Month: May 2013

Rethinking Secularism: José Casanova’s The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms

José Casanova’s exemplary essay in Rethinking Secularism is one of the best I have read on the subject. Casanova, a professor of Sociology at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, engages secularism from a critical analytical angle. Because there are multiple and various ways of experiencing the secular, what we need is to differentiate between such experiences, as the “secular,” “secularization,” and “secularism.”

The Secular

There has been a radical—if not paradoxical—reversal in how the term “secular” is understood. The secular as a modern epistemic category is used to construct, codify, grasp, and experience a realm or reality differentiated from the “religious.” That is, the secular has often been assumed to be simply the “other of the religious,” that which is non-religious.  As such it functions as a residual category, something left over from the “religious,” a remainder. But in our modern “secular age,” as Taylor puts it, the secular encompasses the whole of reality, in a sense replacing the “religious” altogether. This naturalization of the non-religious, of unbelief, of the secular, completely reverses the traditional view. The secular is no longer the residual category, it is the category, the norm. Understood as a natural reality, the secular is the true natural social and anthropological condition or substratum that remains when the “religious” is lifted or disappears.

Casanova remarks that this reversal is quite the paradox. “Rather than being the residual category, as was original the case, the secular appears now as a reality, tout court, while the religious is increasingly perceived not only as the residual category, but also as a superstructural and superfluous additive, which both humans and societies can do without.”

But according to Casanova, such a reversal is the uncritical and unreflexive functionalist ideologies of theories of secularization and secularist worldviews. Such ideologies often disregard—and indeed sometimes mask—the particular and the contingent historical process of the secular, projecting instead a universal human development. In the end such ideologies of the secular as a natural and universal substratum “avoid the task of analyzing, studying, and explaining the secular.”

Casanova takes up the task in the remaining pages of his essay. He begins by pointing out that the term “secular” first emerged as a theological category, as a unit of a dyadic pair of religious/secular, as mutually constitutive. In its original theological meaning, to secularize meant to “make worldly,” to convert religious persons or things into secular ones, as when a religious person abandoned the monastic rule to live in the saeculum, “the worldly age,” or when monastic property was secularized following the Protestant Reformation.

From this point of historical origins, Casanova draws our attention to at least two dynamic forms of “secularization.” First, there was an internal Christian secularization, a process which aims to spiritualize the temporal world, bringing the religious life of perfection out of the monasteries and into the secular world, the countryside, the urban, the court. This was the chosen path of those associated with the devotio moderna, with medieval movements of Christian reform, eventually receiving a  radicalized form by Protestant reformers. Second, there was a converse process, that of anticlericalism and laicization, a liberation of all secular spheres from ecclesiastical control. This was the chosen path of the French Revolution and later subsequent liberal revolutions. “Its aim was the explicit purpose of breaking the monastery walls to laicize those religious places, dissolving and emptying their religious content and making religious persons, monks and nuns, civil and laic before forcing them into the world, now conceived as merely as secular place emptied of religious symbols and religious meanings.” Such as path of laicization, argues Casanova, could well serve as the basic metaphor of all subtraction narratives of secular modernity. It is important to note that in both forms the “secular” means the same thing, as the worldly age.

Closer to our own day, Casanova points another, and narrower, way of conceiving the “secular” as that of self-sufficient and exclusive secularity. We mentioned this point in Taylor’s essay, so we will be brief here. The secular in this sense is a self-enclosed reality, where people are simply “irreligious,” closed to any form of transcendence beyond the purely secular immanent frame. Taylor describes this phenomenological experience of the immanent frame as constituting an interlocking constellation of the modern differentiated cosmic, social, and moral orders. That is, all three orders are understood as purely immanent secular orders, devoid of transcendence and thus functioning etsi Deus non daretur, “as if God would not exist.”

This understanding of the secular, however, is deeply problematic. This naturalization of unbelief, or non-religion, as the normal human condition in modern societies corresponds to the assumptions of dominant theories of secularization, which postulate a progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices with increasing modernization, so that the more modern a society happens to be, the more secular, and thus the less religious. But the connection between secularity and modernity becomes questionable, according to Casanova, when we realize that in many modern non-European societies are fully secular yet their populations are also at the same time conspicuously religious (e.g. the United States or South Korea).  Thus this second, and modern, meaning of the term “secular,” as being devoid of religion, the secular does not happen automatically as a result of processes of modernization or even as the result of the social construction of a self-enclosed immanent frame; rather, it needs to be “mediated phenomenological by some other particular historical experience.”

