elders — our parents, our friends, the old codger in line in front of us — deserve respect simply for being old? If so, why? Does the accumulation of experience add up to wisdom? If so, what is the nature of this wisdom?
Old age is a neglected topic of conversation in our youth-obsessed American culture. We shy away from it, talk instead of yoga and healthy diets and keeping up with the latest music. But perhaps it is not just our contemporary superficial, throw-away culture that is the culprit, in this case. Perhaps the major, supernatural-based religions, with their emphasis on the “transcendence” of this life, contribute to the denigration and devaluing of the experience of actual aging in this life.
My gut tells me that the more we shed our supernatural habits of mind, the more we begin to look to our elders as mentors, even as “spiritual” guides. For when life is all you have, and they have more of it, then they certainly have something, don’t they? The native Americans knew this.
A beautiful story: A friend of mine who works with local Indians told me once that whenever an elder comes into a room, every single person in the room, no matter how high status, is instantly aware of the elder’s presence. When he or she speaks, even just a single sentence, his or her words are invariably followed by a long silence, denoting the full attention and careful reflection of the listeners, before the conversation picks up again. That moved me a lot when I heard it.
Let’s read two books:
The Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner
Old Age, by Helen M. Luke
And watch two films:
Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne
45 Years, directed by Andrew Haigh.
Bonus film to watch on your own: Venus, directed by Roger Michell and starring Peter O’Toole. This is a quiet, extraordinary film, made in 2006 when O’Toole — who, you will recall, played the dashing Lawrence of Arabia when he was young — was 74.
As for the films, you can watch them on your own, or we will have two separate screening nights, for those who can make it, before the meeting.
Nebraska on Friday, February 12, 2016. 8 pm for an 8:30 start at our house.
45 Years, on Monday, February 22, 2016. NOTE: We will see this one at a theater, the Landmark Shattuck theater in downtown Berkeley. 7:20 is the screening, so let’s meet at 7:10 outside the theater. Here’s the link: http://www.landmarktheatres.com/san-francisco-east-bay/shattuck-cinemas
My face catches the wind
from the snow line
and flushes with a flush
that will never wholly settle.
Well, that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young forever, to pass.
I was never a pre-Raphaelite beauty
and only pretty enough to be seen
with a man who wanted to be seen
with a passable woman.
But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake,
my waist thicken, and the years
work all their usual changes.
If my face is to be weather beaten as well,
it’s little enough lost
for a year among the lakes and vales
where simply to look out my window
at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors
and to what my soul may wear
over its new complexion.
She also suggested an essay on aging by Grace Paley, “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age.” Click here for the link.
I have a couple of others.
One is an nasty, but famous, poem by the contemporary poet Frederick Seidel. Despite its surface aggression about the “total nightmare” of an old woman’s body, I read it as being, more interestingly, about the total nightmare of an old man’s habits of mind, his self-hatred, his pinched and painful outlook, if he has refused to age. (It is never clear, when reading Frederick Seidel, how much distance — if any — the poet has from the assholic poet-narrator of the poems, also called “Frederick Seidel.”)
Here is a youtube video of Seidel reading it aloud, if you can stand it:
The other poem I include here is by Philip Larkin:
The Old Fools
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange;
Why aren't they screaming?
At death you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they're for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
How can they ignore it?
Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside you head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can't quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun's
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give
An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.
I am looking for more explorations of a woman’s experience of aging. Please hit the books and send them in!
See you Monday (for the movie 45 YEARS at 7:20 pm at the Landmark Shattuck Theatre in Berkeley) or Wednesday for the meeting. Or both!
An image (taken with my cell phone) of our home TV on pause on Friday, March 4, 2016.
Our topic this month will be PHOTOGRAPHY.
Can art function as a “religion,” as some people claim?
Can a painting, a song, a sculpture, a performance, even a photograph, give us meaning?
What do representations of the natural world do for our particular species of primate, homo sapians?
Why do we seek them so avidly? Why do they fill us with longing? Make us shiver? Sometimes even change us forever?
“Fence” by Gerhard Richter (2008)
1. Roger Scruton, BEAUTY: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION
2. Susan Sontag, ON PHOTOGRAPHY
3. Erroll Morris (the documentary filmmaker), BELIEVING IS SEEING
I have a hunch that the best approach will be a more narrow one. So I would like to read this month on photography — which is, after all, the most prevalent contemporary form of representation.
I think that, through that lens (!), we might get somewhere. As always, let’s make it personal. What is the meaning of image-making, photographs, video, film to you?
See you at the meeting.
I propose that we pursue the question of BEAUTY more broadly, at a future meeting. With that in mind, would you help me to start gathering possible books to read?
Here are few I have collected so far to get our list started…
HISTORY OF BEAUTY by Umberto Eco
THE ART INSTINCT: BEAUTY, PLEASURE AND HUMAN EVOLUTION by Denis Dutton
BUT IS IT ART? by Cynthia Freeland
THE GOOD, THE TRUE, AND THE BEAUTIFUL: A NEURONAL APPROACH by Jean-Pierre Changeux
STRANGE TOOLS: ART AND HUMAN NATURE by (our own friend and neighbor, who perhaps will join us?) Alva Noë
A BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: FINDING NATURE’S DEEP DESIGN by Frank Wilczek
(Again, these are not for our March meeting, but for later. I’ll keep adding your suggestions as they come in.)
Kristen wrote with some additional titles! Here is what she added:
When I think of the Sontag piece, a couple supplementary resources come to mind:
1. Benjamin, Walter: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (short essay)
2. Salgado, Sebastião: The Salt of the Earth (documentary film)
3 .JR: TED talk (clichéd source, I know) by an artist who crosses lots of boundaries in how he defines himself as an artist, how he understand subject matter, & how he defines authorship.
I don’t yet know the Scruton piece. Anything with Beauty in its title always brings me back to Keats. I’m curious to read this new piece.
Walden wrote with some provocative thoughts too. And a suggested reading: Niklas Luhmann, Art as a Social System.
Here are Walden’s questions going in…
I have been trying to figure out your choice of a narrow focus on
photography, since of all of the art forms, it is probably the one
least associated with a “religious” experience — at least in
comparison to music, literature, architecture, film, and even some
painting. I am sure someone will try to point to a photograph that
contradicts this, but I will still be skeptical. A good question is
why this might be the case? Is even some painting “dynamic” in a way
that most photographs cannot be?
I say this as a consumer, since I am not an artist, but I cannot think
of an example of a photograph that has ever taken me to the same
levels of aesthetic impact as the other art forms I mentioned.
A week later he wrote with another interesting find:
This landscape photographer’s statement suggests that the MAKING of
his photographs is a religious experience. This is different from the
viewer’s experience of the photograph, which I would admire but not be
transported significantly by, the way I would be by being directly in
An artist friend, Jessie Thatcher, submitted the following essay by Agnes Martin:
Beauty Is the Mystery of Life
by Agnes Martin
When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of
life. It is not in the eye, it is in my mind. In our minds there
is awareness of perfection.
We respond to beauty with emotion. Beauty speaks a message to
us. We are confused about this message because of distractions.
