A Secular Age Part IV.a – Charles Taylor vs. Steve Bruce

In Part IV of A Secular Age Taylor goes about describing different narratives of secularization.  I think it might be helpful for us to split these narratives into two different discussions.  In this first discussion I’d like to set Taylor up against an opponent/interlocutor – the Scottish sociologist of secularization, Steve Bruce.

Bruce, rightly famous for such books as God is Dead: Secularization in the West and Religion in the Modern World, would, I believe, be happily labeled as a proponent of the idea that the modern western world is becoming increasing a-religious.  His basic argument is that the modern world, composed as it is of religious & cultural diversity, privatization, egalitarianism, relativism and rationalism, is uniquely suited to funneling people out of religion and religious commitments.  Indeed, it’s not atheism that he predicts for the future, but a mounting indifference to religion within the secularized West.

Two quotes might serve us well as examples.  Bruce concludes his God is Dead by saying: “We may want to explain the secularity of some elite groups (such as professional scientists) by the impact of science and rationalism, but to understand the mass of the population it is not self-conscious irreligion that is important.  It is indifference.  [And] the primary cause of indifference is the lack of religious socialization” (240).  Here we see his charge of mounting indifference explained by the thought that people must be socialized into the particular beliefs of particular religions in order for those beliefs to be maintained.  The argument then runs that, because of diversity, relativism and egalitarianism, it’s very difficult for religious socialization to happen.

Noting the difficulty of such socialization in a diffuse, pluralized environment leads to our next Bruce quote.  He says: “What is at issue is the future of [diffuse] religion.  [Some] believe that it is possible for people to sustain indefinitely a loose and amorphous faith that accepts uncertainty.  I doubt that” (238).  So, we might sum up Bruce’s version of the secularization thesis by saying that the pluralism, individualism, and tolerance taught in modern western society removes the impetus we have to socialize one another into our religious beliefs.  This lack of motivation means that there will be an increasingly small portion of socially shared religion, and that such diffusion of strong beliefs will continue the downward trend into religious indifference.

Wow, they actually sell this? The world is crazy.

It’s a striking thesis, biting even.  And there are parts of it that ring true – I see in some of my family and friends what I might call a mounting indifference to religion.   And while it’s been my experience that there are answers to such indifference (at least) in the most trying or vibrant moments – death, birth, abandonment, union in marriage – that doesn’t apply the Balm of Gilead to my concerns for our religious future.  Can Taylor help us with this?  And what kind of help are we even looking for?

Let’s clarify the kind of help first, and then look to what Taylor is about in Part IV.  One of the most slippery (deceitful, even) parts of Bruce’s work is the way that he slides unannounced back and forth across three levels of sociological analysis.  In his work he’s often slipping from the macro/societal level to the mezzo/institutional level to the micro/individual level without attending to the difference.  Why is this important?  (Good question – you guys are so on the ball).  It’s important because it allows Bruce to emphasize, at every turn, the evidence that most strongly supports the secularization thesis.  For example, let’s look to the mezzo/institutional level.  We should be honest that religious attendance has dropped significantly among mainline Protestant and non-immigrant Catholic populations.  But recognizing that reality is not the same as proving that those non-immigrant Catholics who don’t go to Church are therefore totally secular.  Indeed, if we look for evidence of loose religiosity in the United States we can find a remarkable amount of it.  If you (like me) are interested in this kind of stuff, check out Bob Putnam and David Campbell’s brand new book on religion in the U.S. American Grace.  Therein they give good data for this increasing number of diffusely religious persons in the United States (i.e., those that are a part of no particular denomination, but believe in God and often act on that belief in social ways).