Casanova finds this particular historical experience in the “stadial consciousness” inherited from the Enlightenment narrative, which understands the change in the condition of belief as a process of maturation and growth, as a “coming of age,” and as progressive emancipation. It was the construction of this quasi-natural process of development, this philosophy of history, which has functioned as confirming the superiority of our present modern secular age over other supposedly earlier, and therefore primitive, religious forms of understanding. “To be secular means to be modern, and therefore, by implication, to be religious means to be somehow not yet fully modern.” Thus any remnant of thus “surpassed” condition, to a primitive mode of thinking, becomes an “unthinkable intellectual regression” in our modern times.

The function of the secular as a philosophy of history, and thus as ideology, is to turn secularization into a universal teleological process of human development from belief to unbelief, from primitive irrational or metaphysical religion to modern rational post-metaphysical secular consciousness.

Casanova’s core criticism against this second, modern definition of secular (i.e. as ideology) is that in places where such secularist historical stadial consciousness is absent or less dominant, as in the United States or in most non-Western post-colonial societies, the process of modernization is unlikely to be accompanied by a process of religious decline. Indeed, Casanova persuasively argues that it was this secularist stadial consciousness that was the crucial factor in the widespread secularization that has accompanied the modernization of western European societies. “Europeans tend to experience their own secularization as a natural consequence of their modernization. To be secular is experienced not as an existential choice, but, rather, as a natural outcome of becoming modern.” This consisted, according to both Casanova and Taylor, as stadial accounts or conceptions of history, which emerged first in the Scottish Enlightenment from thinkers such as Adam Smith (1723-1790) and Adam Ferguson (1723-1816). According to these and subsequent thinkers, human society passes through certain stages, e.g. hunter-gatherer, agricultural, commercial. These stages, usually defined ultimately in economic terms, describe an advance. Higher ones represent development, a gain, from which it would be quite irrational to try to retreat once they have come about. But as we have seen in the work of Dan Edelstein and others mentioned in these posts, such a narrative is a modern myth.


While the “secular” may be a central, modern epistemic category, “secularization,” usually refers to actual or alleged empirical-historical patterns of transformation and differentiation of the”religious” and the “secular” institutional spheres from early-modern to contemporary societies. As Casanova explains, although the social sciences view secularization as a general theory, it actually consists of distinct and, ultimately, disparate parts: (1) institutional differentiation, such as state, economy, and science, from the religious; (2) the progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices as a result of modernization; and (3) the privatization of religion as a precondition of modern and democratic politics.

The tendency of social scientists to view all three processes as intrinsically interrelated components of a single general teleological process of secularization and modernization, is, however, deeply problematic. In recent years two of the sub-theses of the theory of secularization, namely, the decline of religion and the privatization of religion, have undergone numerous critiques and revisions. Yet the core of the thesis, the single process of functional differentiation of institutional spheres, remains relatively uncontested.

Why? Answering this question once again leads us to another paradox. As already mentioned, the “secular” first emerged as a particular Western Christian theological category. Yet its modern antonym, the “religious” is itself a Western-European modern secularist category. By recognizing this paradox, we begin to comprehend the critical significance of the colonial encounter in European developments, the concomitant globalization of the category of religion, and the hotly disputed and debated how, where, and by whom the proper boundaries between the religious and the secular ought to be drawn.

Indeed, the very category of secularization becomes deeply problematic once it is placed in this historical context, as Eurocentric. European secularization should be seen, according to Casanova, as provincial, as the exception and not the rule (but even here there is some ambiguity—see my forthcoming Grace Davie post, Europe: The Exception that Proves the Rule?). This historical process was exceptional, and is unlikely to be reproduced anywhere else in the world with a similar sequential arrangement and with the corresponding stadial consciousness. “Without such a stadial consciousness,” writes Casanova, “it is unlikely that the immanent frame of the secular modern order will have similar phenomenological effects on the conditions of belief and unbelief in non-Western societies. Secularization thus requires—indeed, needs—a stadial consciousness, a narrative of progressive stages from the primitive to the modern.


