Even before quite finishing one behemoth (two chapters to go in Taylor’s A Secular Age), I have started another one, Yuri Slezine’s The House of Government (Princeton UP, 2017). Surprisingly, they overlap to a fair extent. Slezine pushes hard on his thesis that Bolshevism is a millennial sect and that its understandings of history and society follow time-worn Biblical plots, especially those found in Exodus and the Book of Revelations. I find his thesis a bit mechanical and over reductive, an implausible one size fits all. The strength of his book lies in its details, the multiple stories he can tell about the core figures of the Russian Revolution, not in the explanatory framework that he squeezes all those details into.
But Slezine does offer some general speculations on the nature of religion, sects, and parties that I want to pursue at the moment. Taylor defines “religious faith in a strong sense . . . by a double criterion: the belief in transcendent reality, on one hand, and the connected aspiration to a transformation that goes beyond ordinary human flourishing on the other” (510). A fairly substantial component of Taylor’s argument is that most, if not all, people will feel a pull toward those two things; that settling for mundane reality and ordinary flourishing will leave people with a sense of “lack,” a haunting feeling that there must be more. He considers, very briefly, the idea that secularism entails people simply becoming indifferent to transcendence and some kind of transformation beyond the ordinary—and rejects the possibility that such indifference has—or even could—become common.
He pays more attention to the fact that the existence of a “transcendent reality” has simply become incredible to many people. But—and this is a major point for him—he insists that the evidence cannot (of science or of anything else) be decisive on this question, or that evidence is even the prime reason for unbelief in the transcendent. Rather, unbelief is underwritten by an ethos—one of bravely facing up to the facts, of putting aside the childish things of religious faith (the Freudian critique of the “illusion” that is religion).
I am not convinced. Am I full of contempt for the evangelicals who claim to be Christians, but are such noteworthy examples of non-Christian animus, gleefully dishing out harm to all they deem reprobate even as they accommodate themselves to the thuggery and sexual malpractices of Donald Trump? Of course. But Taylor has no truck for the fundamentalists either. His is the most anodyne of liberal Christianities; he has trouble with the whole idea of hell; basically (without his ever quite coming out and saying so) Taylor’s God does not consign people to eternal damnation. Instead, hell for Taylor gets associated with sin—both of them understood as the painful alienation from God that results from turning one’s back on the transcendent. Taylor, in other words, tiptoes away from judgment and punishment—believers aren’t supposed to be judging other humans or inflicting punishment upon them, and he is clearly uneasy with the image of a judging God. In fact, moralism (rigid rules of conduct) is one of his main enemies in the book. In its place, he urges us to Aristotelian phronesis, which insists that judgments always be particular, attending to the novelties of the situation at hand.
But back to me. Aside from my contempt for the evangelicals and their hypocrisies and petty (and not so petty) cruelties to others, do I harbor a Freudian contempt for the believer? Does my unbelief, the fact that I find the notion that god exists simply incredible (meaning there is no way that how I understand existence has room for a divine being) rest on a self-congratulatory idea of my “maturity” as contrasted to those childish believers? It doesn’t feel that way. I find most Christians harmless, and have no beef with practicing Muslims and Jews. It’s only the fanatics of all religions, but equally the fanatics of godless capitalism, that I abhor. And I share that sentiment with Taylor. So I just don’t see that it’s some basic moralistic distinction I make between believers and unbelievers that drives my adoption of unbelief. It seems much more obvious that my understanding of the world has no place for a god, makes the very idea of a god, if not quite unthinkable (because so many other humans keep insisting there is one), at least unimaginable. I might as well try to imagine, believe in, a world that contains unicorns. My “picture” of the world just can’t accommodate a god.
Taylor several times evokes Wittgenstein’s idea of our being held “captive” by a picture. But Taylor also eschews the notion that some kind of argument (like the classic ones about god’s existence) or some kind of evidence could change the picture of unbelief to one of belief. He is very much in William James territory. Basically, his position is that the facts “underdetermine” the choice between belief and unbelief, that materialist science is not conclusive, and so the materialist, as much as the theist, rests his case, in the final analysis, on a leap of faith. This is the Jamesian “open space” in which we all exist. And then Taylor seems (without being explicit enough about this) to say that the deciding factor is going to be “experience” (shades of James’s Varieties of Religious Experience), where what follows (in the ways of feelings, motivations, transformations) from making the leap of faith toward a god stands as the confirmation that belief is the right way to go. It’s the fruits of the relationship to a transcendent that Taylor wants to harvest, that make religious belief valuable in his eyes.
