Musings on The Secular Age: And the Christian and the Atheist Shall Lie Down Together

I am slowly working through Charles Taylor's The Secular Age. I say slowly because the book is long and discursive. I'm about a third of the way through. At this point in the book I had a thought or two I'd like to share about Christians and atheists and the enjoyable conversations we have between us on this blog.

Taylor's thesis in The Secular Age is that secularism and exclusive humanism (as opposed to devout (i.e., "theistic") humanism) cannot be solely explained by the rise of reason and rationalism, what Taylor calls the "subtraction story," the story that once we "subtracted out" religious superstition (via the ascent of reason) humanism sprung forth. In this account religion was a kind of prop that needed to be discarded. Once religion was tossed on the trash heap of human history reason and virtue could proceed unimpeded. The trouble is, for secular intellectuals governed by this story, religion is still with us. Thus, for humans to make further progress the last remnants of religion need to be systematically killed off and eradicated. God isn't dead yet. There is still killing to be done. So says the work of Dawkins, Hicthens, and Harris.

Taylor contends that the mere removal of "superstition" cannot explain the rise of secularism and humanism. True, reason aided the move from an enchanted to a disenchanted world. But a simple negation or subtraction cannot explain the creative, positive thrust we find in the advent of secularism. Maybe facets of religion were "in the way," obstacles to progress, but what was driving the engine? Where was the motive force? As Taylor writes:

"The new natural science did indeed threaten some of the outlying forms which had become intricated with religion...it did, of course, hasten the disenchantment of the world, helping to split spirit from matter; more seriously, its conception of exceptionless natural law would later raise questions about the possibility of miracles. But this by itself can't explain the turning from devotion and religious experience to an external moralism." (p. 226-227)

Taylor, interestingly, contends that the motive force of secularism was religion itself. In his view, secularism, atheism, and humanism are the products of religion. They are the children of the faith, the logical outcome of certain religious impulses.

The specific religious engine of the birth of the secular age was the reforming influence that began to take hold of Latin Christianity about 500 years ago, most notably in the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.

According to Taylor a few important things happened with the Protestant Reformation and its sequela. To begin, the division between the clergy and the laity was dissolved. This had two related effects. First, this hastened disenchantment. The division between sacred and profane places, offices, and rituals was broken down. For example, Protestant churches became functional "meeting places", a disenchanted space in contrast to its forebear: the enchanted Medieval cathedral. The second outcome of the clergy/laity fusion was an increased moral burden upon the laity. In Medieval Christianity holiness was an occupation carried out by church professionals: The clergy, the monastic orders, and the saints. The "holiness professionals" built up reserves of merit that could be appealed to, purchased, and generally relied on. These "merit reserves" spiritually carried the more profane laity. But with reform holiness specialists were no more. Everyone was now a saint and was expected to behave like one. This moral pressure on the common person was unprecedented and was, as we will see, the primary force in the rise of secularism. As Taylor writes, with the rise of reform there was "an attempt to make the mass of the laity...shape up more fully as Christians" (p. 265). Here is Taylor on the breakdown of the spiritual/monastary versus world/town distinction:

Now "all valid Christian vocations are those of ordinary life, or production and reproduction in the world. The crucial issue is how you live these vocations. The two spheres are collapsed into each other. Monastic rules disappear, but ordinary lay life is now under more stringent demands. Some of the ascetic norms of monastic life are now transferred to the secular." (p. 266)

Why would this moral pressure on the masses produce secularism? Taylor suggests that the moral intensification on the laity (along with disenchantment) made morality the telos, the goal of the Christian faith. What we owe to God is goodness. In short, as a result of disenchanted reform Christianity becomes less spiritual but more moral. Further, while this moral reform was going on, there was an increased valuing of mechanistic, instrumental reason (e.g., Newtonian physics). Consequently, in reform we see religious groups apply instrumental, mechanistic reason to the problem of morally educating the polis. Reform goes civic. This moral and civic reform, the implementation of a kind of "moral engineering", was clearly seen in Calvin's Geneva as well as in other Protestant sects. In effect, the entire city or nation becomes the monastery.

