What Should You Do If You Find An Atheist?

Walden sent this image in…

“What should you do if you find an Atheist?”


Notice the devil’s horns on the atheist “Mr. Gruff”.

This reminds me of Charles Taylor’s observation, in A Secular Age, that those beholden to a religious viewpoint very often cannot fully accept a “buffered” modern identity in others. Their background condition of belief leads them to assume that… if you are not aligned with God… well, then you must be aligned with Satan!

They don’t see that poor Mr. Gruff was just out at his front gate, picking up his newspaper. He wasn’t looking to get into a theological debate with the neighborhood kids. Really! No wonder he looks sad.

Go enjoy that cup of coffee, Mr. Gruff. We have your back.


Notes on Charles Taylor’s A SECULAR AGE

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”:

  1. The separation of church and state — i.e. “secular” in the sense of the maintenance of a public sphere that is neutral on belief.
  2. The lack of belief in God in practice — i.e. atheism or agnosticism.
  3. 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?



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:

  1. feeling lost
  2. feeling anguished, or
  3. 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:

  1. Reason
  2. Nature/Instinct
  3. “Deep ecology” — connection to earth
  4. 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.



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.)

Let’s begin.





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.

  1. The natural world seemed to testify to divine purpose and action (unpredictable events, illnesses, etc.).
  2. God was also the basis for the social order.
  3. 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.



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”.



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:

  1. Disenchantment
  2. Emergence of Humanism
  3. 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.



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 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.



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.



Pre-modern ideas of moral order:

  1. Laws of a ruler
  2. 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:

  1. The economy (Smith, Locke). Emphasis on work. Sanctifications of ordinary life.
  2. The public sphere (Grotius, Locke). Independent. Legitimate. Separate from private life. (But not transcendent.)
  3. The sovereign people (Think Madison’s “We the People..” that begins the Constitution, Think the “Fraternité” of the French Revolution)
  4. 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…)



As this new world is born, people look to politeness and civility to ensure social harmony (instead of God).



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 activistuniversal, 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:

  1. Reason
  2. The Will (Kant)
  3. 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?)



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…




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.”


Taylor acknowledges that the modern self gives some benefits:

  1. power
  2. capacity
  3. knowledge and understanding
  4. 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:

  1. a sense of aimlessness
  2. 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?)


In the wake of organized religion, people pursue a number of alternatives to give their lives stability and order and meaning:

  1. activist moral causes (e.g. abolition of slavery, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Black Lives Matter)
  2. the search for “inner” spirituality (New Age, Buddhist meditation)
  3. reaching for a romantic harmony with the world through beauty (Goethe, Schiller, Ruskin, Proust, D.H. Lawrence, Wilde)
  4. the cult of rationality (Comte, Ayn Rand)
  5. 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?)



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.

Cross-pressures abound.




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.



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.



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

  1. a “continuing spiritual concern with the transcendent”, and
  2. 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.)


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).


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.)


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.)


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.



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.


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.


Taylor describes the rise of a vague, individualized “spirituality” in the West.

He lists some of its features:

  1. a breaking down of barriers between different religious groups
  2. a decline in participation in organized religion
  3. the gamut of belief in something beyond widening
  4. the proliferation of New Age modes of practice
  5. a “retreat of Christendom”




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.)


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:

  1. Upbringing. Many people are still raised in religious homes — so they are indoctrinated and their neural networks laid down from a young age.
  2. Personal experience. Further experiences of anguish or loss, in this hard and often baffling world, may reinforce the sense of the transcendent.
  3. Conversion experiences. The relief offered by certainty is a powerful thing.
  4. 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.”



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:

  1. Fear of religion. Sometimes concerns over supernaturally driven violence and in-group mentality, in short, concerns about fanaticism, drive people to the immanent frame.
  2. 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.
  3. Wonder at the world as is. Amazement at our evolutionary history and our place alongside other animals may also reinforce the immanent frame.
  4. Defense of Science. An evidence-based rejection of “miracles” and other fabulous claims can be another driver.



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:

  1. David Hume — based on feelings
  2. 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?)



Taylor lists a number of push-backs to materialism:

  1. we feel we have agency of our own!
  2. we feel we have higher, “spiritual” motives!
  3. 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.)



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.”



Taylor discusses possible responses to the question of the meaning of life:

  1. Don’t ask / ignore it
  2. There is something natural that can nevertheless feel sacred and meaningful (e.g. service)
  3. You must construct a “center” to believe in

None of these, he thinks, deal adequately with the problem of suffering.



The secular age, he says, is “schitophrenic” — due to cross-pressures.



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.




Reading for Our Thirteenth Meeting — SECULARISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS

For this meeting we will be reading a book that address what some refer to as the “God-sized hole” in the secular life.

Does it exist, this “hole”?

If so, what shape does it have?

Should we fill it with something? Or let it close over by itself, in time?


A SECULAR AGE by Charles Taylor (2007) traces the emergence of secularism as a viable way of life in the Western world during the span of 500 years from 1500 to 2000.

