Charles Taylor Thursday #2: Against subtraction stories.

Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher and social theorist. His most recent book, A Secular Age, is an examination of modern secularism and the cultural conditions that gave rise to it.

I want to continue the series I started with a cryptic little post last week by explaining a little more about what Charles Taylor is up to. In A Secular Age, Taylor wants to explain why, over the last five centuries, disbelief in God has become easy or inescapable for many people in Western societies. His explanation is complex and takes hundreds of pages to deploy, and I’m going to try to work up to the more relevant stuff as quickly as I can, but today I want to talk a little bit about the sorts of accounts Taylor is setting his own story against.

In Taylor’s words:

. . . I will be be making a continuing polemic against what I call “subtraction stories”. Concisely put, I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process–modernity or secularity–is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside. Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.

-Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (22)

Though I don’t have references at hand, the New Atheist polemics that I’ve read (God is Not Great, The God Delusion, and Letter to a Christian Nation) are pretty nearly subtraction stories: it takes a few discoveries about the natural world to reveal religion as a fairy tale, but once that happens, good old human rationality takes over.

Now, subtraction stories have something right: before modern secularity could appear, certain beliefs about the world did have to recede. Taylor lists three big ones: the divinely ordered cosmos, the divine grounding of human society, and supernatural forces (think religious relics). Before 1500, all three of these things were more or less just obvious to people, and they pointed to God. And what’s crucial is that, with the possible exception of a handful of exceptional people, an orientation toward God was the source of what Taylor calls “fullness”: the “objective pole of moral or spiritual aspiration” (26). The main reason that a sheer subtraction story won’t do is that if you take away these three big beliefs, that doesn’t mean that fullness can’t come from God; Taylor often gives the example of Pascal as a thoroughgoing theist with a modern idea of the universe.

Taylor’s point is that “alternative possible reference points for fullness” (27) had to be constructed, and that this happened over the course of several centuries. I can’t go over the whole argument here, but I want to observe that if Taylor’s right, atheism wasn’t even an option in the middle ages. Those not inclined to devotion could either be minimally faithful or they could attempt to gain the favor of some other power — perhaps the devil? — but they didn’t have the imaginative resources to be modern naturalists, unless they drew heavily on Epicurean philosophy, which never appealed to more than a narrow elite.

From the subtraction-story perspective, on the other hand, it should have been much easier to be an atheist, so something must have prevented skeptics from openly avowing belief in God. More specifically, subtraction stories require the Catholic Church to have a truly immense suppressive power. So I conjecture that uncritical acceptance of subtraction stories leads a lot of humanists to overestimate the danger of religious institutions. Now, Rome certainly did its share of heresy-suppressing — seen any Cathars lately? — but I presume that annihilating regional sects takes substantially less power than  suppressing intellectual inquiry over an entire continent.

Now, subtraction stories run pretty deep in the self-conception of modern Western cultures. So important is our image of the Renaissance (recall that this literally means “rebirth”) as a time of shaking off superstition that it’s easy to overlook the paucity of scientific, philological, mathematical, or philosophical achievements in that era. But if Taylor’s right that secular humanism was a positive construction rather than a recovery of a natural rationality, that should be a reason to reexamine our assumptions about the cultural power of religious institutions. Maybe it’s not possible to undo that construction. Perhaps Christians should put a little less hope in “taking back the culture,” and humanists can worry a little less about the dangers of looming theocracy.

I’ve said very little about Taylor’s own account of modernity, though, so these thoughts so far should be taken as highly speculative. In particular, I’ll welcome the sorts of questions that will give me something good to write about next week.

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30 thoughts on “Charles Taylor Thursday #2: Against subtraction stories.

  1. “I presume that annihilating regional sects takes substantially less power than suppressing intellectual inquiry over an entire continent.”

    Why? During the middle ages, intellectual inquiry was largely confined to a relatively few places. Those places were generally under the control of the church or the king, which very few people were willing to defy.

    “But if Taylor’s right that secular humanism was a positive construction rather than a recovery of a natural rationality, that should be a reason to reexamine our assumptions about the cultural power of religious institutions. Maybe it’s not possible to undo that construction. Perhaps Christians should put a little less hope in “taking back the culture,” and humanists can worry a little less about the dangers of looming theocracy.”

    I’ll be curious to read more to see why this necessarily follows. I haven’t read Taylor’s book, but it seems to me that both secular humanism and the church could be positive constructions which are battling each other for primacy. I think the church will lose this battle, because the construction of “reason” is ultimately more powerful (and certainly more culturally useful) than the construction of “faith”.

