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 lost
- 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!”
That’s not a betrayal. That’s an invitation.