Finally, there is “secularism,” viewed as a worldview and ideology, or more broadly to a whole range of modern secular worldviews and ideologies which may be consciously (or unconsciously) held and explicitly (or implicitly) elaborated into philosophies of history and normative-ideological state projects or cultural programs. But “secularism” may also be viewed, as we have seen, unreflexively or be assumed phenomenologically as a taken-for-granted normal structure of modern reality, as modern doxa or an “unthought.”

Casanova finds it fruitful to draw a distinction between secularism as statecraft doctrine and secularism as ideology. By statecraft Casanova means the principle of separation of church and state, between religious and political authority. Such a principle neither presupposes nor entails any substantive theory of religion. But when the state hold explicitly a particular conception of religion, one enters the realm of ideology.

There are at least, according to Casanova, two basic types of secularist ideologies. The first we have already mentioned, which is grounded in some progressive stadial philosophies of history that regulate religion to a superseded stage. The second is related to the first, in that it presuppose religion as either an irrational force or a non-rational form of discourse that should be banished from the democratic public sphere.

Reformed philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, William P. Alston, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William J. Wainwright, George I. Mavrodes, and many others have shown the latter to be utterly bankrupted and no longer tenable. For his part, Casanova, being the sociologists and not the philosopher, is more interested in examining the extent to which secularist assumptions permeate the taken-for-granted assumptions and thus the phenomenological experiences of ordinary people. Such secularism “stands for self-sufficient and exclusive secularity, when people are not simply religiously ‘unmusical’ but are actually closed to any form of transcendence beyond the purely secular immanent frame.”

At this point Casanova returns to the crux of his argument, that in places where secularist stadial consciousness is absent, processes of modernization are unlikely to be accompanied by processes of religious decline. It follows that there must exist a normative self-image, a narrative, a belief that being religious is not modern. “To be secular is this sense means to leave religion behind, to emancipate oneself from religion, overcoming the non-rational forms of being, thinking, and feeling associated with religion.” Indeed, it is this assumption that entails both “subtraction” and “stadial” theories of secularity.

It is this essentializing of “religion,” of the “secular,” and even of the “political,” that is the fundamental problem of secularism as ideology. The whole idea of “religion is intolerant,” or “religion is in conflict,” with various modes of modernity is a construct that functions to positively differentiate modern secularists from the “religious other,” either from premodern religious Europeans or from contemporary non-European religious people, particularly Muslims. But such a view, as numerous historians of science have discovered, can hardly be grounded empirically in the collective historical experience of Europeans societies.

Why has this view nevertheless persisted? Casanova perceptively suggests that such a view of religion as the source of violent conflict is actually connected to “retrospective memory.” By viewing religion in the abstract, detaching it from historical reality, secularist ideology places modern secularist problems on the “religious other.” Indeed,

from 1914 to 1989, twentieth-century Europe can be characterized as one of the most violent, bloody, and genocidal centuries in the history of humanity. But none of the horrible massacres—not the senseless slaughter of millions of young Europeans in the trenches of WWI; or the countless millions of victims of Bolshevik and Communist terror through revolution, civil war, collectivization campaigns, the great famine in Ukraine, the repeated cycles of Stalinist terror, and the gulag; or the unfathomable of all, the Nazi Holocaust and the global conflagration of WWII, culminating in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—can be said to have been caused by religious fanaticism and intolerance. All of them were, rather, products of modern secular ideologies.

Yet contemporary Europeans, and many worldwide “intellectuals,” obviously prefer selectively to forget the more inconvenient recent memories of secular ideological conflict and retrieve instead a fictionalized account of religious wars or conflict with modernity. As Casanova puts it, “one may suspect that the function of such selective historical memory is to safeguard the perception of the progressive achievement of Western secular modernity, offering a self-vindicating justification of secular separation of religion and politics as the condition for modern liberal democratic politics, for global peace, and for the protection of individual privatized religious freedom.”

But nothing could be further from the truth.


Myths about Science and Religion: That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science

In these posts I have often focused on the close interaction between science, or natural philosophy, and Christianity. But as Noah J. Efron helpfully reminds us in his entry in Galileo goes to Jail, “Christian ideas about nature were not exclusively Christian ideas.”

Efron admits that the claim that Christianity led to modern science captures something true and important. In this context he makes reference to Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark, who in his recent book, For the Glory of God (2003), asserts:

Christianity created Western Civilization. Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and the rest of you would be reading from hand-copied scrolls. Without a theology committed to reason, progress, and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were, say, 1800: A world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists. A world of despots, lacking universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos. A world where most infants do not live to the age of five and many women die in childbirth—a world truly in “dark ages.”

