In the previous article, we explored the “Bulwarks of Belief”—those features of the premodern, European mindset that, according to Charles Taylor, made belief in transcendent realities nearly inescapable. There were basically three of them: God’s purposes were evident in the design of nature, and in particular incidents (often construed as this-worldly dispensations of divine justice); God was implicated in the very existence of society, which centered on divine right monarchies; and the world was thought to be full of spirits and forces, all of which derived their power ultimately from God, and which therefore God could help one navigate or overcome. The bulwarks of belief were, in other words, natural, social, and supernatural. From this it seems to follow that the decline in belief, and the rise of secularism, is at least in part attributable to the decline in these three bulwarks. The experience of nature and particular events as instances of divine purpose is no longer as immediate, and is often altogether absent, for many educated people; God’s existence is not implicated in any inescapable or profound way in the modern social order; and most of us no longer believe in a world rich in spiritual entities or forces.
So much for religion, it would seem. In a way, it seems that Taylor provides us with just the sort of subtraction narrative he set out to demolish. Once we know why premodern peoples believed as they did, and see why these reasons were not really very good, not believing would seem to follow. All done, right? Well, not quite. I don’t think Taylor means to deny that there has been an element of subtraction in the overall story. Plainly there has been. But what he does want to do is show that it has not only been a matter of subtraction. There have been positive additions as well. And just because the so-called bulwarks of belief that Europeans once experienced are absent, it does not follow that there are not or cannot be new bulwarks that take their place. Religion isn’t just this one thing, existing apart from the ebb and flow of history. Like everything in history, it changes with the passage of time. So part of Taylor’s story is going to be how religion changed with time; another part is going to be how secularism changed with it.
But, before launching into the narrative proper, there’s one more aspect of these bulwarks of belief that calls for discussion. Taylor spends a lot of time exploring the “enchanted world,” as compared to the natural and political forces that once made for belief. I’ve characterized this so far as a matter of spirits and spiritual forces, but there’s really a lot more going on here, something much more profound. It involves spirits, but it also involves some very different ways of thinking about time, space, and personhood. Let’s explore these differences. The common theme will be the homogeneity of modern conceptions, as against the heterogeneity of premodern.
Consider, for instance, the universe. Not all of time and space, I mean, but the idea of a “universe.” This is a very natural sort of idea to us and it almost always goes unremarked. There just is this thing, the universe, nature. It’s a given. Well, existence is a given, but the “universe” idea carries some baggage with it that, commonplace as our assent to it might be, has not been equally obvious to all observers. One of them is called the “uniformity of nature.” The uniformity of nature is a philosophical concept that says that the laws of nature are the same always and everywhere. There isn’t one kind of gravity in the Milky Way Galaxy and another in the Andromeda. The speed of light doesn’t have one value now and another value in a couple of million years. The fundamental architecture of the universe is fixed, and it isn’t going to change. Uniformity of nature is an important assumption in science because if it’s not true, then a lot of our calculations would be wrong. Radiocarbon dating, for instance, presumes the fixity of the rate of radioactive decay. The calculation of the position of the stars, and hence the age of the universe, presumes the constancy of the speed of light (since the only way we can see the stars, hence plot their speed and location, hence work backward to the Big Bang, is through observing the light they produce.) So, if uniformity of nature weren’t true, science would be in big trouble. Now, I’m not saying that it’s not true. It seems like a sensible assumption and it’s worked out for us so far. But it is an assumption. It is not logically necessary, it is not self-evident, it cannot be experimentally confirmed. It’s just something we help ourselves to when we do science. The universe idea involves, in other words, an assumption of homogeneity with respect to the constants of nature.
In previous articles, we’ve seen some of the alternatives. We saw, for instance, how Aristotle’s physics described motion in terms of innate, natural tendencies. We saw how the pre-Copernican conception of the stars and planets posited a radical dissimilarity between the earth and what lay beyond. We also saw how Plato’s “principle of plenitude” assigned to logic, rather than to natural law, the basic creative power. So there are alternatives, even if they take a little imagination and historical archeology to unearth and appreciate today. The premodern alternative to a “universe” was a “cosmos”: a hierarchical order of being instituted and sustained by God, and populated by a host of lesser spirits. The cosmos idea remains an important focus for skeptical scientists and philosophers who subscribe to the conflict theory of science and religion (also discussed in a previous article.) They will sometimes argue that you can’t have science without uniformity, and you can’t have uniformity if there are supposed to be spirits running around constantly intervening in natural processes, or if God is constantly upending the laws of nature by answering prayers. Uniformity, and hence science, requires a functionally godless, spiritless universe, according to this argument. More about this later. What matters for now is that there is an important distinction to be made between the cosmos idea and the universe idea, and that the transition is part of our story. The distinction is one of a homogeneous universe versus a heterogeneous cosmos.
Another way in which the universe idea is homogeneous has to do with time. Most of us, most of the time, experience time as a flat, uniform whole. There is just one second after another. That’s all we experience, and presumably all there ever has been or will be. We already know that time isn’t completely uniform, because it dilates as one approaches velocities close to the speed of light, but this is a fairly exotic, hypothetical kind of experience. It’s not a part of our actual experience of time. In the cosmos idea, however—or perhaps it would be better to say the cosmos experience, for the cosmos was no more a theoretical construct for premodern peoples than the universe is for us, but rather a part of the taken-for-granted, ordinary experience of life, and only rarely subject to critical scrutiny—in the cosmos experience, then, there are many different kinds of time. There is, in the first place, the flat, normal kind of time we’ve been discussing. This could be called “secular” time, or time that is “in the age,” “in the world.”
