Chapter 10: The Expanding Universe of Unbelief

In this chapter, Taylor wants to explore two things, first, the development of a “middle space”, a “no-man’s land” between belief and unbelief, in which both are cross pressured. Second, Taylor wants to talk about the development of deeper forms of unbelief, more firmly grounded in the social and cosmic imaginaries of our own age, which become viable options for many people to adopt. He begins with the former. Taylor notes a key shift that takes place in art as the world picture of the cosmos fades. In pre-modern times, there was a widely shared cosmic picture (as we have discussed), a wide “background of meanings” from which the ‘artist’ could draw:

 “Until the end of the eighteenth century there was sufficient intellectual homogeny for men to share certain assumptions… In varying degrees,… men accepted.. the Christian interpretation of history, the sacramentalization of nature, the Great Chain of Being, the analogy of the various planes of creation, the conception of man as microcosm…These were cosmic syntheses in the public domain; and the poet could afford to think of his art as imitative of ‘nature’ since these patterns were what he meant by ‘nature.’”

So, drawing on the shared cosmic imaginary, the ‘artist’ was engaged in mimesis of reality; imitating the patterns of reality. Furthermore, there was really no such a thing as ‘art,’ as we think of it. We think of ‘art’ as a sort of intrinsic good, a piece of beauty that is its own justification, it has no apparent connection to our lives, or any kind of practical purpose, but we enjoy it for its own sake. In the premodern world on the other hand, art was always embedded in some social action and participated in something higher. Think of the Mass, an icon, or the song of the bard; all of these forms of art—carving, painting, music—were always involved in a social action—common worship, societal praise of a hero, etc.—and were a means of connecting the community to some higher plane. Taylor describes the difference: “In other words, what is special here is not to be understood aesthetically, in terms of the way in which the listener is (or ought to be) moved, but ontically: a special important action is being carried out (worshiping God, praising heroes).” Now, as the Cosmos world picture fades, ‘art’ as we understand it today, starts to be possible. Art is disembodied from a context in social action and disassociated with a “ontic” connection, its now something that stands on its own, to be appreciated on its own merits. For example, in our own time, we will listen to a traditional Christmas mass, performed in an opera house, completely disassociated from its religious context. Or consider our appreciation of great medieval works of art, paintings, or cathedrals, to many secular people these are no longer sacred sites or portals to the Devine, but simply great works of art. With the fading of the Cosmos picture, the common, shared “background of meanings” that artists could employ, fades with it. Artists, rather than imitating reality in the earlier sense, or drawing on this wellspring of shared sources, must now create their own world of meaning: “The Romantic poets and their successors have to articulate an original vision of the cosmos….they no longer play on an established gamut of references…they make us aware something in nature for which there are as yet not established words.” Previously, the theological and cosmological system had the invisible depths and transcendent heights of reality mapped out in theological language. Now, the depths of human experience have to be explored using new language. Some forms of poetry, art, music, move beyond what Taylor calls “direct reference.” The music is not directly about anything but rather, captures an experience. Taylor describes the contrast: 

“A love song evokes our being moved proudly by some love story which seems to express a human archetype: Romano and Juliet, say. The love song, play, opera gives us both the response expressed, and the intentional object of this response. Now with absolute music, we have the response in some way captured, made real, there unfolding before us; but the object isn’t there. The music moves us very strongly, because it is moved, as it were; it captures, expresses, incarnates being profoundly moved.”

  Unhooked from the Cosmos picture and with “ontic commitments very unclear”, new artistic forms develop new “subtler language” to capture “the mystery, the depth, the profoundly moving.” These new artistic forms are not beholden to a theological vision of the world—they use their own “subtler language”—and yet they give expression to the depths of human experience. They give a greater depth to the unbelieving picture of the reality: 

“We can thus see how subtler languages operating in the “absolute” mode can offer a place to go for modern unbelief. In particular, for those who are moved by critiques of the “Romantic” axes: the modern identity and outlook flattens the world, leaves no place for the spiritual, the higher, for mystery. This doesn’t need to send us back to religious belief. There is another direction.” 

