With the prevalence of voices casting doubts and aspersions on the so-called secularization thesis, we might imagine that the familiar story of the progress of Western modernity qua secularity is on its last legs, and that the notion of secularity itself is near bankruptcy. Upon closer inspection, however—and Charles Taylor’s latest tome provides an excellent occasion for such inspection—it appears that what is in jeopardy is the valence of “the secular,” and not the story of the long march of Western modernity itself. As Taylor understands it—like many other recent critics of the secularization thesis also do—the problem that needs to be addressed is the hitherto dominant conception of secularity and of secularity’s relation to our broadly shared ideals of egalitarian (as opposed to authoritarian) sociality. This conception has relegated “religion,” “belief,” “faith,” and the like to an untenably narrow, poorly nuanced, and finally unreasonable and unrealistic space of confinement such that, at this particular historical juncture, our judicial systems, educational systems, and well nigh all other civic institutions predicated on this principle of secularity are bursting at the seams. The solution, as suggested by Taylor, is to realign “religion” in the space of the secular, or to contain the domain of the secular itself as one among many options, so that it and religion, or more precisely, it and any available religions that are sufficiently reasonable, can peaceably cohabit an ever globalizing commonweal.
What is apparently not in question is the singular and seemingly well defined subject-position named “the modern West.” According to this line of thinking, secularity is a space that opened up uniquely in the West (whose core identity is European) though its enterprising extension in the last several centuries has rendered its limits less than clear-cut. Enfolded in this general understanding is the lately percolating suspicion that, to the extent that Christianity has long been largely coterminous with Europe, this unique legacy of the secular was born of Christianity, and thus the secular is forever indebted to this singular religion—or this “uniquely universal religion,” as numerous 19th-century theologians used to say unabashedly. By the same token, some have suggested, secularity is an extension of Christianity.
But whether or not the origin and the constitution of Western modernity is, in fact, religious, there is a more fundamental and far more consequential issue here, and it is the following: (1) this story of the secular formation—in whatever sense one might understand the term secular—is tantamount to assuming the reality of the Great Divide that marks off the spiritual ethos and the polity of the modern West from that of the rest; and (2) the catalytic agent in this Divide is “religion”—i.e., the absence vs. the presence of religion, or more precisely, the state of its regulated containment as opposed to its unrestrained, despotic dominance.
Taylor is by no means alone in these assumptions. The Divide is axiomatic to a good many of the contemporary critics of the secularization thesis, though where each of them would go from there varies considerably. One of the virtues of Taylor’s book may be that on this point about the Divide his articulation is elaborately detailed and suitably circumspect, yet in the last analysis utterly unambiguous. It is also upfront, literally; the very first paragraph of this 800-page treatise reads:
What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age? Almost everyone would agree that in some sense we do: I mean the “we” who live in the West, or perhaps Northwest, or otherwise put, the North Atlantic world—although secularity extends also partially, and in different ways, beyond this world. And the judgment of secularity seems hard to resist when we compare these societies with anything else in human history: that is, with almost all other contemporary societies (e.g., Islamic countries, India, Africa), on one hand; and with the rest of human history, Atlantic or otherwise, on the other.
This should give us pause, shouldn’t it?
Taylor is duly mindful of the contestable borders of the region of the secular and its alliance (equation?) with a particular subject position— “we.” Yet the softening of the claim here seems to make the stipulation all the more authoritative. “Almost everyone” would agree, he avers, and those who would not agree would be presumably a “minority” of some kind. But even the proponents of dissenting opinions could be counted among the “we” who speak and who are addressed here, and who—as the rhetorical positioning compels us to believe—occupy the domain of the secular. But he goes on to say: the West is “perhaps” more specifically “Northwest, or otherwise put, the North Atlantic world.” (Several hundred pages later this domain is named more decisively: “our North Atlantic Civilization”—cf. p. 473.) The sphere of the secular is elastic and indeterminate, he further notes, because it has extended and pervaded elsewhere, though “partially, and in different ways,” and therefore it cannot be defined in any simple spatial or geopolitical terms. But this precarious border is immediately shored up by the next sentence. For, he claims in the very next sentence, with all its diversity and multi-locality, the domain of the secular stands out starkly when it is compared with “anything else in human history,” that is, “almost all other contemporary societies (e.g., Islamic countries, India, Africa)” and “the rest of human history, Atlantic or otherwise”—in short, what he calls, a few lines later, “all pre-modern societies.”
This is axiomatic for Taylor. His question, then, is: “in what this secularity consists,” and not who is secular and who is not. And if he is uncertain about the constitution of secularity, he is more assured as to how religion decisively characterizes all those “pre-modern societies,” even though, by his own admission, these societies are far less familiar to “us” than the one “we” live in. In brief, according to Taylor, in the “earlier” or “archaic” society, every aspect of the life of persons and institutions is thoroughly saturated with God, or some such similarly transcendent and supernatural entities. These societies are governed by some irrefragable principle predicated on a sacred cosmology, and often the entire life-worlds are in the grip of this cosmology’s managers— the clergy. Almost without exception all the inhabitants believe in God (or its equivalents) and conduct their affairs accordingly; and this belief, as well as the ritual practice that presumably stems from this belief, is never thought or felt to be an option. In “pre-modern” society, then, these beliefs and practices are compulsory for both internal and external reasons; religion is that which infiltrates, beleaguers, and besieges polity and personhood.
Is this true? How do “we” know this, and know it with such an overwhelming sense of its general verity across the board both in time and in space? In the face of this truism, wouldn’t all inconvenient empirical particulars be but episodic and anecdotal?
To be sure, Taylor does not characterize the state of pre-modern existence negatively. On the contrary, he associates the full potential for the felicity of human existence with openness to transcendence, which spells for him sine qua non of religion. But this mellifluous outlook on religious persons and communities does not detract from the impertinently blunt question I just posed to “us” all.
In her post “Idealism, materialism, secularism?“, Wendy Brown voiced her discomfort with the near total absence of any “outsider to Latin Christendom.” I share this unease. But this also leads me to wonder—and I should confess, I have been entertaining this suspicion for many years now—whether it is possible at all to tell the “story” of secularization without dismantling the very apparatus of this story-telling. If “religion” turns out to be that absolutely overwhelming apparition of power that has engulfed all “pre-modern societies” past and present, would it not add another whole layer of meaning to the question: What is religion? Who discovered this remarkable phenomenon? And when?
To be absolutely clear: there are countless phenomena observable in the world, past and present, that can be adequately denoted by the term “religion”: temples here, beads, incense, and prayer books there, rites and ceremonies performed and watched with solemnity, fear, or jubilation, adepts and aspirants speculating on the meaning of it all in a monastic cell or on TV. These phenomena are not something “we” suddenly discovered (let alone invented) only in the sixteenth century or later. But that other thing, the powerful phantom that beleaguers and besieges every life-world except “ours”—if that is “religion,” then we would do well to take note of the coincidence that the very beginning of its “discovery” dates back exactly to the beginning of the story of Western, or perhaps North Atlantic, secular modernity.
My suggestion, if you will, is that we seriously consider the possibility that the story of secularization, on the one hand, and the discursive apparatus that has hitherto sustained our notion of religion, on the other, might be two essential body-parts of a single beast; and that this may be why we cannot tweak, upgrade, or discard the notion of “the secular” without questioning the other part. This beast may have been carrying an enormous burden of certain cultural work—i.e., the seemingly impossible task of forging a “we” under the rubric of “the modern West”—for the past centuries. And perhaps some day we may be able to tell the true color of this rarest of elephants—be it white, or pink.
This should give us more than pause. It should give us a research agenda.