Secularism and its Discontents

James Wood on George Levine’s volume, The Joys of Secularism

Mark Oppenheimer on Charles Taylor: He points out the importance for Taylor of the quest for authenticity in the modern world, both for individuals and for cultures, and the possibility that we might create political forms or governments that enable human flourishing.

Taylor is a difficult but rewarding read, an insightful perspective on religion in contemporary Western culture.

Part of Charles Taylor’s first chapter in the collection Rethinking Secularism, is now available on the web. Taylor writes:

And so the history of this term “secular” in the West is complex and ambiguous. It starts off as one term in a dyad that distinguishes two dimensions of existence, identifying them by the particular type of time that is essential to each. But from the foundation of this clear distinction between the immanent and the transcendent, there develops another dyad, in which “secular” refers to what pertains to a self-sufficient, immanent sphere and is contrasted with what relates to the transcendent realm (often identified as “religious”). This binary can then undergo a further mutation, via a denial of the transcendent level, into a dyad in which one term refers to the real (“secular”), and the other refers to what is merely invented (“religious”); or where “secular” refers to the institutions we really require to live in “this world,” and “religious” or “ecclesial” refers to optional accessories, which often disturb the course of this-worldly life.

Through this double mutation, the dyad itself is profoundly transformed; in the first case, both sides are real and indispensable dimensions of life and society. The dyad is thus “internal,” in the sense that each term is impossible without the other, like right and left or up and down. After the mutations, the dyad becomes “external”; secular and religious are opposed as true and false or necessary and superfluous. The goal of policy becomes, in many cases, to abolish one while conserving the other.

The significance of this lies primarily in the question whether Islamic (or other societies) can “secularize.” If secularization is uniquely bound to its historic context in western Christendom, then the answer to that question is not obvious. Still, Taylor argues”

Either we stumble through tangles of cross-purposes, or else a rather minimal awareness of significant differences can lead us to draw far-reaching conclusions that are very far from the realities we seek to describe. Such is the case, for instance, when people argue that since the “secular” is an old category of Christian culture and since Islam doesn’t seem to have a corresponding category, therefore Islamic societies cannot adopt secular regimes. Obviously, they would not be just like those in Christendom, but maybe the idea, rather than being locally restricted, can travel across borders in an inventive and imaginative way.

The crisis in Religious Studies

Well, perhaps crisis is too strong a word, but there is a growing debate over the academic study of religion. It’s not new by any means. In fact the study of religion is fairly young as academic disciplines go. It only really became a department in most liberal arts colleges and universities in the second half of the twentieth century and then only haltingly. It had to struggle against the fields of biblical studies and theology. It struggles still.

The debate has become more intense in the last decade or so as a number of scholars have gone to war against theology in religious studies. This may seem all rather esoteric but at the heart of the debate is the role of “believers” and “belief” in the academic study of religion.

Ivan Strenski is one of those scholars and he makes the case again in an essay on Religion Dispatches. The full essay is here. He is commenting on a conference, organized by a Philosophy Department around Charles Taylor’s work. What Strenski points out is that most of the participants in the conference have little notion of what religion is. Furthermore, there is among scholars of religion, and in the wider academy, considerable uncertainty about what scholars of religion should do. Strenski cites the example of Stanley Fish, who wanted to create a religion department staffed exclusively by scholars who were practitioners. That’s nonsense of course. We don’t expect scholars of literature to be poets, musicologists to be musicians. In fact, most of us would probably assume that objectivity (whatever that is) about one’s field of study is at least a goal for scholars, teachers, and students.

The problem facing Religious Studies is made clear by the other post on Religion Dispatches. It addresses the recent case of an adjunct professor, a Roman Catholic priest, whose salary is paid by an outside Catholic organization. He taught courses at the University of Illinois and came under fire for an email he sent to his students in which he used Natural Moral Law to argue against homosexual activity.

This is precisely what incenses scholars like Strenski. Should a public university support sectarian teaching for credit? We struggled with the same question when I taught at Furman University, which had severed ties with the South Carolina Baptist Convention in the early 1990s. We occasionally received requests from students to grant major credit for courses they took at local seminaries. Typically, we denied it. Still, there were those in the department whose teaching was (and is) overwhelmingly theological.

And I will admit that I often came to class after 2005 wearing a clerical collar. But few students ever complained that I was attempting to indoctrinate them or that I was teaching from an Episcopal perspective. Far from it. Most of them thought I was an atheist.

Still, I do think that Religious Studies, as an academic and humanistic discipline, needs to draw a bright line between what happens in it as a discipline, and the theological and biblical studies that largely function in support of the institutional churches, and in support of the spiritual quests of students.

In fact, it’s not that hard that to negotiate that path. The easiest way is to begin by acknowledging to oneself and to one’s students, that one’s perspective is a product of one’s own faith, intellectual and spiritual development and by definition narrow and not omnipotent.