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Do We Need a God?

Maybe not

Richard Eldridge

Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited
Charles Taylor
Harvard University Press, $19.95 (cloth)

8 “Only a god can save us,” Martin Heidegger notoriously pronounced in a 1966 interview, published in Der Spiegel just weeks after his death in 1976. Heidegger’s assertion remains a mystery. Who is the we (Germans, modern Europeans, human beings in general)? Why do we need to be saved? And why does our salvation require a god?

In his new book, Charles Taylor proposes that we—modern people—do need salvation and that a god is important. Not all is well, according to Taylor, in modern culture. We tend to drift through projects and relationships. A consumerist impulse drives us toward personal satisfactions that we never quite experience as richly meaningful—not in the way that compliance with god’s word was once experienced as meaningful. These themes are familiar for Taylor, a philosopher who has devoted much of his distinguished career to exploring the cultural sources of modern individualism. Here, Taylor develops his argument about modernity’s ills by sympathetically elucidating William James’s thoughts about meaning and modernity in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

James built his argument around the contrast between the insights of intense religious experience—the experience of mystics and saints—and replicable results of modern experimental science. James, according to Taylor, sees that modern science and political individualism have cut us off from experiencing ourselves as deeply immersed in a meaningful cosmic order; and he privileges the intense “first-hand religious experience” of mystics and saints over experiences of religious institutions, which are “secondary.” As James puts it, “When a religion has become an orthodoxy, its days of inwardness are over; the spring is dry; the faithful live at second hand exclusively and stone the prophets in their turn.”1 For James, then, firsthand religious experiences offer an accession to meaningfulness in the face of modern secularism and “second-hand” life. By taking firsthand religious experiences more seriously we might hope to overcome modern drift.

Taylor applies James’s argument to three types of problems in modern life—cognitive-personal, social, and spiritual. Cognitive-personal failures stem from what William Clifford (a main target of James’s argument) called the ethics of belief. According to Clifford, “it is wrong always, and everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”2 But as James points out, this scientific posture may obstruct access to truths that we can grasp only through a stance of openness and commitment. Taylor offers a striking illustration of this possibility: “Do you like me or not? If I am determined to test this by adopting a stance of maximum distance and suspicion, the chances are that I will forfeit the chance of a positive answer.” In defending accession to a certain kind of truth via commitment and acceptance, “James is, in a sense, building on the Augustinian insight that in certain domains love and self-opening enable us to understand what we would never grasp otherwise, rather than just following on understanding as its normal consequence.” In particular, we may need love and self-opening in order to achieve genuine intimacy and commitment with even a few others.

Social failures result when individuals focus nearly exclusively on egoistic interests, and “modes of mutual help” correspondingly decline. “The consumer revolution” and “postwar affluence” brought “a new concentration on private space, and the means to fill it, which began distending the relations of previously close-knit working class or peasant communities.” An expressivist “culture of authenticity” in a subjectivist-individualist key displaced a shared social ethos. “Therapies proliferated that promised to help you find yourself, realize yourself, release your true self, and so on” at the expense of duty. John Stuart Mill’s “‘harm principle,’ that no one has a right to interfere with me for my own good, but only to prevent harm to others” is now generally accepted. Harm to others apart, anything goes. The result, according to Taylor, is “a host of urban monads hover[ing] on the boundary between solipsism and communication,” living in “a strange zone between loneliness and communication.”

Spiritual failures result when spiritual experience loses touch with social connection. Because “the spiritual as such is no longer intrinsically related to society,” but rather is understood as something entirely inward, we drift toward a New Age sensibility, where the motto is “Only accept what rings true to your own inner Self.”3 We no longer know how to live religiously. Even the fundamentalist urges us to choose divine command and social rules and hierarchies against the surrounding chaos, or, sometimes, as part of a political liberation movement (as in Poland and Ireland). But this project is quite different from simply accepting and living within a meaningful cosmological-social order that is just given. Apart from charismatic or political fundamentalisms, the pursuit of “a momentary sense of wow!” has displaced religious life. “We have slid out of the old dispensation” and arrived at “a quite new predicament.” Hence we drift, without practical convictions, or social solidarity, or genuine fulfillment.

Is Taylor right? Are we suffering from a loss of meaning that might be remedied through first-hand religious experience? It may not be so easy to avoid what Taylor, following Max Weber, calls the modern “disenchantment of the world” that has developed from the seventeenth century into the present. And perhaps some disenchantment is not such a bad thing.

The cosmos itself was once seen as magical, as suffused with value and purpose. Whether presided over by the timeless Platonic Good, by Aristotelian divine intelligence, or by the Christian God, human nature was seen as part of an order of meaningful natures. Endowed with a spark of divine reason, human beings were capable of grasping their place in this comprehensive meaningful order and attuning their lives to it. The results of reflection on the cosmos were significantly embodied in Church rituals and in presumptively natural social hierarchies.