Sometimes we even think that it is in the mail. The message is
about different kinds of happiness and joy. Joy is most
successfully represented in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and by
All artwork is about beauty; all positive work represents it and
celebrates it. All negative art protests the lack of beauty in
our lives. When a beautiful rose dies, beauty does not die
because it is not really in the rose. Beauty is an awareness in
the mind. It is a mental and emotional response that we make. We
respond to life as though it were perfect. When we go into a
forest we do not see the fallen rotting trees. We are inspired
by a multitude of uprising trees. We even hear a silence when it
is not really silent. When we see a newborn baby we say it is
beautiful – perfect.
The goal of life is happiness and to respond to life as though
it were perfect is the way to happiness. It is also the way to
It is not in the role of an artist to worry about life – to feel
responsible for creating a better world. This is a very serious
distraction. All your conditioning has been directed toward
intellectual living. This is useless in artwork. All human
knowledge is useless in artwork. Concepts, relationships,
categories, classifications, deductions are distractions of mind
that we wish to hold free for inspiration.
There are two parts of the mind. The outer mind that records
facts and the inner mind that says "yes" and "no." When you
think of something that you should do, the inner mind says "yes"
and you feel elated. We call this inspiration.
For an artist this is the only way. There is no help anywhere.
He must listen to his own mind.
The way of the artist is an entirely different way. It is a way
of surrender. He must surrender to his own mind.
When you look in your mind you find it covered with a lot of
rubbishy thoughts. You have to penetrate these and hear what
your mind is telling you to do. Such work is original work. All
other work made from ideas is not inspired and is not artwork.
Artwork is responded to with happy emotions. Work about ideas is
responded to with other ideas. There is so much written about
art that it is mistaken for an intellectual pursuit.
It is quite commonly thought that the intellect is responsible
for everything that is made and done. It is commonly thought
that everything that is can be put into words. But there is a
wide range of emotional response that we make that cannot be put
into words. We are so used to making these emotional responses
that we are not consciously aware of them until they are
represented in artwork.
Out emotional life is really dominant over our intellectual
life, but we do not realize it.
You must discover the artwork that you like, and realize the
response that you make to it. You must especially know the
response that you make to your own work. It is in this way that
you discover your direction and the truth about yourself. If you
do not discover your response to your own work, you miss the
reward. You must look at the work and know how it makes you
If you are not an artist, you can make discoveries about
yourself by knowing your response to work that you like.
Ask yourself, What kind of happiness do I feel with this music
or this picture?
There is happiness that we feel without any material
stimulation. We may wake up in the morning feeling happy for no
reason. Abstract or nonobjective feelings are a very important
part of our lives. Personal emotions and sentimentality are
We make artwork as something that we have to do, not knowing how
it will work out. When it is finished we have to see if it is
effective. Even if we obey inspiration we cannot expect all the
work to be successful. An artist is a person who can recognize
If you were a composer you would not expect everything you
played to be a composition. It iss the same in the graphic arts.
There are many failures.
Artwork is the only work in the world that is unmaterialistic.
All other work contributes to human welfare and comfort. You can
see from this that human welfare and comfort are not the
interests of the artist. He is irresponsible because his life
goes in a different direction. His mind will be involved with
beauty and happiness. It is possible to work at something other
than art and maintain this state of mind and be moving ahead as
an artist. The unmaterial interest is essential.
The newest trend and the art scene are unnecessary distractions
for a serious artist. He will much more rewarded responding to
art of all times and places – not as art history but considering
each piece and its value to him.
You can't think, My life is more important than the work, and
get the work. You have to think the work is paramount in your
life. An artist's life is adventurous: one new thing after
I have been talking directly to artists, but it applies to all.
Take advantage of the awareness of perfection in your mind. See
perfection in everything around you. See if you can discover
your true feelings when listening to music. Make happiness your
goal. The way to discover the truth about this life is to
discover yourself. Say to yourself, What do I like and what do I
want? Find out exactly what you want in life. Ask your mind for
inspiration about everything.
Beauty illustrates happiness: the wind in the grass, the
glistening waves following each other, the flight of birds – all
speak of happiness.
The clear blue sky illustrates a different kind of happiness,
and the soft dark night a different kind. There are an infinite
number of different kinds of happiness.
The response is the same for the observer as it is for the
artist. The response to art is the real art field.
Composition is an absolute mystery. It is dictated by the mind.
The artist searchers for certain sounds or lines that are
acceptable to the mind and finally an arrangement of them that
is acceptable. The acceptable compositions arouse certain
feelings of appreciation in the observer. Some compositions
appeal to some, and some to others.
But if they are not accepted by the artist's mind, they will not
appeal to anyone. Composition and acceptance by mind are
essential to artwork. Commercial art is consciously made to
appeal to the senses, which is different. Artwork is very
valuable and it is also very scarce. It takes a great deal of
application to make a composition that is totally acceptable.
Beethoven's symphonies, with every note composed, represent a
titanic human effort.
To progress in life you must give up the things that you do not
like. Give up doing the things that you do not like to do. You
must find the things that you do like – the things that are
acceptable to your mind.
You can see that you will have to have time to yourself to find
out what appeals to your mind. While you go along with others,
you are not really living your life.
To rebel against others is just as futile. You must find your
Happiness is being on the beam with life – to feel the pull of
And finally… for those who don’t have time to get to the readings this week… I wrote up some notes. (I wrote them to try to grope towards some connection between them — still working on that.)
Skim them if you want a (very basic) sense of what was in there.
See you soon!
Some Brief Notes on the Readings
Scruton, BEAUTY: A SHORT INTRODUCTION
He asks, Is beauty an ultimate value? (like Truth, Goodness?)
His answer: it is not the same.
If it were the same, then why would being an “aesthete” be seen as a term of derision?
Why are many people skeptical of over-indulgence in respect to beauty (but not truth or goodness)?
Scruton’s five “platitudes”:
Beauty pleases us.
It is comparative.
It demands attention.
Judgments of taste are about the object being perceived (not merely about the one doing the perceiving)
Still, no convincing proof of beauty or taste is available.
Strange paradox: beauty FEELS objective, yet we cannot convince others of it (if they don’t already agree).
Types of Beauty to think about:
Ecstatic, extreme experiences of it
Everyday experiences of it
‘Form follows function,’ i.e. utility (practical arts)
Only for pleasure – “the thing itself” (fine arts)
Sensory element (but not only…)
Abstract / intellectual element (framing)
Can be expressed in the form of a ‘style’
Scruton argues that mere taste, smell, touch, are not enough to constitute beauty (e.g. wine).
We need some mental part too.
Beauty is experienced in a “presented form.”
Evolutionary explanations for beauty:
Group selection (ritual, shared purposes, etc.)
Individual sexual selection (but is a peacock tail really doing the same work as Bach?)
Certainly beauty is related to desire.
But how so?
It can inspire the desire to possess… a body, an artwork, a piece of jewelry…
But there is also understood to be a Platonic, so-called “higher” form of beauty, which creates a desire not for possession but for contemplation.
Eros is perhaps best described as the act of singling out.
Consider the difference between pornography and (deeper?) beauty of “embodiment.”
Pornography provokes in some the desire to possess. Beauty provokes something quite different… a kind of disinterested state of wonder.
Note that there is a parallel when we turn our gaze to nature.
A sense of the beauty of nature is not the same as a scientific interest in it.
(To know the geology of a cliff is not the same as to marvel at the rocks.)
This feeling of disinterested contemplation became a form of the sacred, as religion receded.