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  2. I guess I would have to read the book to understand why he thinks (if he does, and since you apparently do, he probably does) that this is a surprising or unexpected conclusion. Modern beliefs are pretty obviously shaped enormously by the science and technology that has developed in just a few centuries. Though atheism is probably not a very good example (it’s a minority view, and there is so much more to modernity than the question of belief in God), Dawkins, e.g., routinely appeals to scientific discoveries to support his atheism. So does Dennett, and I believe the third of the big four, Sam Harris. Hitchens, not so much–but don’t we always look to him for the extremist caricature of major issues?

    But I think the more important point is that atheists are only a small portion of the people today who champion science. Most of these people are concerned not with the existence of religion (many, after all, consider themselves religious) so much as antipathy to or ignorance of science. Isn’t that a ringing endorsement of Taylor’s idea that new views must be actively constructed?

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    • @Andy Smith, one thing I failed to note is that Taylor talks a lot about “exclusive humanism,” meaning a humanism that excludes the transcendent, which is a broader category than atheism (much less New Atheism).

      I hope it won’t weaken my rhetorical position too much if I admit that I am feigning my own surprise. Taylor himself thinks that anyone who takes a serious look at the history of ideas in Western culture well come to a similar view about “subtraction stories,” so I think he’s going after popular myths about the significance of the Enlightenment.

      As to your point about the scientific community’s worries about antipathy to science, it’s well-taken.

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  3. Taylor lists three big ones: the divinely ordered cosmos, the divine grounding of human society, and supernatural forces (think religious relics).

    Equally big, I think, is the importance of humanity. When the universe consisted of the earth and a few bright things in the sky, it was reasonable to believe that it was created for mankind to act out the morality play that begin in Genesis, deepened in the Gospels, and will reach its climax Real Soon Now. Given what we now know about the age and size of the cosmos and humanity’s absolute insignificance within it, this is no longer tenable.

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  4. “Before 1500, all three of these things were more or less just obvious to people, and they pointed to God.”

    Which god? In 1500 had Christianity spread to Africa, China, the Indian Subcontinent, the Americas? Has Christianity ever been the religion of a majority of the population? (It is now, apparently, the largest plurality if you add up all the sex (ahem, sects).)

    For so long as there exists a history — written or oral — people have sought to understand the world around them. Not surprisingly, for so long as there have been modern humans (200 KY more or less), they have believed in gods, as best anyone can tell. Who wouldn’t? How do you explain sunrise, the seasons, lightning, disease, etc.?

    Except now we can. So we have two choices — we can assert that morality comes from (some version of) god, as written down by long-dead people and re-interpreted by self-appointed specialists, or we can recognize that we invent (and re-invent, ad infinitum) our own morality, and those who call themselves religious or students of theology have no more claim on deciding on what’s right and wrong than someone who’s not sure which god’s in charge, if any.

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    • @Francis, Inherent in the structure of noetic existence is the idea that something exists in the non-existent reality. If you seek the truth of stuff, and it appears you merely want to boldly renounce God as some middle schooler might, than you might examine the via negativa, via removtiva, or the analogia entis. That is, if you had some working idea of the structure of existence and, obviously, you don’t.

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      • @Robert Cheeks, the structure of existence? are you referring to subatomic (e=mc2 type analysis), atomic (periodic table), or molecular (biology)? Because, dude, that’s all there is; everything else is just imagination. Thought exists only within the physical structure of a brain, whether a lion, a lamb or a human.

        As you might imagine, I find your repeated claims that my thinking is of a middle school level profoundly insulting. So, let me be perfectly clear: I find the vast majority of your comments to be nothing more than grad-school level mental masturbation, distinguished from physical masturbation only by the lack of anything productive or of any sense of satisfaction. Ignorance is curable; stupidity, no matter how well educated, is not. I increasingly suspect you are incurable.

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        • @Francis, That’s the spirit! You are not required to listen to my bs and if it offends you..well, have at it. I like your spunk. Sadly, it doesn’t relieve the fact that you’re suffering from some sort of psychopathological breakdown. The good news is, I think you might be ‘curable,’ and good luck with that. The search, quest, for the nature of existence is found to be illuminated by the Nous, e.g. existence has noetic structure. Now, work with that while considering Leibniz’s two rather famous questions and bingo-bango. And, remember, Jesus loves you.

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        • @Francis, “are you referring to subatomic (e=mc2 type analysis), atomic (periodic table), or molecular (biology)? Because, dude, that’s all there is; everything else is just imagination.” How is it possible for molecules and atoms to “really” exist but not, eg, thoughts and persons? Aren’t they all just ways of describing combinations of whatever the smallest things are?

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      • @Robert Cheeks, “Inherent in the structure of noetic existence is the idea that something exists in the non-existent reality.” Hahaha… That was an awesome bit of meaningless/bungled quoting-without-attribution.

