Rambling Thoughts upon reading Taylor’s Varieties of Religion Today
Charles Taylor lays out an interesting philosophical look at early 21st century society and the place of religion today in a short (roughly 100 pages) book Varieties of Religion Today, where he ruminates on William James’s book, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). James’s book was based on his Gifford Lectures given over 1901-02, just as this short volume was based on Taylor’s Gifford Lectures given in 1999. While the two are separated by the neat figure of 100 years, Taylor sees James’s work as mostly holding true for today, but with some modifications necessary.
It is the second part of Taylor’s lectures and book that interest me most. Here he looks at the state of western society and therefore, of religion in western society at the very beginning of the 21st century. What he sees is the gradual growth of the individual pursuit of happiness and of the growing emphasis on the individual in society, two elements of modernity. Prior to the post-world war 2 period, this individualism was embedded in various checks such as ‘good citizenship’ of the sort envisioned by the founders of the American republic and their ideal of rule by the citizen, in a sexual morality that promoted and protected the family unit, and an ethic of hard work and productivity. What Prof. Taylor sees happening after the Second World War is the gradual removal of these checks on individual behaviour and their replacement by one only: that individuals do no harm to other individuals. He notes that this is not an abrupt change, though the 1960s can be seen as the turning point, but a change where old verities exist and perhaps recede alongside this new total unleashing of the individual.
He uses several terms as labels: paleo-Durkheimian, neo-Durkeimian, post-Durkheimian, expressivism and the Culture of Authenticity.
To boil down Durkheim’s work to sound byte size, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, one can say that Durkheim saw religion as being essentially functional and about social cohesion. By this light, crowds doing the wave at a football game could be seen as playing out a religious ritual - that is, a social ritual (as opposed to an individual ritual) that has the function of binding a group together in a common identity.
When Taylor uses the term paleo-Durkheimian, he means it in this pristine sense and ascribes it to societies with a dominant church to which all are required to belong. Here in specific historical terms he refers to western Europe prior to the Reformation and the Catholic church. In this system also, there is a division between the sacred and the profane, but one where they are nonetheless, linked. Religion permeates society at the political level and at the level of daily life. Neo-Durkheimian is used to denote a period where denominations have emerged with profound theological and ritualistic differences, but which accord a degree (sometimes less and sometimes more so) of mutual respect to one another. In this period, an individual may join whichever denomination suits their individual comfort. You might, to put this in obvious terms, belong to a Baptist congregation because you are comfortable in that particular congregation and at the same time accept the individual choice of a neighbour who joined a Catholic church. There exists a sense of an invisible ‘church’ consisting of accepting God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and of these denominations being merely individual expressions of a system that is both basic and overarching at the same time. It is also expected that this invisible church guides and directs society, but a level of individual choice has become the norm. Religion here is still serving a function of joining a society together, but with a large step towards full individualism. Hence neo-Durkheimian.
Post-Durkheimian is the situation obtaining today. Here Charles Taylor is less clear (to me, anyway). He earlier introduces the term expressivism, which seems to denote the gradual strengthening of the sense of passion as leading to religious truth rather than theological thought. Theology in the Middle Ages, was considered to be the Queen of the Sciences. This was the place where intellectuals who today are for example Physicists, congregated to understand the essential reality of the universe. Theology was a strict intellectual discipline with rules of thought carefully and arduously learned and followed once one became a Master. The truths of God, morality, social relations, the purpose of life and the physical world were the objects of study and thought. Purpose lay at the heart of this intellectual pursuit in contradiction to modern day Physics which now posits a cosmic accident as being at the very beginning of existence. Scholars then saw Jesus as the Alpha and the Omega (beginning and end), now scholars see pure chance as the alpha, but human will as the omega. Taylor seems to suggest (and again I would need to read more deeply into his work to verify this) that expressivism, the victory of passion and feeling over intellect has led to this current situation. Taylor traces the growth of expressivism through historic periods quickly: this is, after all a short book based on a lecture. He sees it beginning in the 18th century, which although historians have labelled this the Age of Reason, it was also the age of a reaction to hard logic in the Methodist movement and the Pietists who form the instigator of Methodism. Modern Methodists are not a passionate folk, but in the 18th century they based their view of Christianity on emotion more than reason. He then looks at the impact of urbanization and industrialization which had their beginnings contemporary to Methodism and Pietism, and at the Romantic era and at the growth of individualism as being factors.