Indeed, art became THE vehicle for beauty in the 19th century, replacing god.
But this has declined in our own era. Beauty is no longer a longed-for experience… Much art is a spectacle, or an attempt to disorient, or a subversive act.
Difference between art that expands our imaginations
pseudo-art, which merely entertains, arouses, amuses, or preaches.
Content vs. form
Scruton discusses Van Gogh’s The Yellow Chair.
Distinction between an artists attempt at representation (observable details, concepts) vs. expression (intuitions).
The yellow chair in the painting may be said to express an unseen life, a relationship with objects; or even something that goes beyond what it represents.
One idea: Beauty may be human experience under the aspect of necessity?
Modernism was an attempt to “recuperate” beauty from its mass reproduction and emptying-out in modern world
But now, according to Scruton, our post-modernist (and increasingly nihilistic) culture is more interested in tearing down.
So the most common forms of art are kitsch and irony.
Kitsch is beauty without consequences – everything works out perfectly, no sacrifice.
Irony is beauty without commitment – nothing is sacred, nothing fixed, just the arrangement and juxtaposition of forms.
Susan Sontag, ON PHOTOGRAPHY
(Sontag’s style is very declarative. So I will simply share some of her declarations:)
To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.
Photographs are aggressive. Every use of the camera is an act of interpretation.
Photos take possession of a space in which people feel insecure.
They also refuse experience – by limiting it to a search for the photogenic.
They are fantasy machines. They promote nostalgia.
Always the knowledge gained from photographs is a “kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist.”
Photographs follow Walt Whitman’s erotic embrace of experience in its entirety. (She mentions William Steiglitz,, Diane Arbus.)
In our era, the image is becoming more important than the original.
We have, she claims, a “steadily more complex sense of the real.”
Morris, BELIEVING IS SEEING
This book is too wonderful to summarize.
It examines, through a series of case histories, the way photographs capture events and things but also contain infinite mysteries. What is authentic? What can we ever really know about the subjects of a photograph? What can a photograph do in the world?
Can art function as a “religion,” as some people claim?
When I think of religion, I think of rule following and when I think of art, I think of rule breaking. But, there is an implied set of aesthetic rules when making art and an artistic practice could be considered a religious one. I just don’t know…it depends on what your perception of religion is and how you view art. I’m not a religious person, but I guess I do find a type of spirituality in making art and viewing art. I think of art as more of a conversation than a preaching device. Those who want to join into the conversation, that’s welcomed, and it’s also fine if people don’t.
Can a painting, a song, a sculpture, a performance, even a photograph, give us meaning?
Yes, I think so. When I think of the word “meaning” applied to art, I translate the word to “heightened experience.”
As an artist I am constantly asking myself why did I choose this lifestyle, why couldn’t I have chosen a more practical occupation? Is art important?
Through experience we can answer these questions. For instance, the answer to my questions about the meaning of art took an act of walking into a real estate office. I walked into this completely deserted office and developed this strong reaction to this isolated room in space, shocked by its one- dimensionality; the beige walls mix into the brown floors, completely devoid of art, family pictures poorly hung and cheaply printed, there was no aesthetic reflection in this office, unless it was a fascist one. This beige- khaki pants office was the answer to me, this little office was an isolated representation to me of what the world might look like if there wasn’t any art, and it was awful. It was boring and stagnant. I realized then and there that I might not make much money being an artist, but I do live a visually rich life, and to me that adds so much meaning. And by visually rich, I mean, I am actively looking all the time, whether I’m making art, or working a menial job, I am constantly observing and arranging.
What do representations of the natural world do for our particular species of primate, homo sapians?
We are programed to scan our environments very quickly. Just try and focus on one object for more than a second, it’s very hard. Our eye movements are programed to scan quickly and we don’t focus in one area for very long. It’s a human glitch! So yes, I think we do need pictorial references– isolated documents of time–to slow us down, and look. I think the “meaning” or resonance comes along after the fact, it’s when you encounter whatever that artwork was referring to in your daily experience. I think artwork does add meaning to our lives.
Why do we seek them so avidly? Why do they fill us with longing? Make us shiver? Sometimes even change us forever?
I had a “shiver” response once! A couple years back, I visited an Agnes Martin exhibition and the gallery room was filled with all of her pastel line paintings and I got shivers. I’m not sure why I got shivers, but I strongly reacted to that work.
When I think about my process as an artist, it’s primarily a nonverbal process. So it makes sense to me that we have nonverbal reactions to some artworks.
Here is a small selection of Jessie’s marvelous work. (You can see more on her website thatcherjessie.com.)
“The photograph is a thin slice of space as well as time. In a world ruled by photographic borders (“framing”) seem arbitrary. Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently. (Conversely, anything can be made adjacent to anything else.” Susan Sontag, “On Photography”
“Continuously Recorded” arose from questions about what is a camera and when is the documentation of an image no longer considered photography?
While in school I took a visual communications class, and I remember the instructor saying that there is a “right” way to crop a portrait or person for a film composition, he said, “Don’t crop a portrait mid-eyeball, it’s disturbing.’ That’s what led me into “disturbing” cropping methods and compositions.
In this series I do not use a camera, only a scanner, pencil, and a razor blade. Upon creating this series, I was thinking about the role of the grid in contemporary art; I wanted to reinterpret the grid by dissecting it, and use it as a means to reinterpret the photographic medium. I am deconstructing the grid and using it as a tool to deconstruct the traditional notions of viewing and making an image. As a viewer I want to struggle at what I am seeing. With this body of work, I honestly don’t know how many copies it is from the original work of art? It doesn’t matter. The initial work of art and reproduction becomes raw material for this abstract photographic composition.
— Jessie Thatcher
Jessie also pointed us towards this endearing interview with David Hockney, in which he talks about the end of chemical photography with the advent of Photoshop.
For this meeting please come prepared to share with the group your own idea of utopia. It can be written, spoken, sketched, sung, chanted, a PowerPoint presentation, an interpretive dance, a comedy routine — anything.
For inspiration, read whatever you can find. Of course there are those old chestnuts:
Plato’s REPUBLIC, More’s UTOPIA, Bellamy’s LOOKING BACKWARD, Perkins Gilman’s HERLAND, THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, and so on…
But there are also more recently published works that reach towards a new utopia. Here are a few I am looking to for ideas and prompts:
POSTCAPITALISM: A GUIDE TO OUR FUTURE by Paul Mason
THE FUTURE WE WANT: RADICAL IDEAS FOR THE NEW CENTURY, edited by Sarah Leonard and Bhaskar Sunkara
INVENTING THE FUTURE: POSTCAPITALISM IN A WORLD WITHOUT WORK by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams
UTOPIA FOR REALISTS by Rutger Bregman
Happy reading, everybody.
. The other day, Florence sent me the following email:
Between two swims are my thoughts…
If we are not able to efficiently change minds (intentional blindness / boring, blasé feelings / guilt that prevents us from acting), and we cannot reach people through speeches and lectures (you are good at that, not me), maybe…
are some of the answers.
Will the younger generation compose popular songs that make us aware of our obligation to save our Earth?
Maybe we need a new John Lennon “Imagine” that everybody will feel in his or her heart, even if it is fully utopian!