But it is only a short step from those reforming Protestant political experiments to secular humanism. That is, if goodness (or its more public face: "civility") is the goal and if reason alone can be used to create well-functioning moral communities then God becomes less and less important. In fact, it dawns on people: Do you even NEED God to be a good person or structure a just society? Doesn't civility just "make sense"? In the words of our Founding Fathers, are not these truths self-evident? Who needs a priest or preacher to tell us what is now obvious to reason? Being a good person is beneficial to both self and state. And so is born the secular age.

Let me quote a bit from Taylor on this movement from reform to humanism:

"In a sense, one might argue that reform, re-awakening, re-organization, re-newed dedication and discipline has become a part of the standing culture of all the churches which have issued out of Western Christendom...Around 1500, this drive begins to take a slightly different direction. It begins to take up a more ambitious goal, to change the habits and life-practices, not only religious but civil, of whole populations; to instill orderly, sober, disciplined, productive ways of living in everyone. This is the point where the religious drive to reform begins to become interwoven into the attempts to introduce civility, thus to 'civilize', as the key term came to be. This was not a simple take-over, a deviation imposed on the drive to religious reform; because religious reformers themselves concurred that the undeniable fruit of Godliness would be ordered, disciplined lives. They also sought to civilize, for good theological reasons." (p. 244)

The primary moral virtue required for this type of broad-based civic reform was a "universal beneficence." That is, the Golden Rule had to be built into the fabric of society. This "universal beneficence" became the hallmark of humanism, seen blandly today in tolerance and political correctness. The generic niceness that is the defining moral virtue of secular societies. Yet this moral feature is simply the Christian notion of agape made political and civic. It is a civic form of love that produces social cohesion and conflict reduction:

"The locus of the highest moral capacity had to be a source of benevolence, and the aspiration to universal justice. Now benevolence and universal justice are precisely the hallmarks of eighteenth century exclusive humanism." (p. 295)

"There is a specific drive to beneficence in modern humanist moral psychology, independent of pre-existing ties. Its scope is in principle universal. This is the historic trace, as it were, of agape." (p. 247)

"...there is something remarkable in this retention of an agape-analogue...it would probably not have been possible to make the transition to an exclusive humanism on any other basis." (p. 247)

To summarize: Secularism and humanism are the logical products of religious reform. In religious reform we see moral intensification directed at the entire polis guided by disenchanted reason. What is demanded from the polis is "universal beneficence," goodness and goodwill to all ("civility"). The rise (from religion itself) of this instrumental, disenchanted, civic morality is what produced the secular age.

Okay, now a few musings on Taylor's book.

First, I've always felt comfortable talking to most atheists. I've always felt that we are kindred spirits. If Taylor is right, we are. We are siblings. That is, secularism is a moral reforming movement that grew out of religion. The reason why secular impulses toward tolerance and justice seem so Christian is that they are. There is a historical connection. Thus, in many ways, atheists and I see the world the same way. We share the same values. Yes, the "God Question" divides us, but we are not strangers. We are family. We understand each other. We both want to be good people. We want a better world for our children.

Second, this means that I'll often feel more connection with an atheist than a fellow "Christian." For example, why do I feel more connection with an atheist who advocates for legal rights for same-sex couples than the Christian who thunders from the pulpit that "God hates gays"? I think Taylor provides an answer: The sympathies I share with the secular humanist have the same source: The Christian notion of agape. In short, I feel Taylor has given me an explanation for why I've felt comfortable with many atheists and secular humanists and repulsed by many "Christians."

Finally, I don't feel comfortable with all atheists. And again I think Taylor helps me understand why. If Taylor is correct there are some atheists who are still working with the "subtraction story": Only by killing off religion can we advance as a species. These "subtraction atheists" I do not resonate with. I feel they paint with too broad a brush and discount the positive moral influence of Christianity.

But in contrast to the "subtraction atheists" I think there are "reforming atheists," persons who respect goodness wherever they find it. They don't hate religion, they just don't feel they need it. They are good not for God's sake but, as the Christmas song goes, for "goodness sake", for the sake of being good and for that alone. To date, every conversation I've had on this blog with an atheist has been with this "reforming-type" atheist. I use the word "reforming" because, according to Taylor, that is how they emerged in the secular age and that is what they are still seeking to do: Make the world a better place.

And as a Christian I join them in that task.