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.

Notes on Our Twelfth Meeting — UTOPIA

It was good to launch into the new year of Old New Way. After drinks and refreshments, as usual, we headed into the living room at 8:30.

1.  Three Levels of Utopia

I started us off by recounting what I had clarified for myself while reading and reflecting on the theme of utopia over the past month.

I explained that I had come into this topic, back in August, with an unstable notion of utopia as something both universal and yet curiously specific too.

Like most people, I had large-scale dreams of fairer resource distribution, equality of opportunity, ending the release of carbon into the atmosphere, eliminating poverty, establishing peace on earth, all that good stuff.

But I also had small-scale dreams of strolling under leafy trees and across lush meadows with like-minded people, planting seeds together until the sweat dripped off our brows, gathering in houses built by our own hands. At night, I imagined us enjoying rapturous dances to live music, under a full moon. Happy to do my shifts cooking, dishwashing, and helping with the childcare, by the way! That kind of thing.

As I read and reflected, though (I already described some of my process in the Diary post below), I realized that there are actually three quite distinct levels of utopia.


First, there is the level of the “meta-utopia” (the political philosopher Robert Nozick helped me grasp this one). The meta-utopia is the overarching structure of society and government and economics holding it all together. Currently, in the developed world, this structure is called free-market capitalism with varying amounts of a social net, or, more succinctly, “neoliberalism”.

Other models of meta-utopia, scattered around the globe, include: dictatorship, theocracy, socialism, and there are even still some remnants of Communism. A handful of the books that I read invoking utopia (e.g. Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams) insist that, whether we like it or not, we are currently transitioning out of neoliberalism to a “postcapitalist” and “post-work” society, in which the increasing automation of work allows for a basic universal income.

I confessed to the group that on this “meta-utopia” question, I have no idea what structure, if any, would be optimal for the world as a whole.

The complicated questions of how to more efficiently, more equitably, distribute resources, how to minimally interfere with aspirations of human beings all around the world, in so many different geographical and cultural settings, are simply beyond my limited ability to resolve. The United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the US Constitution, the Paris Agreement — all of these are, to my mind, laudatory attempts to organize society on this level. If we combine these global institutions with the careful regulation of the market economy (laws that reign in the financial sector, pharmaceuticals, monopolistic entities, etc.), does all of this, in fact, constitute the best of all possible worlds?

Probably not.

Maybe we could do better?

I’m honestly not sure. (Makes me think of Churchill’s remark that “democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the others that have been tried.”)

Would a universal basic income, as proffered by the New Left, provide a more optimal meta-utopia? The more I thought about it, the more I found I have concerns about the unintended consequences of this “post-work” vision. How does it change incentives? What would people do with their time and energy? The truth is that I have concerns with our current politics AND the alternatives.

Over all, then, I realized that — shocking, I know (terrifying to Setenay, I am sure) — I have nothing definitive to say about this first level of utopia.

Well, there is one universal change I would make. I would lean, of course, towards discouraging supernaturalism and “faith” talk of all kinds (aka religion), since I think these outdated ways of thinking cause many more problems psychologically than they solve. So perhaps that is one meta-utopian modification I would make if I could: I would actively establish a global institution, not unlike the ICC,  with the mission of protecting freedom of conscience worldwide, against the imposition of supernatural claims by states or individual actors.

Other than that, I’m not sure what to dream for the world as a whole.


But then there’s the second level of utopian thinking. Here we come to the small-scale, more enchanting utopias that we all conjure up to comfort ourselves on bland or otherwise hard days.

I shared with the group that when I feel adrift in our technology-driven, consumerist nightmare of 21st century life, I find myself drawn to a primitivist sensibility. I long for the way I imagine the Ohlone or Miwok Indians lived in these same hills, under these same oak trees.

We might call this second level “local utopia.” I acknowledge, though, that my own quirky vision of a limited, local community, living harmoniously with nature, has no more weight than another person’s vision of an urban community, full of flashing lights, psychotropic enhancements, free love and jangling voices. To each his or her own. Even my wife and I would not agree on this one (she wants symphonies; I could get by on birdsong).

Recognizing this diversity of local utopias, I see how important it is that our meta-utopia enables each of us to pursue our more substantive dream as far as possible. Think Tom Cruise and the Scientologists. Think surf bums. Think militia groups in Texas. In the U.S., with a certain degree of privilege, you are pretty free to do this. But that’s a big caveat, as many do not have the time or resources even to consider it.


Finally, I concluded, there is a third level of utopia: the immediate. We might call it “inner utopia.”

This is what emerged for me, spontaneously, when I put a pencil to paper on the day before the meeting. It doesn’t have anything to do with structure of society as a whole, or even the schedule of who plants seeds and who cleans up in our local communal garden. It is a matter of mind, rather than place.