        But if you fix it up to say what Voegelin was actually saying when he writes something like, “I have tried to show that the knowledge of the something that ‘exists’ beyond existence is inherent to the noetic structure of existence,” then part of Taylor’s point, I take it, is to argue that this was so, but with the advent of new ways of seeing the world, it is no longer the case, or at least, it isn’t necessarily the case.

        But man, I did love the attempt to look like you smart or sumthin’.

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        • @Chris, Thanks for this! Yes, I did not give an attribution and I should have! However, the reason why is probably because I was in a hurry and my mind wanders a bit..not because I think I’m smart or ‘somethin’. Actually, as I’ve explained before I consider myself a student of EV, an autodidact and as I’ve also said, I consider the vast majority of my interlocutors to be a lot ‘smarter’ than I am. What I do find curious is, given the obvious intellectual gifts apparent on this site, why so many of youns allow yourselves to live in gross error?
          What does ‘new ways of looking at the world..’ mean?

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    • @Francis,

      You write: “So we have two choices — we can assert that morality comes from (some version of) god, as written down by long-dead people and re-interpreted by self-appointed specialists, or we can recognize that we invent (and re-invent, ad infinitum) our own morality, and those who call themselves religious or students of theology have no more claim on deciding on what’s right and wrong than someone who’s not sure which god’s in charge, if any.”

      I don’t buy that either/or choice. Moral norms and obligations can be recognized without positing some deity as their origin or reducing morality to merely human invention.

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      • @Kyle Cupp, For some reason, this reminded me of the end of Mr. Sammler’s Planet (Saul Bellow):

        Remember, God [Sammler prays], the soul of Elya Gruner, who, as willingly as possible and as well as he was able, and even in suffocation and even as death was coining was eager, even childishly perhaps . . . to do what was required of him. At his best this man was much kinder than at my very best I have ever been or could ever be. He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet—through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding—he did meet the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, every man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, we know, we know.

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      • @Kyle Cupp,

        To be frank, I’m not really on board with the idea that morality is solely a human invention, but whenever someone splays this idea out in a debate, it’s always clearly pejorative.

        Why?

        I mean, if morality *is* a human invention, it’s certainly the first human invention, as it would come about as soon as self awareness enters into the picture. This beats out fire, the wheel, and even weapons as the oldest human invention, constantly being refined.

        Anything that’s been worked on for tens of thousands of years ought to be rather a work of craftsmanship at this point, no?

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        • @Pat Cahalan,

          Interesting point. My own thinking here is that morality is a human invention, but not merely so. The ethical languages of virtue, obligation, rights, responsibility, norms, principles, and so on are social constructs, ways that people have tried to give expression to the experience of morality. So I’d say morality is both something discerned and created by human beings, and amounts to quite a grand history of invention.

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    • @Francis, To answer the question, on Africa yes at least north africa it was dominant until the Islamic conquest, and remains in Coptic and other offshoots. For China see the roman churches suppression of a chinese version of christianity, and in India there was a christian community by 100 ad. Now it was not a majority religion in these countries but it never would have been anywhere except that an emperor needed a religion to prop up his empire (IMHO the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity, as it mixed Cesar and god up throughly)

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    • @Francis, Although I would describe myself as a noncognitivist and am totally unspiritual, I think you’re making a very strong, unfounded claim here. The whole point of theology is to speculate about the unknown, and all of the laws of nature are generalizations about the known universe, which is really an incredibly tiny, tiny fraction. I mean, look at how inductively solid Newtonian Physics seemed to be until Einstein came along? And look at how inductively solid Einstein was until Heisenberg et al.?

      Granted, the idea that the sun won’t rise tomorrow seems pretty absurd to us, but the only reason I have for believing that the sun will rise tomorrow is that I’m somehow compelled by my biology.

      These either/or choices forced on us by the radical new atheists as well as their static concepts of the divine simply don’t exist. Just as science can change and go through paradigm shifts so can theology. It’s perfectly possible and fair to adjust theology to account for scientific discovery.

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      • @Christopher Carr, What either/or choices? The sum total of my argument is that there is no reliable evidence for the existence of any god, from Loki to Christ. Therefore, when people claim (a) that some god exists, & (b) that its will is knowable, & (c) they know that god’s will, & (d) they can and do accurately relate that god’s will & (e) it is a right, proper and moral thing to follow the will of that god [phew — that’s a lot of claims right there], I have my doubts. It’s also worth noting that many religions as actually practiced don’t have such a hot civil rights record.

        So, feel free to believe what you want. But the era of so-called religious morality having a special place in public discourse, simply because it asserts itself as religious, is over. We atheists/agnostics now get to argue that it’s those who claim to know the word of god who are objectively disordered. And for the first time in human history, evidence is on our side.