With the rise of modern science and politics, everything changed. Bodies were now taken to be space-filling, extended (perhaps solid) things for human use, not function-fulfilling parts of a meaningful cosmos; and their motions were seen as inertial—not impelled from within to achieve a natural place, but unchanging unless acted upon by an external force. Correspondingly, private, representational consciousness displaced rationality—the capacity to reflect upon a meaningful order—as the primary mark of human mental life. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation “repressed magical practices.” Political individualism challenged social hierarchies, while cognitive individualism challenged the authority of religious intellectuals to discern and administer a meaningful order.

After Darwin, disenchantment only deepened. Our physical science now seems to us to be a body of present “best guesses” about how things might be, not an unshakable understanding of basic features of a designed system. Our technologies, built on and in relation to such science, seem to us ever more useful in helping us, as needy animals, to cope with our material situation. Even if we retain also some residual religious guilt about the exploitation of nature and some worries about unknown long-term consequences of complex technologies, there seems to be no going back, no way to return to a life of cohesion in a meaningful order. If your subjective aims and mine turn out to be complementary, that is our good fortune, not a result of mutual attunement to a surrounding meaningful cosmos. Competition for scarce material resources is at least as likely as complementarity.

Perhaps we should follow the philosophical tradition that traces to David Hume, who regarded this powerful background of developments as liberating rather than threatening. In this tradition, human thinking is a natural process rather than a point of entry to a larger universe of meaning. Any significance we attach to our practices and relationships is a matter of finding them meaningful for us, in relation to our ongoing subjective projects and desires.4

Even Taylor concedes that the Humean response has something to be said for it. The pre-modern view carried with it, in its cultural enforcements, “hypocrisy, spiritual stultification, inner revolt against the Gospel, the confusion of faith and power, and even worse.” In the modern view, we are at least freed to accept ourselves as beings with multiple natural wants and desires, partly complementary and partly competitive, and to accept the limits of our cognitive endowments. Guilt about what we really ought to do, given our place in the order of things, need not press upon us with such a heavy hand. Thinking of our desires and projects as merely natural and/or chosen, rather than either resonant with or faithless to larger cosmological purposes, does encourage modesty and compromise. The horrors perpetrated in the name of putative higher goods are legion. The separation of Church and State is no idle achievement against such horrors.

Yet the naturalist conception of human beings as, at bottom, desiring organisms is, Taylor thinks, insufficient as a guide to life: it abandons us to the predicaments of drift, meaninglessness, and consumerism. Nor does it adequately express our self-understandings. Most of us do not live as subjective egoists, but instead continue to feel the pulls of certain relationships and activities as ways to find meaning in life beyond the satisfaction of de facto preferences. Within these relationships and activities, we find (or hope to find) our desires transformed: made deeper and more reciprocal. In the face of modern naturalism, we continue to hope to be. or to become, attuned to one another and to a larger order of meaningful nature.

How, then, can we judge between the call to attunement and the claims of naturalism? There are considerations on each side, and the judgment between them is vexed by the absence of any neutral arguments that might settle the question. The modern sensibility—with its ethics of belief, its instrumental conception of social connections, and its reduction of spirituality to personal ecstasy—is part of a comprehensive philosophy, informed by a complementary ethics and epistemology. And the same is true for the more religiously-inspired stance that Taylor favors, which promises deeper meanings, values, and ways of life through openness to the divine, acceptance, and commitment. As a result, Taylor argues, in the crucial central passage of the book,

most people feel both pulls. They have to go one way, but they never fully shake off the call of the other. So the faith of believers is fragilized, not just by the fact that other people, equally intelligent, often equally good and dedicated, disagree with them, but also by the fact that they can still see themselves as reflected in the other perspective, as drawn by a too-indulgent view of things. For what believer doesn’t have the sense that her view of God is too simple, too anthropocentric, too indulgent? We all lie to some extent “cowering” under the “the agnostic vetoes upon faith as something weak and shameful.”
On the other side, the call to faith is still there as an understood temptation. Even if we think that it no longer applies to us, we see it as drawing others.5

James’s great merit, according to Taylor, is to have understood this predicament. In response, James himself opted for faith, as a matter of will. But his importance as a philosopher, according to Taylor, is to have grasped the dilemma: “James is our great philosopher of the cusp. He tells us more than anyone else about what it’s like to stand in that open space and feel the winds pulling you now here, now there. He describes a crucial site of modernity and articulates the decisive drama enacted there.”

