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.