When I teach early modern political theory to undergraduates, I begin by trying to conjure a worldview and subjective experience not organized by capitalism, science, reason, secularism, and the primacy of the individual. I struggle to convey the extent to which this chasm between our time and that one pertains not merely to particular beliefs, knowledges, or forms of social order, but to an entire way of knowing and experiencing self and world. I aim, in other words, to get students to grasp the Otherness of early modern Europe in terms of the experience of being human and being in the world. This entails somehow grasping our epistemological, ontological, cosmological and theological frameworks from without, a nearly impossible physical and metaphysical feat.
Yet this is how Charles Taylor has invited us to think about secularism—not as beliefs, principles, or a mode of organizing state and society, though it certainly comprises these things (or, more accurately, these become some of secularism’s effects), but as a matter of human experience. Taylor wants us to appreciate modern Western secularism as a peculiar way of being, knowing, inhabiting the world; indeed, as a condition of being, knowing, and inhabiting the world in a particular way. By framing secularism thus, he moves quickly past quagmired politicized debates about secularism. Are we really secular? Should we aspire to secularism, and at what cost? To paraphrase Samuel Huntington, is the West still the West if it gives up its Judeo-Christian moorings and frame? Or to paraphrase Thomas Friedman, is the problem with Islam the fact that it is as yet unwashed by secularism? Not only can Taylor’s approach reveal the shallowness and indeed wrongheadedness of all such questions, it prevents our getting lost in the question of how intense religiosity and secularism can coexist in the same polity or even the same person. Taylor refounds secularism as a way of being, feeling, thinking and knowing that is as nonoptional in the contemporary West as a polytheist world view was for the ancient Greeks. He gives us, in short, the first erudite phenomenology of secularism through a story of the historical construction of secular subjectivity.
It is not difficult to find reasons to praise Taylor’s work. It is so rich, learned, careful, detailed, complex, attentive to a variety of forces at work in producing the secularism Westerners inhabit today, the secularism enshrined in the Establishment Clause and the First Amendment of the American Constitution or embodied in French laïcité, as well as the secularism many believe would neuter radical Islamicism, defuse battles among Shiites and Sunnis, relieve tensions between Hindus and Muslims, or ease the constraints on Israeli policy imposed by a minority orthodox population, especially those in the Settlements. In short, Taylor’s work attends to the secularism largely believed to yield legal protection of individual belief, civil tolerance of religious and cultural difference, and political resolution of bloody wars of faith.
Yet there are two aspects of Taylor’s massive historical account that I find deeply disturbing. First, absent from Taylor’s account is every stripe of outsider to Latin Christendom, from Jews and Muslims in Europe to colonized natives and other outsiders, as well as dissident voices, reversals and disruptions to what he calls his “story.” The missing elements make it more provincially European, monolithic, colonial, than it needs to be. Above all, they make the emergence of EuroAtlantic secularism a product of tensions within Christendom rather than, in part, a feature of Christendom’s encounter with others and especially with its constitutive outside. More than a problem of historiography or comprehensiveness, this omission has consequential politics; today, Western secularism is so relentlessly defined through its imagined opposite in Islamic theocracy that to render secularism as generated exclusively through Western Christian European history is to literally eschew the production of ourselves as secular through and against our imagined opposite. It is to be locked into Thomas Friedman’s conceit about “our” secular modernity and “their” need for it.
A second disturbing dimension of Taylor’s account pertains to its express and deliberate antimaterialism. Taylor’s “story” and the historiography structuring it aim not only to displace liberal shibboleths about secularism that equate it with value pluralism, church-state separation, and state protection of conscience, but also to challenge both Marx’s and Weber’s accounts of the process of secularization in the West. Taylor’s objection to these stories is both explicit and methodologically complex. His rejection of them is also consequential, not only for the way he tells his own story, but again, for how this story occludes the imperial face of Western secularism today. Even as Taylor is bent on explaining how secularism becomes a reigning worldview in the Euroatlantic, secularism is propelled, in his account, by epistemological conditions of belief. In contrast, I would argue that modernity features other knife-edged forces cutting through the waters of religious cosmology, including those identified by Weber as rationalization and by Marx as profanation. Today, these forces meld in neoliberalism, combining capital’s profanation of the sacred with the extension of market rationality and rationalization to all domains of existence. And neoliberalism, I would argue, is one of the key imperial forces of our time, probably more important in the long run than American military bellicosity or designs of regime change.
Let me underscore that Taylor and I share a move to diffuse and complicate the classical idealist/materialist opposition—both Taylor’s Hegelianism and my Marxism are extensively reconstructed by Foucault, and before Foucault, other post-Hegelian, post-Marxist formulations of the problem. Moreover, Taylor at times comes so close to materialism in thinking secularism—not only by posing secularism as a condition of belief rather than belief itself but also by tracking the multiple conditions of its production as a condition—that his reductionist and rejectionist approach to materialism and general eschewal of capitalism in the drama of secularization are all the more striking. What remains unquestionably idealist and antimaterialist in Taylor’s account is his commitment to tracing the production of secular consciousness within religious understanding as opposed to tracing secularization processes resulting from extrareligious forces that erode, transform, or instrumentalize a religious cosmology. The former treats consciousness as making itself through interaction with dominant ideas; the latter treats the production of conditions for religiosity and erosion or transformation of these conditions as the medium in which consciousness and dominant ideas are produced. Taylor’s approach is tricky because he speaks of conditions of belief but the conditions to which he refers are the framework and contents of intellectual and religious landscapes, and thus more closely approximate what Foucault called epistemes than what we encounter in Weber and Marx or even in the later Foucault’s appreciation of discourses and eventually, rationalities.
Moreover, Taylor’s driving question and mine are different. He wants to think about who a secularist is and what secularism achieves and sacrifices in relation to belief, and I want to think about the subtle violences of the forces that we might call secularizing. It is in this respect that I can’t quite stay with what Taylor calls “secularity 3”—this is secularity not in the sense of the state as constituted “above religion” (“secularity 1”) or in the sense of the decline of religious belief (“secularity 2”) but focused only on the making of the secular subject as one who can have religious faith without expecting others to share it. Ultimately, I think, Taylor wants to a) explain himself as “a believer” who is also a secularist; b) explain how, paradoxically, religious belief can be secured from and even by secularism; and c) explain the costs and losses attendant upon a fully secular age and consciousness. By contrast, I am interested in secularism as an instrument of empire. To be clear, in no way am I suggesting that this is all that secularism is; rather, it simply constitutes my own interest in secularism today.