Here’s what came out of me when I sat down to write. To my surprise, it took the form of a poem:



Fair fields and wood-beamed halls

Sandy roads, leveled by hand

To each according to each according to each

Generous helpings for all

These are other people’s utopias

Mine is smaller


It is your back

It is your wrist

It is us having

Just a little more time

Before we die


Now when I think about utopia I will think of it with a little more clarity and ask myself, first, which level of utopia am I considering: meta, local or inner?

2. Utopias Around the Room

Next, we went around the room and heard a little of each member’s utopia.

Claudine started. She presented a transparent sphere, illuminated from within by light violet and orange and pink glowing lights. When we looked more closely, we saw a female figure floating in the center of the sphere. Claudine said this was her utopia.

At first I thought she was saying this satirically, as in, “We can only find utopia when we are alone and removed from all contact with other people! Just let me float silent and alone in my crystal sphere!” That’s not what she was saying, though. Claudine explained to the group that the object she brought in was a positive one in her mind.

It represented the serenity and peace that she feels she needs to find first, if she is to find utopia. To Claudine, then, the project of utopia begins with the “inner” level.

Dean pointed out that all governments, all campaigns — to cut to the chase, almost all human activity requires utopian thought. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, for example, are unmistakably utopian documents. (The Port Huron Statement is another one that comes to mind, as I write this.)

Dean worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Bernie’s calls for a less wealth inequality, more fairness, free higher education for all, single-payer health care, definitely invoked utopia. Even though he is by nature a skeptic, Dean admitted, he nevertheless finds himself drawn to fighting for specific goals. The future matters.

Marie-José and Renée both mentioned that their Catholic upbringings had largely soured them on utopian thinking. They both associate the word “utopia” with heaven — in opposition to hell. Since this whole dichotomy strikes them both, ever since they were young, as ridiculous and destructive, talk of utopia has these unfortunate connotations too. To them, as recovering Catholics, the world is a place of nuance and adjustment and daily commitments, not idle fictions that will never be achieved.

Setenay said that her utopia would have to apply fairly and equitably to ALL people around the world. She is suspicious of the effort to conjure up local utopias that do not take into account people in the world who cannot afford to dream. Start with resources. Get people food and water and basic medical care first, before you step off into First World la-la land and talk of meditation centers and ritual dances. She is a meta-utopian, we might say.

Florence had written in to say that addressing climate change, for her, supersedes all utopian thought. Get the planet fixed, make sure humanity survives the next century, and then we can talk more specifically about how we live. But the control of carbon and other toxic chemicals has to inform how we think about the daily patterns of our lives.

Eliana, visiting from NYC, mentioned that she and a few friends have been focused, recently, on the challenge of moving from eros to agape, that is, the challenge of broadening possessive, “romantic” love to a more inclusive, compassionate love. Her utopia would be a psychological one, in which we broaden our capacities as primates, and thereby improve our species ability to co-exist. This struck me as very close to John Lennon’s emphasis, in his post-Beatles solo work, on love and its transformative power. It involves “inner” utopia, no doubt, but moves quickly to questions of local and even meta utopia…

Anshu spoke of her struggle to find utopia among the hurly-burly of life. She thanked Claudine for her sphere, saying that it moved her. And she stressed the need for personal agency, calling Renée a strong example of that.

3. Conclusion

By the end of the evening, I felt good. We had comfortably and safely talked about our dreams for a better world, and as far as I know, no one had been made to feel embarrassed.  We had revealed some of our private wishes.

That, to me, felt like the right place to start: talking to one another, openly, about how things might be better.

It occurred to me, after the meeting, that utopian thinking is by its very nature a collective enterprise. It’s hard, if not impossible, to do alone. So the task I had given the group, to bring in a representation or expression of your own utopia, had the order reversed!

If we were ever to get serious about utopia, clearly we would need to form a separate group, dedicated to this idea and nothing else. We would have to spend at least a year, maybe more, just talking, freely and unabashedly, about our dreams before we even agreed on the first rule or sanded down the first wood beam.

Thanks for coming, everybody. Please add anything I forgot in the comments.

See you next month!

A Diary of Some of the Questions We Encountered When We Started to Think About Utopia…

If you are looking for the reading for the October 6, 2016 meeting on UTOPIA, please click here.

This post will track our progress as we try to dream up our personal utopias in advance of the meeting. Members of the group are encouraged to write in with any questions, challenges, stumbling-blocks, insights, conundrums and breakthroughs they encounter along the way.


Tom C. on Saturday, September 17

The First Challenge: Resource Distribution

It strikes me that the question of resource distribution – that is, the basic question of “from whom, to whom”  — has to come first when we start planning our utopias.

Wait a second! Why can’t we start with face-painting? Fire-lit dances? Sacred ritual? Why do we have to start with material questions?

Here’s my painful thought.

The human animal is absolutely fanatical – and in this we are not unlike other animals – when it comes to generating an abundance of resources to protect against the hazards of life.

We want not only today’s material needs met, but we also want a reserve in case of emergency.

