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A Secular Age (8): Subtraction Stories

Nietzsche Perhaps the most common way that the state of modern religion is presented to us in the West is via some kind of subtraction story, an account of our circumstances up to this point which sees religion as a passing stage for humanity, something we no longer need – exclusive humanism can supplant religion as our source of an ethical life:

On this “subtraction” view of modernity, as what arises from the washing away of old horizons, modern humanism can only have arisen through the fading of earlier forms. It can only be conceived as coming to be through a “death of God”. It just follows that you can’t be fully into contemporary humanist concerns if you haven’t sloughed off the old beliefs. You can’t be fully with the modern age and still believe in God. Or alternatively, if you still believe, then you have reservations, you are at last partly, and perhaps covertly, some kind of adversary.

As Taylor’s account of the transformation of the social and cosmic imaginaries in the West has shown, these subtraction stories don’t match the history of the development of humanism at all: they are a post hoc construction and they fail to adequately account for the nature of modern humanism. The subtraction story eliminates “the possibility that Western modernity might be sustained by its own original spiritual vision” – something unique and distinct – and not simply the vision generated from the transition to disenchantment and exclusive humanism. The subtraction account is in fact inadequate as an explanation:

The logic of the subtraction story is something like this: once we slough off our concern with serving God, or attending to any other transcendent reality, what we’re left with is human good, and that is what modern societies are concerned with. But this radically under-describes what I’m calling modern humanism. That I am left with only human concerns doesn’t tell me to take universal human welfare as my goal; nor does it tell me that freedom is important, or fulfillment, or equality. Just being confined to human goods could just as well find expression in my concerning myself exclusively with my own material welfare, or that of my family or immediate milieu. The in fact very exigent demands of universal justice and benevolence which characterize modern humanism can’t be explained just by the subtraction of earlier goals and allegiances.

Part of the force behind the subtraction story is an appeal to the idea that we used to be in the grip of what has been termed a “master narrative”, that is, “broad framework pictures of how history unfolds”, such as a traditional Christian salvation history which presents history as unfolding according to the guidance of Providence. The modern view alleges that these kind of stories are a thing of the past, but Taylor denies this claim: “far from being passé, these master narratives are essential to our thinking. We all wield them, including those who claim to repudiate them. We need to be lucid about what we are doing, and ready to debate the ones we’re relying on. Attempting to repudiate them just obfuscates matters.” He even shows how the idea that the time of master narratives is passed is itself a master narrative:

It is the claim of a certain trendy “post-modernism” that the age of Grand Narratives is over, that we cannot believe in these any more. But their demise is the more obviously exaggerated in that the post-modern writers themselves are making use of the same trope in declaring the reign of narrative ended: ONCE we were into grand stories, but NOW we have realized their emptiness and we proceed to the next stage. This is a familiar refrain.

We saw last week that the closed interpretations of the immanent frame offer a seductive account which seems to many people to render the denial of the possibility of transcendence inevitable. This leads us into a space where the universe can only be seen as meaningless. Many people experience this abandonment of any foundation of meaning as a sense of loss – but this is not the only way this can play. Nietzsche (pictured above) has an utterly different response:

The dawning sense in modern times that we are in a meaningless universe, that our most cherished meanings find no endorsement in the cosmos, or in the will of God, has often been described as a traumatic loss, a second and definitive expulsion from paradise. But in Nietzsche’s portrayal, virtually a hymn of praise, we sense another reaction: exhilaration. It is partly the very spectacle of immensity and power, but there is also the almost giddy sense that in this massive turbulence, all meaning is up to us. This can appear as the ultimate emancipation, freeing us from all exogenous significance.

This is the narrative of self-authorization that was mentioned last week – mankind seen as “legislators of meaning”, empowered for “the creation of meaning and value in the face of the void”. Taylor questions how coherent this viewpoint can be, and certainly eliminates from serious consideration any narrative that paints this as the thrust of the development of exclusive humanism (“If you had tried to explain to Locke or Grotius that this is what they were doing, they would have stared at you in incomprehension.”). Challenging the validity of this claim, Taylor asks:

Can the values we take as binding really be invented? …Of course, I see that my standard for a good human life has no application before or after there are humans. I also can recognize that the ethic of authenticity I endorse made no sense to people in other cultures and times. But that doesn’t prevent me from thinking that these standards are rooted in what we are, even in human nature, to use the traditional expression, and that they need to be sought after, discovered, better defined, rather than being endorsed.

Moreover, what are we to make of the aura surrounding these standards, the fact that they command my admiration and allegiance? That is, after all, what the references to God and the cosmos were attempting to make sense of. It is not at all clear that Humeans, Kantians, let alone Nietzscheans, can offer a more convincing account of this than the traditional ones. And finally, who has decreed that the transformations we can hope and strive for in human life are restricted to those which can be carried out in a meaningless universe without a transcendent source?

Thus these narratives of self-authorization, once examined more closely, are “far from self-evident” and furthermore “their assuming axiomatic status in the thinking of many people is one facet of a powerful and widespread [belief system], imposing a closed spin on the immanent frame we all share.” What is often presented by proponents of a closed interpretation of the immanent frame as “unchallenged axioms” in fact “rely on very shaky assumptions” and “in general survive largely because they end up escaping examination in the climate in which they are taken as the undeniable framework for any argument.” Taylor does not deny the force of these narratives, noting “how lively and powerful” they can be. He notes: “It is easy to see how, if no other considerations impinge, they could generate anticipatory confidence in a take of closure within the immanent frame. But as supposed conclusive proofs, they don’t make the grade.”

