Monday, March 14, 2011

What's Wrong with Secularization Theory? (ch. 12, sect. 1)

With chapter 12 we move into Part IV of A Secular Age. In this section, Taylor takes up themes and issues generally treated under the rubric of “secularization,” giving an account of the decline of religious practice in the West. As he notes at the end of chapter 11, what he’s particularly interested in is how religion has been de-coupled from society and its institutions. However, he is going to take up these issues in a way that contests the usual “secularization thesis,” and to do so he revisits his earlier distinction between secularity1, 2, and 3.

Just as secularity cannot be adequately explained by a subtraction story, neither can it be accounted for with a diffusion story—as if secularization was just the trickle down effect of elite pluralism makes its way to the masses (424). Nor can it be adequately explained by just hitching it to some wagon of modern development such as differentiation, privatization, urbanization, industrialization, or disenchantment because of the simple fact that these phenomena did not empirically entail a decline in religious practice; indeed, they often occasioned their own kind of religious response and revival (425-426).

So to get at this issue, Taylor goes meta: that is, he steps back and starts asking more fundamental questions: For example, if secularization is taken to refer to some kind of “decline of religion,” then we need to figure out what we mean by “religion.”

If one identifies this with the great historic faiths, or even with explicit belief in supernatural beings, then it seems to have declined. But if you include a wide range of spiritual and semi-spiritual beliefs; or if you cast your net even wider and think of someone’s religion as the shape of their ultimate concern, then indeed, one can make a case that religion is as present as ever (427).[1]

Furthermore, what’s the point of comparison? If secularization theory claims a decline in religious participation, “what is the past we are comparing ourselves with? Even in ages of faith, everybody wasn’t really devout” (427).

However, Taylor doesn’t really follow up on these questions. Instead he goes hermeneutical meta: that is, he begins to interrogate the background assumptions operative behind secularization theory—what he calls (following Foucault) the “unthought” which “underpins much secularization theory” (427). In this respect, Taylor challenges the myth of neutrality in the social sciences (428), but not with the “post-modern” conclusion that “we are each imprisoned in our own outlook, and can do nothing to rationally convince each other” (428). So this critique of neutrality and disclosure of presuppositions is not a license for retreating into our silos and choirs. Rather, Taylor remains confident that there can be dialogue and even persuasion across “unthoughts.” As he later puts it: though Taylor will come at secularity from a different unthought, “that doesn’t mean that we have simply a stand-off here, where we make declarations to each other from out of our respective ultimate premises. Presumably, one or other view about religious aspiration can allow us to make better sense of what has actually happened. Being in one or other perspective makes it easier for some or other insights to come to you; but there is still the question of how these insights pan out in the actual account of history” (436). For Taylor, the problem with secularization theory is that it doesn’t adequately account for the phenomena.

So Taylor is pointing out that any account of secularization is inevitably informed by some “unthought,” some pretheoretical perspective that comes with a certain sensibility and orientation—what he’ll call “tempers” or “outlooks.” Taylor crystallizes this with a kind of case study: one can see these different tempers manifest in what you think about Francis of Assissi, “with his renunciation of his potential life as a merchant, his austerities, his stigmata”: “One can be deeply moved by this call to go beyond flourishing;” or “one can see him as a paradigm exemplar of what Hume calls ‘the monkish virtues,’ a practitioner of senseless self-denial and a threat to civil mutuality” (431). Tell me what you think of St. Francis, Taylor suggests, and I’ll tell you what your “unthought” is.

(a) Secularization theory’s unthought

So what is the secularization theorist’s “unthought,” their background assumptions that shape their account of secularity? It is, Taylor suggests, “an outlook which holds that religion must decline either (a) because it is false, and science shows this to be so; or (b) because it is increasingly irrelevant now that we can cure ringworm by trenches [the “artificial-fertilizers-make-atheists” argument]; or (c) because religion is based on authority, and modern societies given an increasingly important place to individual autonomy; or some combination of the above” (428-429). Some constellation of these assumptions is shared by academics even in countries like the United States where wider religious participation is very high—and it can’t help but influence the story such academics tell about secularization. The result is an inevitably reductionistic account of religion which fails to really imagine that religion could be a true motivator for human action[2] (433, 452-453). It also tends to reduce religion to merely epiphenomenal beliefs about supernatural entities and such beliefs disappear in the conditions of modernity (430, 433-434).

And if this is your unthought, you’ll tend to look at St. Francis with rather pitiful eyes: that poor, benighted, misguided, but sincere soul (er, brain).

(b) Taylor’s unthought

Taylor has already conceded that he has his own “unthought” (429). “I stand in another perspective,” he confesses: “I am moved by the life of Francis of Assisi, for instance; and that has something to do with why this [secularization thesis] picture of the disappearance of independent religious inspiration seems to me so implausible” (436). Indeed, “my own view of ‘secularization,’” he freely admits, “has been shaped by my own perspective as a believer” (437).

So what difference does Taylor’s (Catholic?) unthought make? How does his temper or outlook provide a different perspective? Well, it entails two features: first, Taylor is willing to see religion as a genuine, independent, irreducible motivator for human action and social life (again, compare Christian Smith’s argument in Moral, Believing Animals)—not something that can just be explained away as the epiphenomena of economic or political or evolutionary factors (453). Second, Taylor does not reduce religion to mere belief in supernatural entities. Instead, he will emphasize that a “transformation perspective” is essential to religion—“the perspective of a transformation of human beings which takes them beyond or outside of whatever is normally understood as human flourishing” (430). And it is just this “transformation perspective” that impinges on the moral order.

What difference does this make in the account of secularization? We should note that Taylor does affirm that there has indeed been a process of secularization; and he also recognizes that in much of the West, there has also been a decline in religious participation and identification. So contesting “the secularization thesis” does not require rejecting those ‘facts’ on the ground. Instead, it just means that Taylor offers a different story: “the heart of ‘secularization’” is precisely “a decline in the transformation perspective” (431). So while there has certainly been a decline of religion, that’s not the most interesting story: “the interesting story is not simply one of decline, but also of a new placement of the sacred or spiritual in relation to individual and social life” (437). It is this new placement of religion which is constitutive of our “secular age.”

Taylor locates his debate with the “mainstream secularization thesis” by likening it to a three-story building (431-433):

Upper flr: implications/evaluation

Ground floor: ‘facts’ on the ground

Basement: causes of secularization

Taylor often agrees with mainstream secularization theory ‘on the ground floor,’ so to speak (432). It’s in the diagnosis of causes and evaluations that he disagrees. And this is because “[i]t turns out that basement and higher floor are intimately linked; that is, the explanation one gives for the declines registered by ‘secularization’ relate closely to one’s picture of the place of religion today” (433). Indeed, it is precisely on the upper floor that the “unthought” exerts its force, and insofar as the upper floor drives us to posit corresponding causes, the unthought also exerts influence on our attribution of causality.



[1] I propose pretty much exactly the latter in my forthcoming chapter on post-secular sociology of religion (in a collection forthcoming from NYU Press). But it should be noted that Taylor later seems to affirm a rather traditional and narrow definition of “religion” (429).

[2] On this point, cp. Christian Smith’s argument in What Is a Person?

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