There is also the great time, in illo tempore, or "in those times.” I discussed this concept more fully in a previous article about Mircea Eliade’s book The Myth of the Eternal Return. The great time is the time of legend, of heroes, gods, and beginnings. Most societies have some conception of the great time. In the time of Socrates, it was the time described in Homer’s epic poetry. In later classical times, it was the time of the Greek resistance to Persian invasion, at the battles of Marathon and Salamis. For modern philosophers, it’s often the time of Socrates, his trial, and execution. In Judaism, it’s the time of bondage in Egypt, wandering through the desert, and the conquest of the Promised Land. For Christians, it’s the time of Jesus and the Disciples. For Muslims, it’s the time of Mohammed, the Rashidun Caliphs, and the huge and prosperous empire founded in the following generations. For many modern Americans, the time of the Enlightenment and the Founding Fathers (their heroic status is even in their names) is a “great time,” a time of heroes and beginnings.
Now, this conception of time has clearly not faded entirely, as our ability to cite modern examples shows. But it was much more present for premodern peoples because it was wrapped up in officially sanctioned, communal ceremonies. It wasn’t just in your imagination. You and all the people you knew would get together to commemorate, in some sense to experience it, again. This is still kept alive in religious communities today. Jews commemorate Passover, for instance, by not only reading the exodus story, but by eating unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The bitter herbs symbolize the bitterness of slavery experienced by their ancestors. The unleavened bread symbolizes the haste in which their ancestors had to flee Egypt, i.e., so suddenly that they didn’t even have time to bake bread for the journey. When Christians participate in the Eucharist, they’re literally (it is, in other words, the official doctrine and belief of most Christian churches) eating the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ. They’re participating both in the last supper, when the ritual was first instituted, and in the sacrificial atonement that followed. What both of these rituals have in common is that they make believers a part of the event they describe. There’s a sense in which these events, though quite distant in secular time, are closer in consciousness, in experience, through communal participation in these rituals. The force of this experience is not easy to communicate through words, but when literally you and everyone you know have been participating in it, reinforcing its meaning, for as long as anyone can remember, the events commemorated become present in a way that they normally were not for them, and hardly ever are for us.
Although the “great times” still have a diminished presence in secular contexts, as our examples of the trial of Socrates and the Enlightenment show, there is an absence of ritual intended to make people who define themselves in terms of these events participants in them. It would be a little odd to read Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature every year in order to commemorate his life, however highly one thought of him. The American Fourth of July celebration mostly involves cookouts and fireworks, neither of which have any obvious connection to the events they commemorate. So the great times are still there in secular contexts, but they’re not as important.
Another kind of time, in the cosmos idea, is the anti-time, the time of carnival, in which the normal structure of society is upended. In medieval times, there would often be appointed a “lord of misrule” in place of a king, and a “boy bishop” in place of an ecclesiastic. Everyone had to go along with their commands and treat them like real potentates, as part of the game. The regular burdens of society would be cast off, its rules and expectations openly mocked and subverted, and people in general allowed to “cut loose.” We still have this, too. There is Mardis Gras, where drunkenness and promiscuity are winked at, and there are also football games, where people are allowed, even expected, to praise with the most rapturous joy, or curse with the foulest rage, events with no objective importance beyond the ceremony itself. In the case of both Mardis Gras and football games, the point seems to be to let people blow off steam by subverting normal social conventions. A special time is created that’s outside of regular, secular time. So, anti-time still exists, but again the intensity has been taken down a notch. We don’t randomly select adolescents, make them Presidents, congresspeople, and judges for a day, and deliberately lampoon our form of government. It’s just not done. But in medieval times, it would have been. The difference is that they took anti-time seriously, where we’ve mostly (though not entirely) abolished it.
The last type of time that we find in the cosmos idea, but not in the universe idea, is that of eternity: the time in which God dwells and acts, and to which human lives ultimately have reference. This is the time before creation, the time of the last judgment and the afterlife—the “time beyond time,” so to speak. Even if this sense of time is present for modern believers, as a proposition or a theory, it seems doubtful that their lives are pervaded by the sense of ultimacy, of unlimited import, that it implies. When every action one takes will be weighed in the scales of eternity, they take on a new magnitude, a new importance, that can permeate one’s entire sense of self if they are taken really seriously. Eternity is, truly, a terrifying notion, if one really thinks it through. But of course, we generally don’t do that today, partly because so many of us don’t believe there is any such thing, and partly because the transference of this notion from the realm of immediate experience to that of discursive reason tends to insulate us from its full import. Eternity has been demoted, even if not always abolished.
So, our modern concept of time has been flattened, emptied, homogenized, when compared to the premodern conception. Perhaps time is only one thing in our scientific conception of the universe in part because it’s mostly just one thing in our experience of life.
Well, I had hoped to get through the entire cosmos idea in this article, but it’s already quite long, and there’s still much to be said about it. The first chapter of Taylor’s book, “The Bulwarks of Belief,” is one of the richest and most rewarding essays I’ve read in a long time. In the next article, we’ll see how the cosmos idea also gave rise to different conceptions of space, personhood, and devotion, all of which will form the backdrop against which Taylor tells the story of secularism.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
If you’re just beginning to follow this series, or would like a handy reference, here are links to the previous articles: