Something Old, Something New

Contemporary Entanglements of Religion and Secularity

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Wayne Glausser
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     2018.
     216 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190864170.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

 “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” could be the motto of this book, which tries to show that—despite the best efforts of the separationists on both sides of the religion-secularism divide—these two categories remain, inevitably, entangled. Through a series of chapters that demonstrate the impossibility of a pure separation, and that seek to illustrate the enduring relevance of the religious in an ostensibly secular contemporary world, Wayne Glausser offers something like a “third way” or tertium quid that expresses the perennial virtues of moderation and compromise. 

This is a deeply personal work, not only because Glausser confesses his sympathies with those who refuse such labels as “theist” and “atheist” (xi), but also because the preface refers to his own struggle with cancer that began while he was writing the book (x). The final chapter traces the parallels between the Catholic sacrament of extreme unction and more recent efforts to use psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, to ease the path into the afterlife. 

Chapter 1 introduces the concept of “entanglement” using the clashes between believers and secularists over stem cells and the so-called “War on Christmas.” Chapters 2 and 3 assess the rhetoric of, respectively, New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and religious or “faithful scientists” such as the geneticist Francis Collins. Chapter 4 shows the progressive secularization of the Norton Anthology of English Literature over previous decades, as religious (and conservative) texts and interpretations gradually gave way to secular (and liberal) ones. Chapter 5 examines “The Curious Case of Pope Francis,” who manages to combine training as a chemist, political liberalism, and appeal to non-believers with a belief in miracles and the Devil. Chapter 6 juxtaposes Aquinas’s version of the Seven Deadly Sins to contemporary accounts of psychological ailments drawn from such sources as the DSM, in order to show the continuing relevance of the 13th-century Doctor Angelicus and the enduring ambiguity regarding the boundary between “sin” and “mental disease.” The theme of the seventh and final chapter, as mentioned, is last rites. This seems a fitting exit for the book, which lacks any further conclusion. 

The book is written in a very appealing style and is accessible to a larger public. It is hardly surprising to learn that Glausser is Professor of English (emeritus) at DePauw University. This explains, in large part, his choice of examples: Chapters 2 and 3 show that rhetorical devices are deployed in the arguments of both atheistic and believing scientists, which therefore cannot be so far apart after all. This also accounts for the focus on the Norton Anthology in chapter 4. Chapters 5 through 7 all touch upon Catholic themes, which one speculates might also be conditioned by Glausser’s background.

This context helps to explain why Glausser engages only slightly with the now vast and growing literature on secularism in religious studies, anthropology, and allied disciplines. There appears a very brief discussion of the usual suspects (Talal Asad, Charles Taylor, et al.) in chapter 1 (18-22). It is unfortunate that Glausser does not define more precisely the nature of his contribution to this subfield in relation to what has already been done. Aspects of his argument, for example the notion that certain corners of science remain enchanted or at least have apparent religious dimensions, have of course been anticipated by such scholars as Egil Asprem and Jason Josephson-Storm. Indeed, Asprem’s demonstration that early-20th-century science remained enchanted is more challenging to the secular paradigm than is Glausser’s observation, in chapter 5, that the Pope still believes in (some) miracles. 

More disappointing is that Glausser does not position his central concept of the “entanglement” between religion and science or secular modernity in relation to earlier arguments in the field. He argues that “secular ideas compete with corresponding religious convictions, but in entanglement, neither side simply dominates by displacing the other” (2). This seems clear enough, and resembles closely the “we were never disenchanted” critique, but is not consistently applied. It is never clarified (despite the invocation of Foucault’s concept of genealogy at 18) whether entanglement represents a structural overlap between religion and science or an historical derivation of the latter from the former. These questions were addressed much more precisely in Hans Blumenberg’s critique of theories of secularization as a transfer or derivation from religion, and his substitution of the notion of “occupation” to account for the manner in which modernity had responded in its own way to fundamental problematics that had earlier been addressed by theology. Blumenberg understood that the genealogical critique of the secular posed a challenge to the very notion of the “legitimacy” of modernity. Glausser’s approach, which does not refer to these older debates, represents a retreat rather than an advance toward resolving this challenge. 

Nor is Glausser’s literary approach well-suited to capture the historical dimensions of secularism, which are commonly designated by terms such as “secularization” and “disenchantment.” He does note Calvin’s attack on Catholic rituals and miracles (150). However, he ignores the echoes of Reformation theology in the polemics of the New Atheists, as when Sam Harris ridicules the idea that Christ exists in a cracker (35), or when Richard Dawkins labels the God of the Old Testament a “psychotic delinquent” (36). For an historian of religions, however, the legacy of Deism is unmistakable here. 

That religion and science are entangled when it comes to answering the great ethical and existential questions hardly seems surprising. The clash of values is observable nearly everywhere these days. Glausser wants to facilitate a compromise with respect to such intractable conflicts, yet to achieve this goal he sometimes blurs the boundary between religion and the secular in a manner that is ultimately unconvincing. Does the fact that the New Atheists also use rhetoric mean that both science and religion are of equal value as sources for our knowledge of nature? No one is free to remain agnostic on this point.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert A. Yelle is Professor of the Study of Religion at Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wayne Glausser is Professor of English at DePauw University. He is the author of Locke and Blake: A Conversation across the Eighteenth Century, the Cultural Encyclopedia of LSD, and a number of essays on literary and interdisciplinary topics, including the recent "Limbo, Pluto, Soprano: Negative Capability in Three Underworlds."

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