Like… “100 years (in front of us that is all we have to live!)”, or
“Put it back how it was” or
“The game is over… no playground games anymore”
We have to restore positive utopia!
Is politics starting with order? not always…
What are the new ways of positive utopia?
Restore positive utopia in people’s minds
Eradicate the anxiety created by our “accelerated conscience” / “conscience augmentée” (because we are connected we are massively more aware of all issues / what is going on everywhere at all levels, and this awareness creates depression, fear and inaction!)…
Develop PPP (plan your own Planet Pool Party!)
[Tom’s note: Florence’s vision of the Planet Pool Party, which she had previously shared with me, is to have everyone in their local pools, all over the world, on the same day, in an effort to raise awareness of the threat posed by climate change.]
First, just chaos: Beach balls of religions/ Games and frivolity of humans!
And scale of time: the lifetime of the pool since its (physical) building to the party time represents the length of life for our planet so far. Perhaps the time of the afternoon party represents four or five millennia…
It can last if we take care of it!
A limited resource space where everybody has to find a way to live harmoniously including plants and animals (not only “sapiens”!)…
At some moment, all over the world, the word goes out:
“Let’s stop splashing and playing balls, let’s put our goggles on and use our microscopes (to be installed around the pool) and examine what the water is made of (find solutions with knowledge). Solutions are here under our eyes (we don’t see them yet), we are swimming among them!”
It’s an emergency, the pool’s color has already started to “turn” and fade (perhaps dye would be secretly added to the water during the party??).
“But it’s not too late: we have to stop playing games and maintain our pool!”
I hope you don’t mind this “flow” email… Floating in my brain somewhere!
No answer needed!!!!!
Reading this, I realized right away two things:
1.) Flo is right. “We have to restore positive utopia in people’s minds!”
2.) This must be the topic of our first Old New Way meeting.
So the reading for our next meeting is… anything that leads you to restore “positive utopia in your mind.”
You might want to read Plato’s REPUBLIC.
You might read Thomas More’s classic UTOPIA (More coined the term, by the way, from the Greek, meaning “no – where”).
You might read Edward Bellamy’s LOOKING BACKWARD, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s HERLAND.
You might look at Pre-Raphaelite paintings, or De Stijl painters like Mondrian, Bauhaus, Russian Constructivism… The Communist Manifesto? Hillary Clinton’s website? Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty?
Anything to get you dreaming.
When you are ready, take a moment to dream up, and represent in writing or images, your own utopia.
How do people live? What are the basic laws guiding society, if any? How do we reproduce? How do we die?
What is the supreme achievement possible? The greatest crime? Is there an underground? What is your utopia’s relationship to the natural world around it and part of it?
Then come prepared to share your vision of utopia at the meeting with the rest of us.
Taylor rejects what he calls modern “subtraction stories,” that is, those explanations for the rise of secularism that assume that, beginning with Galileo, science and reason merely had to push back against the forces of darkness and irrationality, shunting supernatural silliness to the side. In other words, he rejects the Enlightenment’s understanding of progress.
He argues, instead, that what happened was a more complicated process, in which our world gradually became “disenchanted”; in which the fixed, known cosmos became a vast, indifferent and even hostile “universe”; and, as it did, our sense of self became “buffered” and independent in a way it had never been before.
This process created a “nova effect,’ according to Taylor, generating multiple alternatives to supernaturalism. These alternatives proliferated — and continue to proliferate — to this day. We need only look to American history to find examples: from the Providential Deism of Washington and Jefferson… to the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau.. to the Scientology of Tom Cruise and John Travolta (how far we have fallen!)… all the way to the atheistic materialism of Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris…
It’s an astonishing book, full of detailed intellectual and social history, making careful analytical distinctions on every page, really in every paragraph. (I am about 300 pages in, and even where I strongly disagree with it I find it very compelling.)
As we get closer to our January meeting I will provide some (shorter) alternative readings.
The main point of this meeting will be to dig deeply into the non-supernatural meanings that guide our life and find any holes that might be lurking there. If we find one, let’s put our head in and take a look around.
For those of you who might not get a chance to read all 776 pages…
(Am I right? You were all off singing Twist and Shout somewhere while I read this book.)
Anyway, I thought it might be useful if I put up some notes on the first thick tome of this month’s reading.
Notes on Charles Taylor’s A SECULAR AGE
First, Taylor says, we have to distinguish between three definitions of “secular”:
The separation of church and state — i.e. “secular” in the sense of the maintenance of a public sphere that is neutral on belief.
The lack of belief in God in practice — i.e. atheism or agnosticism.
A change to the background conditions of belief, allowing for multiple sources of meaning to emerge.
This book will focus on #3: a change to the background conditions of belief.
Something changed between 1500 and 2000 in the West… Or as Taylor puts it:
“Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives.”
How did this change happen?
What are the consequences for our lives?
THE BASIC EXPERIENCE OF LIVING
All people seek “fullness,” according to Taylor. (I confess that I’m not totally clear what he means by this. Engagement? Joy? The passionate pursuit of goals? Loving relationships? An integrated sense of self?)
The lack of fullness can take various forms:
feeling anguished, or
muddling through (Taylor calls this the “middle condition”)
This “middle condition”, Taylor insists, IS the experience of the nonbeliever.
(Think of the Old New Way’s heading: “This life. This world.” And our central question: how to live in the world as is.)
Believers also muddle through, but as they do so they continue to long for… perfection… or… transcendence.
Taylor notes that, occasionally, nonbelievers look for perfection and transcendence too (again, they often don’t). When they do, it is usually through appeals to:
“Deep ecology” — connection to earth
The rejection of meaning (Kafka, Beckett, Camus, and the “courage of the hopeless”)
In any case, whether we are looking for perfection or not, none of us can be naive anymore.
Not even believers. We all know that there is no easy path to perfection.
SO WHAT’S ALL THIS ABOUT TRANSCENDENCE?
We can agree with Taylor, then, that there is no easy and permanent path to perfection or transcendence — for anybody.
But religion posits that there is a supreme value, quite separate from human flourishing (Buddhism and Christianity, though different in so many respects, share this outlook).
Knowing that they will fall short, people nevertheless aspire to access this value through something called “transcendence.”
For secular people, on the other hand, “human flourishing” is the supreme value. (Transcendence is bunk! we might say with a smile.)
Taylor does note that some non-religious outlooks do posit a supreme value separate from human flourishing. He cites a few: Nietzschean Will to Power, Robinson Jeffers’ “anti-humanism,” the ethno-nationalism of the Nazis, the totalitarian Marxist ideology of the Soviets and its belief in History, the radical environmentalism of the Greens…
Although nominally secular, all of these belief systems replace God with another trans-human value.
Taylor wants to argue that, regardless of its particular form, secularism, just like religion, represents certain background conditions of belief — not the truth.
Thus, he insists, the transition over the past 500 years to a secular age is not a “subtraction story,” with science and reason pushing religion out in favor of the truth, but rather it is the story of an opening up to new constructions.
Anyway, that’s Taylor’s argument. (Can I admit that I am skeptical? He sounds defensive already.)
PART ONE: THE WORK OF REFORM
CHAPTER 1: BULWARKS OF BELIEF
FROM THE PRE-MODERN WORLD TO THE ‘BUFFERED SELF’ OF THE MODERN WORLD
So, again, there was this huge change between 1500 and 2000.
