Sunday, December 16, 2007

Charles Taylor's Deconstruction of Nietzsche's Death of God

Today's nytimes reviews philosopher Charles Taylor's massive, 856-page book A Secular Age. Taylor deconstructs the "death nof God" idea as put forth by Nietzsche, arguing that, without God, life is meaningless.

From the review: "Taylor’s deconstruction of the death-of-God thesis rests on his conviction that “the arguments from natural science to Godlessness are not all that convincing.” He has no patience with atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who argue that science, particularly the theory of evolution, has consigned religion to the ash heap of history. Taylor, in contrast, sees science as reinforcing religion, since God is implicated in a social existence where the contemplation of meaning and order suggests “something divine in us.”"

"“A Secular Age” is a work of stupendous breadth and erudition..."

Of especial interest to me is the distinction taylor makes between Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Some of my studies which I incorporated into my doctoral thesis were of Weber's idea of "disenchantment," and the resultant "dull, routine, and flat" universe. The sociology of Durkheim proves to be more optimistic, and sees value in "religion as providing a framework of meaning, a realm of unifying symbols and a sense of belonging."

Taylor writes: “Our access to the will of God, through his design is crucial to the story of the modern moral order and to the new neo-Durkheimian understanding of God’s presence among us.”

This review, plus the comments below (emphases mine), tell me that this is a book I will have to read, as will anyone who wants to go deep into the heart of secularism so as to understand the current condition of Europe and North America.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review) : If the author had accomplished nothing more than a survey of the voluminous body of "secularization theory," he would have done something valuable. But, although Taylor clearly articulates his disdain for the view that modernity ineluctably led to the death of God, he goes far beyond a literature review...In addition to its conceptual value, this study is notable for its lucidity. Taylor has translated complex philosophical theories into language that any educated reader will be able to follow, yet he has not sacrificed an iota of sophistication or nuance. A magisterial book.

Publishers Weekly (starred review) : In his characteristically erudite yet engaging fashion, Taylor takes up where he left off in his magnificent Sources of the Self (1989) as he brilliantly traces the emergence of secularity and the processes of secularization in the modern age...Taylor sweeps grandly and magisterially through the 18th and 19th centuries as he recreates the history of secularism and its parallel challenges to religion. He concludes that a focus on the religious has never been lost in Western culture, but that it is one among many stories striving for acceptance. Taylor's examination of the rise of unbelief in the 19th century is alone worth the price of the book and offers an essential reminder that the Victorian age, more than the Enlightenment, dominates our present view of the meanings of secularity. Taylor's inspired combination of philosophy and history sparkles in this must-read virtuoso performance.

The Economist : One finds big nuggets of insight, useful to almost anybody with an interest in the progress of human society...A vast ideological anatomy of possible ways of thinking about the gradual onset of secularism as experienced in fields ranging from art to poetry to psychoanalysis...Taylor also lays bare the inconsistencies of some secular critiques of religion.

Baltimore Sun : Sophisticated, erudite...with excursions into history, philosophy and literature, A Secular Age is a weighty and challenging tome. It is also a brilliant account of the "sensed context" in which secularization developed. And a moving meditation, by a believer, on the "ineradicable bent" of human beings to respond to something beyond life, to keep open "the transcendent window."--Glenn C. Altschuler

New York Sun : A salutary and sophisticated defense of how life was lived before the daring views of a tiny secular elite inspired mass indifference, and how it might be lived in the future.--Michael Burleigh

Vancouver Sun : [A] big, powerful book...[Taylor's] book is massive in its historical and philosophical scope. Penetrating and dense, it would take months to fully digest. Loosely structured, it's crammed with original insights. Taylor, 75, can pack more into one of his complex paragraphs than most prevaricating, deconstructing academic philosophers can say in a chapter, or even a book...The book explores the immense ramifications of how the West shifted in a few centuries from being a society in which "it was virtually impossible not to believe in God" to one in which belief is optional, often frowned upon.--Douglas Todd

Los Angeles Times : In A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor takes on the broad phenomenon of secularization in its full complexity...[A] voluminous, impressively researched and often fascinating social and intellectual history...Taylor's account encompasses art, literature, science, fashion, private life--all those human activities that have been sometimes more, sometimes less affected by religion over the last five centuries.--Jack Miles

Montreal Gazette : The real genius of this erudite and profound book resides in its grandeur of theme and richness of detail. For all its imposing intellectual density, it is a delight to read; at times, it was literally impossible to put down. Yet it is also a work that ought to be read by degrees--one chapter at a time, with ample pause for reflection.--Lorenzo DiTommaso

American Prospect : In an idiosyncratic blend of the philosophical, the historical, and the speculative, Taylor describes the shift from a world brim-full with spirits and magic to a world where divinity is absent. His account resists the idea that the rise of secularism is a process of subtraction, of loss, and of disenchantment. Rather, Taylor describes secularity's birth as the migration of ideas, subtle changes in those ideas, and the opening of new possibilities. If Taylor's communitarian scholarship celebrated historical and social rootedness, A Secular Age is an encomium to the sheer happenstance of how those circumstances arose.--Azziz Huq

Slate : Taylor's masterful integration of history, sociology, philosophy, and theology demands much of the reader. In return you will be convinced that Charles Taylor is one of the smartest and deepest social thinkers of our time.--Tyler Cowen

Cleveland Plain Dealer : A culminating dispatch from the philosophical frontlines. It is at once encyclopedic and incisive, a sweeping overview that is no less analytically rigorous for its breadth. Its subject is a philosophical history of the past, present and future of Western Christendom. As such, it begins with a deceptively simple question: How did it become possible for anyone to not believe in God?...A Secular Age recounts the history of an idea, in other words, but in it the past is not an inert, settled fact, but a reservoir to be drawn upon to shatter the sameness and the apparent inevitability of the present. As a history it clarifies crucial intellectual and theological divisions that continue to structure debates about divinity, but with the aim of reforming the way we think about them, "to show the play of destabilization and recomposition." Though this isn't a book you take to the beach [but why not?], it remains eminently readable. As philosophers go, Taylor is a kind of behaviorist, more concerned with elaborating the implications of a way of thinking than with showing its contradictions. Unlike most philosophers, though, Taylor seems at pains to remain accessible to a general audience to capture complex philosophical debate in ordinary language. An important part of Taylor's argument is that religion and the belief in God, most particularly the experience of transcendence, are not at all outmoded...Though it avoids predictions or prescriptions, A Secular Age leaves us with the sense that the future will be a far poorer, less human place, if we do not discover some expression for that transcendent otherness.--Steven Hayward

The Tablet : A Secular Age is a towering achievement...It shows the ways we have traveled from the automatic certainties of 1500 to the fragile alignments of today. It transforms the secularization debate.--David Martin