Religion sets out its stall

After God
November 23, 2007

Does God lurk behind secularity? Simon Blackburn is not convinced.

It's pretty tough these days being in the humanities. Scientists are in the saddle, telling us what we are (robots, chimpanzees, egoists), how we must behave (greedily, tribally, but switch off the lights) and what our fate is (genes). It's especially tough being a philosopher, since some of those questions used to belong to us, as well as to historians, anthropologists and writers. It must be absolute hell being a theologian. What sanctuary is left for the holy, what paddock for such innocent sheep to graze?

In this sprawling volume, with line drawings and 13 tables to help him, Mark Taylor tries to show that the paddock in fact includes the whole human landscape, once we understand the true nature of religion. Religion is everywhere, and theology rules, OK? But this is not a depressing manifesto for fundamentalists and jihadis. Far from it. These are people stuck with an old-fashioned theology built on dogmas and certainties, whereas the theology that rules has dropped all that. It is to be postmodern, uncertain, fallibilist, quick to embrace its own contradictions, emergent, nimble at moving from problem to problem.

As befits an academic at Columbia University, Taylor interweaves history, sociology and politics, invoking scientists and information theorists, poets and philosophers. The writing is dense with references but equally often it is simply dense in its own right. Here is his explanation of what might be supposed to be the easier of the two words in his title: "But how is after to be understood? On the one hand to come after is to be subsequent to what has previously been, and on the other hand, to be after is to be in pursuit of what lies ahead. Betwixt and between past and future, after is never present as such but is the approaching withdrawal and withdrawing approach that allow presence to be present." There is quite a lot of this Heideggerian whimsy.

Taylor has been much impressed by the notion of a complex adaptive system, taken from physicist Murray Gell-Mann. I imagine that it is systems theory that explains the plethora of diagrams, although here I fear he tends to mimic the form without the substance. It really is not plain what intersecting circles with lists such as nature, culture, technology labelling them can actually represent, except the banal idea that nature, culture and technology can interact with each other. There are a lot of uninterpreted arrows as well, and I think we are supposed to be impressed enough by the resemblance to an engineering blueprint to think that something scientific is going on.

Taylor's actual definition of religion comes quite early in the work, and is as follows: "Religion is an emergent, complex, adaptive network of symbols, myths and rituals that, on the one hand, figure schemata of feeling, thinking and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose and, on the other, disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure every stabilising structure." This looks innocent enough at first sight, but the bit about disruption and dislocation is very postmodern. It enables Taylor to embrace the contradictions and crises that bedevil the monotheistic religions, and perhaps all religions. If you have difficulty with Christ being God, but also human, a unit in diversity, diverse in unity, then just relax into the dialectical current. If one thought succeeds another, destabilising, and some would say, confusing you, then just welcome it as part of the human condition, the Hegelian dance in which contradictions blend and resolve into syntheses that then reveal yet further contradictions. Continue the conversation; go with the flow, rhapsodise about the dialectical interplay between sameness and altarity, immanence and transcendence, finitude and the infinite.

This eager promiscuity allows Taylor to assert that secularity is a religious phenomenon, and one that emerged within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The Enlightenment rejection of Christianity and the rest can thereby be claimed as a move within religion and not, as it more usually appears, a move away from it. This seems to be a fashionable idea in religious apologetics these days. It strikes me as dodgy, rather like giving criminals credit for inventing the police. I do not see how, if I do not believe in the tooth fairy, I am thereby bound into a kind of symbiosis with those who do.

I spend my life ignoring the gods of Ancient Egypt or Aztec Mexico, but I do not see how that makes me into someone moving in their religious orbit. If it did, there would be a difficult question of which religion it lands on me, since there are so many I ignore, with their different symbols, myths and rituals. Am I a closet admirer of Quetzalcoatl? Or of Osiris? I ignore them equally, and a truly secular society would ignore all in the same way. I suspect that Taylor supposes that you cannot be an atheist without being, as the old joke has it, either a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist, depending on which brand originally got its hooks into you. It would be as if the would-be atheist goes around with a head full of the same imaginings as the religious adept, but constantly trying to push them away, constantly battling ghosts and thereby acknowledging their presence. There may be persons like this, but most of us most of the time, and some of us all the time, escape completely, and manage to have heads as empty of Jesus and Mohammed as they are of Odin and the Demon King.

Presumably the claim can be watered down a little, reminding us that historically the European Enlightenment did contain ideas, such as those of human equality and human rights, that are arguably developments of similar ideas in Christianity. Taylor may be right that Protestantism's rejection of subservience to external authority and hierarchy paved the way for Sapere Aude - "Dare to Know", which was Kant's motto for the Enlightenment. But it is one thing to acknowledge the origin of a movement of thought in some earlier historical matrix and another to suppose that it is really only more of the same. Modern chemistry may have emerged from alchemy, but it is not thereby alchemy under another flag, or surreptitiously in thrall to the wish to transmute lead into gold.

Religions serve many functions, and they prove remarkably resilient. Taylor has an American perspective on this and is surely right to point out how the confident secular world-view of 40 years ago has had to retreat before a resurgence of American evangelicalism and Islamic fundamentalism (but thank God for Europe). Religions sprinkle fairy dust on the movement from "is" to "ought", and there are always people who prefer to follow authority than to adopt Kant's motto. In the end, Taylor offers his own kind of ethic for the future: his dialectical adepts are concerned about water shortages and global warming and the threat "facing the planet". That sounds good to me, although personally I think the planet is going to be fine. It will be us, and other living things, who have the problems.

Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at Cambridge University. His most recent book is Plato's 'Republic': A Biography, Grove Atlantic, £7.99.

After God

Author - Mark C. Taylor
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 416
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 9780226791692

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