Unfortunately, for humans – and in this we seem to be exceptional among animals – the sense we have of what constitutes an adequate “reserve” is almost infinitely elastic.

As we go about our sunny way, there is a strong undercurrent to our thoughts: our imagination proliferates endless scenarios leading to our possible doom and demise. It also proliferates endless scenarios of desires met and dreams achieved, however remote.

This is how it works:

Voice #1: Hey. Stop worrying. Be happy with what you have and enjoy each day! Wouldn’t it be enough to know that you have a roof over your head and a daily ration of food and water?

Voice #2: Of course not, you sunny fool: what about in the event of an illness? I may need more than food and water! I may need 24-hour nursing care any day now!

Voice #1: Okay, fine. Good point. Then how about if you save, say, a year’s income to protect yourself against that possibility?

Voice #2: No – a year would be too brief. And besides, what about my children? Don’t they need some cushion in this unforgiving world? Don’t I have an obligation to create a reserve for my immediate family members too? I’m not so selfish to look only after only my own short-term needs, am I?

Voice #1. No, no, I hear you. So what if you acquired enough wealth to place yourself in the top 1% of annual income or the top 1% of net worth in the world… Would that be enough?

Voice #2: (momentarily thrown off by the hard numbers) Ummm…

Voice #1: After all, that is already the case for many, many residents in the Bay Area! The truth is that an annual income of over $32,400 puts you in the top 1% of the world. Okay, the cost of living is higher here, so maybe that number doesn’t move you… Then let’s just look at net worth — you could move anywhere and your net worth moves with you, right? Well, anything more than $770,000 total net worth (and that number includes your house, your cars, your furniture, your home electronics and jewelry, your liquid assets, everything added up together) places you up there in that rarefied category of the top 1% in the world!

Isn’t that enough to reassure you?

Voice #2: (starting quietly, but growing in confidence) I grant that’s a good start. 

But what if we want to ensure our safety and security… but also preserve our independence a little bit? What if we want the option to do things out of the ordinary and follow our wild hearts? Then we will need a little more, won’t we? We may need a lot more!

So sorry, but just being in the top 1% doesn’t cut it. I want to live my passion for visiting Balinese monkey temples! I want to start a small independent press dedicated to publishing… exclusively “found,” i.e. unintentional, poetry.

1% won’t let us live all the dreams we can imagine!

And so it goes. Our imagination proliferates scenarios of doom and demise — or dreams like visiting far-flung monkey temples and publishing unintentional poems (at a financial loss).

Our natural aversion to constraints of any kind gets us to conjure up these scenarios, however remote, and accumulate resources accordingly.

Fear is a constant motivator. Desire is also a constant motivator.

But in addition to fear and desire, there’s the habit of seeing our gains and losses in a comparative frame, the proverbial curse of “keeping up with the Jonses”…

Primates that we are, humans are obsessed with status. And the boundaries between material resources and markers of status (safety and security, independence, self-expression, recognition and approval) are blurry at best.

Hence – back to my original point – when we look at attempts to create utopias, we often stumble on the economic/material arrangement — the “to whom, from whom” —  right from the start.

As much as we want a fair society, many of us don’t actually want egalitarian distribution of resources.

Plato, Sir Thomas More, Edward Bellamy, Karl Marx… many of these celebrated utopian thinkers advocated abolishing private property and distributing material goods in a strictly egalitarian fashion.

Sure, it sounds noble when you first encounter it. It stirs you. “To each according to his needs, from each according to his ability,” said Marx, and you think, “Right! Whoever needs something… gets it! I like that.”

But then you quickly remember that your own and everybody else’s needs are infinitely elastic, and material resources are decidedly not.

The bottom line is that no political or economic arrangement can fully meet people’s perceived needs, or even come close. The diversity of human experience is such that some people’s demands will invariably conflict with others.

So we start to sense where this is going: in the end, some authority is going to have to pick and choose which “needs” to satisfy… and which to leave hanging.

Capitalism was long hailed (by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, Austrian economists, late-20th century Republican presidents, early 21st-century Goldman Sachs partners and many others) as a glorious answer to this problem. “The market, if left to its own devices, will sort things out fairly!” we were told.

With maximum efficiency, it will set a price for each product in “demand,” depending on how many other people want it, how hard it is to produce, how many other resources go into producing it, etc. Then, given this price, people’s unique motivations and talents and effort can either make it possible to acquire – or not.

Everybody has an equal chance, and no centralized authority has to be put in charge of determining how resources get distributed. It will happen from the ground up, close to the people, without presuppositions, by way of an Invisible Hand or some such.

Sounds wonderful. Decentralized. Efficient. Endlessly working, day and night, for the common good through the interplay of many people’s self-interests.

The evidence, however, has been in for a while: it doesn’t work that way.

Over time, as Thomas Picketty recently documented, the forces of Capital gain ever more access, more influence, more leverage. In short, over time the deck gets stacked. Major events such as world wars may temporarily disrupt this widening gap between the rich and poor, but soon, remorselessly, ineluctably, the capitalist system drives people apart.