Pursuing his criticism of the subtraction story accounts of modernity further, Taylor challenges the idea of the validity of atheism replacing religion. He suggests that the very nature of the atheist stance requires religion for its meaning:

…the very self-understanding of unbelief, that whereby it can present itself as mature, courageous, as a conquest over the temptations of childishness, dependency or lesser fortitude, requires that we remain aware of the vanquished enemy, of the obstacles which have to be climbed over, of the dangers which still await those whose brave self-responsibility falters. Faith has to remain a possibility, or else the self-valorizing understanding of atheism founders. Imagining that faith might just disappear is imagining a fundamentally different form of non-faith, one quite unconnected to identity. It would be one in which it would be as indifferent and unconnected to my sense of my ethical predicament that I have no faith, as it is today that I don’t believe, for instance, in phlogiston, or natural places.

Indeed, isn’t this part of the reason that people who identify as atheists find themselves quite often compelled into a position of opposition with people who hold religious beliefs? The narrative that underpins this kind of atheist identity draws its strength from painting religion as the enemy. It is yet another way that the closed interpretation of the immanent frame acquires artificial weight.

Thus, Taylor claims that “the force of these narratives of closed immanence helps explain why mainstream theory so often operates with… the assumption that the world is proceeding towards an overcoming or relegation of religion. This master narrative enframes the particular theoretical claims that constitute the theory.” Against this, Taylor offers a particular historical vector for the development of Western society (which this book is constrained to examine for pragmatic reasons) which is far more complicated than the simplistic versions found in the subtraction stories:

We have undergone a change in our condition, involving both an alteration of the structures we live within, and our way of imagining those structures. This is something we all share, regardless of our differences in outlook. But this cannot be captured in terms of a decline and marginalization of religion. What we share is what I have been calling “the immanent frame”; the different structures we live in: scientific, social, technological, and so on, constitute such a frame in that they are part of a “natural” or “this-worldly” order which can be understood in its own terms, without reference to the “supernatural” or “transcendent”. But this order of itself leaves the issue open whether, for purposes of ultimate explanation, or spiritual transformation, or final sense-making, we might have to invoke something transcendent. It is only when the order is “spun” in a certain way that it seems to dictate a “closed” interpretation.

Yet still, there is pervasive sense of materialism being an inevitable position – a fear, perhaps, that we cannot be taken seriously if we do not bow to the closed spin on immanence. It is from this that the subtraction stories draw a certain strength, since we are all faced with a constant exposure to reductionst views in which “thought, intentions, desires and aspirations are supposed to be reductively explained either in terms of mechanism, or in terms of more basic motivations.”

What is going for this? On one level, “Science”, that is, the success of post-Galilean explanations. But also there is the bias introduced by taking the external view, the view from nowhere, where we can take in the whole universe in panorama. This is by its very nature a view which is experience-far. From way out there, we all seem like ants, destined to come and go without trace; like other species. This preference for the universal, impersonal order now seems to us a preference for materialism, because that is how we have come to see the universal order. But this reading has developed and grown in the last centuries; it becomes strong only in the nineteenth century. Before we had an earlier variant, visible in the growth of Deism, or even of Spinozism.

There is also a moral stance. Religion and metaphysics supposedly turn us away from a concrete concern for human desire, suffering and happiness. There seems to be a strange inference here, caricatured by Solovyov: “Man descends from the apes, therefore we must love each other.” But the inference can seem to go through if one brings in the modern morality of mutual benefit: people ought to relate in such a way as to mutually enhance their several projects of life, and as we saw above, religion can be painted as the enemy of this principle, overriding or upsetting the order of benefit by its otherworldly demands.

The subtraction stories seem to indict religion by drawing on the idea of a meaningless universe inevitably emerging from disenchantment. But this hypothesis that denies meaning enters treacherous ground when it attempts to interpret all religious phenomena by projecting this stance back into history:

The “disenchanted” world does indeed seem a world without meaning. But this doesn’t mean that through all the ages of religious life in all its variety, this was the driving factor in the constitution and preservation of religious forms. There is a fallacious inference behind the untroubled adoption of this theory of religious motivation. Just because this looms as big issue for us in a secular age, it is all too easy to project it on all times and places. But there is in the end something incoherent in this move. It will certainly not help us at all to understand why, for instance, certain kinds of shamanism arose in Paleolithic times, nor why Europe was torn apart over the issue of salvation by faith in the sixteenth century.

In other words, because we seem to be faced with the question of whether we live in a meaningless universe – or, under the influence of the closed world structure that denies transcendence, the unchallengeable “fact” of a meaningless universe – it is tempting to dismiss religion as simply an attempt to address this problem of meaning. But this master narrative does not explain religion adequately at all – it is simply an interpretation of religion born of our modern perspective, and cannot be gainfully deployed in any historical context prior to (say) the nineteenth century. The historical facts of religious practice are more complex than the subtraction stories allow.

Exploring the immanent frame, and the subtraction stories that seem to lead to an inevitable interpretation of this frame as being closed to anything beyond – transcendence of any kind, whether God or higher reality – defines one of the two poles between which the nova effect has established a rich tapestry of beliefs. The other pole, orthodox religion, also offers a closed world system - one in which it is transcendence that cannot be denied, and immanence that is suspect. The entire landscape of modern belief can be seen as lying between these two poles, and the presence of two polar extremes creates a set of cross pressures which define our culture.

Next week: Cross Pressures


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