And so, in our contemporary society, the appreciation of art, music, nature, can be a source of quasi-transcendence for both believers and unbelievers, open to a “open” or “closed” take. “This creates a “kind of middle space, neither explicitly believing, but not atheist either, a kind of undefined spirituality.” The encounter with nature, a profound piece of art, or sacred site—say the Sistine chapel—can be a source of “cross pressure” for the buffered identity, pulling him towards religious belief or an “open” take. In our own time, an example of “cross pressure” that comes to mind is the Jordan Peterson phenomenon. Through his lectures on the “psychological significance of the biblical stories” Peterson explored the profound depth of these stories, operating from within a “middle frame” accessible to both believers and unbelievers. Peterson’s lectures were experienced by many of his viewers as cross pressuring their own “closed take”, pulling them towards transcendence and hinting that there might be more to reality than they had previously thought. 

Having described the development of this cross pressured “middle space,” Taylor now turns his attention to “the maturing of unbelief” in the ninetieth century. He considers some of the things that could have motivated the rise of unbelief, he lists some of the conventional ones: revulsion at traditional forms of Christianity, the rise of science and Biblical criticism and so on. Of course, the decline of the Cosmos world picture and the rise of the modern, mechanistic world picture would also have pulled people towards Deism and unbelief. Alongside this, the displacement of the traditional forms of society and the rise of modern moral order and social imaginary would also have helped to displace belief: 

“People who’s religious life was bound up with the forms of life of a network society—for instance peasants living in the the hierarchal world of a country parish—once transformed into a industrializing city in the nineteenth century, would be profoundly disoriented, and unable to live their traditional religion.”

With all of these factors however, Taylor thinks the main cause of the shift is epistemological. By this he doesn’t mean that the powerful arguments swayed people, as much as he means that people felt attracted to the new scientific epistemology. There was a felt disconnect between the traditional, religious ways of knowing and the much more powerful, new modes of scientific inquiry. People were not so much convinced that God could not exist by logical argumentation, than attracted by the systematic way of knowing that the scientific worldview could afford. Their former religious belief was seen to be narrow, sectarian and now superseded by the objective and universal outlook of science and the modern moral order: “much of the appeal of scientific materialism is no so much the cogency of its detailed findings as that of the underlying epistemological stance, and that for ethical reasons. It is seen as the dance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality.” The materialist perspective, made possible as it was by the modern social and cosmic imaginaries, is now also more firmly embedded. In a similar way that Christianity was reinforced by the social and cosmic imaginaries of the medieval era, unbelief is now firmly entrenched in a similar way. The modern imaginaries, Taylor is keen to point out, can be interpreted with both a “open” or “closed” take, but unbelief has now become a genuine option, and perhaps even the dominant option:

 “This whole way of seeing things, which comes about through the joint effect of science and the new cosmic imaginary, helped along by a notion of maturity which they generate along with the buffered identity, has brought about modes of unbelief which are much more solid. They are more firmly anchored, both in our sense of the world, and in the scientific and technological practices by which we know it and deal with it. This is why for whole milieux today materialism has become the obvious, the default position. It is no longer a wild, far out-theory, but creeps close to what seems common sense.” 

But the battle today is not a straight forward one between “belief” and “unbelief,” rather there are a wide range of competing “unbeliefs” and a whole range of spiritualities, brought about by what Taylor calls the nova effect. The modern moral order and exclusive humanism has generated a verity of critiques, especially from figures in the linage of Nietzsche. There is a sense that the modern moral order with its emphasis on equality, meeting basic needs, and so on, leads to a flattening out of human existence and an eclipse of heroism. Nietzsche and others represent: “an anti-humanism which rebells precisely against the unrelenting concern with life, the proscription of violence, the imposition of equality.” In its place, Nietzsche promoted the traditional aristocratic virtues, and the “will to power,” embracing “a fascination with the negation of life, with death and suffering.” This sort of attack on the modern moral order is captured well in the movie Fight Club, which has the main character revolting against a fake, plastic, consumer society and embracing heroism and violence in an underground “fight club.” Eventually, the “fight club” turns on modern society itself, engaging in acts of vigilantism and sabotage, hoping to destroy it all and return to an age of heroism. There is a revolt here against the stultifying commercial society and a desire to return to something more primordial, something which has been suppressed by the modern moral order. These kinds of critiques and cross pressures, generate a gamut of new options. In our own age, unbelief is now a genuine option, in a verity of forms. From the perspective of Taylor’s historical genealogy, this is a genuine accomplishment: “A race of humans has arisen which has managed to experience the world entirely as immanent. In some respects, we may judge this achievement as a victory for darkness, but it is a remarkable achievement nonetheless.” 

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