We went from belief in God being “inescapable” to it being just one option among many.
Taylor asks: how did this happen?
First, let’s look at what it was like when God was inescapable.
The natural world seemed to testify to divine purpose and action (unpredictable events, illnesses, etc.).
God was also the basis for the social order.
The world was “enchanted” and objects had powers.
But then, Taylor tells us, there emerged a new, modern sense of self — the “buffered self”.
Epicureans, from Lucretius all the way to Hume and Gibbon in the 18th century, focused on the private life of an individual (that is, lived without recourse to supernatural claims and other forms of “enchantment”).
This new, modern sense of the “buffered self” went farther, however. It expanded to a person’s social commitments, and it encouraged an active role in the world.
How did it do this? By separating meaning from things.
To the pre-moderns, living in a God-infused world, meaning was not only in the mind, but resided in things too, independent of mind.
That is, in an enchanted world according to Taylor,
“…meaning exists already outside of us, prior to contact.”
There was no strong boundary between the self and the world.
For example, God — or for that matter, a goddess — may control your fate. So even the experience of something as powerful as love was not thought to be internal to your own mind — e.g. it was a matter of Cupid’s arrow! Or Satan’s temptation!
But for the “modern, bounded self” strong boundaries divide mind and matter. Mind projects meaning onto matter, which by itself is inert. Thus, over time, our minds came to be seen as something we can disengage from the world.
(Note that even in the 21st century, some new age beliefs continue the traditions of the “pre-moderns,” i.e. talismans, altars, etc. And organized religions of course do, too: the wine in the Catholic mass is not merely a symbol but supposed actually to become the blood of Christ through transubstantiation.)
The world outside was more intrusive and personal for people living in the pre-modern era.
Whereas, today, we conceive of nature as objective and impersonal, and, as Taylor puts it, “exceptionless” — the mere product of physical laws.
SO HOW DID THE PRE-MODERN WORLD FEEL DIFFERENT THAN OUR WORLD TODAY?
In an enchanted world, without the support of gods, you would consider yourself to be very vulnerable. If you turned against God, you would have to turn somewhere else for protection, e.g. to Beelzebub. (Even today, religious people still assume this of atheists and associate them with immorality, since they cannot conceive of a fully “buffered” self.)
So the religious also developed an “in-group” mentality for protection. The social bond was intertwined in the sacred.
Given this, they sometimes needed outlets for nonconformist energy — to establish an “equilibrium.” E.g. Carnival served this purpose.
Also, history was understood to be cyclical back then: the seasons of the year marked the most important events in time.
Whereas now history is seen as progressing along a linear path: roughly from the period of the French Revolution all the way to 2016. (The U.S. Constitution was an attempt to impose some equilibrium on this ever-accelerating sense of progress by way of including checks and balances, the Bill of Rights, etc.)
In short, what was an ordered “cosmos” became… a “universe”.
REFORM MOVEMENTS EMERGED
But how did this new identity expand to reorder our social and political lives?
Reform movements grew out of the increasing dissatisfaction with hierarchical, unchanging “cosmic” order.
Steps of change:
Emergence of Humanism
Birth of a human-centered life
During the early centuries, anxieties about this change led to witch-hunts, fear of vagabonds, heretics.
Taylor explains these away as reactionary, rear-guard actions by those still intent on blurring the boundaries between minds and things.
In the end, though, the “witches” (and other subverters of the hierarchy) won, and the developed world became what it is today: secular.
CHAPTER 2: THE RISE OF THE DISCIPLINARY SOCIETY
So far so good. Right?
But why does this change not represent a “subtraction story”? Isn’t this a case of religion and its precious “cosmos” simply not making sense anymore, in the face of new discoveries?
Taylor, himself a practicing Catholic, insists that God and nature were not in conflict.
After all, he tries to argue, science and the study of nature are consistent with religion!
The discovery of the autonomy of nature could easily have been incorporated into religion, he argues. Just as realist painting was incorporated into traditional forms of painting.
But something else is going on…
A new mindset was being born.
THE NEW NORMS OF THE SECULAR SOCIETY
The notion of civility arose, along with idea of discipline. Elites began to take an interest in the reform of “lower orders.”
There was a drive to make norms universal — to systematize.
Puritanism merged the sacred and the worldly in the figure of the “active saint”.
The idea of “progress” emerged, and the pre-modern idea of the flawed nature of humanity — marked by original sin — got lost.
Natural Law doctrine emerged (defeating the doctrine of absolute sovereignty developed by Hobbes).
The mind began to be conceived of as a tabula rasa (Locke).
Active, human development of the world became a preeminent value (again Locke).
Time became linear.
Taylor thinks that this new outlook could be called “neo-stoicism.” Descartes, following in this path, emphasized the division of body and mind.
In original stoicism they abolish passions altogether. In the neo-stoicism of the modern world, however, we are asked to control them by an act of will… (see the reputation of George Washington as an example of this new obsession with self-control).
The emphasis begins to be placed on detachment, impartiality, discipline.
Thus is the modern identity being born!
Once again, this identity is not private, as in the Epicureanism of the ancients. Not a stepping away from it all. Quite to the contrary, it is engaged in remaking the world, through an act of disciplined will.
It is something new.
CHAPTER 3: THE GREAT DISEMBEDDING
So we became different — in our heads.
But also, according to Taylor, at the same time we began to “disembed” ourselves from the old orders.
Pre-moderns, as we have seen, were deeply embedded in a “cosmos”.
About 1000 BC, the “Axial” religions took it a step farther and also embedded people in “higher reality” beyond the cosmos.
But the modern buffered self began to separate from both.
First, we left the cosmos.
Then we left the higher reality too.
CHAPTER 4: MODERN SOCIAL IMAGINARIES
Pre-modern ideas of moral order:
Laws of a ruler
Order of cosmos
These give way to Natural Rights theories.
The new picture is one of us all bound up together. Society exists for mutual benefit of individuals.
Consent required. Freedom is essential.
(Sounds familiar, no?)
New forms of self-understanding:
The economy (Smith, Locke). Emphasis on work. Sanctifications of ordinary life.
The public sphere (Grotius, Locke). Independent. Legitimate. Separate from private life. (But not transcendent.)
The sovereign people (Think Madison’s “We the People..” that begins the Constitution, Think the “Fraternité” of the French Revolution)
Direct-access society — today’s radical horizontality (I might add that this last one has been accelerated by the internet — except for Hollywood stars such as Angelina Jolie and Kanye West, who retain a vertical relationship with the rest of us just like elites of old…)
CHAPTER 5: THE SPECTRE OF IDEALISM
As this new world is born, people look to politeness and civility to ensure social harmony (instead of God).
PART II: THE TURNING POINT
CHAPTER 6: PROVIDENTIAL DEISM
Next, Taylor describes what he calls an “anthropological shift” that took place in the 17th and 18th centuries.
We no longer owe God anything… except to lead fulfilling lives. (Huguenot exiles were influential on this, and with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 they scattered all over Europe and to America…)
Heroism was no longer favored. Rather, people came to admire flourishing, engaged lives. (You could even say that St. Francis is suspect now — he’s just too checked-out!).
Mysteries frowned upon.
Self-love and social order are no longer seen as incompatible. Worldly transcendence is possible (Think of Mill, Marx…)
Providential Deism emerges at the middle of the 18th century.