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25 thoughts on “Musings on The Secular Age: And the Christian and the Atheist Shall Lie Down Together”

  1. Hey Richard
    I am also slowly making my way through the book... I think its fascinating though. I am trying to arrange a book study with a group of people interested in the topic *from a variety of religious or areligous backgrounds. If you have any thoughts and are looking for people to engage it with... feel free to swing on over to the blog.

    discussingtaylor.blogspot.com

    Again, if you are interested in posting at all on it, let me know and I can forward along the invite. Hope all is well.

    Peter

  2. I started on this book right after Christmas then a number of things got in the way and will have to take it up later. One fine "reforming atheist" I once knew was raised a Methodist preacher's daughter and decided at age 14 that there was no God. Nonetheless, she was still a good Christian in many ways.

  3. Thanks for the book report - several friends and I have been pursuing this line of inquiry for several years on our own. Taylor, and your interpretation, over a new and powerful narrative. I would suggest however that we need to retain but re-think some of the older ones as complements as well. In "God's Funeral" A.N. Wilson traces the challenges to religion and the rise of secular humanism from the Enlightenment forward and argues that after the failures of "magical" religion under scrutiny many wanted to find a new basis for morality. And looked for it in natural causes. At the same time as we've been going thru 500 years of scientististic debunkings, ala Dawkins, we're coming to the failure point of that simple narrative; it doesn't address the big questions and is a guilty of moral collapse, e.g. Communism and Fascism, as any religion. Interestingly in Einstein's collected essays which B&N just brought out he makes some similar points. It seems to me what we need is a recognition that there are certain transcendent goals we can all accept and that Science, Religion and the Humanities all have powerful and complementary roles in to play in pursuing them.

  4. Samuel Skinner
    I don't get what you guys are talking about. Secularism started in the United States under the Constitution as an attempt to keep the nation from splitting apart in religious conflict. Absolutely secular explanation, guided by reason. Prior to this every country in Europe claim power by divine right. So it wasn't a religious movement at all.

  5. Hi Sam,
    Just a quick rejoinder.

    First, we are abstracting a very erudite argument. If you don’t think it plausible let’s not judge the argument based on these abstracts and summaries. I suggest you take up Taylor yourself and weight his evidence. If you think him wrong, start weighing in at the Immanent Frame blog that is hosting the scholarly discussion about the book.

    However, your used of the word “started” doesn’t bode well for your position. I doubt anyone seriously thinks history is a series of ex nihilo events.

  6. Let me add a clarification about the post given Sam’s response. To say there is a temporal ordering and linkage between religion and secularism doesn’t imply that religion is “best” because it came “first.” I expect a secular thinker can look at the temporal ordering and see it as progress, evolution, or advancement with what comes “later” as “better.” It can be argued either way. I only highlight the temporal connection to simply note that secular humanism and Christianity share a great deal more than they perhaps disagree on. IMHO.

  7. Richard,
    As an unbelieving brother, let me give you a big hug. I always enjoy your thought provoking comments and this is no exception.

    Not having read the book (but may want to) I will just add a thought. I enjoy reading about the Gnostic Christians who were very much kin with the mystery religions that preceded them. All were very civil and stressed the importance of living a moral life. So, civility did not begin with Christianity but maybe survived in spite of it to some degree based on what I know of the dark ages. Taylor’s points may be basically correct but I think we can reach back further in time and see the same impulses to civility in mankind.

    I do want to point out that atheism is often blamed by Christians for atrocities by Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. This is too simplistic and we know that correlation does not mean causation. In the same, way we can say Christianity caused witch hunts and genocide also, but I think these knee-jerk responses gloss over much and are not helpful.
    I know that in my case I don't find belief in God necessary for me to live a civil life and, in fact, I find some of the Christian beliefs to be morally repugnant. Some who believe will say I'm immoral because without God a person has no morals or even a reason to be moral but I don't find it true in my life.

    These kinds of conversations are beneficial to mutual understanding and I thank you for pursuing this topic.

    Thanks,
    Rick T.

  8. I tend to sympathize with Dawkins and his ilk. The question of whether religion has historically done more harm than good, is an open one (IMO). Is religion really necessary for making the world a better place, or is it holding things up? Do we really need these two tandem moral philosophies (i.e., secular and religious)? Is one better than the other? I find it hard to fault someone who wants to stake out some of the arguments on this issue; in fact, I find them (dawkins et al.) persuasive at times. I doubt that Dawkins or Hitchens would say that nothing good originated with religion. Granted, they are very polemical figures.