As Stark sees it, without Christianity, chimneys and pianos, and all the more so chemistry and physics, would not exist. Despite the implausibility of this passage, Stark makes a valid point. Numerous historians and sociologists have found that some forms of Christianity provided the motivation to study nature systematically. “Although they disagree about nuances,” writes Efron, “today most historians agree that Christianity (Catholicisim as well as Protestantism) moved many early-modern intellectuals to study nature systematically.”

Historians also note that many notions borrowed from Christian belief are found in scientific discourse. The very notion of “laws of nature,” for instance, is borrowed from Christian theology. There are laws because there is a Law Giver. Further, many historians point out that Christian convictions also affected how nature was studied. For example, Peter Harrison has argued that St. Augustine’s notion of original sin was embraced by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century advocates of experimental natural philosophy. Fallen man cannot understand the inner workings of the world through reason alone, and thus required painstaking experiment and observation to arrive at knowledge of how nature truly works. As Efron puts it, “Christian doctrine lent urgency to experiment.”

Historians have also found that changing Christian approaches to interpreting the Bible affected the way nature was studied in very important ways. The Reformers, for instance, rejected the allegorical reading of the biblical text, seeking  a more straightforward interpretation. This same straightforward approach was simultaneously applied to understanding nature. Many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century founders of modern science also found in Christianity legitimation of their pursuits. Seminal figures like Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) believed that their “new philosophy” was in agreement with the truths of faith, and that Christianity in fact bolstered their scientific discoveries—and that these discoveries in turn bolstered Christianity.

A final example Efron provides is that Christian churches, far from neglecting or oppressing approaches to understanding nature, were leading patrons of natural philosophy and science, “in that they supported theorizing, experimentation, observation, exploration, documentation, and publication.”

But despite all of this supporting evidence, it “does not mean that Christianity and Christianity alone produced modern science.” Indeed, Christian ideas about nature were clearly not exclusively Christian ideas. In the early centuries of Christianity, for instance, the views and sensibilities of Christian thinkers were shaped by the “classical tradition,” an intellectual heritage that included art, rhetoric, history, poetry, mathematics, and philosophy, including the philosophy of nature. For this reason Efron argues that “excluding the place of classical philosophers from an account of the history of modern science is an act of intellectual appropriation of breathtaking arrogance, and ones that the forefathers of modern science themselves would have never agree to.”

Christian philosophers of nature were also indebted, directly or indirectly, to Muslim and, to a lesser degree, Jewish philosophers of nature who used Arabic to describe their investigations. Indeed, it was in Muslim lands that natural philosophy received the most careful and creative attention from the seventh to the twelfth century. As Efron notes, “many of these Muslim achievements were, in time, eagerly adopted by Christian philosophers of nature.” (Although, I would contest Efron’s use of the word “Muslim,” for many were simply Arabs, whether pagan, Jew, or Christian, and not necessarily devotees of Islam.)

Borrowing a illustration from anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Efron posits that “modern science rests on early-modern, Renaissance, and medieval philosophers of nature, and these rested on Arabic natural philosophy, which rested on Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, and Chinese texts, and these rested, in turn, on the wisdom generated by other, still earlier cultures.”

In his final comments on the subject, Efron narrows his view toward the so-called Scientific Revolution. Religion, he says, was only one part of that revolution. Commerce, voyages of discovery, technological developments, political organizations, new and revised legal systems, all spurred the development of modern science in complicated ways. “Yes, Christian belief, practice, and institutions left indelible marks on the history of modern science, but so too did many other factors, including other intellectual traditions and the magnificent wealth of natural knowledge they produced.”

This leads Efron to conclude with an absolutely crucial point, that all of us, believers, nonbelievers, scientists and non-scientists, ought to mull over: we must see science for what it really is: a marvelous human invention, a human institution. “For better and for worse, science is a human endeavor, and it always has been.”

Now this…Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

postmanWe live in a world of distractions. A world infiltrated by a cacophony of Internet sites, memes, and social networks; a world of cell phones and smart phones and iphones; an influx of cable channels by the hundreds, flat-screens, DVDs, HDTV and Blue-ray. In other words, a world of instantaneous and constant noise.