Soon, many needs go unmet, completely out of reach for the many; while any slight itch of a need for the upper class is easily scratched (with a rare lavender-smelling cream applied gratuitously where the itch once was, just because).

Yikes. So where does that leave us when we dream of utopia?

How can we even begin to think about the really fun stuff – say, our vision of reclining in hammocks strung between leafy treetops while tugging idly on ropes used to haul up baskets full of red raspberries we picked that morning… while, along with our neighbors in their hammocks, joining our voices, when it suits us, in a collective choral piece with multiple harmonies–

Sorry. Where was I?

Oh yes: how can we even begin to think about the fun stuff (hammocks, raspberries, choral singing), when we can’t figure out this basic question of the nature of work and the distribution of resources?

Much to consider as we turn our heads to the question of utopia.

Anybody else want to share some of their thoughts along the way?

Email them to me and I’ll make them an entry in this post. They can be as pithy as you like. Or maybe they take the form of a question? But I thought it would be useful to share some of our process — as we dream.



Tom C. on Monday, September 19, 2016

The Difference Between a Proposal and an Ideal

As I begin to wonder what kind of utopia, if any, I can conjure up, I find myself pulled in two directions.

First, there is the hard-headed question of coming up with a proposal for improved resource distribution, which I started to consider on Saturday (see above).

Second, though, I have an impulse to take the opposite approach entirely.

Let’s forget about the distribution of resources for a moment!

Can we?

Maybe this materialistic outlook is too narrow in scope, anyway. It preloads too many aspects of “the good life” as we know it today… with the effect of crushing our utopian impulse to start anew.

Instead, let’s think from scratch.

Let’s ignore “market efficiencies” and “GDP” and all the dull verbiage surrounding questions of the management of happiness in the contemporary world.

Let’s model our utopia on something far more simple:

What would make me smile?

What is the ideal I am yearning for?

After all, utopian thinking is not a blueprint of something likely to be built someday. Utopias aren’t required to contain practical or feasible proposals. They can also represent impossible ideals.

So this time around I’m going to skip past the all those thorny questions of macroeconomics and law, and go right to my vision for an everyday experience very different from the one we know today.

Here’s what I see when I close my eyes and dream…

Animals live, undisturbed, among us humans. We nod to them, communicate with them, observe them, make room for them, as the case may be.

Human beings are recognized as only one of many species on this planet teeming with life. So we don’t harm other species if we can help it.

We live more slowly, without a lot of technology — except when used to advance scientific inquiry and health care. (Can’t give those up.)

We don’t use cars. Instead we walk, or ride horses, or ride bikes. When we visit a friend out of our immediate neighborhood, we often stay overnight, or for a week or three… since the journey takes longer.

Education is absolutely free to everybody.

The highest value is wholeness. Seeing each person as a whole. Seeing our environment as a whole (including the animals, the insects, the plant-life, the ecosystem, the weather…).

Emotions are highly valued.

Laughter is also highly valued.

Freedom of speech and expression is absolute.

Okay. That’s a start. (It’s like a snapshot with no background explanation. I’m going to have to fill it in and expand it a lot, but I like the exercise of starting with the first things that come to me…)

What’s the first vision you have when you close your eyes?



Tom C. on Monday, September 19, 2016

A Threshold Question

One thing that I am realizing is that there is a threshold question, isn’t there, when we dream of our utopias?

Do you want a world that enables a steady and peaceful life, built on strong relationships and moments of quiet reflection?

Or do you want a dizzying and thrilling life, built on quick adaptation to new technologies, a panoply of entertainment options, and a bias towards innovation?

Can we have both?

(Do a lucky few in the Bay Area, and the developed world generally, actually live in the best of all worlds and have both now?)



Setenay B. on Wednesday, September 21


Utopia for Whom….

If you want to think big, a collective utopia, it has to be extensive. Because can there be a utopic world if all of Africa is starving for instance?

Why do most utopian ideals/thoughts end up being authoritarian? Can there be small, all-inclusive, non-authoritarian communities? (Maybe a kibbutz in Israel came close to that?)

Most people, in most places, in most times, are of inferior status. The “ruling class” is always small. The poor always vastly outnumber the rich. The powerful are always few (and mostly men, even though always outnumbered by women and children). The rule-makers sanction and uphold inequality, social rank, gender rank, and PRIVILEGE. Oh the privilege!

Moving away from resource limitations, a large world order etc. is better for this thought project. We all look at it differently from where we come from and have vastly different ideas (I don’t have such an aversion to egalitarian ideas, as you stated, for instance). For me though, it’d definitely be a non-capitalist society. Or if the bottom line was still valuing profit over the product and cost/benefit was the main tool, everything would have to have its proper value.

