Immanent Transcendence in A Secular Age
Keywords:Secularism, Irreligious Experience, Atheism, Deconversion, Modernity, immanence, transcendence.
In A Secular Age (2007), Charles Taylor ties modernity to a secular worldview in which any religion is understood as one possible belief among many. To make this argument, Taylor's primary foil is that of the unbeliever – the individual who regards atheism as the baseline standard for religious commitment and every religion as an unnecessary accretion on this baseline. The atheist, to Taylor, is quintessentially modern, embodying a sense of invulnerability that stems from a misguided attempt to irreparably close off the possibility of transcendence. The unbeliever represents, for Taylor, the best proof that modern society hinges on the binary between immanence and transcendence. However, recent sociological work on the experiences of self-identifying atheists throws a wrench in Taylor's critical treatment of the unbeliever. A small but provocative body of literature on so-called “irreligious experiences” demonstrate that atheists frequently describe experiences which look virtually identical to the kinds of experiences that Taylor regards as openings onto a transcendental plane. In this paper, I briefly adumbrate the contours of irreligious experiences and demonstrate the ways that they complicate Taylor's depiction of unbelief as the attempt to foreclose the possibility of transcendence. I argue that such a view of atheism requires Taylor to inconsistently deploy his crucial conceptual tool, “the background,” at times privileging and at other times downplaying the importance of lived experience. Furthermore, I argue that Taylor's reductive portrayal of atheists illustrates a number of problems with Taylor's overall depiction of modernity. As a means to move beyond Taylor's equation of modernity with the dominance of immanence over transcendence, I then turn to the thought of Bruno Latour, whose treatment of modernity provides a more consistent take on how modernity is experienced as opposed to idealized. I argue that, for Latour, the binary between immanence and transcendence is not a reality of modern society but a myth which justifies the continuous blurring of that same binary in lived experience. Thus, Latour maintains Taylor's emphasis on those conceptual categories which have achieved prominence in modern society (immanence, transcendence) but reverses the direction of analysis by which to understand such categories, creating a more nuanced and complex account of modern subjectivities.
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