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, first published in 1985, was a work ahead of its time. It is a twenty-first century book published in the twentieth century. In it Postman argues that television, and media in the larger context, has generated a seismic shift in our epistemology, adversely affecting our public discourse.

The book opens with a Foreword that relates two literary dystopic visions—that of George Orwell, who in his book 1984 warned about a despotic state that would ban information to keep the public powerless, and that of Aldous Huxley, who in Brave New World depicted a population too amused by distraction to realize that they had been made powerless. Postman wants to argue that discourse inspired by television has turned our world into a Huxleyan nightmare. “What Orwell feared,” writes Postman, “were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”

Postman divides his book into two parts. Part I is concerned with background and historical analysis. In the first chapter, “The Medium is the Metaphor,” Postman introduces the concept of “media-metaphors.” “Culture is a conversation, or, more precisely, a corporation of conversations, conducted in a variety of symbolic modes.” And conversation, or discourse, is necessarily limited by the form of the medium it employs. That is, the limitations of a particularly medium affects what can be realistically communicated. Postman suggests, for instance, that the “smoke signals” of Native Americans conveyed only a limited amount of information. You can’t have an abstract, philosophical discussion using smoke signals. Thus form excludes content.

Postman gives additional examples of how the form of discourse limits content, but perhaps most crucial for his argument is what he calls “the news of the day.” Postman observes that the “news of the day” could not exist without the proper media to give it expression. Even though atrocities have always occurred in human history, for example, they were not a facet of a person’s everyday life until the telegraph (and subsequent technologies) made it possible for them to be communicated at a faster rate. This idea of instantaneous, decontextualized information will be central to later chapters.

Postman wants to show how today’s denizens are “undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics.” By proposing our media-metaphors as powerful forces that influence our means of thought, he means to say that form subjugates content. “Our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.” In the reminder of the book Postman intends to reveal the effect of the media-metaphor of television on our minds.

In Chapter Two, Postman examines how media determines the way in which we define truth. Although Postman rejects relativism, he does believe a civilization will identify truth largely based on its forms of communication. An oral culture, for example, will likely put great stock in a man who remembers proverbs, since truth is passed on through such stories, whereas a culture of the written word will find oral proverbs only quaint, and the permanence of written precedent far more important. What concerns Postman about the television is not that it provides non-stop entertainment; rather, it has limited our discourse to where all of our serious forms of discussion have turned into entertainment.

“Truth,” writes Postman, “does not, and never has, come unadorned.” It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged. The way a culture defines “truth” is largely contingent on the means, mediums, and technologies through which they receive it. Postman speaks of truth as a “cultural prejudice,” and goes on to illustrate some of our own prejudices. Our society, for instance, is largely reliant on numbers to illustrate our truth, to the point that we often consider no other source as capable of communicating economic truth. Something relatively more recent is satire. We watch shows like SNL, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show not only to laugh but to find out the latest information. Thus such sources of information determines how we derive truth. Our media has become our epistemology. And from that Postman wishes to show “that the decline of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute.”

In Chapters Three through Four, Postman discusses the way that “Typographic America” influenced the “Typographic Mind.” During the colonial period and through about the mid-nineteenth century, the American populace was markedly literate and thus accustomed to approaching the world from a rational—or, at least, expository—perspective. Because the written word is based around a series of rational propositions that challenge a reader to judge them as true or false, the whole of society during this period was founded around the idea of rational discourse.

To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connection one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text.

The printing press was not simply a machine of the industrial age: it was a “structure for discourse,” delimiting and establishing rules, insisting upon certain kinds of content, and inevitably a certain kind of audience.

This period transitioned into “The Peek-a-Boo World, which Postman discusses in Chapter Five. With the invention of the telegraph and the photograph in the middle years of the nineteenth century, transportation and communication became disengaged from each other, “that space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information.” The sudden access to instantaneous information resulted in society being less driven by contextual understanding of  information and more involved with the collection of irrelevant “facts” divorced from context.

Everything Postman describes in this chapter is doubly true about the Internet. Much Internet humor derives from decontextualizing artists or politicians from their primary context, and the prevalence of photo manipulation allows a subterfuge of authority. As newspapers become part of a dying industry, replaced by a prevalence of less-researched and accountable Internet sources, one would be remiss to heed the warning that information without context can only serve to make us less informed and less driven towards any type of real action.

