Books Are For Squares: Reading Mark C. Taylor’s After God

After I had a chance to hear Mark C. Taylor talk about his recent book – After God – I have decided to read it to see what the deal is. Admittedly, Taylor’s talk was very informative but in a kind of uninformative way, i.e. I learned about free markets and morgage crisis but not too much about his view on religion. So reading the book was the next logical step. It’s a thick one too. Having finished it late yesterday, I remain somewhat ambiguous about it and in an attempt to clarify certain things, I might as well write them out.

Taylor opens with a very ambitious statement: “You cannot understand the world today if you do not understand religion. Never before has religion been so powerful and so dangerous.” (xiii) Clearly, this statement is aimed to provoke a thoughtful discussion of the issues and to set a tone for the book. Taylor states his intentions right from the very start: he is not persuaded by the discourse of secularization and will spend the next 400 pages trying to show that, “it is necessary to consider not only [religion’s] explicit manifestations but also its latent influence on philosophy, literature, art, architecture, politics, economics, and even science and technology.” (xiii, my bold) For many years, Taylors tells us, his “tutored eye” has tracked the traces of religion and found it everywhere – now he’s ready to tell the world what religion is and how to deal with it. Ok, here’s a quick run through the chapters and what Taylor promises to do in them:

chapter 1 – proposes a definition of religion, an “expanded notion of religion,” and investigates the “origin and function of religion”

chapters 2 and 3 – examine the role of Luther and his ideas of “privatization, deregulation, and decentering” on the formation of the modern subjectivity (“modern self”)

chapter 4 – proposes that “secularity is a religious phenomenon” and traces the problem of secularity all the way back to Moses arguing that secularity arises from the two extremes of God’s disappearance (transcendence and immanence)

chapters 5 and 6 – examine the developments in the last part of the twentieth century, namely the rise of “postmodernism” (“Eclipse of the Real”) and New Religious Right (“Recovering the Real”)

chapters 6 and 7 – deal with Taylors attempt to develop “an alternative interpretive framework” to promotes attitudes that are better adopted to the “complexities of contemporary life”

This is all from the introduction, i.e. this is a sort of a promise, a promise to prove the main point of the book: religion is everywhere and it is dangerous, we need to understand what it is and how it works in order to deal with it adequately. The problem so far, argues Taylor, has been that both supporters and opponents of religion do not know what it really is. This is why Taylor’s task from the very beginning is to address the “forbidden” (or forgotten) question: What is Religion?

The first important distinction that Taylor introduces in this chapter – introduces, in a way that will characterize much of the book’s style, by simply stating that it is the case – is the distinction between “religion” and “religiosity”: “Religiosity, however, is not the same as religion. When understood in all its rich complexity, religion does not simply provide secure foundations but destabilizes every type of religiosity by subverting the oppositional logic of either/or.” (4) Now let’s pause here for a second and ask ourselves a simple question: Where does this particular description come from? We did not yet address the issue of what religion is, Taylor will tell us in a bit about the context in which the question of the definiton of religion became an illegitimate question. How do we then know that not only “religion” as such exists, but that it is also separate from “religiosity”? In a sense, the answer is simple, Taylor already knows the definition that he is going to present in a few pages and he uses it here in a sort of impatient way. In another sense, this is the issue of the whole book: Taylor does not deduce his definition of religion from any given information (either empirically given or theoretically given), he does not define what “religion” means, he announces what he thinks religion means (or should mean), and how it functions and then proceeds to demonstrate (even if without explicitly presenting his agenda as such) how such definition can help us to deal with the danger of religion.

