12 Apr

Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, trans. Oscar Burge (Princeton University Press, 1997)

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 04/12/06

On Volume 57 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, sociologist Steve Bruce discussed his book God Is Dead: Secularization in the West; he asserted that while many people believe in some sort of religion, religion no longer shapes the body politic. His understanding of secularization is one supported by French author Marcel Gauchet, who was interviewed for the daily Le Monde in March, 2006. In the interview Gauchet comments on what the violent response to the caricatures of Mohammed demonstrate about how globalization is affecting Islamic nations, why those nations feel threatened by the West, and why Europeans cannot understand such hostility.

Gauchet explains that globalization, propagated by the West, destroys "the existing social order" in Islamic states, in which faith is a way of life, "disaggregate[ing] the traditional family and violently chang[ing] the relationship between men and women and between generations." He states, "Europeans' problem is that they can no longer understand what religion means in societies where it still maintains a structural power. . . . For them, religion has become a system of individual and private beliefs."

Gauchet examined the Western world's modern understanding of religion in his 1985 book (published in English by Princeton University Press in 1997), The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion. His concern in the book was ". . . to reconstruct Jewish monotheism from the circumstances surrounding its first appearance to the development of its long-term consequences; and then, to follow its development from where Christianity takes over to the point where the seeds of terrestrial autonomy contained within it come to fruition. This is the point where, thanks to religion, a society with no further need for religion arises." In it he studies the relationship between heaven and earth, between the divine and humanity, and how humanity's understanding of itself and the divine has changed during the course of history.

Religion first arose, he states, because ancient peoples were looking for a way to explain the existence of the world and their own being and acting in it. The development of specific religions, particularly Christianity, introduced ways of understanding God, the world, and humanity that eventually allowed people to give up religion and the divine as necessary to their explanations and understandings. Gauchet notes that the religious still affects individuals and their interior lives, but that societies no longer depend on it for their structure. His characterization of secularization is different from others that define it as the disappearance of all religious observance, public and private. He writes: "I cannot overemphasize that when I say 'end of religion' I am referring to a quite specific phenomenon: the end of the principle of dependency structuring social space in all known societies prior to our own." His more nuanced construction explains the unusual occurrence of public institutions increasingly hostile to religion's influence even while individual belief and church attendance remains high, an occurrence illustrated in the United States. "The United States shows us how spiritual and cultural influence was preserved by denominational membership within a society whose workings, orientations, and values were just as far removed from the structure of dependency toward the other as the older, superficially more de-Christianized or laicized, European societies," writes Gauchet.

One stateside review of Gauchet's work put his distinction between public and private religion thus: ". . . the characteristic social phenomena of our time . . . sees some people turn to religious conversion as a response to the disequilibrating experience of freedom in a pluralist world. This is where Gauchet's distinction between religion as personal faith and religion as the ideological creator and designer of society stands him in brilliant stead. The two things—faith and religion—are not the same . . . . Individual pockets of faith may indeed postdate the decline of religion as a major social player. In Gauchet's words: 'We can imagine the extreme of a society comprised entirely of believers, yet beyond the religious.'" The article, written by Steven Englund and titled "Converting to religion after its demise: thoughts on Marcel Gauchet and his American reception," was published in Cross Currents, the journal of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life. In addition to the aforementioned quote it offers this pithy explanation of the modern world's relationship to religion: ". . . the world, for all that it may be reverential toward religion, is no longer referential to religion in its social organization." A second review, written by Brian C. Anderson and published in the June/July 1998 issue of First Things, offers the following about Gauchet's portrayal of secularization: "But the Enlightenment project of human autonomy proves illusory, Gauchet admits. Instead of obeying the other outside of us, as in the era of religion, we rediscover it within, in the unconscious, rendering our own identity opaque."

The authors of both reviews, when commenting on Gauchet's understanding of Christianity and its role in the secularization of the West, concur with Charles Taylor in his foreword to Gauchet's The Disenchantment of the World. Therein Taylor writes: "But can the new departures in faith, of Buddha, of Jesus, or for that matter of St. Francis or St. Teresa, be understood simply in terms of the hunger for meaning? If the basic aim is just to make sense of it all, why is it that karuna or agape are so central to these traditions? . . . But perhaps these mutations can only be explained by supposing that something like what they relate to—God, Nirvana—really exists. In that case, a purely cultural account of religion would be like Hamlet without the Prince.

"While I opt for this second view, and hence cannot accept Gauchet's fundamental characterization of religion, this book is the living proof—if we still needed one—that you do not have to be ultimately right to make clear some truly profound and important features of our religious history, nor to open tremendously fruitful and exciting vistas for further explanation. No one interested in clarifying our thought about religion and the secular can afford to ignore this remarkable and original book."

Englund, the first of the two reviewers mentioned, reminds his readers that Gauchet is not questioning the validity of religious experience, but its function in society. He maintains that treating religion as merely a way to order society and explain meaning misses the mark. But many are so relieved that Gauchet is acknowledging the major role religion and Christianity has played in the development of the West that they overlook how explaining it in utilitarian terms—as a means of ordering society—marginalizes the depth of the modern crisis of religion.

Anderson, the second of the two, criticizes Gauchet for underestimating how radically men shaped modernity from its beginning (as opposed to it unfolding on its own, due to natural structures). He also notes that the Frenchman never considers "that Christianity might be true." Which means, writes Anderson, that Gauchet "neglects another possibility: that there might be an answer to our current discontents on the far side of modernity, and one that involves not post-religious man but a post-secular world. A post-secular world would not be a return to some enchanted, primordial dispossession, but it may well be a world after liberalism."

The Disenchantment of the World is divided in two parts. Part one—which comprises four chapters—is titled "The Metamorphosis of the Divine: The Origin, Meaning, and Development of the Religious." It demonstrates that the religious has reached the end of its life in the modern world, in spite of what the presence of churches and the faith of individuals indicates. Part two—two chapters long—is titled "The Apogee and Death of God: Christianity and Western Development." It claims that the West is radically original because it has reincorporated the sacral element that used to exist in the world into the heart of human relationships and activities. The book concludes with notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Gauchet's work is one of the volumes in the New French Thought Series published by Princeton University Press, edited by Thomas Pavell and Mark Lilla. The books in the series cover a wide range of topics, comprising religion, European history, political science and international relations, world history, comparative history, art and architecture, philosophy, political philosophy, comparative literature, cognitive science, biological sciences, psychology, sociology, and British literature. Other titles include Pierre Manent's The City of Man (whose foreword is written by Jean Bethke Elshtain, a guest on several issues of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal). A complete list of titles is available on-line. [Posted April 2006, ALG]