About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

You make that sound like a BAD thing...

Some of the claims this book apparently argues for are true, in a sense, though expressed tendentiously (to say the least!) in the book description. The description makes the secularisation of government, society, and learning sound like a bad thing!
Before the Protestant Reformation, Western Christianity was an institutionalized worldview laden with expectations of security for earthly societies and hopes of eternal salvation for individuals. The Reformation’s protagonists sought to advance the realization of this vision, not disrupt it. But a complex web of rejections, retentions, and transformations of medieval Christianity gradually replaced the religious fabric that bound societies together in the West. Today, what we are left with are fragments: intellectual disagreements that splinter into ever finer fractals of specialized discourse; a notion that modern science — as the source of all truth — necessarily undermines religious belief; a pervasive resort to a therapeutic vision of religion; a set of smuggled moral values with which we try to fertilize a sterile liberalism; and the institutionalized assumption that only secular universities can pursue knowledge.
The changes mentioned did happen, of course, though they are exaggerated, demonised, and misdescribed in the quote. Putting in words like "sterile" doesn't change the fact that we have moved increasingly in the direction of liberalism. And it's been a good thing too! All these changes, if only they were properly described without the negative/hyperbolic (and emotion-laden) rhetoric, did take place. When we look at their actual character, rather than at the book description's frothing-at-the-mouth summary of them, they were actually logical and beneficial.

Yes, science is now specialised and professionalised; yes, it really does tend to undermine much in the way of religious belief (so it's no wonder people say it does); yes, many of us do prefer the "sterile" situation where the state does not try to impose comprehensive conceptions of the good on us all, and attempts to do so are to a considerable extent off the political table (not as much as I'd like, but still...). Properly understood, all the developments alluded to are good things.

(As I always say when a book interests me, I'd be happy to receive a review copy if anyone reading this post has been sent one and is looking for a reviewer. I'd even do my best to be fair to it, as is my modus operandi.)


James Sweet said...

The one statement of fact in that blurb that I question is this one:

"Western Christianity was an institutionalized worldview laden with expectations of security for earthly societies..."

Did it really have those expectations? I suppose if you parse "societies" as applying only to large scale constructs like the state, church, etc., rather than to individuals, then yes it did... But my understanding is that an expectation of security for individuals is a rather recent innovation...

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, it's hard to know what that means. What is an expectation of security, in this context? Is it the belief that God is watching out for the society? Or what? But it does seem to contrast an expectation of security for the society as a whole with the hope of salvation (or however it was expressed) for individuals.