Friday, November 12, 2010

letter to Charles Taylor

Prof Taylor meets fans

Hello Mr Taylor, I hope this finds you well. I've been meaning to have a look at your big book, A Secular Age, for some time now, but being impoverished, and in any case a slow reader, it would be a costly venture for me all round.
Like yourself I suspect, I've been animated of late by the lively debates going on around religion, Christianity, secularism and science, but my take would certainly not be the same as yours. I must say I enjoyed reading some of your lucid essays in the eighties, on thinkers as diverse as Foucault and Hegel, and I always meant to read more of your work, but life took over, and then much more recently I heard of your winning the Templeton Prize, and that you were 'religious'. You could've knocked me down with a feather.
You cropped up again, for me, in the pages of Philosophy Now [July-August 2009 edition], a magazine I buy from time to time, where you were interviewed about, amongst many other things, the atheist bus campaign in Britain. That's what I want to focus on in this letter. Here is the part of the interview I want to focus upon:
Interviewer: I was thinking about your recent book, A Secular Age this morning when a bus passed by with an atheist, or more correctly, agnostic slogan 'There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.'
Taylor: I heard about that. It's hilariously funny. It's very odd, isn't it? I'm trying to figure out why this is happening in our time. This new phenomena is puzzling. Atheists that want to spread the 'gospel' and are sometimes very angry. I think it may be rather like the response of certain bishops to Darwin in the nineteenth century. The bishops had a sense that the world was going on in a certain direction, more and more conversion and so on. And then they found that they're suddenly upset in their expectation, and they get very rattled and very angry. Similarly, we're seeing this now among the secularizing intelligentsia. Liberals who felt that the world was going in a certain direction, that it was all going according to plan, and then when it seems not to be, they get rattled. So you get these rather pathetic phenomena. Putting things on buses as though that's going to make people somehow change their view about God, the universe, the meaning of life and so on. A bus slogan! It's not likely to trigger something very fundamental in anybody.
Well Professor Taylor, I don't know if you'd call this an unguarded moment, but I would almost want to call it a 'hissy fit'. First you describe the phenomenon of an atheist slogan as 'hilarious', and then you describe it as 'puzzling', both, it seems to me with an air of condescension. Personally, I think it's because you're rattled.
For example, why do you describe an atheist slogan as pathetic, without any mention of Christian slogans, which outnumber the atheist ones by thousands and thousands to one, especially in your part of the world? Do you think these Christian slogans - Jesus is the Answer, Jesus Loves You, Jesus Saves, Honk if You Love Jesus, What would Jesus think? Not Perfect, Just Forgiven, and so on ad nauseum - are going to change anybody's view, are going to trigger anything fundamental in anybody? Or maybe you think these slogans are shoved before our faces constantly for other reasons? If so, maybe you should think again about the many and varied reasons atheists might use slogans too.
How interesting, though, that you respond to a perfectly reasonable [and notably agnostic] bus slogan with references to atheist 'gospel' and atheist anger. Could this, again, be projection? Gospels, after all, don't generally have the word 'probably' in them, and Christian slogans never do.
Let me look more closely, though, at your analysis of this phenomenon. You compare the atheist response to things not going their way to the response of some bishops when Darwin produced his Origin of Species. The idea being that the bishops thought in the nineteenth century that things were going their way too, with more and more conversions, etc. But there is something fundamentally wrong with this comparison. The bishops were reacting to the theory of evolution by natural selection, which is the most powerful and successful biological theory ever developed. It has transformed our understanding of life on this planet, and is one of the most significant scientific developments in human history. The arguments of the bishops in opposing this theory are seen as shallow, ideological and absurd. Modern atheists are still fighting these shallow, ideological arguments, in the form of creationism/intelligent design, and the rise of the soi-disant new atheists has had much to do with the rise of anti-intellectual fundamentalist religion in recent times, as well as the anti-intellectual, 'submissive' strand inherent in all religious belief systems. It seems to me to be a 'we've had enough of this' reaction to this wave. So, in making this comparison, you appear to be equating the theory of evolution with the wilful ignorance of fundamentalist religion. If you can't see the absurdity of this, then I can't see much hope in your approach to the issue.
I can only hope that A Secular Age cuts a little deeper than your 'understanding' of the atheist bus campaign. I don't want to be wasting my time and money. But I do hear that you are in fact a Catholic, a sect for which I feel a particular antipathy, I must say, being not by nature traditionalist, authoritarian, patriarchal or homophobic. Still I'm open to what you have to say. Maybe you'll actually be able to make sense of 'spirituality'? Nobody else has.

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