The Stillborn God
Religion, Politics, and the Modern West
Alfred A. Knopf: 334 pp., $26
TO a scientist, "secularization" means that God no longer explains nature; to an artist, that the Bible no longer provides subject matter; to a businessman, that the shop stays open on Sunday -- and so forth. In "A Secular Age," philosopher Charles Taylor takes on the broad phenomenon of secularization in its full complexity. In "The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West," Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, asks only what secularization means to the prime minister.
It's a process with a long history. In AD 391, when Roman Emperor Theodosius established Christianity as the state religion, church officials became, at a stroke, officers of the empire. Less than a century later, when the last emperor ruling from Rome was deposed, a remnant of imperial power devolved upon the most important church official in the West: namely, the pope. For several centuries, successive popes maintained quasi-imperial jurisdiction over the princes of Europe; gradually, however, as powerful nation-states took shape, their rulers sought to subordinate church authority to their own. During and after the Reformation, they finally succeeded, and by the 17th century there had arisen the doctrine of the divine right of kings, according to which kings derived their powers not from any pope but from God himself. But when rulers thus divinely empowered went to war over religion, who could adjudicate among them? The religious wars of the first half of that century were accordingly ferocious, and among the fiercest was the English Civil War that ended with the beheading of Charles I.
As that war raged, an exiled English royalist writing in Paris made the darkest of inferences -- that the chaos and violence engulfing England, Scotland and Ireland showed humankind in its natural condition: "There is . . . continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Having fled his homeland in terror, Thomas Hobbes saw human nature itself as defined by terror. And as many in the United States have done since Sept. 11, he saw terror as at its worst when driven by religion. "Homo homini lupus," he wrote in Paris: Man is a wolf to his fellow man. Fortunately, the wolves of the human pack had an expedient, he argued: They could create an all-powerful superwolf, a political sovereign monstrous enough to protect them from their own monstrosity. Whence the title of Hobbes' masterpiece, "Leviathan."
What Hobbes saw as the solution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau later saw as the problem. For Rousseau, the state of nature was morally neutral but perfectible and basically benevolent. As for politics, it was the source of human corruption rather than a remedy for it. Remarkably, the path forward for Rousseau and Hobbes alike was (to quote the title of Rousseau's landmark work of 1762) the "social contract." Whereas Hobbes had believed such a contract was needed to suppress human evil, Rousseau believed that it was indispensable to restore and preserve human goodness.
Hobbes and Rousseau wrote, respectively, during and after a sea change in European politics that to a point anticipated their contractual vision. Exhausted by the wars of religion, the rulers of Europe agreed in 1648, in the Peace of Westphalia, that when it came to religion, might would thenceforth make right within the borders of a given state -- though, crucially, not beyond them. Religion would now be, instead of the source of a government's legitimacy, merely one of its regulatory responsibilities. Rather than a separation of church and state, Westphalia was Theodosius redux: a new subordination of church to state.
Hobbes and Rousseau were both part of Westphalia's after-the-fact rationalization, the Wiltshireman tilting toward pessimistic authoritarianism, the Genevan toward optimistic liberalism. In the founding of the United States, the gloomy Anglophile John Adams owed something to Hobbes, and the sunny Francophile Thomas Jefferson owed rather more to Rousseau. In our day, the partisans of Hobbes might be expected to favor the unitary executive, the preemptive use of military force and careful state monitoring of religion; the partisans of Rousseau would likely favor a limited executive, diplomacy over military engagement and a benign indulgence of religion.
Political secularization, however, is just one of three kinds of secularization that Taylor addresses in "A Secular Age," his voluminous, impressively researched and often fascinating social and intellectual history. The second kind is the decline of subjective religious practice, a decline Westphalia need not have entailed -- and, indeed, for another two centuries, scarcely did. The third kind of secularization, about which Taylor has most to say, is that of today (the Secular Age of the title), in which neither belief nor unbelief is a given and one's identity (even including one's gender) is constructed rather than immutably assigned at birth.
Taylor's account encompasses art, literature, science, fashion, private life -- all those human activities that have been sometimes more, sometimes less affected by religion over the last five centuries. With copious documentation, he traces the rise of "exclusive humanism" to such late medieval developments as one-on-one confession for the laity, a concession that every peasant had a mind and conscience of his own. He compares the post-Westphalian shift to a supernova -- an explosion that keeps on exploding. Among its long-recognized consequences, such as romanticism in the arts, he notices the less noticed: for example, a major and somewhat mysterious wave of 19th century Anglo-Saxon missionary activity. Readers may occasionally lose their way, since Taylor never denies himself the pleasure of an interesting digression. Yet if we leave this work a bit weary, we also depart well instructed on the complex cultural evolution that produced the Secular Age.
Lilla's "The Stillborn God," a far narrower work, deals just with political secularization. But rather than seeing it as a historical movement for which Hobbes provided part of the rationalization, he sees it as a movement Hobbes virtually created. In Lilla's heroic view of him, Hobbes is a pinnacle from which later German thinkers (why only Germans?) each deviated in his own way, lured by Rousseau toward some lamentable accommodation of religion. The stillborn deity is one of these: the 19th century religious liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Ernst Troeltsch and Hermann Cohen. The lesson drawn (though never quite argued) is that such soft-headed, meliorist liberalism cannot revive religion but can, by promising a heaven on Earth, invite fascism; we're better advised to trust a hard-headed, Hobbesian conservatism to insure domestic tranquillity and provide for the common defense.
Lilla's book, astonishingly, contains not a single reference to current scholarship. Of such contemporary analytic terms as "modernization, secularization, democratization, the 'disenchantment of the world,' " he opines contemptuously, "These are the fairy tales of our time." Yet of his own book he says," 'The Stillborn God' is not a fairy tale." Sadly, in its extreme simplification "The Stillborn God" is indeed a kind of fairy tale. It's hard to write a history of "Religion, Politics, and the Modern West" without discussing Darwin or Freud, but Lilla manages to do so. Taylor may risk boring his readers by including too much, but Lilla, a writer capable of such tautologies as "Modern political philosophy is a relatively recent innovation," offers only a small part of a large story and, by grossly exaggerating Hobbes' role, gets even that part more wrong than right.