God becomes more generalized and remote.
The polite society contains the highest virtue (Think of the way they signed letters: “Your obedient servant,”).
Even organized religion cannot overrule these new norms. Separation of Church and State by law strengthened by separation that had already taken place in the mind.
The “fanaticisms,” “enthusiasms,” etc. of the past are discouraged.
Instead we get what Taylor aptly calls the “unflappable” style of Gibbon and Hume and Voltaire: disengaged, amused, wry.
Yet, again, this modern Deist / proto-humanist outlook is not quietest.
It is activist, universal, and altruistic.
Note that we have moved from a cosmos with God being inescapable, to a universe where virtue is still expected. Thus one moral order based on devotion to a supernatural being is replaced by another moral order that is in an important way equivalent.
Taylor argues that this was a necessary transition; there had to be a strong replacement when you took away God! (People couldn’t go straight to the consumerist/relativist frame that pervades today.)
For many in modern world, this activist, universal, altruistic point of view still informs their ethics. See the UN Charter and so on.
For others it has fallen away.
Various sources of this new moral order:
The Will (Kant)
Universal Sympathy (Hume, Smith, Rousseau)
But whatever its sources, this transition represented a bringing inward of morality (from outward God to some inward human capacity).
So once again (the music starts up again) it is not, according to Taylor, a “subtraction story” at all.
It is a change to the conditions of meaning and belief.
Exclusive humanism opened up new potentialities, based on a value of benevolence, established by religion but now detached from it.
Benevolence (Taylor also calls it the Modern Moral Order or MMO) has been made… secular.
“The development of this purely immanent sense of universal solidarity is an important achievement, a milestone in human history.”
Sure, radical materialism questions this — after all, nature is “red in tooth and claw”! This soppy idea of benevolence is unjustified!
Yet even materialists (like myself) recognize that this potential for benevolence is still there and can be built upon. Nietzsche or Futurists or Fascists or radical Islamists may try to repudiate it, but it endures. (Thank goodness, we might say, revealingly.)
So we may have many forms of meaning now, but they are all marked by their origin in religious tradition, according to Taylor.
(I think I can agree with him on the broad outlines of this argument so far. You? I am happy to agree that some of our modern moral order was established, and even made possible, by religion. But I still don’t see how that invalidates the force of the “subtraction story”… Couldn’t it be the case that we have been profoundly influenced by religion in our culture and outlook, and ALSO its claims came to be seen as creaky and antiquated?)
CHAPTER 7: THE IMPERSONAL ORDER
But the slide to Deism was not just a matter of changing beliefs and ideas, in Taylor’s view. It also reflected an outright distaste for organized religion’s claim of an interventionist God.
Bacon, Newton and the rise of science were leading people to see the universe as impersonal and vast. So the scientific outlook began to value objectivity and detachment.
Taylor argues that this approach is not useful for many other modes of inquiry (he gives the example of a conversation between friends, when it may be important to be emotionally expressive).
He suggests, furthermore, that this objective approach begins to “shake on its foundations” when a miracle, dismissed by science, is seen from the perspective of a participant. (I don’t agree with this!)
But Taylor concedes that Hume and some moderns do not always insist on detachment. Hume’s approach, for example, takes stock of sympathy and emotions. Indeed, they are fundamental to his moral philosophy.
In fact, these days there are many nonbelievers who look to a natural explanation for the world without eliminating subjectivity. (I am one.)
In any case, though, the objective and impersonal stance is the most familiar stance of academic and scientific inquiry. We can agree with that at least.
In this way, Taylor has planted the seeds he needs for the next stage in the transition…
PART III: THE NOVA EFFECT
CHAPTER 8: THE MALAISE OF MODERNITY
Welcome to the “nova effect.”
Now, suddenly, there are options, alternatives.
You can be traditional believer, happy with your place in the ordered cosmos.
You can be a reformed believer who sees a personal God, a God who must nevertheless operate in a vast, impersonal universe.
You can be a Deist and transform God into something remote and inaccessible.
You can be an exclusive humanist who looks to human flourishing for its own sake.
You can be a reason-based, perfectionist nonbeliever who looks to be saved by your mind.
You can be an emotion-based non-perfectionist nonbeliever who wants to go with your gut.
You can be an outright nihilist.
You can be a New Ager.
You can be…
In other words, the world of belief has become fractured. Hence, the nova effect, spitting out new ways of living, new constructions, new moral outlooks, with every generation.
And this generates what Taylor refers to as “cross-pressures.”
WHAT DO PEOPLE GAIN AND LOSE FROM THE NEW “BUFFERED” IDENTITY?
Taylor acknowledges that the modern self gives some benefits:
knowledge and understanding
a sense of invulnerability
There is a pride and a satisfaction in the feeling of being “modern” (see Gibbon for an example of this self-satisfied perspective).
But there are also some losses associated with modernity:
a sense of aimlessness
a lack of ecstasy?
Hence there are “cross-pressures”.
In other words, the situation is unstable.
Kids reject parents’ views.
Ennui and melancholy and neuroses and even nausée blossom (see Baudelaire, Proust, Fitzgerald, Sartré… Kanye).
Taylor calls our modern condition “mutual fragilization.”
We are ever more homogeneous — except as regards our moral bases, and this generates inherently unstable, distrustful and fragile social bonds.
People turn to rituals in vain attempt to solemnize life.
Taylor claims this malaise is linked to the loss of God… the proverbial “God-sized hole”.
(But perhaps it is unrelated? Perhaps it is linked more accurately to industrialization, automation, stark urban landscapes, the fine-tuning of mindless and repetitive, but addictive, entertainment?)
WHAT DO PEOPLE DO INSTEAD OF PRAY?
In the wake of organized religion, people pursue a number of alternatives to give their lives stability and order and meaning:
activist moral causes (e.g. abolition of slavery, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Black Lives Matter)
the search for “inner” spirituality (New Age, Buddhist meditation)
reaching for a romantic harmony with the world through beauty (Goethe, Schiller, Ruskin, Proust, D.H. Lawrence, Wilde)
the cult of rationality (Comte, Ayn Rand)
the tragic sense (Shakespeare, Voltaire, Lincoln)
In all of these Taylor sees a “levelling down.” For all their efforts, nobody gets very far. Certainly not anywhere close to transcendence.
Taylor points out that this is the complaint of Francis Fukuyama in his discussion of the end of history and the “Last Man”.
(I think Taylor may be overstating the restlessness and anguish of those who have abandoned religion and “transcendence”. If you really accept that this is it — this life, this world — then some of the anxiety that he projects onto secular lives dissipates. He may be describing a transition and not a final state?)
CHAPTER 9: THE DARK ABYSS OF TIME
This chapter has a lengthy discussion of the revival of religion in the 19th century.
Okay, now people had moved from seeing themselves in a fixed cosmos to seeing themselves as a speck in a vast universe. Still, religion came roaring back.
And if not religion, then other efforts to achieve perfection or transcendence.
Taylor describes the cult of the “sublime” — defined by Burke as viewing the abyss from a place of personal safety.
He talks about the fashion for the English garden (as opposed to the French). The growing obsession with wilderness.
Thoreau (and on to Jeffers, Snyder, nature poets).
Herder, Rousseau — view of nature as edenic.
