Category Archives: Religion

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.



Tyburn’s Martyrs

The criminals went to the place of execution in the following order, Morgan, Webb, and Wolf, in the first cart; Moore in a mourning coach; Wareham and Burk in the second cart; Tilley, Green, and Howell in the third; Lloyd on a sledge; on their arrival at Tyburn they were all put into one cart. They all behaved with seriousness and decency. Mary Green professed her innocence to the last moment of the fact for which she died, cleared Ann Basket, and accused the woman who lodged in the room where the fact was committed. As Judith Tilley appeared under terrible agonies, Mary Green applied herself to her, and said, do not be concerned at this death because it is shameful, for I hope God will have mercy upon our souls; Catharine Howell likewise appeared much dejected, trembled and was under very fearful apprehensions; all the rest seemed to observe an equal conduct, except Moore, who, when near dying, shed a flood of tears. In this manner they took their leave of this transitory life, and are gone to be disposed of as shall seem best pleasing to that all-wise Being who first gave them existence.

In the course of my research over the years, I’ve read the records of coroners’ inquests – murders, gruesome accidents, negligence and cruelty – and they are distressing and disturbing, yet they don’t evoke quite the same sense of culture shock as do the pamphlets containing accounts of executions like the one above.

We aren’t simply talking about the execution of murderers here: in the 18th century burglars, robbers, pickpockets, horse thieves, sheep- and cattle-rustlers, forgers and counterfeiters could all face slow, horrible deaths, in most cases public strangulation, and this was regarded by most people as perfectly normal and civilised. (Indeed, there were those who thought that hanging was not punishment enough.)

Ordinary’s Accounts are one of the many sources we’re digitising in the Plebeian Lives project. These are rich and fascinating sources, full of stories of the lives of common people. But they are also stories of death, and they give me the willies.

So, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Andrea McKenzie, since she has written an entire, densely detailed book about the subject and the source: Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England 1675-1775. She must be a tougher soul than me.

In fact, at the very beginning of the book she mentions some of the bemused reactions she received from people learning what her research topic was, including the gentleman who suggested that she should study “something pleasant, like great battles”.

McKenzie suggests that “the gallows were… a stage on which the condemned fought what contemporaries would have viewed as the greatest battle of all, publicly confronting the so-called ‘King of Terrors’: death”. Moreover, “the language of martyrology, legitimation and resistance were intertwined… traitors, martyrs, murderers and robbers alike drew from a common eschatology in which the ‘good death’ was not only an ultimate goal, but a powerful political and metaphysical statement’.

As she acknowledges, “there is much about early modern English sensibilities – or what we would see as the lack thereof – to horrify the modern reader”. But this is not a good reason to shy away from the topic: early modern attitudes towards execution are revealing of wider belief systems, which saw life as “not sacred, but forfeit… as a result of original sin”. Execution “was at the very heart of everyday contemporary eschatological discourse”.

McKenzie documents the journeys made by the condemned from Newgate to Tyburn, the reactions of observers to the behaviour of those on the gallows, depending on whether they were perceived to have made a ‘good’ death. The actions of the watching crowd often depended on their attitude towards individual convicts: the notorious and despised Jonathan Wild, for example, was pelted with stones.

She also traces the history of the publications that constitute her main sources, the ‘last dying speeches’ and Ordinary’s Accounts, and their decline in the later 18th century with the cultural rejection of the spectacle of the scaffold and its printed artefacts as vulgar and barbaric. McKenzie makes it clear that the Ordinary’s Account – and often its author – was frequently considered vulgar well before its decline.

The complex balancing act of ‘dying well’ on the gallows – striving for a “happy mean between presumption and despair” – is chronicled in detail. While the condemned were exhorted to think of Jesus as an exemplar, they were not supposed to go so far as to suggest that his innocence also mirrored theirs.

The ‘game criminal’ was the target of much criticism by the Ordinary – the real-life likes of Swift’s Clever Tom Clinch:

He stopt at the George for a Bottle of Sack,
And promis’d to pay for it when he’d come back.

Like a Beau in the Box, he bow’d low on each Side;
And when his last Speech the loud Hawkers did cry,
He swore from his Cart, it was all a damn’d Lye.

Still, the obstinate ‘game’ criminals served as useful counterpoints to the properly and tearfully (but not too tearful, especially the men) penitents, for the Ordinary’s moralising purposes. Their ‘false courage’ (mainly due to alcohol, according to the Ordinary) could be contrasted to genuine ‘Christian courage’, their pride made their fall inevitable and all the more instructive.

But it was difficult to doubt the courage of one group killed by the early modern English state: those who underwent peine forte et dure – pressing to death – for their obdurate refusal to plead to charges against them. Some may have done this to prevent the seizure of their estates following a trial; but by the 18th century that was not very likely to happen in any case. McKenzie suggests that the decision to endure this torture represented a challenge to, a rejection of, the authority of the courts, allowing them to ‘seize the initiative’ and ‘demonstrate their resolution and courage’ to the world.