With Part II Postman begins discussing the television media-metaphor in more detail, examining how it has slowly infected every aspect of our public discourse. In Chapter Six, “The Age of Show Business,” he explains how “The Age of Exposition” was replaced by a spectacle that prizes flash and entertainment over substance. Entertainment has become the content of all our  discourse, to the point where the message itself is trumped by the entertainment value of its delivery. “Only those who know nothing of the history of technology,” he writes, “believe that a technology is entirely neutral.” Television as medium demands heavy editing, non-stop stimulation, and quick decisions rather than rational deliberation. These are the inherent biases of television.

In Chapter Seven, “Now…This,” Postman uses the “news of the day” to provide a metaphor for how we now receive all information. He decries how we are now “presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.” The most horrific story only gets a short bit of attention, and then is separated from the next story. There is no time for reflection, and the entertaining aspects of the news—attractive newscasters, pleasant music, clever transitions—only reinforce the idea that the information we receive is not to be considered in the context of our lives.

In Chapters Eight through Ten, Postman examines other modes of important public discourse that have been affected, and denigrated, to entertainment under the media-metaphor of television. Chapter Eight, “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem,” examines how religion has become an empty spectacle on television—which to some degree has also transferred into the church—and thus lacks the power to deliver a truly religious experience.

Chapter Nine examines how political elections have simply become a battle of advertisements, in which candidates develop images meant to work in the same way that commercials do: namely, by offering an abstract image of what the public feels it lacks. Politicians market themselves as celebrities, meaning they are not only well-known but also seen explicitly as figures of entertainment. The Obamas are just the most recent manifestations of this, as is evidenced with both Michelle and Barack Obama appearing on numerous day-time talk shows, night-time late shows, and even syndicated comedy programs. Postman notes how over time notions of fame and celebrity has infected the political scene. Candidates do commercials, star on television shows, and present themselves as bastions of certain values regardless of the issues they claim to represent. “Television,” he writes, “does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, television makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom.” Much like the way a product is advertised, a candidate is presented as an image of who the audience wants to be: “This is the lesson of all great television commercials: They provide a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling image of themselves.” But this is not an entirely new phenomena. “Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent.”

Chapter Ten, “Teaching as an Amusing Activity,” explores how even education is transitioning into an entertainment industry. Postman begins with a discussion of the iconic Sesame Street. When it first premiered in 1969, it quickly became a hit, largely because children saw in it the principles of television commercials, while parents loved it because it had the potential to educate in a form that children embraced. Its use of cute puppets, celebrity appearances, catchy songs, and heavy editing assuaged a society’s ever-deepening thirst for entertainment.

However, according to Postman, Sesame Street “encourages children to love school only if school is like ‘Sesame Street.'” Sesame Street, accordingly, undermines traditional pedagogy. A child cannot ask questions of what is presented on television; she learns more about images than about language; and is held to no standard of social behavior or expectation. “Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means to an end, on television it is the end in itself.”

Postman ends his book with “The Huxleyan Warning,” in which he reiterates that Huxley was right. Our culture is becoming a burlesque, and will ultimately shrivel. In this concluding chapter Postman is aware that he might come off as some cantankerous Luddite, but time is proving him right.

The question should be asked if whether Amusing Ourselves to Death remains relevant for a world less defined by the media-metaphor of television than by the media-metaphor of the Internet. To this we can give a resounding yes. The concept of channel surfing has reached a new apex with the Internet, where one can find more fragmented, decontextualized information than even Postman could have imagined. His warning remains one worth considering.

Current Research

I have finished a number of books recently, all of which I hope to post some comments on soon. These books include Neil Postman’s classic epistemological critique of a technologically obsessed culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death.  I have also finished  Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution, where in the Introduction he provocatively states, “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.” Another beautifully written book I have recently come to appreciate is David N. Livingstone’s Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge, where he argues that “Like other elements of human culture, science is located.”Although at times turgid, Richard G. Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe also found space on my reading list and I was pleased with its overall argument. The last book I recently polished off was a rereading of Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives, a collection of papers dedicated to the pioneering work of John Hedley Brooke, edited by Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor, and Stephen Pumfrey.

My next course of books to read will keep me occupied for some weeks. This list includes three works by Peter J. Bowler, his  The Invention of Progress: The Victorians and the Past, Evolution: The History of an Idea, and a work co-written with Iwan Rhys Morus, Making Modern Science: A Historical Survey. Also on the list is an anthology of nineteenth-century literature which, I think, will provide wider orientation to that era of ideas, edited by Laura Otis, Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century. Bernard Lightman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences, and James A. Secord’s Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, will serve the same purpose. As I continue to tackle Rethinking Secularism, I have also picked up Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity. These books will helpfully give me a better sense of where my research interests are going.

