The Insight That Never Was: More on Mark C. Taylor’s After God

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…

5 thoughts on “The Insight That Never Was: More on Mark C. Taylor’s After God

  1. Still not clear precisely what insight this “new” definition of religion actually provides. Yes, fine, religion both structures and calls structures into question, not really news, is it? Now correct me if I’m wrong, but Taylor seems to be arguing that when systems (and networks) expand they reach a tipping point at which point they become too complex, in short, they become unstable. So, there is always a movement towards increasing complexity which then leads to a destabilization/destruction/rupture etc. Now, such a destabilization through all of this increasing complexity introduces more instability, and it is this instability that in turn, creates our nostalgic desire for not only stability, but simplicity?

    So, ok, sometimes in our globalized culture we need foundations, and other times in our confusing global culture we don’t…I’m being a bit sarcastic, but is that it? Moreover, at bottom, hasn’t religion always been understood as part of a broader social field, or Taylor insists, as an adaptive system/network, again, what’s new? I understand the move towards a theory of religion (not religions), but the point seems rather banal that 1. religion understood as a changing system is important, and 2. religion understood as an adaptive network/system can help us as we are adrift in a world that may or may not have too many systems/proliferations/variety of meaning. A broader question: What is this weird obsession with showing that religion, however latent, is still a potent force? Given the manner in which he’s set up the problem (symbiosis, networks, adaptive systems etc.) the solution is already built into the problem and made to seem self evident, as you nicely point out throughout the posts.

    Perhaps I should read the book, this seems like some speculating from the positions you are drawing out from him, but from what I’ve read of Taylor, this is his M.O.–back when I forced myself to complete Erring I put the book down not knowing where Taylor ended and Derrida began, in fact, it seemed like a bizarre commentary on Derrida, now that I think about it. Regardless, it was better to just pick up Derrida…

  2. I don’t agree that the Tamil Tigers are not a religious group. In the sense of religion Durkheim develops in The Elementary Forms it clearly is a religion, and so is any other nationalism, along with political movements, theoretical cults, and sports fandoms. That is, they’re organized schemata of collective representations that put the world into an emotionally meaningful conceptual order, in part by dividing it along lines of sacred and profane. I swear if Durkheim hadn’t written that book we’d have to reinvent it….

    Fortunately there’s more for him to say that isn’t just pulling Durkheim out of the junkyard. For example, the whole thing about instability, stemming no doubt from the complexity introduced by the _Division of Labor_ in highly articulated and interdependent modern societies. This would of course produce social deregulation, anomie, and perhaps increased rates of _Suicide_, both individualistic and altruistic….

    Fortunately, we can count on the charismatic figurations of religion to settle down as that charisma is institutionally routinized. New traditions will develop to encompass the new situation until pressures in the systems build up and occasion another charismatic break. If only someone like Weber had figured this out we wouldn’t be in this mess.

    I sometimes argue that the only difference between modernity and postmodernity is that where the former frets the latter plays, but Taylor seems to have reversed that order here.

  3. Carl, vis-a-vis Durkheim and Tamil Tigers – I agree with you if we accept Durkheim’s analysis of religion, however if we choose any other metanarrative like psychoanalysis or Marxism, then we could understand their willingness to die for their cause in a different way – my point was that Pape approaches suicide terrorism in a way that looks at various latent factors (and maybe not so latent in the case of Tigers) – just because a religious person A is willing to die for his/her religion, does not mean that the motivational structure simply coincides with his/her expressed explanation. I don’t know much about stuff Pape knows about to argue with him, but when I did read the book I realized how much of our perception of religious violence is based on a naive assumption that since “they” tell us why they do it, why should we bother trying to understand why they “really” do it?

  4. Shahar, I think you are correct in your summary of, at the very least, my own understanding of Taylor’s argument so far – I clearly am trying to present it in a simple form, but it seems to me that Taylor’s own way is rather convoluted because he tries, unintentionally, I hope, to present his understanding as “new” because it takes into consideration the newest ideas from physics and biology and tells us more about “complex adaptive networks” – my main issue is the ease with which he moves from symbolic, cultural, social to natural, biological, genetic – not that I’m against the complexification and erasure of the whole tradition of nature-culture distinction, I’m just not sure about Taylor’s general attitude of “to understand anything we need to understand everything” – plus most of his discussions of new and innovative theories end up being a rather mock summaries without any serious engagement…

    he does have several weirdly misplaced Derridean “poems” – he just launches into a kind of ecstatic speaking in [Derridaen] tongues closer to the end of the book…

  5. Quite right Mikhail – and if we choose the alien replicant metanarrative or the “they hate our freedom” metanarrative or the “didn’t fuel up with a balanced breakfast” metanarrative we likewise arrive at a different understanding. I know how this works. 😉

    My point, following Shahar, was to wonder if the metanarrative Taylor is offering is a new one that offers a different understanding in this way. And so far he seems to map pretty readily onto certain commonplaces of ‘modernist’ analysis, as I burlesqued above. Old wine in new bottles, with some fretting about crisis thrown in for a bit of a marketplace oomph. Well, isn’t there always.

    To be more clear: what Taylor seems to be arguing, and what Durkheim and Weber had already argued, is that religion does at least some of our fundamental cognitive structuring; so that when people act for various ‘reasons’, we want to not take that at face value but instead notice the ways their worldview, or value structure, or drives, or interests (to add Freud, Marx and stir) have been socially and/or psychologically predisposed (within historical and biological fields of possibility, of course) to produce those conceptual outcomes.

    If we want to get ‘manifest and latent functions’ a little more current we could go Merton, or Foucault, or Derrida, or Bourdieu. This is ideology critique by one name or another. I’ve seen all that before. I like it, I do it, it comes in flavors. So, the question I have is whether Taylor does enough with the idea of ‘networks’ to get decisively past what dialectics and intersubjectivity would get us. Because if the answer is no I’ve, like, totally got something else to do with my time.

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