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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Koppelman on Taylor's "A Secular Age"

Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age" has been mentioned here at Prawfs before.  Andy Koppelman has this review, over at "Dissent", and it is well worth a read.  (The book is too but . . . it is really long.)  Much of Andy's review deals with the increasingly discussion about the possibility of non-theistic foundations for the morality of human rights.  He notes, for example:

 TAYLOR IS right that secularism is missing something important. There is a gap in the narrative. But this is not a comparative disadvantage for secularism, because the precise area of weakness—a normative commitment to human rights that can’t be accounted for—is equally present in traditional religious worldviews.

In a religious worldview, one can say that what grounds one’s commitment to treating people decently is that the will of God makes everyone sacred. But then what grounds one’s belief in God? We have moved from one shaky foundation to another; there is no gain in confidence.

(For an argument that this "gap" *is* a comparative disadvantage, check out Nicholas Wolterstorff's "Justice", which I reviewed here.)  The last few paragraphs of Andy's review are really nice, and I'll quote them after the jump . . .

AK:  TAYLOR ENDORSES what Jonathan Lear calls (in a book with that title) “radical hope”—a hope that is, as Lear puts it, “directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.” In a review of Lear’s book, Taylor is uncertain whether radical hope “can be sustained without some kind of formulated faith in something, whether religious or secular—faith in God, or in History, or in our own resources, or in human resilience.” Any formulation, however, will be inadequate to that toward which it points. It is part of our nature that “we long for things that we do not yet fully understand.”

For many people, this hope takes a religious form, and probably could only take a religious form. Consider a crucial episode in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. During the Montgomery bus boycott, a series of death threats, some of them directed at his family, had left him demoralized. “I was ready to give up,” he recalled. Sitting in the kitchen, unable to sleep after a threatening phone call, he began to think of how he could pass the leadership of the desegregation movement on to someone else. He began to pray out loud and, as King recalled, “it seemed to me at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’” King’s new courage resulted from direct, felt connection with Christ—“I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me.”—and he persisted in his civil rights advocacy. It made him into the closest thing to a secular saint that twentieth-century America produced. It also got him killed.

I’m confident that King was not a fool or a sucker. I can’t tell you why I think that. And so I’m in a poor position to attack the hopes—hopes that to me (in most of my moods) are deeply implausible—that supported him in his confidence. Perhaps he could have arrived in the same place on the basis of Naked Strong Evaluation. Some have. But to do that, he would have had to change in so many ways that it is hard to imagine what he would have looked like. Martin Luther Kings don’t turn up that often, so I’m not inclined to tinker with the ones we have.

Wherever you situate yourself in this landscape, your view of the moral universe won’t—and can’t be—a neat, closed system with all the loose ends tidied up. Recognizing this can inoculate us against two related errors: One is to think that we have all the answers. The other, perhaps even more malign, is to be too confident of what the other fellow’s beliefs entail: that his or her “belief in God produces fanaticism” or “atheism leads to immorality.”

Posted by Rick Garnett on February 11, 2009 at 07:25 PM in Rick Garnett | Permalink


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