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.