varieties of secularism :: session two

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Here are my notes (lightly edited) from the second session of the conference this weekend (why am I posting my notes?). Papers were given by Jon Butler and Colin Jager. A response was offered by Craig Calhoun. John Milbank asked a particularly provocative question. 


Historical vs. Philosophical. [A methodological quibble?] Butler is going to argue that history is primary to Taylor’s argument, even the philosophical parts.

The Philosophy problem:
The world is moved by ideas. Taylor seems to argue that ideas, and almost ideas alone seem to drive history. Taylor does a better job of doing history than merely doing intellectual history.

Historians (Butler included) will find the argument “too philosophical.”

Around 1500 the rupture occurred that will set “modernity” against everything that came before.

Belief and unbelief are “neat” philosophical terms that don’t always jive well with what happens on the ground in history.

Religion and History:

The distinguishing features of secularity is not unbelief but choice.

Taylor washes over too much differences in belief and unbelief. Who was calling who an “unbeliever?” And who was believing in which God, for what reasons, and to what end? Who is the “God” that is being believed in or disbelieved. Where did accusations of heresy come from?

Is the inconstancy of belief before 1500 as rare as Taylor seems to argue. In what way is the nature of the world’s medieval “enchantment” a slippery term? Does Taylor presume a total Christianization of Europe that history cannot bear?

Taylor’s argument against subtractive theories of secularization is valuable, but is perhaps correct only because subtraction implies a substance to begin with. Butler is not sure just how Christian the West ever was.

Butler thinks that Taylor over stresses the late modern, post-industrial age, and overstresses the role of ideas in moving Western society toward secularism. He understresses the role of environmental factors, social factors, economic factors. These economic changes had more to do with secularization than the ideas did. Taylor seems to argue for secularization without industrialization, bureaucratization, urbanization, etc.

The persistence of religious faith in America is a very significant event. What is new in our time is simple indifference toward religion.

** Colin Jager – English @ Rutgers – CHARLES TAYLOR’S ROMANTICISM

What would a non-transcendent enchantment of the world look like? What would it mean to experience the world that way? Secular spirituality.

Taylor’s method of telling the story of history is phenomenological. Taylor is really interested in a first-person perspective and moves periodically from first to third. Taylor’s method is Herderian, he is always trying to “feel his way in” to other ways of experiencing the world.

What is the place of literature in the argument about secularization. What is the changing role of literature? What happens when people are encouraged to read scriptures as “literature.”

A period in which “literature” replaces religion. (but telling the story this way, while partly helpful assumes “literature” as an already-formed object waiting for “religion” to get out of the way).

Taylor’s contribution is not to be found in the plot, but in the details. A Secular Age is a book which cannot be summarized, but must be read. It must be lived through. In that sense, his book is “literary.”

Relationship between Literature and the Secular: Reading the Bible as Literature


  • Primary Romantic figure. “Feel yourself into everything.”
  • Primary proponent of reading the bible as literature. Reading the bible as a literary text is a crucial aspect of the new understanding of literature in the late eighteenth century. Reading the OT as inspired poetry—by reading through a “feeling” hermeneutic, one can be united with the spirit in which it was written.
  • Hebrew poetry: Herder notes the centrality of Verbs
  • Lack of vowels: writing the inessential; omitting the essential (the breath, the spirit).

Spiritualization of literature and the expressivist turn.

Wasserman—the loss of a public poetry. The lack of a “background” that we all share out of which deeper metaphor and meaning can be drawn. On this count, the Romantic poets have to invent a new language in order to describe reality. In this “restructuring” a space is opened up that feels “neutral” or “free” in a way that foments disenchantment, even secularization. Seeing the world in one way and not another becomes a choice, something that one selects. The posture of selection is one of standing back at a distance, in open/neutral space. Romantic poetry starts, from a certain perspective, starts to look like trying to live without ontological commitments, something that starts looking more sinister more dubious to Taylor.

There is a tension between Taylor’s humanism and a genealogical imperative (to discover the roots, history, and context of all).

Nietzsche’s anti-humanism that feels the imperative for genealogy would be a very helpful point for Taylor to hang on to, while the Romantic humanism might actually undercut his position.

Literalism and Literature:

Wordsworth vs. Boyle: counter-accusations of idolatry.

Wordsworth wants to pen a “philosophic song” – tell the story of the world wrought with meaning. Describe the world in such a way as to bring life and depth to what seems, superficially, dead.

Boyle thinks that attributing anthropocentric qualities to inanimate objects (i.e. meaning!) is the source of idolatry.

Jager argues that Taylor is trying to fill the world with meaning—to write a philosophic song.

** Craig Calhoun – President SSRC

Taylor’s book performs what it speaks about. By placing opposing views in juxtaposition he often undermines their claim to objectivity; he subjects them to “secularizing” forces (in the sense of a surfeit of options).

Taylor’s way of doing philosophy depends on a narrative. This is neither a history of philosophy, nor a history (as such).

Critique: Along with Butler, Calhoun thinks that Taylor is too much reliant on a top-down model and places too great a weight on ideas as the prime movers of history. Butler’s main point is that “variety” cannot do the work that Taylor’s ascribes to it because there has been variety of belief-patterns all along (therefore variety itself is not inherently secularizing).

Taylor’s historical narrative hinges on providential Deism and the notion of an impersonal order. By impersonal, we might understand purposeless.

Reform movements encourage a sharpening of positions and a policing of boundaries, as well as an emphasis on the internal integrity and coherence of a movement.

Putting our story within a narrative.

** John Milbank:

Why did Christianity largely back mechanism against vitalism? Something like Boyle’s argument—that “meanings” had accreted to inanimate objects that was something like idolatry. In this Christianity is attempting to purge itself of its own ineluctable pagan parts (and feeding secularization in the process).