Peine forte et dure was abolished in 1770, by which time it was seen by educated elites as ‘irrational and benighted’ as well as barbaric and cruel. Similarly, by then, the public theatre of Tyburn no longer had the cultural and moral resonance that it had had in the early 18th century; the Ordinary’s Account ceased publication in the 1770s. The Tyburn procession was abolished in 1783 – though not because it was unpopular, but because it was too rowdy and undisciplined.

There is, McKenzie concludes, a cultural gulf between 1675 and 1775 “so wide that, from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we can barely see our way across it”. She views the change in terms of not a ‘decline’ in religiosity but its ‘redefinition’: the rejection of ‘enthusiasm’ and providentialism in favour of “a ‘rational religion in which rationality was both a human and divine attribute”, and which emphasised internalised virtues rather than public displays. McKenzie’s study demonstrates the benefits of overcoming our horror and at least attempting to understand what made the people of the early 18th century tick.

Further reading, for the stout-hearted

Tyburn Tree: Execution in Early Modern England
Old Bailey Proceedings (server is down again at the moment, so I can’t track down the punishment pages)
Last Mile Tours: hanging in 18th-century England
Early Eighteenth-century Newspaper Reports
EMR Bibliography
Simon Devereaux, Imposing the Royal Pardon: Execution, Transportation, and Convict Resistance in London, 1789

(X-posted (and shortened somewhat) from EMN.)

Michael Warner on religion and politics

Last night, Michael Warner spoke at the Graduate Center as the plenary talk for the interdisciplinary “Religion and Sexuality” conference being held today. His talk was a riveting call to restructure the terms of the ongoing debate about the role of religion in secular politics.

His key point was the way in which the language of eighteenth-century evangelical religion, in which one is “a Christian” because of one’s declared faith (rather than, say, adherence to religious law or cultural associations), has been extrapolated in American politics to create a division between all religious peoples (“faith-based initiatives,” etc.) and secularism, which is defined as a lack of faith. He noted the ways in which even non-Christian religions are defined by political bodies as “faiths,” even though faith itself is a specifically Christian-evangelical requirement for religious affiliation. Warner noted that in Stanley Fish’s op-ed columns, Fish has repeatedly opined that he (as a secularist) feels jealousy of radical Muslims and Christians alike because they have “something” to believe in and fight for, while secular individuals have “nothing” to believe in.

Warner argued for a revision of this rhetorical separation between faith and absence-of-faith as a specifically evangelical mindset that neither does justice to non-faith-based religions or to the very long history of secular ethics. One way of doing this, he argued, is not to relentlessly separate the terms of church and state, but to recognize that if churches wish to be considered political entities, they must be analyzed in political terms, in part because the “beliefs” that religions bring into political realms are constantly changing, unrooted in either biblical or ecclesiastical history, and constantly plead self-referentiality. The war against homosexuality, for example, has never been a primary issue of Christianity until recently, when suddenly it has become the very shibboleth by which certain Christian groups assert their faith.

In the end, it seems, extrapolating “faith” to mean “whatever political interests the religion currently serves,” makes it a similarly empty and ahistorical category as secularism. It must not be called to answer for its lack of relevance to 2000 years of Christian ethics, and it also cannot be called to task under the provisions of the Constitution. If “freedom of religion” has come to mean that anyone in the U.S. can do anything and limit anyone else’s rights, as long as they call that impulse “faith,” then secular political discourse becomes totally powerless. After all, the problem with religious control of politics is not that it makes for bad “faith,” but that it makes for unacceptable political positions. Meanwhile, the very terms of “faith” require that all religious-political impulses frame themselves as faith-based, even when non-evangelical religions base community participation on other terms.

It was a brilliant argument and a deeply historical view of religion and politics in the U.S. over the past 230 years. Unfortunately, it seemed to spawn exactly the sort of conversation whose terms Warner was attempting to reset. I was extremely frustrated by the intransigence of the respondents toward a dialogue about the history of the discourse. There is a deep commitment in the secular academy to an us-vs.-them mentality with respect to religion, and a fear of engaging with anything called “faith” as a discourse, or as rhetoric. The conversation seemed to spin out into statements of the deeply-held “beliefs” of secularists, and then into religious audience members’ fear of an atheist-totalitarian state. A few questioners responded to Warner’s talk as it was presented, but his method of analysis seemed, sadly, completely unfamiliar to most of the respondents, who insisted on reasserting a post-1950’s view of what is true and must always have been true about U.S. politics.

New York City event: Richter at Mina Rees Library

I’m reposting this from Matt Williams’s email:


The Eighteenth-Century Reading Room is pleased to announce the first
talk of its 2007-2008 Guest Speaker Series.