Schopenhauer, Conrad — a contrasting view of nature as ungovernable, amoral.
Even Freud’s theories use this nature metaphor (ego/id), and he speaks of seeking the “oceanic” experience.
In fact, Taylor claims that wilderness is the dominant source of moral imagination now. (Think of the deep resonance of Werner Herzog’s breathless monologues along these lines in films like Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Grizzly Man.)
The travel impulse is born out of it. The moral aspect of “camping” or hiking in nature.
But Taylor says that what this “cosmic imaginary” has done most of all is open a “neutral space,” a place in which people can wander between moral views.
CHAPTER 10: THE EXPANDING UNIVERSE OF DISBELIEF
SO HOW DO ALL THESE CHANGES AFFECT CULTURE?
First, the arts.
A new poetic language is born at the end of the 18th century.
Alexander Pope. Goethe. Blake. Shelley. Wordsworth. Holderlin.
Increasingly, art moves us with powerful emotions — but the subject is removed!
(I think of Northrop Frye’s explanation for the strangeness of Shakespeare’s late plays like Hamlet, A Winter’s Tale, the Tempest… some crucial piece of information is always missing. Was Shakespeare already transitioning to a secular sensibility?)
Taylor mentions Mozart. Beethoven. Wagner. Eliot’s The Wasteland.
The aspiration to create new moral languages was driving this new art.
The sense is that new domains, new worlds, can be made indirectly accessible by way of a language of symbols.
So art acquires a new status — artists are not just pleasing their audience. They are creating new domains, new worlds, new visions of reality! (Sounds almost like transcendence…)
The cult of “genius” is born out of this change.
OUR VIEW OF NATURE, TOO, IS CHANGING
Also the idea of nature has having secrets to offer us “hovers there” in our culture, according to Taylor.
Schiller looks to complete human fulfillment by going beyond morality. Nietzsche picks up on this.
Nature occupies a “free and neutral space” between religious commitment and materialism. Both camps lay claim to it.
A NEW EMPHASIS ON HONESTY — AS A SIGN OF MATURITY
Taylor points out that one of the tropes of secularism is that it is more “mature” — more honest, facing facts, than faith.
Carpe diem mentality — living for the moment in the face of perceived meaninglessness.
The rejection of nagging doubts and mysteries. (This perhaps is overstated. Many secularists still celebrate doubt and mystery — I would even suggest some do more than believers.)
The rise of urban life and the network society.
But Taylor sees a resistance developing within secularism because of
a “continuing spiritual concern with the transcendent”, and
a longing for “the older aristocratic ethos” which valued heroism and courage
So we have a protest movement of sorts among writers and artists and activists.
The Romantic sensibility of Herder.
The aestheticism of Pater and Wilde.
The death-obsession of the Futurists, the Francoists (“Long live Death!” they chanted), the Fascists.
Still, this has been a huge change.
“A race of humans has arisen which has managed to experience its world entirely as immanent.”
(At times it feels that Taylor grudgingly admits that this battle is being won by the nonbelievers, even in the face of these protest movements and backlashes.)
CHAPTER 11: NINETEENTH CENTURY TRAJECTORIES
Finally he gets to Darwin.
In this chapter he tries to deal with evolutionary theory.
(But I don’t think Taylor fully grasps the impact of Darwin’s discovery and the understanding that we are not only without God but we are ourselves animals. He describes it as a theory which argues that we came from animals — which, in itself is a significant point but doesn’t go the whole hog to recognize that we still are nothing more than a particular species of primates with advanced symbol-making skills).
Carlyle tried to save Christianity from Darwin — considered the alternative a “degradation” of human life.
Matthew Arnold too. His argument was that Christianity is necessary for “social control.” (Many still have this lens on religion). God, to Arnold, was “the enduring power.”
Alternatively, the poet Byron refused to wallow in despair about loss of God. Instead, according to Taylor, he chose to take “titanic action, defiant, possibly even destructive and immoral.”
Emerson, Comte, and others sought to reinvent religion in a “new positive form.”
For some, politics filled this role of a “civic religion”. The European “white man’s burden” and colonial moralizing, was one strand of this. (Even the more nuanced and pluralistic American exceptionalism espoused by President Obama may be said to carry on this tradition).
WHY WASN’T DARWIN DECISIVE?
Taylor argues that there was a tension in the acceptance of Darwinian science.
Darwin revealed, along with its purposelessness, the wanton cruelty of nature.
So theodicy — concerns about the cruelty of God — comes back in a new form. People began to have concerns about the cruelty of human beings and nature.
As a result, attempts to construct new naturalistic moralities break down. Over time, in the face of experience, these exclusively humanistic movements fade (except for Marxism-Leninism in the 20th century, for a while).
Taylor contends that, therefore, in the end, only radical materialism can stand against religion.
This is the big showdown.
Some would say that materialism has triumphed. But Taylor says that materialism’s “dissatisfactions” mean that it is locked in a hard-fought battle with religion, and it cannot triumph completely.
(I say just because it has dissatisfactions does not mean that it hasn’t triumphed… Who said there would be an end to dissatisfactions for the particular primate species that we embody? Again, I am not sure that Taylor is not fully engaging the 21st century naturalistic/biological perspective on our conflicted animal natures and limited cognitive capacities.)
THE CULT OF SELF-EXPRESSION
Bloomsbury was an early attempt to escape into a private realm of art and friendship, self-expression and sensuality.
As Virginia Woolf wrote: “On or about December 10, 1910 human nature changed.”
This emphasis on self-expression and sensuality still pervades the lives of young people today.
There is an ongoing debate between whether to live big lives or private lives.
(I would argue that this is where the debate has moved: to a question of big or little, not immanent or transcendent.)
PART IV: NARRATIVES OF SECULARIZATION
From here, page 422, Taylor’s writing is more digressive in his arguments.
The following is a very cursory glance at some of the points in the rest of the book.
CHAPTER 12: THE AGE OF MOBILIZATION
In this chapter, Taylor discusses the American exception of a persistently religious population, even in this secular age.
Taylor discusses how from 1850 to 1950 religious groups, especially in America, became ever more tightly knit communities.
CHAPTER 13: THE AGE OF AUTHENTICITY
Taylor discusses how the cult of self-expression (think again of Bloomsbury as one of its original representations) starts to take a more central role, and how, as it does, the question of authenticity becomes paramount.
Also male identity becomes feminized — that is, communicative and expressive and horizontal, as opposed to forceful and physical and vertical.
Christianity becomes feminized too, according to Taylor.
The emphasis shifts to love and charity as opposed to strong group identity and acts of courage.
CHAPTER 14: RELIGION TODAY
Taylor describes the rise of a vague, individualized “spirituality” in the West.
He lists some of its features:
a breaking down of barriers between different religious groups
a decline in participation in organized religion
the gamut of belief in something beyond widening
the proliferation of New Age modes of practice
a “retreat of Christendom”
PART V: CONDITIONS OF BELIEF
CHAPTER 15: THE IMMANENT FRAME
In this chapter, Taylor sets “the immanent frame” against the “transcendent frame” offered by religion.
Sometimes this stand-off is conceived of as “natural vs. supernatural.” (In fact, the Old New Way often uses this language.)
WHY THE IMMANENT FRAME STAYS OPEN TO THE TRANSCENDENT…
But he asks: why does the immanent frame stay open at all?
