Last night James K. A. Smith, philosophy prof at Calvin College and editor of Comment magazine, gave a fascinating lecture at the U of M, sponsored by MacLaurinCSF and Cardus. Here’s my attempt to summarize some of his points:
Most people agree that we live in a “secular” age, but what does that mean? There are at least two ways to understand it.
- The New Atheists tell “subtraction stories.” They say when you “lop off” myths, fables, religion, and all varieties of hocus-pocus mumbo-jumbo, what you have left is “cool, clear human rationality.” To be secular is “to grow up and just stop believing.”
Does this effectively describe the world in which we find ourselves? Has our society grown up and thrown off silly Santa-Clause-like illusions? Smith says that the measure of any theory is its capacity to make sense of the phenomenon we bump up against in reality. The weakness of the New Atheists’ theory is that it doesn’t account for what Smith calls hauntings—the deep-down awareness that there is Something More. He offered two case studies from famous nonbelievers: Author Julian Barnes said, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” Steve Jobs, before his death, said he doubted his doubts. Some aspects of human experience can’t be accounted for if scientific materialism is all there is.
- Smith has found an alternate way to understand our secular age in the philosophy of Charles Taylor. In Taylor’s view, secularity doesn’t mean unbelief. It means “contestability of belief.” It means there are so many different belief options alive in society, that no matter what you believe, you can’t assume people around you believe the same thing.
Living in a pluralistic secular society where no religion or worldview is agreed upon by everyone is unsettling. People tend to absorb the “narrative ethos” from their immediate surroundings (their university, for example). But broader society is “contested space.” Taylor talks about the “cross-pressures” that bombard all of us and keep us from comfortably assuming our assumptions can’t be questioned. Nonbelievers might feel these cross-pressures as a type of haunting.
Charles Taylor doesn’t try to debate the New Atheists point for point. Instead he encourages people to “charitably inhabit” each other’s “stories” (as in belief systems) to see how well they account for what we actually experience.
In response to an audience member asking whether we might be experiencing something new under the sun, Smith said that pluralism isn’t new (think fifth century, when Augustine was writing City of God). What is absolutely new is the option of “exclusive humanism,” the recent effort to find a way to live meaningfully with absolutely no reference to anything transcendent.