  9. I think Taylor is absolutely right in saying that humanism grew out of religious reform and therefore there is an ongoing connection with Christianity.

    Indeed 18th century philosphers such as Voltaire, Montequescui and Rousseau made a conscious effort to secularise Christianity and 'embed the golden rule into society'.

    Rousseau's attempt to to explain the transition to a good society without God is particularly fascinating. He appreciates that until there is a just society 'doing the good' isn't always in a citizen's enlightened self-interest. It takes acts of sacrifice from individuals to move an unjust society towards a just one.

    In spite of himself, Rousseau is forced to posit the need for faith in an ultimately just God as a motivation for acts of sacrifice necessary for progress and thus knowingly undermines his attempt to secularise Christianity. He concluded "without faith, no true virtue exists"

    Since following this story I've always found it interesting talking to what you describe as 'reformed' atheists about what motivates them for 'doing the good' when it requires sacrifice. Was Rousseau right or can our motivations be secularised as well?

  10. Rousseau concluded "without faith, no true virtue exists"

    "I've always found it interesting talking to what you describe as 'reformed' atheists about what motivates them for 'doing the good' when it requires sacrifice. Was Rousseau right or can our motivations be secularised as well?"

    Let me give you my view. Rousseau was wrong. We are social creatures. One way we punish the most criminal is with solitary confinment. We love our children and our families, both believer and non-believer. I would give my life to try to save my wife or daughter. I read the letter from an atheist solder that had lost his life in Iraq. He wrote about why he was risking his life and what his service to his country meant to him. He was not afraid to die and was happy to do so because he felt strongly about giving back to society. Sadly for him the "just in case I don't come back" letter needed to be posted on his blog.
    Unbelievers give of themselves all the time. I wonder why believers feel the need to give and sacrifice. Is it because they are trying to please or appease God and earn rewards in the afterlife? Or are they drawing from the same inner well that non-believers are drawing from. Maybe we are all coming from the same place.

    Thanks,
    Rick T.

  11. Rick,

    Who defines good? Whose good should prevail? Is there a summum bonum to help sort out disagreements? If so, who decides that? If cultures disagree on the fundamentals of "good" for society, who decides which culture is right? If just your idea of good conflicts with just your self-interest, is there a source of metaprudential enlightenment somewhere to be found? And who gets to be the authority on that one?

    What is needed is a transcendent source of value--one beyond arguing about. But if it's transcendent, how does that help? Well, how 'bout saying that we are all made in the image of that transcendent value? That would bring it down to earth, making other people unviolable, rather than the value untouchble.

    Freud hypothisized that monotheism began long ago when a group of boys murdered a father figure (Totem and Taboo). I think he got it backwards: long ago a father figure began monotheism to keep the kids from murdering each other. As a person of faith, I just think that the father figure happens to be extraordinarily wise.

    It looks like it's going to take a while for the meek to inherit the earth, but that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

    Tracy

  12. Tracy,

    What about the experience of humanity? Democracy is "good" because we've experienced totalitarianism and know it to be miserable. We've experienced slavery, and it was aweful. We've experienced genocide and know it to be something to be avoided. Just like the story of Uncle Tom's Cabin helped expose the evil of slavery, the larger story of humanity teaches us virtue.

  13. Tracy,
    Every culture has their good and their bad, and many cultures share commonalities. That tells you that morality is a cultural construct. You say we need to have a transcendent source of value, a final word. The Bible certainly doesn't do this.
    The moral values contained there in are all over the map. I agree with pecs in that experience has taught us a lot and I will add that humanity has become more moral, by and large, in spite of the Bible not because of it due to this experience.
    I certainly can't see a transcendent source of morality anywhere in Holy Writ. Also, other pre-existing religions contained moral concepts such as the Golden Rule. So it seems that mankind can come up with codes of conduct that we can consider good and noble in spite of not having a father figure to provide them or to motivate enforcement of them.
    That's the way I see it.
    By the way, I hope the meek do inherit the earth if it means that arrogant, right wing, fundie nut job fads away to oblivion. You, kind sir, are one of the meek.
    Thanks,
    Rick T.

  14. Pecs,

    Evidently lots of people experience slavery and totatalitarianism and genocide and find them satisfactory, since they are very difficult to put to rest, despite the fact that they are morally egregious.