Nature, providing “ecosystem services” (as called in the current-day capitalist environmentalist lingo), would have real value. A salmon returning to its natal stream would be as entitled to the water in the creek as the farmer taking the water and taking away its right to live. Water would be properly valued, so would air. Living with peace, dignity, and elegance in gorgeous surroundings would be considered profit and conquering nature would cease to exist as a concept. That requires thinking of our existence as living organisms, part of a single natural process. Sacrifice of the self to the whole in a way (which is probably one of the most anti-American ideas, which typically glorify ego and self over the community, you pursue happiness for yourself [which never works alone], you can do anything to bring about radical improvement: just lift yourself off the floor by your own bootstraps when fallen, etc. Well, that’s fucking impossible. Physically. You always need to be a part of a “process”).

So, my personal utopia.

Death is the ultimate anti-utopian thing. But I don’t know how to get away from it. Even in my dreams.

But, as in Marquez’s utopia, no one will be able to decide for others how they die.

Other practical thoughts:

Freedom for everyone. No slavery of any kind.

No hunger. No homelessness.

No “other”. No race, gender, religion, thought, tribe, status is better.

Education is free. So is health care.

Everyone has the basics, food, water, home, education, safety etc. The wealthy (if there’s got to be differences of worldly materials) pay much more taxes.

Respect for animals, plants, landscapes, moonscapes, Martianscapes etc.

Can there be uncertainty or frustration in my personal utopia? There has to be as there can not be the promise of satisfaction without the potential of not getting what I want. It is through our frustrations that we come to know our wants. The more frustration in wanting something, the more our desire for it. The imagining is in the waiting.

Mixed blessing of the choice. I’m lucky for this utopic thought: that my life is not a series of laments for  “the roads not taken,” desires sacrificed.

I think of Dr. Seuss’ great book on having to choose a pet.

I will do it right now.
I will do it!” I said.
“I will make up the mind
that is up in my head.

The dog…? Or the rabbit…?
The fish…? Or the cat…?
I picked one out fast,
and that was that.

What else is utopian?

An old-growth redwood forest. And an oak tree by a wild creek.

Poetry is utopian. A young girl in a big city somewhere in the world, cramped in her own teenage self, full of ideals and dreams of justice and love and cramped in her frustration of not being understood, reads a poem to herself over and over again as the spring evening is falling. And each time she reads she enters more and more into the lives of the poet and his people and sees the world through their eyes, feeling intensely what they felt.That feeling is quite utopian.

Bloody wrists, clenched teeth, bare feet,
Land like a precious silk carpet
This hell, this paradise is ours.

Let the doors be shut that belong to others,
Let them never open again
Do away with the enslaving of man by man
This plea is ours.

To live! Like a tree alone and free
Like a forest in brotherhood

This yearning is ours!

Nâzim Hikmet

That last stanza was my utopia through late teens, hung on a board above my desk (along with other indispensable Hikmet lines)

“Yasamak bir agac gibi tek ve hur

Ve bir orman gibi kardescesine”

Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror



This poem by Wislawa Szymborska:


Island where all becomes clear.

Solid ground beneath your feet.

The only roads are those that offer access.

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.

The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here
with branches disentangled since time immemorial.

The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,
sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.

The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:
the Valley of Obviously.

If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.

Echoes stir unsummoned
and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.

On the right a cave where Meaning lies.

On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.
Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.

Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.
Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.


Tom C. on Wednesday, September 21

One Answer to the Problem of Scale: Establishing a Minimalist “Meta-Utopia” Within Which Smaller Utopias Come and Go

At the beginning of her “diary” entry, Setenay alludes to the problem of scale when thinking about utopia…

Why do most utopian ideals/thoughts end up being authoritarian? Can there be small, all-inclusive, non-authoritarian communities? (Maybe a kibbutz in Israel came close to that?)

This strikes me as a crucial question for us to address: is there an unavoidable problem of scale when thinking of utopia? Does any dream of a world-wide utopia have to be authoritarian — even imperialistic — in its application?

There are over 7 billion people on the planet. Aren’t there simply too many contrasting conceptions of the “good life” for everyone to agree on one way to organize society?

The political philosopher Robert Nozick offers one possible way out of this bind.

He suggests that we merely need to limit our dreams of a world-wide utopia to… a minimalist, rights-based “meta-utopia.”

This meta-utopia would itself say little about how we live, but it would perhaps provide a framework for many different, more particular utopias to thrive within it.

Here’s how he puts it in his classic of political philosophy, Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974):

“The conclusion to draw is that there will not be one kind of community existing and one kind of life led in utopia. Utopia will consist of utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead kinds of lives under different kinds of institutions.

“Some kinds of communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one. Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others…

“Half of the truth I wish to put forth is that utopia is meta-utopia: the environment in which utopian experiments may be tried out; the environment in which people are free to do their own thing; the environment which must, to a great extent, be realized first if one particular utopian visions are to be realized stably.”

Following Nozick’s thinking, we may wonder if all the classic utopian writers have had the wrong approach…

Rather than spinning out a fully realized way of life (as enjoyable as the fiction that results may be), perhaps, if they were more serious about altering the course of history, they should have stayed focused on determining some basic ground rules… and let other people fill in the rest.