Taylor describes the “resistance to developing a definition of religion” in terms of two trajectories: structuralism and poststructuralism:

While structuralists maintain that it is possible to identify common or even universal forms and patterns in different psychological, social, and cultural phenomena, poststructuralists insist that purportedly universal forms are actually artifacts designed to fulfill certain desires and advance specific ideological agendas. (7)

Then happens what is going to keep happening throughout the book – Taylor quickly summarizes the development of structuralism/poststructuralism split, provides information about the main ideas, points out a number of authors/books that address the issue, i.e. gives us a good summary account of the subject matter. These summaries will grow in size and sophistication, but will remain essentially the same simplified description of basic forms of the subject matter X that does not propel the argument. What does propel the argument is Taylor’s own use of the data – it is not yet too obvious, but will be increasingly so when he starts dealing with things like physics or genetics. By quickly sketching a couple of caricatures of “structuralism” and “poststructuralism” – caricatures that play into Taylor’s hands by supposedly emphasizing certain aspects in the study of religion and thus ultimately preventing the proponents of the corresponding positions from forming a workable definition of religion (as Taylor understands it):

Structuralists understand the necessity of form and patterns for creating the order without which life is impossible, but they cannot explain how these structures emerge and change over time. Having recognized the fatal consequences of fixed forms, poststructuralists insist that vitality is impossible without the repeated disruption and dislocation of static structures. It is, therefore, impossible for poststructuralists to move beyond the moment of criticism to fashion new structures that promote creativity. (12)

How accurate this description of structuralism and poststructuralism is one can judge for oneself, but what is important here is a simple strategy that works very well throughout the book: Taylor presents the issues and formulates the problems in such a way as to demonstrate that his own position is not only a logical solution to the mentioned problems but is also the only possible solution. Clearly, Taylor tells us, structualist are all about statics and poststructuralists are all about dynamics, so neither position is capable of defining religion because religion is both about structuring and destructuring: “I will bring together structuralism and poststructuralism through an appropriation of the theory of complex adaptive systems to interpret the emergence, development, and operational logic of religion.” (12) And now to the announcement of the definition of religion:

Religion is an emergent, complex, adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals that, on the one hand, figure schemata of feeling, thinking, and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose and, on the other, disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure every stabilizing structure. (12, my bold)

Let’s take a closer look at this definition before we proceed to Taylor’s explanation of it in the rest of chapter 1 (and, in one way or the other, in the entirety of the book). Despite the fact that it sort of comes out of the right field without any sort of preparation or argument – “here’s a definition of religion, take it or leave it” – it seems to contain most of the traditional elements: “symbols, myths, and rituals” – “meaning and purpose” – “feeling, thinking, and acting”. So religion is a network of symbols-myths-rituals that has “two moments [that] are inseparable and alternate in a kind of quasi-dialectical rhythm” (13) This strange rhythm, Taylor explains, is not really so strange because it is a simple movement of a pendulum – from one moment to the other and back – “as the threat of disruption increases, devotees tend to absolutize” but then “the deeper the entrenchment, the more likely becomes the very disruption religiosity is designed to avoid.” (13) So far, so good.

Here’s a question though: does Taylor tell us about the two moments of religion in a descriptive or a prescriptive manner? Does he discern the pendulum effect from his acute observations of religion (how would he know what to look for before the definition? – old Socratic problem) or does he tell us how religion should be defined in order that we may manage its dangerous influences more affectively? It seems that Taylor simply informs us that this is his definition of religion and that anyone who either does not recognize the two moments as parts of religion or concentrates on one of the moments is wrong. But before Taylor gets to the actual discussion of the definition, it would be great to understand what he means by “emergent complex adaptive network” or “figure schemata” – Taylor begins with “the meaning and operation of schemata” (13).

The notion of schemata comes from physics, not from Kant – Taylor spends some time summarizing what physics understands by “schemata” and then concludes: “To understand how religious symbols and myths function as schemata that lend life meaning and purpose, it is helpful to begin with a consideration of their role in cognitive activity.” (17) This is the opening sentence of the paragraph that follows the last sentence of the explanation of what schemata means in physics – Taylor jumps right from the description to the conclusion: religious symbols and myth function as schemata and now we will try to understand how. But where exactly is a demonstration of any kind that religion is a network and that it “figures schemata”? The choice of the concept is never explained, Taylor tells us he is borrowing it from a person A and that it does help us understand religion because… well, because it does. These couple of pages set the tone for the majority of the book’s arguments and that is why I spent some much time reading and rereading these pages. It would be like saying: “You see, I think love is like watching TV” – then comes a long section just about what takes place when watches TV, different poses, angles, uses for watching TV, names of Nobel Prize researchers on the topic, and so on and on, and then a conclusion: “See, love is like watching TV!” – “Wait, but you said nothing about love, you kept talking about TVs!?”

