The camp of unbelief is deeply divided— about the nature of humanism, and more radically, about its value. I want to offer another framework to understand these struggles, not as a struggle between two protagonists [belief vs. unbelief], but rather as a three-cornered, even perhaps four-cornered battle.
The entry of what I called above “the immanent counter-Enlightenment”, [Nietzsche and his epigones] which challenges the humanist primacy of life, has greatly complicated the scene. There are secular humanists, there are neo-Nietzscheans, and there are those who acknowledge some good beyond life [acknowledgers of transcendence]. Any pair can gang up against the third on some important issue. Neo-Nietzscheans and secular humanists together condemn religion and reject any good beyond life. But neo-Nietzscheans and acknowledgers of transcendence are together in their absence of surprise at the continued disappointments of secular humanism, together also in the sense that its vision of life lacks a dimension. In a third line-up, secular humanists and believers come together in defending an idea of the human good, against the anti-humanism of Nietzsche’s heirs.
A fourth party can be introduced to this field if we take account of the fact that the acknowledgers of transcendence are divided. Some think that the whole move to secular humanism was just a mistake, which needs to be undone. We need to return to an earlier view of things. Others, in which I place myself, think that the practical primacy of life [human flourishing in the Modern Moral Order] has been a great gain for human kind, and that there is some truth in the self-narrative of the Enlightenment: this gain was in fact unlikely to come about without some breach with established religion. (We might even be tempted to say that modern unbelief is providential, but that might be too provocative a way of putting it.) But we nevertheless think that the metaphysical primacy of life espoused by exclusive humanism is wrong, and stifling, and that its continued dominance puts in danger the practical primacy.
I have rather complicated the scene in the last paragraph. Nevertheless, the simple lines sketched earlier still stand out, I believe. Both secular humanists and anti-humanists concur in one part of the Enlightenment narrative, that is, they see us as having been liberated from the illusion of a good beyond life, and thus enabled to affirm ourselves. This may take the form of an Enlightenment endorsement of benevolence and justice; or it may be the charter for the full affirmation of the will to power— or “the free play of the signifier”, or the aesthetics of the self, or whatever the current version is. But it remains within the same climate which has relegated the [transcendent] beyond to the status of past illusion. For those fully within this climate, transcendence becomes all but invisible.
Of course, we might want to set aside this three-cornered picture, on the grounds that contemporary anti-humanism isn’t a significant enough movement. If one just focusses one’s attention on certain fashionable professors of comparative literature, this might seem plausible. But my sense is that the impact of this third stream in our culture and contemporary history has been very powerful, particularly if we take account of Fascism, as well as of the fascination with violence which has come to infect even Enlightenment-inspired movements, such as Bolshevism (and this is far from being the only such case). And can we exempt the gory history of even “progressive”, democratic nationalism?
If we do adopt the three-cornered picture, however, some interesting questions arise. Explaining each is somewhat of a challenge for the others. In particular, anti-humanism is not easy to explain from the Enlightenment perspective. Why this throwback, on the part of people who are “liberated” from religion and tradition? From the religious perspective, the problem is the opposite. There is a too quick and too slick explanation right to hand: The denial of transcendence is bound to lead to a crumbling and eventual break-down of all moral standards. First, secular humanism, and then eventually its pieties and values come under challenge. And in the end nihilism.
I am not saying that there is no insight at all in this account. But it leaves too much unexplained. Anti-humanism is not just a black hole, an absence of values, but also a new valorization of death, and sometimes violence. And some of the fascination it re-articulates for death and violence reminds us forcefully of many of the phenomena of traditional religion. It is clear that this fascination extends well beyond the borders of anti-humanism. As I just mentioned, we can see it also in the heirs of the Enlightenment; but also unmistakably recurring again and again in the religious tradition. Gulag and the Inquisition stand testimony to its perennial force.
But this sharp rebuttal to a too self-indulgent religious explanation poses once again a problem for exclusive humanism. If there is something perennial, recurring, here, whence comes it? We don’t lack for immanent theories of a human propensity to evil, all the way from sociobiology to Freudian speculations on a death principle. But these have their own counter-Enlightenment thrust: they put a severe limit on any hopes for improvement. They tend to cast doubt on the central Enlightenment idea that we are in charge of our fate.
At the same time, from the perspective of transcendence, some considerations seem obvious: Exclusive humanism closes the transcendent window, as though there were nothing beyond. More, as though it weren’t an irrepressible need of the human heart to open that window, and first look, then go beyond. As though feeling this need were the result of a mistake, an erroneous world-view, bad conditioning, or worse, some pathology.
Two radically different perspectives on the human condition. Who is right? Well, who can make more sense of the life all of us are living? Seen from this angle, the very existence of modern anti-humanism seems to tell against exclusive humanism. If the transcendental view is right, then human beings have an ineradicable bent to respond to something beyond life. Denying this stifles. And in fact, even for those who accept the metaphysical primacy of life, this outlook can itself come to seem imprisoning.
It is in this sense, rather than in the rather smug, self-satisfied view that unbelief must destroy itself, that the religious outlook finds anti-humanism unsurprising. From within this outlook, we might be tempted to speculate further, and to suggest that the perennial human susceptibility to be fascinated by death and violence, is at base a manifestation of our nature as homo religiosus. From the point of view of someone who acknowledges transcendence, it is one of the places this aspiration beyond most easily goes when it fails to take us there. This doesn’t mean that religion and violence are simply alternatives. On the contrary, it has meant that most historical religion has been deeply intricated with violence, from human sacrifice down to inter-communal massacres. Because most historical religion remains only very imperfectly oriented to the [transcendent] beyond. The religious affinities of the cult of violence in its different forms are indeed palpable.
What it might mean, however, is that the only way fully to escape the draw towards violence lies somewhere in the turn to transcendence, that is, through the full-hearted love of some good beyond life. A Secular Age (p. 638-39).
Brackets are mine to help clarify Taylor's meaning. Underscoring is mine, to stress in the first instance my agreement with Taylor about the importance of the Enlightenment as a movement forward, but as such incomplete and shallow. In the second instance, to stress Taylor's prescience in 2007 about what we're seeing now in the U.S. and Europe about the (re)ascendance of the Dark Right.
I have been very impressed with Taylor's and other's renewed interest in Jasper's idea of the Axial Age. It brings a powerful clarifying distinction that helps us to understand better that the real conflict for us no longer moderns is not between religion and secularism, but between good and bad religion. More on this distinction when I have some time.
Secular liberalism is bankrupt and that's why everywhere its institutions are in decline. Either there is a renewal of the post-axial spirit of transcendent religion, or bad religion, what I have been referring to here as the Dark Right, wins by default.
For a long essay on Taylor's A Secular Age where I go into some detail about his ideas about post axiality, see here.