Should we follow James in embracing a will to believe, if only to cure ourselves of heartsickness and melancholy at the absence of meaning? Or should we instead accept our natural wants and diversities, cultivate tolerance, and not take claims about ‘what is higher’ so seriously? In the last paragraphs of Sources of the Self (1992), Taylor was himself close to the Jamesian stance:

If the highest ideals are the most potentially destructive, then maybe the prudent path is the safest, and we shouldn’t unconditionally rejoice at the indiscriminate retrieval of empowering goods. A little judicious stifling may be the part of wisdom.
The prudent strategy makes sense on the assumption . . . that the highest spiritual aspirations must lead to mutilation or destruction. But if I may make one last unsupported assumption, I want to say that I don’t accept this as our inevitable lot. The dilemma of mutilation [via the pursuit of what is highest] is in a sense our greatest spiritual challenge, not an iron fate.
How can one demonstrate this? I can’t do it here (or, to be honest, anywhere at this point). There is a large element of hope. It is a hope I see implicit in Judaeo-Christian theism (however terrible the record of its adherents in history), and in its central promise of a divine affirmation of the human, more total than humans can ever attain unaided.6

At least here, Taylor was willing to commit himself to a religious stance, against the naturalizing tendencies of modernity. A divine affirmation of the human—from god, not us—might save us.

That we can will ourselves into believing that the world is a meaningful order is a contentious proposition. But even if we can, it still remains to be shown that we can enact this stance in our lives. Here Taylor points to three current developments in practice that might serve to articulate and enhance a sense of meaningfulness that is first available in individual, mystical religious experience. According to Taylor, each of these developments goes in a way beyond James, who “has trouble getting beyond a certain individualism” and who hence remains stuck in a description of the personal agonies of belief. Taylor proposes that we might in practice do better—are in fact beginning to do better—in three ways.

1. People who begin from a deeply personal religious experience may want and go on toward something more. “The new framework has a strongly individualistic component, but this will not necessarily mean that the content will be individuating. Many people will find themselves joining extremely powerful religious communities, because that’s where many people’s sense of the spiritual will lead them.” [Emphasis mine.]

2. Politicized religious identities will continue to matter for some people. Fundamentalism does exist within modernity. Politicized religious identities “are perhaps even more in evidence among groups that feel suppressed or threatened (perhaps also the case of the Christian Right?), and often people of a certain ethnic or historical identity will look to some religious marker to gather around.” Examples range from the Poles and Irish to the Hindu BJP. As Taylor observes, “this phenomenon remains important in the modern world, although from a faith perspective one might be ambivalent about it,” depending on which values are enforced, how violently, and how cynically.

3. “[O]ur response to our original spiritual intuitions may continue into formal spiritual practices. . . . Many people are not satisfied with a momentary sense of wow! They want to take it further, and they’re looking for ways of doing so.” They develop new liturgies and rituals, sometimes drawing on earlier tribal practices, in order to have something of commanding significance to do, again and again.

Perhaps, then, and contrary to James, a certain sort—indeed, many sorts—of richly meaningful, shared religious life are both available for us and valuable, despite our sense of being modern subjective individuals. Taylor hopes so.

Taylor’s picture provides a credible analysis of the vices and virtues of the modern naturalization of the cosmos and of our tendency to think that values are subjective. But his account of the possibilities for response to this inheritance is hyperbolically overblown: a residue, I think, of both religious nostalgia and 1960s ambitions for comprehensive social transformation. Perhaps we should not quite forget such ambitions. But we should also understand something about the risks of comprehensive social transformation.

Absent daily engagement and cultural structures, an ecstatic religious experience may be not much more than a New Age phenomenon. The three grounds of hope in practice that Taylor identifies are oddly divided against each other. The first and third remain strongly subjectivist and voluntaristic: religiously-motivated allegiances and rituals founded on deep personal experience may be fragile and fleeting. When religious inspiration is thus subjectivized, then not much (except boredom) distinguishes participation in religious institutions from participation in Elks Clubs or loyalty to a sports team. Religious consumerism—church and faith shopping—is common nowadays. Think of Madonna’s wanderings through Kabbalah, yoga, and Buddhism, or Bob Dylan’s through Christianity, Judaism, and atheism.

In contrast, the second ground of hope—religiously inspired politics—remains in most of its manifestations powerfully fundamentalist and vehemently hostile to any but a certain narrow range of religious experiences. It is not at all clear that these three radically divergent strands can reasonably be regarded as complementary grounds for social hope.

So what should we do? What do we do? Hegel’s Philosophy of Right suggests an alternative to the personal quest for divine deliverance that James and Taylor in some sense recommend. Hegel urges that we stop looking for salvation to come to us from somewhere else, from above. Instead, he suggests, we should seek “reconciliation with actuality.”7 What Hegel means first of all by this is that there is no external measure of the meaningfulness of our lives and practices. If the divine—a commanding value that makes a call on our conduct—is present to us at all, it is in the social, political, ethical, religious, familial, and cultural practices of a people. These practices have always expressed an understanding of what is right. Such understandings evolve, along with the practices in which they are embedded, as incoherences become evident and people try something new. Reconciliation means finding purpose and meaning within such an evolving substantial ethical life. We do not need to escape from ordinary life into some sunlight elsewhere. If we try to do so, we become fundamentalists, or New Age enthusiasts, or simply alienated intellectuals. We fail to live in reconciliation and satisfaction with the material and spiritual reproduction of social life, as it takes place under the central modern social institutions—family, the associational life of civil society, and the liberal state.

