Posts Tagged ‘Charles Taylor’

The worlds inside our heads

July 31, 2015

Somebody once wrote that the most embarrassing of all studies was intellectual history, because it shows how the ideas that you take as simple common sense were once new and implausible, and the agendas of the people who argued for them.

This was my feeling after reading Charles Taylor’s  2004 book, MODERN SOCIAL IMAGINARIES, as part of an informal study group organized by my friend Paul Mitacek.

It is the story of how Western people once believed and then stopped believing that they were embedded in a divine hierarchy resting on the animal world and lowest human beings, and reaching up to Heaven in a great chain of being.

It also is the story of how Western people once believed and then stopped believing that society is something pre-existing, which people are born into and have to serve as best they can.

Taylor traced the steps by which we came to the present predominant believe, that society consists of separate and independent individuals and exists for their benefit rather than the other way around.

He calls these beliefs “imaginaries” because they form the background of how we perceive our world–a perception that only partly matches up to objective reality, but which we take for granted.

I found his book illuminating and disturbing because it showed me how many of the things I believe in are based on assumptions I can’t prove.

Taylor.Imaginaries978-0We modern Americans take for granted, for example, that religion has to do with individual morality and that each person has the right to choose their own religion.

But for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the worship of the gods was something they had to do to avoid the gods’ wrath and seek the gods’ blessings.  The gods didn’t care what individuals thought about them, only that they perform the rituals correctly.  That is why the pagan Romans couldn’t understand the Christians’ refusal to burn incense for the Emperor.

The Hebrew Bible has some teachings about individual morality, but nothing about individual salvation or an afterlife.  Israel as a whole either worshipped God or strayed after false gods, and the nation was rewarded or punished accordingly.

Christianity changed this.   Christians believed they would be rewarded or punished in the afterlife based on their individual faith and works, and that lip service to religion wasn’t enough.  Protestantism took this tendency further.  Then freethinkers and rationalists, rather than assuming morality came from religion, questioned religious dogmas and practices in the name of morality.

Many individual Americans and Europeans believe that the ultimate basis of morality is a transcendent religious belief, but American and European societies are not organized around this belief.  Taylor for this reason calls our society “secular”—not because it is hostile to religion, but because it is neutral to religion.

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The passing scene: January 4, 2015

January 4, 2015

Scavengers by Adam Johnson for Granta.

Adam Johnson walked down the stairs of his North Korean tourist hotel because he did not trust the elevator, and discovered that most floors of were unoccupied and scavenged for furnishings in order to keep up appearances on the few floors on which the tourists stayed.  This is one of the glimpses his article provides of the reality of life in North Korea.

Remembering the Russian Orthodox Priest Who Fought the Orthodox Church by Cathy Young for the Daily Beast.

Father Gleb Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest who died on Christmas, fought for democracy, Christian values and freedom for all religions against Communist totalitarianism and Putinist corruption.  He was defrocked twice for protesting and exposing the ties of the Russian Orthodox church with the Soviet government.

Religion in Latin America by the Pew Research Center.

Pentecostalism is on the rise in a historically Roman Catholic region.  The worldwide spread of Pentecostalism may be the most significant religious development of our time.

Tayloring Christianity by Matthew Rose for First Things.

A Secular Age? by Patrick J. Dineen for The American Conservative.

Secularism in the USA does not war on religion, the way anti-clericalism has done in France, Mexico and other countries.  American secularists simply want religion to be an individual matter rather than the organizing principle of society.  In a way, American secular liberals are the ultimate Protestants.

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