So what would these ground rules for a “meta-utopia” look like? What would be required to enable people to move between utopias, start their own, fail, try again, adapt to changing conditions?

Right away, a few come to mind, for me at least:

  1. Freedom of association
  2. Freedom of speech and expression
  3. Freedom of conscience (religion, belief, etc.)
  4. Environmental constraints (no lasting damage to the ecosystems that sustain life)
  5. Limitations to the use of organized violence (restrictions on war)

It occurs to me, as I write, that this is starting to look a lot like the Charter of the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions! Do we have a meta-utopia already in place and we didn’t realize it?

Nozick seems to think that this minimal framework hasn’t been tried yet. And he is actually quite optimistic about what happens after the “meta-utopia” is in place (even if it would take some time to develop):

“‘So is this all it comes to: Utopia is free society?’ Utopia is not just a society in which the framework is realized. For who could believe that ten minutes after the framework was established, we would have utopia? Things would be no different than now. It is what grows spontaneously from the individual choices of many people over a long period of time that will be worth speaking eloquently about. (Not that any particular stage of the process is an end state which all our desires are aimed at. The utopian process is substituted for the utopian end state of other static theories of utopias.) Many communities will achieve many different characters. Only a fool, or a prophet, would try to prophesy the range and limits and characters of the communities after, for example, 150 years of the operation of this framework.

“Aspiring to neither role, let me close by emphasizing the dual nature of the conception of utopia being presented here. There is the framework of utopia, and there are the particular communities within the framework. Almost all of the literature of utopia is, according to our conception, concerned with the character of the particular communities within the framework. The fact that I have not propounded some particular description of a constituent community does not mean that (I think) doing so is unimportant, or less important, or uninteresting. How could that be? We live in particular communities. It is here that one’s non-imperialistic vision of the ideal or good society is to be propounded and realized. Allowing us to do that is what the framework is for. Without such visions impelling and animating the creation of particular communities with particular desired characteristics, the framework will lack life. Conjoined with many persons’ particular visions, the framework enables us to get the best of all possible worlds.”

I like this point about the “dual nature of the conception of utopia.”

It helped me realize that we need to do both: think big and small.

On the larger scale, though, I still wonder how we could ever make even this more minimalist, meta-utopia stick. Even minimal ground rules would no doubt require some authoritarian actions from time to time (e.g. UN resolutions and use of force agreementsInterpol and the International Criminal Court).

So then aren’t we back to neo-imperialism? Are we ok with that, if it is necessary to create the conditions for smaller non-authoritarian utopias to flourish all around the world?

Are our smaller utopias dependent on a larger meta-utopia?

(Reminds me of the debate about whether National Socialists or the Muslim Brotherhood or like anti-democratic groups should be permitted to run for elections in a democratic state on the explicit pledge that they will disband it if elected? Is the democratic process dependent on the use of force, if necessary to impose of its values?)


Tom C. on Friday, September 30, 2016


Work is now so closely associated with identity… that it is hard to accept it could be otherwise.

In our current era, “What do you do?” is not a question about what, in fact, you physically do during the day.

It is, of course, a question of how do you define yourself.

“What do you do?” is closer to “Who are you?”

Isn’t it?

But some contemporary thinkers insist that this is all about to change, as we are moving from a frayed consensus around “neoliberalism” (roughly today’s market-based system with minimal safety nets) to what may be called… a “post-work society“.

Whether that phrase frightens you, or thrills you, is interesting in itself.

Think about it for a moment. How much is your fear of a “post-work society” associated with the potential loss of your own identity? Or from a moral sense of disapprobation? Or is your aversion the result of a natural urge to recoil from the psychological change required by this assertion?

How much of your thrill (do you feel that too?) is based on your distaste for your own current work, your resentment at the feeling of capitalist forces beyond your control, your excitement about the prospect of disruption on a major scale?

This last week I have been reading a crop of contemporary books touching on our theme of utopia. They converge on this vision of a post-work society.

At the dawn of the 21st century, these books argue, we are entering a postcapitalist society, in which our basic relationship to work must change.

The books are:


POSTCAPITALISM by Paul Mason, and


A quick summary of each in turn:



Rutger Bregman is Dutch. First published in 2013, his book has been translated into English and has garnered a lot of attention. He insists that our imaginations have withered in recent decades: we need to learn to dream again. For many years, people dreamed that the work week would get shorter, and there might be more time for leisure. This was the promise of new technologies and increased productivity in the West.

But this promise stalled out in the 1980s, and soon dreams of any kind of utopia died as well. The future has been cancelled.

What has emerged, instead of a vision of more leisure time, is a barren landscape, broken only by part-time or low-paying jobs.