Back to Bruce.  The key in making such a counter-argument for us lies in noting that Bruce fails to pay attention (or to bring his reader’s attention) to his shift between evidence on the macro/mezzo/micro levels.  Let me try (again, I know!) to put this clearly: Bruce always picks the evidence, from whichever level of sociological analysis, that best fits his secularizing thesis and ignores/explains-away contradictory evidence.  What might he have done?  Well, he might have learned from our boy Charles Taylor.  It’s Taylor’s explicit claim to be examining how the macro/societal shifts in Western culture have affected way individual human beings (micro level) are both open to and closed off from particular secular and/or transcendent interpretations of fullness.  That’s a helpful enough lynchpin I think, so let’s turn our attention fully to Taylor’s response to the secularization thesis as exemplified by Bruce.

Taylor fits into this picture to the extent that we might read this entire tome as an alternative to the traditional religious-subtraction story of modernity – the story we all know, and that runs something like this: human being used to be ignorant and religious, now we are intelligent and a-religious.  It might be helpful to remember what we’ve seen so far, that is, how Taylor has painstakingly (emphasis on “pain” at times) shown us that the interesting question is not: “is religion declining?  Will it disappear?”  But rather the much more helpful question: “what shape(s) can the religious impulse take in the 21st century?  What limits and opens-up these shapes?”   So, if we learn from the intellectual humility and generosity Taylor exemplifies we can recognize that our culture & society really does affect the shape that religion can take for us.  We might even be able to say, with Taylor, that: “a more believable form of [the secularization thesis] is rather this: that the developments of “modernity” did indeed, destabilize earlier forms of religious life.  But this decay of older forms often is followed by a “recomposition” …of new forms.  So a crucial area of work is to recognize [that] the… decline of old and coming of new forms in the West has created a new over-all place of religion or the spiritual in society. Spiritual/religious life is much more self-consciously pluralistic, with ever new forms arising, and with much more scope for individual affinities and conversions.”  That quote comes from one of Taylor’s blog posts over on the “Immanent Frame” site.  Here’s the link: (http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2007/11/02/problems-around-the-secular/).

Well... not quite decline...

What the quote means is that secularization is not just the decline of religion. That’s sloppy thinking.  Rather, it’s both displacement of older forms of religion and the regeneration of new forms.  The question for those of us with particular confessional commitments is how we can remain faithful to the traditions handed on to us while still responding well to the predicament of our brothers & sisters (and ourselves!) who cannot live in the older religious forms, but must (must!) create new ones that respond to the joys and sorrows, openings and closures of our particular age.  This can obviously be a dangerous thing in that in creating something we new we risk unintentionally betraying our tradition.  In the Catholic Church it is because of the risk of doing just this that we have the Magisterium and the teaching authority of the hierarchy.  One of their main jobs is to tell us when our efforts to reappropriate our holy tradition into our new (also potentially holy!) contexts has gone astray and/or remained faithful.  Thank God for that.  But, we should also note that the reappropriation of our tradition in new ways is also not an option for us.  It must be done because the religious forms that evolved in the past did so in response to problems we no longer experience – we need practices that respond to our 21st-century-West felt conflicts, not to the felt conflicts of 18th century France (for example).

But now I’ve gone and placed our application for today in the middle of our discussion instead of at the end… ah well.  Forgive me.  Let’s step right back into the midst of Taylor’s criticism of Bruce and secularization theorists.

Since it’s evident that Taylor agrees to some extent with Bruce (that religious practice has certainly declined and there are consequences to that), where does Taylor think that Bruce goes wrong?  Simply put, Taylor holds that Bruce argues for a future of religious indifference because he is a practitioner of the “secular unthought”, because he is firmly entrenched within the immanent frame.  Let’s take a moment to describe what this is.

Taylor says that part “of the intellectual problem… is that there is also an important ‘unthought’ …which underpins much of secularization theory” (428).  Now, we have to be clear that the words “unthought” and “ideology” are not the same thing.  Bruce, although a secularist, is not beating the drum for atheism a la my perennial whipping boy Richard Dawkins.  Instead, Taylor introduces the idea of an “unthought”, of the “framework beliefs and values [that] can constrict one’s theoretical imagination” (428).  This is a crucial point both for Taylor and for we ourselves who want to (and need to) engage the modern secularized world.  What we often encounter within this world is not angry atheism, but confusion as to why religion would even be relevant for the social sciences.  We can now see clearly the response: religion is relevant because our stance toward it will affect the conclusions we draw from the same evidence.