Taylor is one of our most distinguished Hegel commentators, and has elsewhere made these very points. The accomplishment of his Sources of the Self—somewhat contrary to the theism of its concluding pages and to his religious stance here—is to argue that modern domestic life and inwardness (and consequent respect for conscience) are real resources for us.

Yet it is also true that no individual life and no society follows “one perpetual progress smooth and bright,”8 except perhaps in the most exceptional cases of individual luck. Even if he was right that we have no external measure of meaning, Hegel was overly optimistic about the prospects for reconciliation under modern institutions. Although they are loci of value, our social institutions remain fragmented and incoherent. For most of us, some supply of consumer goods and personal property remains important; given the scarcity of goods, some competition, not full complementarity, inevitably results. Children do not just smoothly grow up within their happy families, thence to assume meaningful places in the economy and polity. Political inequalities persist; education is both contested and dominated by privilege; economic inequalities prevent the majority from securing meaningful work. Our personal lives are marked by these fractures, oppositions, and incoherences.

So we are to achieve a compelling sense of meaning by accepting our lives within existing institutions, yet those institutions fail to support full reconciliation. Will it help then to pursue intense personal religious experience, both as a source of meaning and as a basis for building a better social life? It may not hurt. Attaining some distance from the social world and thinking about its transformation from that vantage point may be useful, even if return to life within this social world, or some successor of it, seems ethically and practically exigent.

But are the most relevant and powerful thoughts that are thus generated necessarily theistic? That is, is it best to believe in god, and a Judeo-Christian god at that, as one thinks about the social world and one’s relation to it? This is, I think, deeply unclear. To be sure, religious thought about ourselves as created beings is one way to supply a measure of decency and to support richer and more complicated life commitment, hence to overcome subjectivism and egoism. Religious thought expresses many of our deepest aspirations that we can recognize to be objective. At least, it does this in the greatest religious texts and practices, texts and practices which offer much more content and depth, for most of us, than direct personal experience of the voice of god.

But so too do poetic thinking, philosophical thinking, and historical thinking, at least at their bests. These forms of thinking, along with the commitments that are woven into them, are hence neighbors to religious thought and commitment. I am myself inclined to trust, among other things, the thoughts and the experiences of meaningfulness that are available in certain movies, novels, and poems, and even in the travails of baseball and basketball teams (together with talk with one another about these things) as much as anything else.

Given the weight and importance of the modern world as we inherit it—part locus of value, part scene of injustice, and everywhere contested—and given the varieties of experience and thinking that arise out of and reflect on its attainments and failures, should we accept the claim that only a god can save us? Perhaps one should be shy about accepting that, even if one wishes for and pursues more demanding paths of meaning than are to found in sheer consumerist and subjective egoist life. In a famous article “Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life,” the English philosopher David Wiggins wrote that we do not need approval and meaning given to us from without. Instead “we need to be able think in both directions, down from point to the human activities which answer to it, and up from activities . . . to forms of life in which [persons] by their nature can find point.”9 Theistic thought, in relation to an evolving social world, will here have its place, but only alongside other forms of demanding practical thought.<

Richard Eldridge, professor of philosophy and chair of the philosophy department at Swarthmore College, is author of On Moral Personhood, Leading a Human Life, The Persistence of Romanticism, and the forthcoming An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art.


1. Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today, 6; citing James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Penguin, 1982), 337.

2. William K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” (1877), cited in James, The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1979), 18; cited in Taylor, Varieties, 45.

3. Sir George Trevelyan, in a lecture at the Festival for Mind, Body, and Spirit, quoted in Paul Heelas, The New Age Movement (Basil Blackwell, 1996), 16; cited in Taylor, Varieties, 101.

4. For an interesting defense of this neo-Humean view and of the modern way of life of “North Atlantic” peoples, following Rorty and arguing against Taylor, see Gary Gutting, Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

5. Here Taylor cites James, Varieties, 204.

6. Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 1992), 520–1.

7. G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, ed. Allen W. Wood, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 22.

8. William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805), in Wordsworth, Selected Poems and Prefaces, ed. Jack Stillinger (Houghton Mifflin, 1965), Book XIV, line 135.

9. David Wiggins, “Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life,” Proceedings of the British Academy 62 (1976), 374–5.

Originally published in the October/November 2002 issue of Boston Review

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