Why is there still, today, for many people, a longing for the transcendent? Why is the ultimate triumph of the immanent frame not accomplished?
He gives some possible reasons for the transcendent to stay in the picture:
Upbringing. Many people are still raised in religious homes — so they are indoctrinated and their neural networks laid down from a young age.
Personal experience. Further experiences of anguish or loss, in this hard and often baffling world, may reinforce the sense of the transcendent.
Conversion experiences. The relief offered by certainty is a powerful thing.
The negative pull of an idea. The transcendent frame may also be felt “negatively, as something whose lack we feel.” That is, we may long for something we can no longer have in a secular age.
Taylor lists some of the qualities of living that he thinks we have lost in the modern age:
“generous action, heroism, the warrior virtues, a higher sensibility; or else for a real dedication to humanity, a more demanding ethic of sacrifice; or a sense of the greater whole, a relation to the universe; and the like.”
WHY THE IMMANENT FRAME SOMETIMES CLOSES
On the other hand, other forces lead to the immanent frame to “close” entirely for some people (like me!).
Taylor makes “closing” this sound stuffy and airless, but in fact he is simply describing a state of comfort with the immanent frame. (Think Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Neil Degrasse Tyson… and many, many artists and writers in today’s world.)
Here are some ways this happens:
Fear of religion. Sometimes concerns over supernaturally driven violence and in-group mentality, in short, concerns about fanaticism, drive people to the immanent frame.
Rejection of old values. For others, the rejection of the shaming of the body associated with religion, or rigid gender roles, drives them to the immanent frame.
Wonder at the world as is. Amazement at our evolutionary history and our place alongside other animals may also reinforce the immanent frame.
Defense of Science. An evidence-based rejection of “miracles” and other fabulous claims can be another driver.
THE MIDDLE POSITION
Most people though, still find themselves strung out between the immanent and the transcendent frames.
And Taylor wants to insist that this makes sense, since in his view any position, even one that insists it is closed, in fact remains open.
He even says that those who do not feel the “cross-pressures” (as he does) suffer from “a kind of disability.”
Taylor says there are two kinds of closed world structures (CWSs) for those attached to the immanent frame:
David Hume — based on feelings
Immanuel Kant — based on rationality
Both, according to Taylor, are not truly closed; it is an illusion.
All the great founders of the immanent frame — Descartes, Locke, Hume — claimed to be just saying what was obvious once one examine experience itself reflectively. But this, to Taylor, is “self-blindness.”
“Rather what happened,” says Taylor, “is that…”
“…experience was carved into shape by a powerful theory which posited the primacy of the individual, the neutral, the intra-mental as the locus of certainty. What was driving this theory? Certain ‘values’, virtues, excellences: those of the independent, disengaged subject, reflexively controlling his own thought-processes, ‘self-reponsibly’…”
But this neutrality, he says, “is bogus.”
The value of being a disengaged and independent observer is pre-cooked into this point of view!
So living inside a closed immanent frame, Taylor insists, gives all experience a certain “spin,” which then reinforces that very frame. The whole process is circular and illusory, says Taylor.
Darwin and evolution and science did not push out religion, a “spin” and its resulting bias did!
He draws the analogy to Othello and Iago, with believers like Othello, who have their own doubts about Desdemona / God, and then find that these doubts are exploited and amplified by Iago / nonbelievers.
As nonbelievers “naturalize” the features of modern, liberal identity, they cannot see it as what it is: a historically constructed understanding of human agency.
(Taylor makes this argument with passion. But I am afraid that never grasped it fully. The “spin” that he is talking about strikes me as something unavoidable. This spin, as far as I can tell, is the result of a feedback-loop of evidentiary knowledge. Yes, it increases with time. But it is it unfair “spin” to find that the evidence from a science experiment keeps confirming the hypothesis?)
CHAPTER 16: CROSS PRESSURES
Taylor lists a number of push-backs to materialism:
we feel we have agency of our own!
we feel we have higher, “spiritual” motives!
art and nature move in us a “deeper sense of meaning”!
(These strike me as quite weak — a matter of his feelings and not much more. I was a little embarrassed by this chapter.)
Another resistance to materialism, according to Taylor, takes the form of rebellion: punk and hip-hop. Anarchic groups. Irrational actions of all kinds. (I don’t see how this isn’t, on the contrary, an unavoidable part of the materialist experience of our primate group.)
CHAPTER 17: DILEMMAS 1
Now we enter a section where the book seems to be winding down.
Taylor discusses the change from spiritual counsel to therapeutic counsel. He laments the pervasive “pathologizing” of behavior.
Misfits and deviants have no dignity in our secular age, according to Taylor, since they are not even evil — just disturbed and broken.
He also warns at one point that the denial of transcendence “is bound to lead to a crumbling and eventual break-down of all moral standards.” (Ye old slippery slope argument.)
He argues that attempts to discourage violence only backfire. Some violence and war, he says, can be “sacred.” Taylor even boasts that Christianity — religion — can show us that the therapeutic perspective on violence of the immanent frame “helps awaken and legitimate the hostility and aggression in us…”
Only the believer, he thinks, can see this clearly. Only the believer, according to Taylor, can usefully label it as “evil.”
CHAPTER 18: DILEMMAS 2
Taylor discusses possible responses to the question of the meaning of life:
Don’t ask / ignore it
There is something natural that can nevertheless feel sacred and meaningful (e.g. service)
You must construct a “center” to believe in
None of these, he thinks, deal adequately with the problem of suffering.
CHAPTER 19: UNQUIET FRONTIERS OF MODERNITY
The secular age, he says, is “schitophrenic” — due to cross-pressures.
CHAPTER 20: CONVERSIONS
He ends, I thought, weakly, with some meandering religious talk.
Well, we have come to the end of my notes.
Here’s my take (just in case you have read this far and want to hear the note-takers sum-up!):
Taylor shows astonishing analytical ability and erudition in tracing the emergence of the immanent frame and the secular outlook. I appreciated and agreed with much of what he wrote about the transition from a God-centered world to a human-centered world. Seriously, much of this book was thrilling to read.
It is only when he moves on to explaining our current condition that he lost me.
Taylor insists that the “cross-pressures” of this battle between immanence and transcendence are still with us because both frames are “open,” i.e both are unstable.
But I think he creates a kind of false equivalence between these two ways in the world.
To my mind, one of these ways in the world — the immanent frame — is vibrant and generating new perspectives. While the other — the religious or “transcendent” frame — is outdated and increasingly irrelevant.
Taylor wants to argue that, like him, most of us still long for this transcendence. But I think Taylor is projecting here.
The “spin” that he claims blinds us is, I think, really our excitement at embracing the knowledge that we are of this world, and our excitement at engaging the real, sticky, challenging questions that come up as a result. It’s not that we are blind to his concerns for God; it’s that we are not very interested in them because they don’t raise relevant questions.
As modern Iagos (in Taylor’s metaphor), we Old New Wayers aren’t trying to get Othello to betray and murder Desdemona/God in this play. No, Taylor is watching the wrong play if the thinks that.
What we Iagos are saying is: “Hey Othello! Forget about Desdemona! Come join us in the science lab, come down to the river and go swimming, or let’s go to the music studio and lay down some tracks… Let’s get to work! This is all we’ve got, Charles — better make use of it!”