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        • @Francis
          You said, “So we have two choices — we can assert that morality comes from (some version of) god, as written down by long-dead people and re-interpreted by self-appointed specialists, or we can recognize that we invent (and re-invent, ad infinitum) our own morality, and those who call themselves religious or students of theology have no more claim on deciding on what’s right and wrong than someone who’s not sure which god’s in charge, if any.”

          I mean, there are so many problems with that statement. First of all, I would go ahead and say with a fairly high degree of confidence that morality evolved spontaneously and primitive animist religion then latched onto it as either a way of being more relevant or an organizing force or a political force or whatever (but this is kind of a chicken and egg argument). But if we can agree on the point of morality being a directionless process, it renders the very idea of deciding and articulating what’s right and wrong to be rather like price-fixing, doesn’t it?

          I guess I would first point you to this argument by Philosopher of Science Alex Rosenberg: http://www.duke.edu/~alexrose/dditamler.pdf It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s the money quote:

          “Darwinian naturalism departs from Darwinian nihilism when it goes on to suggest that the natural selection of cooperation, justice, and other normative institutions underwrites some moral claims as true or correct. The Nihilist will deny that adaptational explanations can preserve “the values we cherish”, and still less that they enable us to construct “sounder versions of our most important ideas”

          Rosenberg later continues, “If there are ethical truths to be naturalized they will not be the systematic claims of Mill or Kant, but the singular, particular claims we make about the rightness or wrongness of individual actions and outcomes.”

          Greek and Roman civilizations had fully blossomed and completely unfounded pantheons which had very little to do with being the sources of those civilizations’s moral codes, which proves that religion and religionless morality can coexist peacefully. If religion was a negative force on culture for the Greeks and Romans it was so in a purely ritualistic sense, like an obsessive compulsive who spends too much time washing his hands. So, we don’t have to choose between placing ourselves at the feet of YHWH and Sam Harris morality.

          I definitely agree with you that religions have a bad track record with a lot of things, but do you think that has to do with their being religions per se, or with particular highly-organized Western religions necessarily entailing both very high concentrations of corrupting power and valuing irrationality? Shinto’s pretty benign, isn’t it?

          Aren’t religions just generally more successful than governments, or corporations, or uncontrollable armies, or revolutionary political movements, or any other large concentration of power because they tend not to discriminate and promise the unobtainable and unverifiable? Or is there something particularly terrible about the abuses that have occurred in their name which makes “religion” worse than simply “assholes”?

          “We atheists/agnostics now get to argue that it’s those who claim to know the word of god who are objectively disordered. And for the first time in human history, evidence is on our side.”

          Now your argument is getting inconsistent. There is never any evidence for the nonexistence of something. Dawkins himself always insists that the burden of proof is on the person making the extraordinary claim. So which is it?

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        • @Francis, At some level, Christianity is an enormously successful self-replicating xxx [i’m having trouble with the noun. Idea? Concept? Meme? Organization?]. It,whatever it is, traces its roots back 2000 years and claims over 1 billion adherents.

          Christianity thrives because it continues to find a way to pass itself on to the next generation. So, at some level, the Christian church is the very model of Darwinian descent-with-modification, applied to an organization instead of a genome.

          But except for the broadest of generalities, there are very few agreements over time and space as to what Christianity is, or what morals Christianity requires. Slavery? Subjugation of women? Extermination of adherents of other faith? Suppression of science? Many of these strains exist in Christianity today.

          So, I return to my basic thesis. There is no evidence for any god. Those who claim to know the word of god should receive no special place of honor in society; their ideas as to what is “moral” should compete on equal footing with everyone else’s.

          [On your final point, let me rephrase — We now know enough about our world that for the first time in human history, those who claim to see the Hand of their god in the world around them should no longer receive the benefit of the doubt. From sunrise to the spontaneous remission of cancer, we have scientific explanations for what used to need a god.]

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        • @Francis, I generally agree with your rephrasing, but just as I think religion is usually undone when it mixes with politics, so do I think science will be undone if it mixes with politics. Half of what we learn in medical school turns out to be false. Terms like “diabetes”, “metabolic syndrome”, and “autism” sound pretty damn sophisticated to us, but these terms do not describe mechanism. They are the same as “plague”, “pox”, and “flux” were once before the microbial mechanism of these diseases were discovered. Could you imagine future generations rejecting science and anything calling itself science because some “scientist” politician came along and did something terrible? Because I could.

          The best thing science has going for it is the damn good track record of the scientific method at explaining in a predictable way local phenomena. Let’s just keep quietly doing that instead of trying to take on morality and everything else like the new atheists do.

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    • @Francis, “In 1500 had Christianity spread to Africa, China, the Indian Subcontinent, the Americas?” Yes. The first archdiocese in Beijing, for instance, was established in 1307. Not a lot of Christianity in the Americas, of course, but they’d only been in contact with Europe for eight years at that point.

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