    "The experience of humanity" is actually quite the reverse of what you suggest. Get a good history of one of the places your ancestors come from and count the genocides or subjugations from the point on in recorded history. I am confident that you will find that the Old Testament is the rule.

    Have we really progressed so much, or is life just easier? What would happen if our circumstances got really tough? Would our moral virtues become expendable luxuries--nicities that can't be maintained when life depends on ruthless expediency?

    I'm afraid that the sinners have always outnumbered the saints by a large margin. And I'm quite sure that the actual values that motivate most of us most of the time are very different than the values to which we pledge ourselves: the human motivational landscape is wide open, just as I implied, even though it's very unfashionable to be a realist about such things, even to oneself.


    And Rick,

    You read my point as being, "You say that we need to have a source of transcendent value, a final word." To be "final" there must be an end to which one gets. But what is "transcendent" but something that is "beyond," making anything "final" impossible.

    Here's half of what I hoped you would take from my words:

    If striving after the same "good" causes strife and having differing ideas of good also causes strife (an example: Picts and Celts and Gales and Anglo-Saxons and Vikings all fighting over England--the good--and how England is to be governed--differing ideas of good) then, if it's possible to agree on a good that no one can possess or direct, it will not be possible to strive for it, making it impossible to have strife over it.

    It's a simple, analytical point, akin to saying that if two objects don't touch, there will be no friction between them.

    My best to you both.

    Tracy

  15. Tracy,

    I'm not saying that all moral grey suddenly is black or white when we reflect on our collective experience. I just think it is a legitimate (I would say it is often the best) basis for making moral judgments. We use our experience in this fashion all the time; it is the power of the story to transform behavior.

  16. Pecs,

    I agree that we learn through experience and that collective experience is part of that. But there is a powerful message in the Genesis creation mythos: It's called "the fall." Evil will always be part of the motivational landscape because there will always be people who want more than their fair share and have or think they have the power to get it. What about this story: Sometimes selfish people get what they want and are happy about it. Think about the stories slave-owners told, or the Nazis, or the stories we told before going into Iraq, or the stories that we are telling now that it looks like it is probably in our interest to get out. Stories are pretty flexible. And they can deceive as well as educate.

    Tracy

  17. Richard, I have Google set to send me notices when it finds articles containing Golden Rule references and so I just got to your blog.

    I very much appreciated the link you make to agapé. Its a connection that I've included in a short Golden Rule work I'm just completing. I'm often surprised that more people do not connect the two.

    In any case, a great commentary. From the comments already here, it looks like there's a thriving community of people around you. I look forward to following the discusions.

    David Keating
    the Golden Rule Radical site

  18. "And Rick,

    You read my point as being, "You say that we need to have a source of transcendent value, a final word." To be "final" there must be an end to which one gets. But what is "transcendent" but something that is "beyond," making anything "final" impossible."

    I understood you to mean “beyond” as God, thus making it the final word or authority in what is or is not moral. My reasoning stands as written before. There are moral rules that predate any in the Bible making it unreasonable to conclude that false gods promoted Godly morality or that God was giving out moral truths in the guise of false gods.

    "Here's half of what I hoped you would take from my words:

    If striving after the same "good" causes strife and having differing ideas of good also causes strife (an example: Picts and Celts and Gales and Anglo-Saxons and Vikings all fighting over England--the good--and how England is to be governed--differing ideas of good) then, if it's possible to agree on a good that no one can possess or direct, it will not be possible to strive for it, making it impossible to have strife over it.

    It's a simple, analytical point, akin to saying that if two objects don't touch, there will be no friction between them."

    Having misunderstood you once let me try again. I use your analogy as a template for one similar.
    “We all want to find meaning and purpose in our lives but disagree as to the hows or whats of it. So, since we find agreement on the value of the pursuit but not the manner in which it should be pursued, then we will find it impossible to pursue meaning and purpose and also impossible to argue over it.”
    This makes no sense to me although I tried to stay true to your analogy. Maybe you could clarify what needing a father figure to promote morality, as you said previously, has to do with competing to be sole possessor of a limited resource as suggested in your comment.

