What’s wrong with secularism today

Flipping through “Walrus” today, I found a review of Charles Taylor’s new book: “A Secular Age”. Apparently, Taylor shifts the question concerning religion in the present context “away from whether belief in God or some higher power is reasonable to whether belief or unbelief are appropriate interpretations of one’s experience in the world”(71-72). This is an altogether sensible proposition – it directs us that the problem with religion is not whether it is true or false (Nietzsche – truth is error, more on that later), but whether it discloses the character of our worldly experience in a manner appropriate to it, or in a manner that alienates it, that covers it up?

I would be fully prepared to side against religion, if the question is posed this way. Almost all religions posit an eternal time which stands removed from our own, in which a God dwells in unchanging permanent endurance. This already misjudges the temporal character of our experience – in which eternity is a character of everyday time. What I mean by this is that we always experience time both as a sequence of events and as an “age in time”, we say we live in “the modern age”, even the name of a year – we can after all ask what the character of 2007 as a whole was, expressed the presence of the eternal, or the aeonic, in our everyday experience of time. (New Years Eve is in fact a celebration of the repetition, the circularity of time – but not time as sequence, time as aeon, as age, as wholeness of duration). “Eternity” as the removed place of god is an abstraction of this sense of aeon which mis characterizes it, and thereby distorts, covers up our primordial experience of time as experiencing the world temporally.

However, it is exactly in the opposite way that Daniel Baird of the Walrus opposes Taylor’s argument:

“A central claim of A Secular Age is that the historical forces behind modern secularism are complex and multi layered, and that, while they open up the possibility of different interpretations of the world, they in no way predetermine them: religion, in this multifarious forms, remains an intellectually and emotionally viable point of view. But however much Taylor insists upon shifting the question from belief or unbelief to interpretations of one’s experience, the question of the truth of a particular religious outlook – whether that involves the existence of a loving God, or the primacy of a particular Middle Eastern prophet, or some less easily definable higher power – still matters. We need to know whether our readings are true or not, whether our ecstatic experiences of transcendence actually refer to something beyond us. In the end, it makes little difference whether the secularization of Western societies s rooted n earlier religious movements or n the ascendancy of the natural sciences. So long as one is not a relativist – and Taylor is no relativistic – the truth of a particular world view becomes urgent. And that is the question Taylor has remarkable little to say about, indeed he seems to avoid it at all costs in A Secular Age.”

So, to put it simply, Baird has in just a few sentences dismissed Taylor’s entire book as “not that important if we don’t want to be relativists”. This entirely misses the point, and covers up what it means to be “a relativist”, and what truth means. It is unclear whether Baird has grasped at all what it means to shift the question of religion from “belief” to “appropriateness”. So, if the Walrus is not capable of dealing with such complex issues of “relativism” and “truth”, suppose I’ll have to do it. (72)
How to begin. In a recent set of comments ensuing from a post concerning Freewill on Sindark’s blog, Milan asserted “it matters in the end little how we describe the world”. I would disagree with the face meaning of this statement, and I’m sure he does as well – it matters to us (we are the one’s who make values after all, we are the value-making animals) very much how we describe the world, this is something we care about. It is only because it matters to us in the sense of caring and valuing that religious intolerance becomes poignant and violent. There is thus no surprise that we see violence, although usually not bloody violence, between the religious viewpoint and the secular one – both sides care very much about how they describe the world. But, why do they care? Baird inadvertently answers this perfectly, they care because they believe it matters whether their view is true, whether the beyond to which they transcend is real. Taylor’s criticism of this position on both the religious and secular level is that the position that my view or your view of transcendence is a “true reading” and corresponds to something “real” is simply mistaken. So far as the objects of our experience, the answer is simple – science describes them best, and for the most part the religious centre no longer disagrees that science in fact describes the world. The question which remains, which is a mistake founded in religion but taken up by science, is whether science or religion describes the world “as it is in itself”, in other words “in abstraction from our human experience”. Kant already asserted this was the question to which there are no answers, we simply could not know if the world as a thing abstracted from all experience was the same thing which was given to us in experience – the “in itself” is just a bad idea which refuses to go away.