Here’s is where I wish Taylor had paid closer attention to James, particularly the essay “The Will to Believe.” In that essay, James says that choices have three features: they can be “live or dead” choices, “momentous or trivial” ones, or “forced or avoidable” ones. On this last one, James identifies the “avoidable” path as the result of indifference. If I say you must choose between the red or the white wine, you can answer “it’s all the same to me” or I don’t want any wine at all. You can, in short, avoid making the decision I am asking you to make. In the case of “live versus dead,” I can ask you whether you believe in Zeus or Zarathustra, and your reply can be “neither of those options is a true possibility for me; nothing in my way of life or my existing set of beliefs allows the question of believing in Zeus to be a real question for me.” Finally, “momentous/trivial” relates to what I think hangs on the choice; whether or not to have a child is momentous, with huge implications for my life and the life of others; what I choose to eat for dinner tonight is much less momentous, although not without some consequences (for my health, for the environment etc.)
I bring this up because the choice of believing in god is not, at this point in my life, a “live” choice for me. I have no more substantial grounds or inclination to believe in the Christian god than I do to believe in Zeus. Furthermore—I am on shakier ground here but think this is true—I don’t find the choice of unbelief momentous. It is just what I believe: there is no god. James in that same essay also covers this ground: most of our beliefs are not chosen. Even though I only have second-hand evidence of the fact (what is reported in books and the historical record), I am not free to believe that Abraham Lincoln never existed or that he was not a President of the US. I can’t will myself into not believing in his existence. Well, I feel the same way about god. I can’t will myself into believing that god exists. That there is no god is as settled a belief for me as my belief in Abraham Lincoln’s existence. And I don’t see that very much hangs on those two beliefs.
How can that be, asks the incredulous believer? But (and, again, I am following James here) I think the believer often has cause and effect backwards. Pope Francs has just declared capital punishment unacceptable to believing Catholics; Antonia Scalia, a devout Catholic, was an advocate of capital punishment. So it is hard to see how the belief in god is the source of the conviction about capital punishment. Something else must motivate the position taken. Or, at the very least, the fact of believing in god is pretty radically undeterminative; god’s inscrutability is such that humans have to fill in many (most?) of the details.
It’s the same as Taylor’s revisionist views on hell. Humans keep tweaking their notion of what god wants in order to fit human ideas of what an acceptable god would look like. Even if you want to dismiss that kind of debunking statement about humans creating the god they can admire/respect, many believers (obviously not fundamentalists) are still going to accept that god’s ways are mysterious and not easily known. In relation to that mysteriousness, that under-specificity of actual directives, I want to say choosing to believe in god or not doesn’t turn out to be very momentous—at least not in terms of giving us clear moral/ethical guidelines. Believers have disagreed vehemently about what the implications of their religious beliefs are for actual behavior. Skipping the whole choice, being indifferent to the question of god’s existence (and I think that kind of indifference, not paying much mind to the question of god, is much more common than Taylor thinks it is), doesn’t allow us to escape disagreements about good behavior, but doesn’t handicap us in any significant way from participation in such debates.
I don’t, in fact, think Taylor would disagree about this. He isn’t at all interested in a moralistic religion—and he is also not committed to the notion that atheists can’t be moral, that their moral convictions and commitments rest on air. Instead, Taylor argues that the choice is momentous because of the experience–of “deeper” (a word he uses again and again without ever really telling us what is entailed in “deepness”) meanings and a “transformed” relationship to life, the world, others–opens up, makes possible. Again, the specifics of the transformation are awfully vague. But the basic idea is clear enough; to those who open themselves up to a relationship to the transcendent, the very terms of life are different—and fuller, more satisfying, and more likely to answer to a spiritual hunger that lurks within us. So I guess Taylor’s advice to me would be: give it a try, see what changes come if you believe in god and try to establish a relationship to him. I am free, of course, to say “I pass.” What Taylor finds harder to credit is that my response to his offer could be indifference, a shrug of the shoulders. He thinks my rejection of his offer must be driven by some animus against the believer and some admiring self-image of myself as a courageous facer of the unpleasant facts of existence.
The funny thing about this is how individualistic it is, how much it hangs on the personal experience that belief generates. It is one of the key differences between James and John Dewey that James’s vision is pretty relentlessly individualistic, while Dewey is the kind of communitarian critic of liberalism that Taylor has, throughout his long distinguished career, been. In A Secular Age, however, Taylor is not interested in the community of believers. Yes, he sees the cultural setting (the “background assumptions” that are a constant in his understanding of how human language and psychology operate) as establishing the very conditions that make unbelief even possible in a “secular age,” but he doesn’t read the consequences of belief/unbelief in a very communal way. That’s because he has to admit that both believers and unbelievers have committed the same kinds of horrors. He is very careful not to make the crude Christian argument that unbelievers like Stalin will inevitably kill indiscriminately, as if there wasn’t any blood on Christian hands or as if there have been no secular saints. So he does not seem to say there is any social pay-off to widespread belief—at least not one we can count on with any kind of assurance. But he does insist on the personal pay-off.
Here’s where Slezine’s book comes in. The kind of millennial religion he ascribes to the Bolsheviks is all about communal pay-off; they are looking toward a “transformation” of the world, not of personal selves and experience. In fact, they are oriented toward a total sacrifice of the personal in the name of that larger transformation. So it is to the terms of that kind of belief—in the dawning of a new age—that I will turn in my next post.