Author: McClay, Wilfred M
Date published: January 1, 2012
Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age. Edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. 352pp. $45.00.
It is too soon to know for sure whether Charles Taylor's sprawling book A Secular Age wUl prove to be as important and influential as it seemed when it appeared m 2007. Knotty and ambitious books, particularly when they seek to change the terms of discussion itself, take tune to be absorbed and assimUated, as their arguments are mediated, interpreted, debated, tested, modified, and appropriated (or rejected) m whole or Ui part. Given the length and difficulty of Taylor's book, it seems likely that a decade or more wül pass before we know anything definite on that count.
But given Taylor's status as one of the most eminent philosophers of the past half-century, and given the fact that his massive tome would be the intellectual culmination of a long and briUiant career, there was no doubt that energetic and respectful attention would be paid. The book's appearance occasioned a very large number of generaUy favorable reviews and stimulated fresh discussions between and among students both of religion and secularism, advocates for both beUef and unbelief. There was excitement in the an, and one had at times the sense that an important intellectual breakthrough might be occurring. Much of the early excitement expressed itself on the Social Science Research Council's website, The Immanent Frame (http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/), edited by Jonathan VanAntwerpen, which quickly became a forum for scholars drawn to Taylor's project and related matters.
Hence the significance of the present book, a coUection of essays based on papers given at a conference at Yale in April 2008, edited by VanAntwerpen and two other scholars, and with a response by Taylor himself. It represents the next phase of scholarly response to Taylor's work.
A few words first about A Secular Age. The book defies summarization but chiefly offers a fresh way of tiiniking about secularism, envisioning it as a particular and historically contingent thing, formed dialectically and susceptible to all sorts of variations, rather than envisioning it as the singular and inevitable bedrock reality left behind with the removal or "subtraction" of superstition and other prescientific errors. This conceptualization made the divide between secularism and religion a far less distinct and far more interesting territory, and in fact a liminal zone within which fruitful intellectual commerce could and did take place. Rather than focusing on the standard philosophical or theological arguments for or against theism or the issues relating to religion's proper role in politics and public life, Taylor concentrates instead on the experience of secularity as a transformation of selfhood and consciousness rather than a response to modern science's simple revelation of the way things "really" are. Taylor offers an alternative narrative about how the present secular condition came to be, one that employs a distinctive (and sometimes rather awkward) vocabulary and takes as its subject matter a constant adaptation of experience and sensibility.
So, then, do the essays in the volume under review tend to vindicate and intensify the early enthusiasm for A Secular Age? Or do they introduce, either directly or indirectly, a note of qualification? As always with such collections, the answer must be mixed, but I fear the balance tilts toward the latter. This is not for any lack of individual quality in the essays. The authors include some of the best and most interesting scholars in the field, such as Jose Casanova, John Milbank, Jon Butler, and William Connolly. Several contributions offer very rich and penetrating engagements with this or that aspect of Taylor's work, particularly Jonathan Sheehan's "When Was Disenchantment?," which points out the extent to which Taylor's vast argumentative edifice regarding shifting "social imaginaries" rests upon conjectural rather than empirical bases. The problem with the volume is that there is no sense of convergence in the various topics, an absence that is only confirmed by the diffuseness of the editorial introduction's manner of linking the essays and by Taylor's diffuse effort to respond to them at the book's conclusion. This is, I suspect, a problem that goes beyond the multidisciplinarity of the authors.
At the very end, Taylor repeatedly avers that "a big part of the intellectual agenda of [A Secular Age]" was the fostering of "conversation going across as many differences as I can" so that "we could go on having a conversation about [modern secularity] that bridges these differences." This is surely an admirable intention. But one can be forgiven for wondering whether the fostering of conversation can be an end in itself, particularly when the speakers are all talking about different things. That wül have to change if what was mitiaUy exciting about Taylor's project is to be fruitful and multiply.
Wilfred M. McClay
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Advance Access Publication 23 December 2011