It is precisely this “in itself” which Taylor’s change in emphasis to “appropriate to our human experience” attempts to sidestep – he no longer wants to talk about whether God is “real” or not, (a stupid, mistaken question, which Science and religion ought stop talking about), but whether “religious experience” is actually a phenomenal character of our experience. As Taylor asserts, whether or not phenomenal experience is religious depends largely on what we take the world to be – if we believe the world to be the kind of thing created by God, then “such catastrophic events as floods, famines, and plagues were seen as acts of God”(72). However, it is not as simple as an input-output model, because we can in fact evaluate whether the belief in God and therefore the showing up of these events as acts of god is appropriate to our human experience, and this is not as easy a question as we might first assume. One could say, “oh, but floods and famines can be explained entirely in terms of the forces of nature and politics”. That may be true, but this takes floods as abstract objects – not as the objects of our experience. When you experience a flood, it appears as an force so powerful it exceeds the grasp of your cognition – Kant called this terror the “Sublime”, and the romantic poets tried to capture it in lyric and art. It must be admitted that the scientific understanding does not appear to be appropriate to the experience of a flood or a famine. This does not prove the existence of God at all – rather I would assert that Science succeeds so well at grasping nature precisely because it doesn’t burden itself with capturing the particular character of my experience. It does however, prove a limitation to Science as a way of understanding the world in experience.

I spoke earlier of Nietzsche asserting “All Truth is error” – this claim is often dismissed as nonsense, or in Searle’s borrowed words, “the perchance for making obviously false claims”. What it means in fact is that the world is in a constant flux, it is becoming not being. And thus, all “truth”, understood as propositional knowledge which corresponds with some part of the world by way of a truth conditional, is an error because in its very structure it lies about the character of the world. This is difficult for us to recognize, because science approaches the world necessarily assuming it to have some set of internal and consistent laws such that it can be modeled according to some set of models that approach, or ideally, reach those internal laws. This, however, is indefensible philosophically for obvious reasons: it is Platonism. It is assuming the world is in itself “formed”, having eternal morphe which exist in a realm beyond our experience. It is not exactly Platonism because we don’t come across the forms by philosophical meditation, but by empirical testing. However, this is a different epistemic method which has no necessary implication on the metaphysics (metaphysics – that which is beyond physics).

The metaphysics appropriate to empircism, and modern experience in general, is one of ambiguity. We should recognize that the notion of a world “in itself, in abstraction from our experience” is a bad idea – what we care about is our experience in the world. Now, sometimes our experience is in Labs and our values are planning and predicting for the future, and in this case, Science is damn appropriate. But on the other hand, we sometimes find ourselves faced with poetic texts, sometimes with great feats of nature, and in these cases science is of little use to understanding the character of our experience. I am the last person to encourage the flight to Christianity (although I do believe that faith is the best way of understanding Hegel’s logic of non-representational thought), but I am no secularist either. I begin my metaphysics from my immediate experience, I find myself as a fleshy body that has experience in time, and in such a way that meaningful descriptions of the body’s fleshiness and its temporality can be made without resorting to abstract theories – the phenomena are right there in immediate experience. I don’t intend this to be an argument for any metaphysical position, only to point out that there are coherent views which oppose both radical secularism and the positing of an Eternal god. Sometimes we find the denial of God’s eternity in the Church itself – a few months ago on this blog I linked to this video, of a vicar in the Church of England who advocates a view of God as “the indwelling presence in things”. He might deny this – but his view makes God as finite as the world, as finite as our experience, as finite as mortals. What is God on this view? It is the wondrous character of beings, their property of always exceeding any look we use to pin them down, the inherent corrigibility of experience. If people want to call that “God”, or “radical empiricism”, I don’t really care.

The mistake in the argument concerning religious tolerance is thinking it can be achieved without making normative claims on any party, or at least this is my position as a non expert. It seems to me that the way to solve the problems of religious tolerance is to force everyone to accept the corrigibility of experience, in other words, the necessity of the strict falsity of any propositional statement. If everyone is “wrong”, then the question is no longer “who is right”, but “which view is appropriate to human experience” – and the answer of course will be many of them are, in different ways. This is not relativism though, because arguments can always be leveled that abrahamic religions especially are inappropriate to our experience because they distort the phenomenon of temporality.


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