Thinker Taylor

His has been a storied career by any measure, but the past two years

have been particularly heady for philosopher Charles Taylor.

By Phillip Trum

Philosopher Charles Taylor’s Kyoto Prize win took him to Japan for a 10-day series of lectures. Credit: Rachel Granofsky
Philosopher Charles Taylor’s Kyoto Prize win took him to Japan for a 10-day series of lectures. Credit: Rachel Granofsky

Charles Taylor’s latest hot streak started with a million bucks plus change. In May 2007, the Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at McGill received the £800,000 Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities, the world’s largest annual monetary award for an individual. Then the scholar joined forces with sociologist Gérard Bouchard to chair the high-profile Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, the Quebec government’s response to a string of controversies surrounding the “reasonable accommodation” of religious groups. Just as Taylor began the commission’s series of pulse-taking open-mike events in 17 Quebec cities, he published A Secular Age, a mammoth tome hailed by the New York Times as “a work of stupendous breadth and erudition.” This past June brought the latest feather in his cap: Taylor became the first Canadian to win Japan’s Kyoto Prize for arts and philosophy, a 50-million-yen (approximately $480,000) recognition of his career-long philosophical investigation into how people of different backgrounds can retain their multiple identities while living together peacefully—and the global importance of including spiritual dimensions in public discourse. As he prepared a 10-day series of lectures to coincide with receiving the Kyoto Prize in November, Taylor took time to speak to Headway.

You completed A Secular Age before starting the “reasonable accommodation” commission, but there’s thematic overlap between the projects. Did talking to a wide cross-section of people in Quebec change your mind about anything you wrote in the book?

What it did was help my thoughts develop tremendously in something connected to the book, but that I didn’t get to: how to define secularist regimes in the 21st century. What we call a secularist regime is where the state isn’t aligned with a particular view—and I learned an immense amount about what people think about that, and it’s helped me clarify my thoughts. I discovered that people generally think of secularism as based on some simple principle, like separation of church and state, whereas in fact it involves a number of different considerations and goals, and often requires that we solve painful dilemmas. As a matter of fact, that is the most important part of our report that has interested people abroad, mainly public intellectuals who are committed to intervening on public policy. I’ve had discussions with people in France and elsewhere.

Why did that particular topic resonate?

This is the side from which the Quebec experience is representative of a whole lot of other countries who are experiencing very rapid diversification, especially in religions, but also ethnically and culturally, and are reacting with a certain amount of unease or malaise or even fear to it. People in Germany, France, Holland and Denmark recognized right away that we are dealing with the same kinds of problems. The degree of diversity is very much greater, and the degree of anguish or uncertainty about that has gotten greater.

Yet the Commission studied the facts behind 21 headline-grabbing controversies—such as a prenatal class catering to Muslim sensibilities by refusing admission to fathers—and concluded that all but six were tempests in teapots fueled by the media.

Exactly. That’s an index of how great the anxieties and apprehensions are. Even people totally uninvolved in these events became tremendously excited. And that’s because there’s fear and apprehension there.

Do you think that increased exposure to other religions naturally engenders these feelings of being threatened or challenged?

Not necessarily. The fact that you know there’s an option doesn’t mean you must diabolize people who take that other view. A factor is, really, democracy: You’re in a big equal society with all these other people, and—unlike pre-modern societies—you don’t have clear distinctions of groups, which would allow you to live alongside each other without having to engage with each other. There are differences of religion in traditional empires, but there was not at all the same degree of apprehension because people didn’t mix. Whether they agreed or not, the order was such that they co-existed without really touching—but that’s not the nature of a democratic society, where all groups are, in some sense, in close contact, even if it’s only in that all citizens vote together to produce a government. That’s what lies behind the apprehension. It was very much the same thing in the Victorian era; Christianity had been established, people thought it was expanding over the whole world, missionaries were out there, the world was getting better and better…then they were blindsided by new developments. Similarly, in the 20th century, atheists thought the world was getting more and more rational, people were getting better, kinder, more organized—then, suddenly, wow! They’re blindsided and there’s this panic-slash-anger.

Atheism poster-boys like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are certainly driving a lot of spirited discussion of late.

When you get these arguments going, it attracts a lot of media attention. Just as the 19th-century debates, say between the Bishop of Oxford and [early evolution booster] T.H. Huxley, did. Partly the media belongs to the society, so it responds to the same things. But of course there’s another side to it. The less—how do I put this diplomatically?—the less positive side of it is that the media tends to play up the menacing side of things, or increase the level of anxiety instead of merely relaying it.

What are you working on next?

Hundreds of things. [laughs] The Commission put me so far behind that I have a whole lot of papers that I have to get going. One of the things is about the nature of where religion fits into our age, and how religion in some parts of the world provides the marker around which political mobilizations occur—everything from the BJP, the Hindu Nationalist party in India, to Islamist movements to Christian democracy. This is something that’s very important to understand. It might become the next book—there are several possibilities—but right now it’s a series of papers.