    I suggest we all have need, as social creatures, for morals. They are man made not God ordained. We are not arguing whether or not the Golden Rule is right or wrong. We agree that it is good. We may not agree why the rule makes sense to us.
    I must have completely missed your point although I would love to live in a world where people need not argue for discrimination or against science or reason because they knew no fear. I see all kinds of hate and irrational ideologies being motivated by fear.
    By the way, two objects can touch without friction. That is why, as an unbeliever, I read this blog and comment on it occasionally. It’s not important to me whether anyone agrees with me or whether I persuade anyone with a particular argument. I do, however, think it important that differing viewpoints get aired if only to let it be known that these views can be reasonable and that normal, civil people whom you meet every day hold similar views. I believe this contact can be made without friction and I see that happening on Richards’s blog.
    Sorry if I butchered your analogy and I do find your views both intelligent and well articulated and I enjoy reading them.
    Thanks,
    Rick T.

  19. Hi Rick,

    Two points, and the first is by far the most important.

    1. I see the Bible as a fallible book written by people who were often mistaken, which nevertheless contains a record of real strivings of fallible people to know God and even of real divine responses.

    It would be foolish and inappropriate here to try to justify my belief that God responded, but there is strong evidence in the Bible for the claim central to the narrow point that I tried to make, that God functions--at least ideally--as a value beyond human values: Commandment One, You shall have no gods before me; Commandment Two: You can't make any representation of a god (something that takes the place of God in worship and reverence, biblically). Functionally that means no one gets to create a representation of a highest good around which human beings organize their lives. Instead, the rules that preserve all human beings as equal ends in themselves in an ethical commonwealth are to be the organizing principle of society. And the fact that seven of the remaining eight ten commandments conform to this "story," while the eighth further reinforces it, makes this, I believe, a strong entry point for illustrating the Bible's core message.

    We tend to forget how easy it is to construct "idols." That is, we tend to forget how important the function of this central biblical theme is in human life. Let me be autobiographical in illustrating this point, so I don't end up pointing fingers. As I approach the point where I am able to launch my business I will have to make concrete decisions about whether my strategy is to make the most of it for myself or for my employees and customers. I assure you that I will face temptations to make myself the organizing principle for the little society that my business creates--and that is idolatry, on my reading of Scripture.

    Tillich wrote of the need for a "God beyond God" in the modern world, because we have got away from the core function and meaning of "God" biblically. I recommend his "The Courage to Be" as an antidote to all the silly and superficial god-talk of the "culture wars."

    2. Since I do not claim that the Bible is infallible, or that my faith tradition is either, you need to realize that as I try to discern my faith's meaning, I can be assumed--that is, if you are willing to have faith that I want to at least try to be a reasonable person--to want to bypass all the crap of the culture wars, that you seem to want to pin on my view--though you do hve the grace to say that "I must have completely missed your point" before continuing, "although I would love to live in a world where people do not argue for discrimination or against science..."

    Kindly think of my forays as attempts to insert an Archimedian screw beneath the surface of water polluted by the flotsam of the culture wars. It seems to me that your arguments are important in that context, where the BS meter is overrun in sludge. But in honest dialog the meaning of a person's words should be taken seriously, and I must say that some of the responses that I could make to some of your points would begin with "My Webster's dictionary defines..."

    I am sorry to say that, since you are obviously an intelligent man of good will. I attribute the confusion to a habitual suspicion of "spin" based on partisan half-truths in such discussions.

    I will do my best to avoid that, and if I have misrepresented your view, I am sorry.

    Tracy

  20. Hi All,
    I've been following along. Sometimes I don't comment much because I'm either:

    1) Thinking hard about what to say
    2) Scanning Peanuts strips into the computer

    :-)

    Let me throw something into the mix. I'd like to pick up with Jonathan's comment about Rousseau which seemed to spark some of the subsequent conversation.

    Over the holidays I finished Mark Lilla's book The Stillborn God. I highly recommend it. I didn't know a lot about Rousseau but Lilla considers him an important figure in the dialogue between belief and unbelief.

    He grounds this analysis in The Profession of Faith of a Savogard Vicar found in Emile. I had never heard of The Profession but it is quite remarkable. Emile, now fully entered into society, is struggling with religion and all the fear and superstition associated with it. Should he participate? He encounters a Vicar who tells his story. The Vicar tells how he too grew disillusioned by religion. As a consequence he goes on a spiritual journey to reconfigure how he should relate to faith. The outcome of the journey is quite remarkable and is, essentially, one of the first articulations of humanism, one that could be theistic or non-theistic.

