The movie The Theory of Everything is an inspirational story about Stephen Hawking’s life and is rich in juxtapositions. One such juxtaposition is the development and growth of Hawking’s mind and thinking as he body rapidly weakened. Another is Hawking’s rational, mathematical view of the universe contrasted with his deep passion for music, his family, and his friends. But it was the reading of Taylor that came to mind as I watched this movie, as Hawking seems to represent the quintessential rational scientific scholar who was very comfortable with a universe void of transcendence, where a simple mathematic equation would suffice to explain everything. In a penultimate moment in the movie, Hawking’s exclusive humanism is very present when he looks at his three children frolicking in the garden and states to his wife: “Isn’t it wonderful what we created!” According to Hawking, humanities greatest achievement is not procreation (though pretty spectacular), or the wonders of love and relationships, or even the beauty of music and creation itself. But man’s greatest achievement is the ability to determine mathematically how everything came to be.
So, what is a person of faith to do in the face of these disenchanted, exclusively humanistic and rational challenges? The second half of Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age provides helpful insights on how to think about those who so passionately promote a buffered way of thinking, including the likes of Hawking, Hitchen, and Dawkins. Here, Taylor is most helpful in guiding us through the modern challenges to faith. What Taylor suggests is that secular thinking is a “take”–and not necessary the final word on–reality.
What modern rationalist are simply giving us is their take on how things might be. And their particular viewpoint comes from a very “closed” or confined perspective. It is “their spin” on how things are according to their unenhanced, buffered frame of reference. Since their particular take on the universe is seen as battling superstition, the evils perpetuated by religion, and even God himself, they are seen as brave and courageous. Claiming to rest their conclusions on scientific and rational foundations, they exude a confidence, believing that they alone are right. The irony here, as Taylor points out, is our modern day academics and intellectuals, who espouse the importance of openness to all evidence as necessary for good science, tend to be the least tolerant, the most closed to information that doesn’t fit into their closed framework. This results in a smugness and arrogance. However, Taylor suggests that these intellectuals lack the understanding that their perspective is only “a take,” a story that they have come to believe and put their faith in. It is goes beyond given facts (and in fact, evidence becomes much less important than the story), but it is their story that provides form for their “take” on life and the world, and it provides their a self-image (as courageous and pioneering) that feeds their arrogance and their intolerance for any other story.
This kind of over-zealous confidence and smugness I found often in Christopher Hitchen’s debates over the years. His world was black and white. Anything to do with God, spirituality, the church, and Christianity was bad (even Mother Teresa was on his hit list!). In his debates, there was little discussion concerning facts, history, or opposing viewpoints. Because the transcendent didn’t fit into his closed, disenchanted, and rational world, it was not worthy of consideration. Hitchen writes off religion and God without discussion, believing religion to be responsible for all the bad that happened throughout history. For Hitchen, God was the culprit who sought to denude humans of their autonomy and authority, and, for the humanist Hitchen, was the worse of all evils. Evidently, Hitchen had it all figured out. His closed world was neat and orderly, and he had total confidence in his conclusions and the rightness of his stance. However, this resulted in his extreme intolerance and frequent ridicule of any other point-of-view. He was a fundamentalist in his secularism, suggesting that his “reading is obvious, compelling, allowing of no cavil or demurral.” (551) Taylor rightly calls Hitchen’s approach “conversation stoppers: I have a three-line argument which shows that your position is absurd or impossible or totally immoral.” (121) In short, there is no discussion allowed. For this reason, I’ve given up on listen to Hitchin’s debates as they tend to nasty diatribes rather than honest and open conversations.
What Taylor helps us understand is that Hitchen (and other intellectuals) are merely expressing their “take” or spin. They really are no different from anyone else who has ideas of “how things really are,” except that others might not be so verbose or confident in their conclusions. If one holds their viewpoint with the humility to admit they don’t have all the answers, they then provide space to share differences and dialogue. Here is the difference: They make room for conversation. Taylor suggests a large portion of society today in this latter group, people who are open, maybe even doubting, yet still hoping that there is something more than their small, cold and calculated universe and short life-span. The Hitchens and Dawkins of the world may be loud, but they don’t necessarily speak for every one.
Modern secular society has given the New Atheist and exclusive humanist the space to voice their ideas, but we need not buy into their particular take on universe, on humanity or their conclusions about life. What is undeniable is that the vast majority of our world today has not bought their spin, and there are strong influences that continue pull and provide tension in the hearts and minds of people. Little hints of this are found everywhere, as non-religious people still seek to have weddings or funerals in churches, and have their children dedicated; natural and national disasters find people turning to prayer; and, in personal illness and suffering, people still turn to the clergy and the church. It suggests that there are alternative stories, not so neat or mathematically calculated stories, suggesting that in the midst of cold and empty universe, there is something that can’t be explained, that somehow gives meaning and purpose, and provides a sense of belonging, that leave people to wonder. Or as Smith suggests: “We’re all trying to make sense of where are, even why we are, and its not easy for any of us.” (Smith, 120)
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2007).
James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2014).