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Rethinking Secularism

February 8th, 2011

by Abraham Rubin

Review of Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan Vanantwerpen, and Craig Calhoun (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010) 352 pages

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007), a veritable tome spanning close to a thousand pages, attempts to reconstruct a genealogy of secularity from the early modern era to the present. The book is both polemical, arguing against sociological theories of secularization of the Weberian creed, and a profound philosophical excursus that aptly traverses intellectual history, theology, ethics and anthropology, only occasionally resorting to moral exhortation.

The historical and philosophical breadth of Taylor’s work is overwhelming, and the multiple lines of argument can easily lead astray anyone who hasn’t pored over his earlier works such as Modern Social Imaginaries (2004) and Sources of the Self (1989). In this sense, the recent collection of essays entitled Varieties of Secularism is an extremely helpful publication that serves as a guide for the perplexed to Taylor’s latest book, engaging it in critical and constructive dialogue.

Before delving into this collection of essays and their approaches to Taylor’s work, a brief summary of A Secular Age might be helpful (a task masterfully accomplished by the editors in their introduction). A condensed version of Taylor’s main thesis, which of course does not do justice to the intricacies of his argument, is that the commonplace sociological understanding of secularization, which he gives the general heading of “subtraction stories,” fails to comprehend the ontological underpinnings of the process that it tries to delineate. Any secularization thesis that merely views it as a negative process by which religion withdraws from the public sphere, loses its influence in the political realm, or witnesses a decline in the number of practitioners, misses out on the complexity and contradictory nature of this historical shift, which concerns not only matters of religious dogma but in fact comes to restructure the modern understanding of reality and the self.

The historical shifts in the religious perception of transcendence become not merely matters of belief, but serve as an index of human subjectivity. The intelligibility of the world and our place within it are derivatives of the way we understand the relationship between transcendence and immanence, sense perception and metaphysical absolutes. The perceptibility of God, or alternatively his absolute mystery, dictates the scope of human autonomy and the possibility of  self-sovereignty.

According to Taylor’s approach, which is also taken by philosophers and theologians such as Gianni Vattimo, Marcel Gauchet and John Milbank, secularization is part of a historically dynamic process which structures our being-in-the-world, our sense of inwardness, and our moral horizons. Secularization, then, is not understood as a breach from religion, but rather as part of an internal dialectic which is explicitly intra-religious.

The scope of Taylor’s argument, that claims that our understanding of secularization cannot be limited to any particular realm of life but must be seen as a comprehensive phenomenon encompassing belief and unbelief alike, poses one of the main challenges for his book, which evades any strict categorization. It is difficult to determine the disciplinary framework of the book: Is it intellectual history or perhaps a philosophical exploration of the metamorphoses of subjectivity? Indeed, some of its staunch secular readers accuse it of being a masked religious tractate of moralizing critique.

The broad interdisciplinary approach Taylor takes seems to be both the strength and weakness of the book, and feeds most of conversations in The Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age. These debates can be loosely divided into commentaries on the genre and structure of A Secular Age (Jager, Butler, Sheehan), the greater context of the secularization debates (Milbank, Bellah), its ethnocentrism (Gole and Mahmood), and disagreements about the religious underpinnings of Taylor’s argument (During and Connolly).

Of the wide variety of discussions that the twelve contributors have with Taylor’s book, Simon During’s “Completing Secularism: The Mundane in the Neoliberal Era” and William Connolly’s “Belief, Spirituality, and Time” offer particularly interesting critiques of the basic assumptions of A Secular Age regarding the loss of experience in a world wholly rooted in the mundane. Taylor’s argument about belief comes to denote not only the belief in a higher power, but also the belief in a common good that surpasses mere human flourishing, an avenue which has arguably closed with the elimination of transcendence in the Western world. Delineating a gradual disembedding process that begins circa 1500, Taylor claims that the removal of transcendence from everyday life has created the “buffered self” that is atomized, self-contained, and incapable of experiencing the fullness of the transcendent.

During contests this claim, offering an alternative account of a non-theist, this-worldly transcendence which finds “lived fullness and richness” in the mundane. During’s reading of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty, finds a counterpoint to Taylor’s theistic version of fullness, in a work that “lacks any transcendental dimension whatsoever”:

Indeed, its fullness and richness cannot be separated from its sheer worldedness, from the self-undoing, dislocating shock of the here and now. It’s dislocating experience, which, as I say, comes to a young man placed at particular location at a particular historical moment, which is also a moment in the progress of a specific epidemic.… So what The Line of Beauty is telling us is that today, spiritual gravity may inhere in the self-emptying contingencies through which we are concretely place in history, nature and place, and for that reason needs no other home than the immediate and the mundane. (125)

William Connolly’s essay “Belief, Spirituality, and Time” follows a similar line of critique. Drawing on what he calls “immanent naturalists” such as Deleuze, Spinoza, Proust and Bergson, Connolly argues for the possibility of an immanent “becoming” that breaks down Taylor’s distinction between “buffered self” as closed subject of modernity and the pre-modern “porous self,” open to transcendence through religious experience. Connolly’s “immanent naturalists” find an openness of being in the new modes of temporal experience, relocating mystery in the everyday from the place Taylor ascribes it in the transcendent beyond. The advantage to Connolly’s twist on Taylor’s critique of modern subjectivity, which circumvents both secularization narrative and theistic horizon, is that it avoids the pitfall of Taylor’s slip into myth.

While the North-Atlantic boundaries of Taylor’s narrative may be more porous than he describes, and the history of Western secularity more geographically and culturally variegated, his work is probably the most ambitious and multi-layered account of secularism as social ontology to date. The Varieties of Secularism in A Secular Age, although pointing to some of the methodological, orientalist, and historiographic weaknesses of Taylor’s book, is a wonderful introduction to A Secular Age, presenting its relevance to a variety of disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences. Its rigorous engagement with Taylor’s work surpasses the limits of the secularization debate, opening readers to methodological questions about the utility and challenges of interdisciplinary scholarship.

Abraham Rubin, a first year CJL Graduate Fellow, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center and a graduate teaching fellow in the English Department of City College.

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