Many people belong to a new class, Bregman suggests: the “precariat,” which is given this name due to the sense of precariousness that goes along with their lives. These members of the precariat include marketing directors as well as academics, sheet metal workers as well as journalists. The bottom line is that more and more people are working harder and gaining less, while a few at the top accumulate ever more wealth.

Bregman’s answer? Tax individual wealth, and with the revenues from that tax establish a universal basic income.

He cites many studies that show that giving money directly to people who are struggling helps them much more than work-training, re-education, etc.  This will require a new attitude towards work. We must measure success not by GDP but by other metrics, such as the GPI or the ISEW.

Bregman also argues for open borders, insisting that this would boost wealth worldwide.



Paul Mason argues that we are seeing the end of capitalism, since there is an oversupply of labor, cheap money and “financialization,” and labor imbalances across countries. Also, the rise of information technology is disrupting capitalism because — it is free. Here’s what Mason says we face now:

“In the past twenty years, capitalism has mustered a new social force that will be its gravedigger, just as it assembled the factory proletariat in the nineteenth century. It is the networked individuals who have camped in the city squares, blockaded the fracking sites, performed punk rock on the roofs of Russian cathedrals, raised defiant cans of beer in the face of Islamism on the grass of Gezi Park, pulled a million people on to the streets of Rio and San Paulo and now organized mass strikes across Southern China.

“They are the working class ‘sublated’ — improved upon and replaced… They are a group whose diverse interests converge on the need to make postcapitalism happen… Neoliberalism can offer them only a world of stagnant growth and state-level bankruptcy: austerity until death, but with an upgraded version of the iPhone every few years…”

He lists some goals:

  1. Rapidly reduce carbon emissions.
  2. Stabilize the finance system by socializing it.
  3. Deliver high levels of material prosperity by prioritizing information-rich technologies towards solving social challenges.
  4. Gear technology towards… an automated economy.



Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams write the boldest book of the three. Their argument is simple but arresting: there is simply too much surplus labor for capitalism to handle anymore. Sure, capitalism requires a little surplus labor — as has often been noted, the unemployment rate never goes to 0% — but now there is way too much, and it is growing every day.

As jobs become more automated many workers are left redundant. Talk all you want (Obama, Hillary…) about your plans for little fixes to the neoliberal status quo (e.g. public option for health care, child care paid leave, job re-training, free education, etc.), but the truth is that the world simply doesn’t need more employees.

Add to this the huge increase in wage-earners worldwide, as subsistence farmers in India and China and other countries are moved off their land into urban areas (following the pattern laid down in the West centuries ago). You have too many workers for capitalism to absorb or channel into new markets…

So the capitalist order (he calls it “neoliberalism”) chugs along, but there are increasing numbers of people left out. Those at the top often do not even add value, and everyone knows it, but they accumulate the resources. The majority of people find their lives precarious and painful.

Some turn to xenophobia and nationalism (see Trumpism); others turn to small-scale protest (see everything from the Green movement to Occupy Wall Street; from BLM to the Arab Spring). But, according to these authors, all of these movements are tied down by their “folk-psychology”: they emphasize locality; they encourage direct action; they often can’t formulate demands when asked; and they are easily quashed by the state.

The way we are going is an increasingly unrestful population, up against an increasingly militarized police state, which uses the latest technologies to achieve close surveillance of dissidents. Think Russia. Think Turkey. Think, in recent years, France and the U.S. heading this direction, too.

The solution? Again, a basic universal income. Everybody gets a living income, no strings attached. If you want to work, that’s great. You can make more money and enjoy luxuries that others do not have. If you don’t, you can live on this basic income and pursue your interests and passions. This would be achieved through a tax on wealth.

To make this possible, the authors argue for an acceleration of technology with the specific aim of increasing automation. Short term, it puts people out of work. Long term, it creates the conditions for this new society.

The last part of the book makes the case for a long-term “counter-hegemonic” movement, instead of iterative demonstrations informed by “folk-psychology”. The authors suggest that the post-work society will require a reorientation of how humans think of themselves, and the political and economic order will adapt to that change. Mainstream media, think tanks, infrastructure — a whole “ecology of organization” will have to emerge to manage the transition from neoliberalism to the future postcapitalist world.

You can read their “accelerate manifesto” by clicking here. Not everyday we get to read a manifesto aimed directly at us, NOW.

Much to reflect upon, but I’ll leave it there until our meeting… Anybody else?

Reading for Our Twelfth Meeting — UTOPIA

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:


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:


THE FUTURE WE WANT: RADICAL IDEAS FOR THE NEW CENTURY, edited by Sarah Leonard and Bhaskar Sunkara



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…



short movies!

long movies?

and humor

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!

Take care,
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.

Have fun. Dream big. See you on the 6th.

Summer Break

In our time-honored tradition (well, last year), we will take a break from meeting over the summer. In October we will resume.

I wish you exquisitely alive days, under all kinds of conditions, all summer. Don’t forget to wear sunscreen (“wide spectrum” protection against UVA and UVB rays is completely non-supernatural, so we’re good).

See you in the fall.