Dr. David Richter (CUNY Graduate Center & Queens College):

“Jewish Biblical Interpretation in the Wake of the Enlightenment:
Moses Mendelssohn, Judah Ben-Se’ev and the Rhetoric of Religion”

Friday September 28, 2007, 2:00 PM

RSVP to,, or call 212.817.7085

All Guest Speaker Series events take place in Room C196.05 in the Mina
Rees Library of the Graduate Center at 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, New

Coffee and donut holes will be served. Seating is limited for these
talks. Please RSVP as soon as possible.

Apocalypse in my class

(Cross-posted at The Valve)

While teaching last semester’s Brit Lit Survey, I kept realizing that there were assumptions my students were making that did not seem conducive to a clear discussion of the works. There is a temptation when studying so much literature across so much history at a time to collapse all the historical and religious differences and see similarities between everything, especially in their papers. I was trying to find a model for getting them to think about conceptual differences this semester, so I came up with something that may sound a little crazy.

I said, “Imagine everything that you experience through your five senses that can be verified by someone else. If you see an elephant, you can ask a friend if she sees the elephant. If your milk tastes sour, you could ask someone else to taste it. Put all of those things in a circle and call it ’empirical experience.'” I drew a circle on the board.

Then I asked them to think of all the things that don’t fit in that circle and I wrote them up around the circle. Experiences with God, creative thought, dreams, ghosts, sexual ecstasy, madness, and the world that is too large or too small for human perception went outside the circle. They are all things that an individual might “feel” or “know” as an individual, but never be able to directly get verification of from someone else. For example, if I claim to have had a prophetic vision of God, you’re going to have to call me insane or trust me on it. I can’t ask you if you agree with my description of the vision because you can’t share it with me.

One of the ways I’m trying to get them to think about the history of English literature is as a series of shifting relations between the inside and the outside of that circle, and the methods by which writers attempt to transcend, destroy, or maintain that boundary. Does a writer use the verifiable as a source of metaphors for achieving the unverifiable, as in Donne? Does a writer try to show that the boundary is merely a construct, and that the outer lives within the inner, as in Blake? Does a writer assert the existence of the outer, but redirects the focus toward the empirical, as in Pope? Does a writer seem to deny the existence of the outer, by suggesting that no boundary exists around the empirical, as in Pater? (These are gross simplifications, but maybe useful for illustrating the variety of possible relationships to the model.)

We’re reading a number of poems about apocalypse this semester, and my students are always rather curious about why so many English poets are obsessed with it. A great number of my students were raised in the Christian church, but only one of my 50 this semester claims to have read Revelations, so they’re suprised to see its imagery so frequently employed in poetry when it doesn’t play a large role in their religious training. My guess is that apocalypse is what many poets see as the ideal end of poetry.

Most of my students are used to thinking of “apocalypse” as “the end of the world” or “nuclear crisis” or something. I’m trying to get them to think of it as what its Greek origin (apokalyptein, to uncover) suggests, that it is a removal of a boundary between the empirical world and the divine, allowing us to verifiably experience (directly, together) something beyond what our senses allow. For different poets in different eras, poetry can have the power to suggest what that uncovering would reveal, or that there is nothing to uncover, or that humans can’t imagine beyond that covering, or that poetry itself can perform that uncovering.

In some sense, a communal experience of the sublime in a poem is a moment of potential apocalypse, as it’s tantalizingly almost verifiable.

I am hoping that this model will provide us with a way of talking about religion, sexuality, and creativity without merely reverting to our own personal experiences with them. I am not someone who bans discussion of personal experience in any way, but I do find that a student can get hung up on thinking of a piece of writing as reflecting his own experience, and then arguing that it is therefore “true.” As Blanford Parker once told me when I complained to him about this, students need that moment of self-recognition before then being able to make finer distinctions, but getting them to move from pleasure to analysis is the most difficult step.

Narratives of secularization?

A few weeks ago, Amardeep Singh of the Valve put up an interesting post about “literary secularism” on that blog, to coincide with the appearance of his new book with the same name.  Here’s his announcement, on a stand-alone blog devoted to the book’s topic:

Apparently, Amardeep’s argument takes up recent social theories of secularization and secularity (running from Said through Asad and Viswanathan), modernity, and religion, and how those issues have affected literary works produced in the fractured or overlapping religious spaces of modernity: not just the Anglo-Judaic England of Daniel Deronda, but the novels of Joyce, Tagore, Pamuk, and Roth, as well.

I was intrigued by this description, because I came to this discussion from my own point of departure, which is really the transition from the early modern to the Enlightenment in England and Great Britain.  And, if you recall, this kind of secularizing narrative plays a prominent role in both McKeon and Parker’s works, which we read last term, and which take the story back to the English Civil War or even the Reformation.  And I sent Amardeep a post, and told him that I thought these were fairly standard historical arguments within our field.

Nonetheless, since I’m still mulling these issues over, I thought it would be interesting to see if others have been thinking about these issues in their own research, and what kinds of historical or literary examples they might choose to talk about, or what kinds of theoretical models they might use to illuminate them.