    The Vicar's move is this: He narrows faith to moral concerns, specifically the mandates of the conscience. The Vicar grows very agnostic about metaphysics. Some quotes from the Vicar:

    "For this reason I shall never take it upon myself to argue about the nature of God."

    "I only seek to know what matters for my conduct."

    "Know how to be ignorant and you will deceive neither yourself or others."

    It is this narrowing of faith to immanent moral concerns that Taylor is discussing as summarized in my post. As the Vicar's story shows, humanism emerges from religion (the Vicar's vision of the good was shaped by his Christian experience) but also produces a rejection of faith (once we become agnostic about metaphysics and focused on morality then why be "religious"?).

    Now, obviously, the issue comes: What is the good? Who best defines it? And who gets to take credit for framing it?

    Humanists or Christians?

    My take: I think it was created by the Vicar: Those persons who stood "in between" the ages of belief and unbelief, who kept the impulses of Christian agape in dialogue with reason and human experience.

    I think this is what happens on this blog. We have a lot of Vicars: People "in between" faith and unbelief (or willing to have "in between" conversations) who keep faith, reason, and experience in constant conversation.

  21. Tracy,

    Thanks for clarifying your point. I like the fundamental focus of your hierarchy of values. God is good, but since we must not value anything but God and since everything is an incomplete depiction of God, we must content ourselves with being equals and not elevating ourselves over others which is God’s place alone. Is that nearer to your meaning?
    I like the end point of an ethical commonwealth although I can’t make the connection between “God is good” and “therefore we should treat each other as we would like to be treated.” As in Richard’s comment, I like where you’ve arrived but I can’t see the need for your departure point. I agree that the Bible is fallible so I see no point in placing much value on it in terms of guiding principles. After all, what worth any particular scripture has to me will be determined not by the text, which may or may not be true in that specific case, but by other evidence which may corroborate it. Since other more reliable evidence needs to be used I see no need for the fallible scriptures.

    As to the ease of constructing idols, I must say the most freeing epiphany I had was in discovering that we all construct our worlds based on knowledge gleaned from society. Things as trivial as what we eat to what we consider to be beautiful or valuable to us is part of the world we construct in our brains. My “I get it moment” came from understanding that if my world view has been created from bits and pieces of parts of the world views of others then I need not accept these as ultimate truth and reality. I can create my own by deleting that which is detrimental, demeaning, or harmful to self or others and include in my world those things which create peace, calm, harmony or even excitement and passion if I choose. The point is, we all create the idol which is our purpose in life. We can worship false idols (money, fame, self importance), or place our idols above others in terms of value. If we have arrived at the same point of finding meaning that involves equality, love, acceptance and inclusion and then act out this meaning then we can say we are in agreement and our starting point is irrelevant.

    "I only seek to know what matters for my conduct."

    "Know how to be ignorant and you will deceive neither yourself nor others."


    As usual Richard, you can bring things into focus in such a way as to get to the ultimate point. In my stumbling and overly verbose way I hope it’s clear that I made these points also. The second quote can be rephrased as “Never believe anyone especially yourself.” As an unbeliever I find it liberating to need not have the answers and to not concern myself with the views of those who think that they do. It is still fun to speculate however while valuing only that which “matters for my conduct.”
    Thanks,
    Rick T.

  22. Fellow Vicars,

    I thought that Richard did a fine job of illustrating my point, coming in at the end like a deus ex machina to save the day after we sinners made another mess of things.

    An interesting observation I have taken from our exchange: pecs and Rick, who seem to have faith in human nature, are skeptics about God--in fact Rick can't even see my point of departure in bringing God in... I, on the other hand, am a skeptic about human nature and so see a need for faith in order to avoid moral skepticism.

    I think Richard secretly wanted to illustrate the truth of my position. :-)

    Thanks for the interesting points and counterpoints, fellow vicars.

    BTW: may I suggest that Richard could try to get ACU to formally bestow the title "Vicar" on all of Richard's regulars? I'd like that!

    Signing off on this thread...

    Tracy

  23. Interesting post! As a spiritual humanist who personally has no use for god/religion I have no need to destroy others' beliefs. I do gently remind that which we share--our striving for justice, among others, while Christian, yes, stem directly from Judaism. It seems that's overlooked too often. Let us stand together where we can--supporting gay marriage, healing this earth etc. and agree to disagree over the rest. Meaning comes to me by loving; I suspect we share that too. Shalom!

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