Peter Dear’s Historiography of Not-so-Recent Science

I came across Peter Dear’s “Historiography of Not-so-Recent Science” (Hist. Sci. 1, 2012) while doing some research last week at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Memorial Library. It is a fine article, reviewing some of the most recent themes and trends on the historiography of science on the period c. 1500-c.1700; that is, on the late Scientific Revolution.

What I found interesting about the article, and worthy of a post here, is the attention Dear gives to recent work on Francis Bacon and Empiricism, Alchemy and Anatomy, Networks and Circulation, Ideas and Intellectual Culture, and Big Names.

To start with, Dear draws our attention to recent work by Sophie Weeks, who “presents a Bacon who sought above all, not just a systematized way of producing by artifice the properties of natural bodies, but whose ambition extended to a kind of ‘magic’ that would create novel things hitherto unheard-of, by forcing nature into paths that it had never followed by itself when ‘free and unconfined.'”

There has also been a “renewed focus on alchemy.” In particular, Dear notes the prolific writings of “William Newman and Lawrence Principe,” who “have striven to establish a particular thread of alchemy as having been central to the intellectual history of science in the seventeenth century.” Although these two authors have played down the spiritual significance of the alchemist’s search for the Philosopher’s Stone, their scholarly work has shown, however, “that both practical techniques and theoretical alchemical doctrines concerning atomism and corpusculariansism played important roles informing the work of such natural philosophers as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.”

Pamela Smith’s recent work reveals the movement of material objects as well as of instrumental practices (including such items as plants, instruments, books, astronomical data, ethnographic reports) along the trade routes of the modernizing world, especially those of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and thus creating the first “global networks.”

An “intellectualist history of science,” as Dear calls it, is perhaps the most vigorous modes of history of science writing. This is a history of ideas, a history of a specifically intellectual culture. We find this mode in authors such as Steven Nadler, Christa Mercer, Roger Ariew, Stephen Gaukroger, and  Dan Garber. He draws attention to Peter Harrison’s most recent work on the “importance of the Fall from Grace as an element in seventeenth-century evaluations of the potential of human knowledge” and the emergence of modern science.

Finally, Dear still recognizes the importance of the biographical approach to the history of science. John Heilbron’s recent work on Galileo is one example. There is also a veritable cottage industry of work buzzing around the life and work of such men as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Michael Hunter, for example, has made a career on Boyle, whereas Rob Iliffe has created a remarkable website dedicated to publishing in full an online edition of all of Newton’s writings—whether they were printed or not, “The Newton Project.”

Dear aptly concludes that “grand overviews survive in the pedagogically necessary genre of the textbook, but the days of the large scale historical account of the Scientific Revolution seem to be almost gone.”

Rethinking Secularism – Charles Taylor’s Western Secularity

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) has generated a huge amount of discussion. In the first chapter of Rethinking Secularism, entitled “Western Secularity,” Taylor revisits central themes from A Secular Age as he charts the historical trajectory that led from the “axial religion” through Latin Christendom to the contemporary conditions of modern secularity.

While noting that the term “secular” is both complex and ambiguous and subject to alterations and distortions as it travels from one context to another, Taylor nonetheless argues that Western secularity should be understood as the result of a fundamental change in sensibility marked by “disenchantment,” or the systematic repression of the “magical” elements of religion, as well as by a concomitant historical movement toward the association or personal commitment with “true” religion.

“Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.”

The broader historical context for these shifts was a “great disembedding” of social and collective life and a movement toward reform within Christianity, which, along with other historical developments, led not only to the rise of modern individualism but also to the possibility of conceiving of the world in purely immanent terms, shorn of all reference to the transcendent.

The separation of the immanent from the transcendent, worked from within Latin Christendom itself, thus laid the groundwork for the assertion of a self-sufficient secular order. And it was the development of this possibility that led, in Taylor’s account, to the existential condition he most closely associates with modern secularity, namely, the contemporary reality that belief in God, or in any transcendent reality, is considered just one option among many and therefore represents a fragile form of commitment. According to Taylor, it is this shared condition of belief and commitment that makes the current age a “secular” one.