Charles Taylor on Secularization Narratives in both the West and “Non-West”

For those of you interested in Michael Warner’s recent address on Politics and Religion, pursued from a slightly different angle . . . .

Amardeep Singh, in his own blog, points us to the ongoing discussion of Charles Taylor’s new book, A SecularAge, which is taking place at Taylor’s own Social Science Research Council blog, where Taylor has himself responded here.  The most engaging part of Taylor’s work is his willingness to re-examine the ethnocentricity of the Weberean master-narratives of modernization in the light of non-Western experiences of modernization.  So, for example, we find him contrasting the Weberean narrative of secularization as a “marginalization” of religion, with a more sophisticated narrative of “destabilization” and “recomposition”:

If we look at the Western cases first, and try to think of the changes which go under the title “secularization,” we find a very confused set of assumptions and master narratives. The narratives of what were earlier called the “secularization” thesis were often predicated on a) a simple global notion of “religion,” b) a definition of secularity as the absence of “religion”, and c) beliefs to the effect that the inevitable consequence of the changes called “modernization” (economic growth, urbanization, greater geographical and social mobility, the rise of science and technology, the greater importance of instrumental reason, bureaucratic rationality, and so on) was to undermine and marginalize “religion,” and hence bring on “secularization.” (A more recent and sophisticated variant of this narrative can be found in the work of Steve Bruce.)

A more believable form of narrative is rather this: that the developments of “modernity” did indeed, destabilize earlier forms of religious life. No-one could even try to restore the sacral monarchy of France (Indeed, when Charles X tried to restore the full mediaeval coronation ceremony at Reims in 1825—complete with cures for scrofula from the King’s touch—it fell completely flat.) No-one can restore the village parish community whose time is organized around saints’ days and festivals, even though that was still very alive in parts of Europe (not to say Québec) in the first part of the last century.

But this decay of older forms often is followed by a “recomposition” (Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s term) of new forms. Everybody has learned to identify a successive series of forms of congregational Christian life starting with Pietists and Methodists in the 18th Century, and then moving through and into (among others) the Pentacostal movements which in the last 100 years have grown in spectacular fashion (and also have burst well beyond the bounds of the “West”). David Martin has written on this.

3. So a crucial area of work is to recognize the nature and spread of the new forms. New kinds of devotion, discipline, congregational life; but also new ways in which (in some sense) “religious” markers become central to political mobilization, often in competition to more secular” markers (the two models of French nationalism, Catholic versus Jacobin; the struggle in the Arab world between Baathist or Nasserite nationalism and various forms of Islamism); and also the ways in which “religion” is seen as essential to the stability of social-moral order.

This seems to me a much more plausible way to conceptualize the re-functioning of religion between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (explaining, for example, some of the differences between Methodism and old-fashioned Dissent), and explains better the importance of our period for an understanding of modernity and modernization. 

See also Simon During’s astute remarks on the secular and the mundane here, and Akeel Bilgrami on secularism and disenchantment here.  Somewhere in the midst of these arguments is an important emerging position regarding the long-term historical significance of the European Enlightenment.  Are scholars of the Enlightenment paying attention?

UPDATE: here’s Stuart Jeffries’ mostly sympathetic review from the Guardian.  And now, courtesy of 3quarksdaily, the oddly noncommital John Patrick Diggins review.



One response to “Charles Taylor on Secularization Narratives in both the West and “Non-West”

  1. Great post, thanks for sharing the links and your thoughts on Taylor.