Friday, November 7, 2014

Rethinking Secularism: preliminary thoughts

I am reading through again a collection of essays called Rethinking Secularism.  I've gone through the first article by Charles Taylor and am deep into José Casanova's contribution, but have read the entire book through once before.

First some general thoughts:  the volume has 14 contributors of whom one is an historian, one is a philosopher, one is an anthropologist and the remaining 11 are divided between sociologists and political scientists, which gives the volume a heavily theoretical ambience.  I, as an historian,  long for a clearer foundation in actual events upon which to build this theoretical edifice.  Having said this, the book is thought provoking.

The first article, by Charles Taylor follows the sophisticated twists and turns one expects of a philosopher and in the second by José Casanova, the careful constructions expected equally of a sociologist.  But getting to the essence of their arguments one sees an agreement that 'secularism' and the process 'secularization' are to them a 'western' phenomenon and not a general theory of human development as, for example, evangelical atheists such as Richard Dawkins claim.  They both see the roots of secularism (of course, to make their case they have to 'do' history!) in the development within western Christendom of a dualism of this world and the next, a division of life both lived and conceived in Latin Christianity into a dyad of separate spheres. They do not see this process occurring outside of 'western' Christianity.

So far so good, says this historian.  But.....

What exactly do they mean by 'western' Christianity?  I think they mean the long running show the Catholic church centred in Rome and its spin-off series, Protestant Christianity. Here they see a commonality of conceiving existence as being a dyad of this world and the next which over time morphed into an emphasis on life in this world and eventually to varying degrees of rejection of the importance or even existence of, the next world. Thus today you see a spectrum ranging from those who are fully religious and structure their lives around preparation for the still separate next world,  to those on the other end who reject the existence of the next world utterly, and the vast majority lying at different points between these two extremes.  Most of the middling sort lie closer to the atheist end of the spectrum than the believer end.

My problems with these two approaches and also with their underlying similarity lies in the lack of contextual nuance.  Both see secularism's roots as beginning with a late mediaeval emphasis on this world vs the next.  Yet this part of their separate yet similar  analyses miss all the historical research on the mediaeval mentality where this world and the next are fully blended - a world of enchantment as Charles Taylor put it in  his book A Secular Age.  I would argue that this  lack of separation continued and even continues for a much longer time than they postulate. You see this most clearly where ordinary believers find their regular practice of religion (not only personal faith - but practice within an institutional setting) threatened in some fashion.  I saw this in my own close study of individual congregations in late 19th century Canada. 

'Doing' religion is intrinsic to any religion and is far more important and necessary to any religion than a stadium filled with arguing philosophers and sociologists. A close look at the evidence over time does show a theological emphasis on this world in contradiction to the next, but turning the lens of research onto how populations 'do' their religion reveals something quite different.  One sees an overall and an individual concern to live one's faith, to breathe it in.  Where a break occurs, following the research of the Canadian historian Michael Gauvreau and the British historian Callum Brown,  is in the mid to late 20th century.  This is when you begin to see large numbers of people abandoning the public and private practice of Christianity in the western world.  The ruminations of philosophers and social scientists over late mediaeval roots for this  turn are interesting and part of the puzzle, but miss too much.  Why so late in the day?  The evidentiary thread is so long and so thin attempting to connect a mid 20th century cultural change with a theological turn 500 years earlier causes me to put on the scholarly brakes. There is no good  evidence of such a change of any social significance during that 500 year span.  It all seems to happen very rapidly within a 20-30 year period in the second half of the 20th century.  Callum Brown notices this and postulates it is connected somehow to the feminist movement of the 1960s and the resultant abandonment of Christianity by women in western societies.  This is a good start, but the theoretical work of philosophers, sociologists and political scientists desperately needs some 'in the trenches' research by historians to provide an evidentiary foundation for their thinking, if indeed they are correct.

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