Let’s start then from the end of chapter 1 (“Theorizing Religion”) – as Shahar insightfully points out – it is not clear from my two previous posts what exactly is Taylor’s big contribution to the theory of religion. Assuming a rather uncharacteristically humble position, I am thinking that maybe I am missing something in Taylor’s discussion of the definition of religion. The first chapter ends with this statement of purpose:
My aim is both analytic and constructive: first, I seek to show how and why religion continues to play such an important role in the modern and postmodern world, and second, I attempt to provide a more adequate religious vision and ethical framework for negotiating the complexities and contradictions of life at the beginning of the twenty-first century. (42, emphasis mine)
Ok, so clearly it is assumed that a) religion continues to play an important role in the world, and b) the world needs to find a better way of dealing with its own complexities and contradictions. The first assumption is based, as it seems, on the very naive sort of “look around and tell me what you see” argument. In the introduction, as I mentioned before, Taylor simply states that “never before has religion been so powerful and so dangerous” – but isn’t it the task of the theory (as in “Theorizing Religion”) to first identify religion and then see if it is indeed so pervasive? Let’s take, as an example, suicide bombing as a form of supposedly religiously-motivated terrorism. One can argue that, of course, we are dealing here with examples of “religious violence,” because the suicide bombers themselves told us so in their own words in those videos they recorded or in a different context by expressing their motives in writing! We can then move on to discuss the ways to prevent suicide attacks, the kinds of religious beliefs that encourage such behavior and so on. However, there is a different way of dealing with the issue: one might take a closer look at the the relationship between the manifest and the latent motivational factors – is suicide attacker really motivated by his/her religious beliefs or do these beliefs function as a kind of covering over of a deeper and more dangerous phenomena? Only to mention one such study – Robert Pape’s book Dying To Win: Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism – would be enough to demonstrate my point: Pape argues that the facts of actual suicide terrorism show that it is the foreign (or perceived as foreign) occupation that causes most acts, not supposed religious beliefs in virgins or after-life. In fact, Tamil tigers committed more suicide attacks than any other groups, and they are not a religious group. For someone who comes from the glorious tradition of deconstruction and its suspicion of the manifest proposed meanings Taylor is surprisingly trusting when it comes to taking the influence of religion at its face value.
The second aim – to provide a more adequate framework for negotiating complexities and contradictions of the contemporary age – is equally puzzling. According to at least 2/3 of the book, simplicity and independence are illusions created to deal with what is increasingly complex and interdependent reality, yet Taylor still assumes a kind of “common man” perspective when it comes to the issue of “dealing with” complexity. If the world is but a network of networks, an open-ended web of multiple networks, if the world is one large complex adaptive network with all of its emerging and disappearing connections and disconnections, why would an ethical or a religious symbolic network ever develop any idea of simplicity and would ever long for it? If culture, nature, and everything in between are necessarily codependent, if the very mechanism of human cognition is based on this continuous figuring, disfiguring and refiguring, then how do we not develop an attitude that would allow us to survive and thrive in these complex codependent networks? In other words, where does the desire for simplicity come from? And if it comes as a result of the network’s attempt to deal with its own increasing complexity, wouldn’t we just let the network take care of itself?
Let’s go back to the middle of chapter 1 and see what’s going on there, picking up from where we left off yesterday. So what makes different religious traditions different religious traditions is the way they organize their symbolic networks, or even better (according to Taylor), the way their networks organize themselves. Taylor thinks of various religious traditions in terms of codependent networks that are either conservative, progressive, or transformative. (23) He tells us that it is, of course, the conservative networks that pose the most danger: “Religious traditions and cultural institutions tend to be deeply resistant to change… Simplistic and unbending faith in a complex and changing world carries the threat of violence and destruction.” (26) Again we face the same issue: if the world is the way Taylor describes it, why do some thrive in times of complexity and uncertainty and some long for simplicity and clarity?
Example: I was born and raised in the Soviet Union, and I was old enough in 1989-91 to remember the events and yet not to be so nostalgic for the “good old times” in the early 1990s to vote for the Communists to return to power (1996 Elzin vs. Zuganov). The generation of my parents, however, despite being educated enough to know about the actual situation in the totalitarian Soviet system, was and still is very uneasy about the fall of the Soviet Union. People of my generation, for the most part, cared very little about the past simplicity and clarity, and the majority wanted to adapt to the new complex situation with a kind of enthusiasm and ingenuity that many in the West have long forgotten. What Taylor constantly refers to as “these uncertain times” is a rather obvious discomfort of someone who might know very little about the actual uncertain times: huge inflation, unemployment, constant political crisis, assassinations, hike in crime, corruption and more of the 1990s in Russia or a number of places on the planet. I know that this might appear as an unfair ad hominem attack, but I doubt that Taylor himself really ever encountered the kinds of uncertainties that he claims the world is presently dealing with by turning to religious faith.
Again, Taylor mentions a theory of Per Bak – “self-organized criticality” – and after a short description adds “Bak’s analysis of natural systems can be extended to symbolic networks.” (27, emphasis mine) And on the next page, “In the present context, it is important to stress that networks and webs [interesting distinction – ME] have the same structure and operational logic in natural, social, and cultural systems.” (28, emphasis mine) Taylor gives some examples of how different network interact and influence one another – fair enough. The rest of the chapter is dedicated to a short overview of the “three ways of being religious” represented by three theorists of religion: Wiliam James, Paul Tillich and Taylor himself. It’s a rather dull summary so I would like to raise the question of the perceived complexity of the contemporary world again: wouldn’t our cognitive faculties, having emerged in a complex reality of figuration and disfiguration, as Taylor tells us, automatically adopt to the complexity of their own multiple functions? If things come and go, networks emerge and disappear, then how can Taylor explain the very existence of the notion of something simple? It seems that Taylor has a kind of strange admiration for the past simplicity himself – 1968 and the surrounding revolutionary mood – then, he tells us, things were really uncertain and potent – I think it is a fact that the world today is more complex and has more issues then maybe a century or two ago (although this is also a point that can be contested), but whether we really live “during the periods of great instability like our own” is far from obvious, me thinks…