Post-Durkheimian means for Taylor, the abandonment of religion as having a societal function. It is now to be a matter of personal emotional interest, or even intellectual interest, but personal, passionate and individual. Finally, in the post world war 2 period comes Taylor’s concept, the culture of authenticity. By this he means an understanding of the nature of life that emerged from expressivism. To be authentic, an individual must create their own way of being, that comes authentically from within your personality and predilections, and is not dictated by social norms including religion.
In the mediaeval world of western Europe, there was one religion and a societal acceptance of two spheres of the sacred and the profane within that mental universe. There were physical objects and places which were recognized as sacred and those apart from the sacred were profane (or in more modern terminology, secular). Religion was experienced societally - individual happiness with or contentment with was not regarded as vital. Religion and society were integrated (to use my own terminology). I prefer integrated to other possible descriptors such as entangled or unified because I want to convey the idea that ‘religion’ and society, politics, daily life, work, play, pain, failure, success and so on were not separate categories, but part of an integral whole.
How do I concatenate this with Taylor’s thesis of the separation of the sacred and the profane? I will have to think more deeply about this and read more of Taylor and perhaps Peter Brown on the origins of the mediaeval mentality as I do not at present see an obvious answer. Where they do meet is in particular places and times where human beings meet or enter. Thus, a church is sacred and people enter the sacred while literally entering a church building. Unlike today, there were other sacred places such as holy wells, or entire cities such as Jerusalem. There were objects that were sacred, primary among them being the bread viewed or consumed in communion at the Mass. ‘Communion’ is a good term here as it indicates ‘communication’ or ‘communing with’ the sacred ‘other’ and letting it enter your body. In a more holistic or perhaps neo-Durkheimian sense, I would suggest that there existed an overarching reality that included the sacred and the profane into the same existence, that connected this world and the other world of pure God. They were connected, but not the same. But I am no theologian or philosopher so must ground any thinking here in my study of the idea of mentalitié drawn form the work of the French historian Michel Vovelle, but that is another can of worms avoided here.
In the modern world - that mental universe which began to overcome the mediaeval mindset - individualism began inexorably to replace the more holistic sense of reality that had obtained, not only in the western European culture, but that of the more Mediterranean centred world of ancient Rome. One can argue time frames, but let us say that it began with the Renaissance and we can use Petrarch as a marker in the same way Taylor uses the 1960s as a marker of change. This is not a specific point of time, but a hinge moment. Petrarch’s ascension of Mount Ventoux is a tale of the conversion experience away from a holistic, social existence to one focussed on the individual called humanism. Modern research has cast doubt on this event, but that too is indicative of the change from a world that allowed for mystical experiences to one that always tries to debunk any mental or physical universe other than the purely material.
Yet for Taylor, that individualism was still bounded and limited by other ideals still accepted by society in general and individuals in particular. Thus we may now be generally inhabiting a post-Durkheimian universe, but many still live in a neo-Durkheimian place where there is a real religious and Christian reality that acts as an overseer of individual choice to join a particular denomination or even to be agnostic or atheist. The next stage, not considered in this 1990s meditation of his, would require analysis of the impact of theist and non-Christian religion becoming significant in the West. Would the growing numbers of Muslims and Hindus serve to strengthen neo-Durkheimian society? That is, would Islam, for example, take its place alongside Presbyterians and Catholics? The present tense fear of Islam in the United States is probably more an indicator of a struggle to place this non-Christian religion within the context of a society that is still mostly neo-Durkheimian. For Canada, we are dominated by a post-Durkheimian mental universe so any struggle would involve the full privatization of Islam, rather than including it alongside Christian denominations, which are already mostly privatized. Again, I would stress that this is not a neat and tidy process, but messy and chaotic in the extreme. Any analysis or comment must require a large degree of humility on my part and on that of any other thinker. Fortunately I have a vast store of that.