Let’s take another tactic to get at the same point.  I’ve made another drawing for us to use based on analogy that Taylor gives in explaining what he means by the secular unthought.  Check it out:

The point here is to point out that it’s the prior assumptions and the conclusions to which those assumptions point that need to be challenged, not the facts of the matter. The results of interpreting history through the “unthought” of belief, as does Taylor, shows that the mainline secularization thesis is right as to the ground floor: modernization “had a negative effect on the previously existing religious forms” (436).  However, “it also happened that people responded to the breakdown by developing new religious forms” (436).  And the future/2nd floor of such forms will be determined by the prior assumptions/unthought that forms the basement of our secularization house.

This is another place where we can see Taylor’s work opening up productive areas of discussion and dialogue between believers and unbelievers.  And the real area of conflict that it shows up deals exactly with the interpretations of fullness with which we began this whole essay through Taylor’s work.  That is, the conflict between believers and unbelievers today is based on two versions of what is the highest good for humanity, over what human flourishing really is.  Secularists must argue that human flourishing and all interpretations of

The Gospel in the 21st Century?

fullness can only happen “in a context of mutuality, [of each] pursuing his/her own happiness on the basis of life and liberty” (430).  Christian believers, on the other hand, argue for an transformative unthought, a participation “in the love of God for human beings, which is by definition a love which goes way beyond any possible mutuality, a self giving not bounded by some measure of personal fairness” (430).  Take a second look at that last line.  Isn’t that a philosophical expression of Jesus in John 13:1-15?  It’s lines like this from a Roman Catholic layman that give me such hope for the faith.  This is a way preaching the Gospel in a secular world.

Alright, let’s sum this up.  Taylor calls for a public recognition and discussion of the unthoughts that frame our theories so that we can recognize that “being in one or other perspective makes it easier for some or other insights to come to you” (436).  It’s looking at the evidence re: secularization from the perspective of a believer that allows Taylor to give his own view of the secularization thesis we’ve been discussing.  Let’s give him the last word in describing it: “Thus my own view of ‘secularization’ …is that there has certainly been a ‘decline’ of religion.  Religious belief now exists in a field… where there is a wide range of other spiritual options.  But 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.  This new placement is now the occasion for recompositions of spiritual life in new forms, and for new ways of existing both in and out of relation to God” (437).

Hence my comments about applying what we’ve learned above (see I couldn’t give Taylor the last word even when I said I would!).

Thanks all, and prayers for your Triduum.

PG, SJ

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2 Responses to A Secular Age Part IV.a – Charles Taylor vs. Steve Bruce

  1. Charlotte Sinnott says:

    Hi, I stumbled across your blog when googling “steve bruce vs charles taylor”. I’m actually writing my dissertation on this exact topic!
    anyway just wanted to say this is a really great article, and also helpful. A secular age is such a beast to get to grips with so it’s nice to have someone else’s perspective.

  2. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    human being used to be ignorant and religious, now we are intelligent and a-religious.

    There is an alternative explanation that can be taken from combining the various insights of Justin Barrett, Stuart Guthrie, Tom Rees, Jon Haidt, and others.

    Haidt: intuition is primary over reason
    Guthrie: our religious intuitions come from hyperactive agency detection
    Rees: fear, anxiety and uncertainty seems to ramp up our agency detection
    Barrett: living in a safe, predictable, prosperous, mostly human built First World environment tends to dampen down most peoples agency detection, and hence our religious intuitions

    It’s not that many people have actually been reasoned out of religion, it is that our religious intuitions have been weakened (though not obliterated) by modern First World social conditions. If Taylor is arguing that they our religious tendencies have been merely diverted into other things, I think he’s wrong.

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