Here’s the general strategy of the book as exemplified by the above-discussion:

Step 1: Announces a curious (and ever so slightly controversial) thesis

chapter 1: religion is a network with two moments: constructive and destructive

chapter 2: Luther, not Calvin (as Weber argued) is solely responsible for the formation of modern self

chapter 3: privatization, deregulation and decentralization are all results of Luther’s theology

chapter 4: secularism is a religion idea

chapter 5: swing of the pendulum I – secularism, market, consumerism – all lead loss of stability

chapter 6: swing of the pendulum II – neoconservative movement, Religious Right – search for stability

chapter 7: we need ethics without absolutes!

Step 2: Provides a huge amount of detailed information about a subject provisionally related to the thesis and possibly valuable for a better understanding of the thesis – physics, biology, genetics, aesthetics, you name it – and concludes with a version of: “isn’t it just like the thesis I was proposing?”

chapter 1: physics (networks, schemata etc)

chapter 2: history and theology (short version of the Reformation and its theology)

chapter 3: a short version of the history of Western philosophy: Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Schelling, Marx, etc etc

chapter 4: From Jesus and Trinitarian controversy to Freud and Nietzsche

chapter 5: Short history of liberal theology, neo-orthodoxy, art theory, free market economy

chapter 6: Short history of counterculture of the 60s, short autobiography, history of the rise of New Religious Right, part presidential part American history lesson

chapter 7: the problem of the world-wide water supply

Step 3: Treats the matter as closed and moves on to use the thesis as if adequately discussed.

I could go through every single “transition” if I had the time and the will and show how Taylor jumps from a presentation of data to the conclusion without any kind of actual demonstration, but I will use the example from his talk that I attended:

Out of two hours of the talk, Taylor spent one hour describing the intricacies of the free market economy, gold standard, trading, mortgage crisis and so on – to the audience consisting primarily of students and faculty interested in the topic of the talk – Religion in the Age of Globalization – all of it was at best entertaining new information, at worst gibberish but they quietly sat through it waiting for a big payoff. Big payoff came right after the phrase – “So, why am I talking about all of these things?” – Audience leaned forward expectedly – “Well, you see how all these instruments that economists create in order to stabilize the market in fact produce the opposite effect?” – “Ok, we do – now what?” – “Well, I think religion works the same way by trying to stabilize itself but in effect creates more instability…” Puzzled looks, general surprise, awkward fidgeting: “Is this all he’s going to say about the topic?” – first question from the audience: “So you’re saying a network like religion in attempting to stabilize itself, close itself off, and actually creates the conditions for its very destabilization?” – “Yes” – this is what no one said out loud but from the conversations afterwards many wanted to say: “Why did you waste half the talk explaining to us things about market economy when you could have just said this one sentence?” In the book Taylor does a better job of trying to incorporate the information about various sciences and other curious facts, but at the bottom level he still does the same thing – too many words, too little actual interesting discussion. But maybe I’m wrong and I just don’t get it, maybe I should try to carefully reconstruct the argument? I should go back to the definition of religion and see maybe I missed something.

To be continued…

3 thoughts on “Books Are For Squares: Reading Mark C. Taylor’s After God

  1. Pingback: What Is Religion? Continuing With Taylor’s After God « Perverse Egalitarianism

  2. Taylor has no idea what religion is; he conveniently ignores why there can be no definition of religion and comes up with the most concocted idea of religion. Why he ignores Talal Asad’s important work, or has never read him, is beyond anyone. I guess it must be because Taylor does not seem to read anything that is not from Europe. After all he says he has been guided “consistently” by European thinkers, for all of his life….! Talal Asad must not be European enough for him?

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