After Atheism: New Perspectives on God and Religion

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This series was first broadcast in the spring of 2012, my last year at Ideas. Since then these shows have been available through the Ideas website. I learned this week that they no longer are, so I am now making them available here. In my original plan these programs were to form one big series with the seven episodes of The Myth of The Secular which I have already posted. They were broken apart only for convenience in scheduling, and because these five seemed sufficiently similar in theme to be able to stand together on their own.

What was on my mind, broadly speaking, at the time they went to air, was the so-called “return of religion” - a figure which I thought described a resurgence of religion in philosophy, as much as in politics. In politics this movement is sometimes traced back to the years around 1980. Fundamentalist Christians played a crucial role in the rise of Ronald Reagan in the United States, producing what political theorist William Connolly called “the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine.” In Iran a theocratic revolution replaced the secular government of the Shah with a regime in which the Ayatollah Khomeini became the Supreme Leader. The prediction of an earlier generation of sociologists that religion would soon drown in a rising tide of secularization had failed - and quite spectacularly. In philosophy, the “linguistic turn” had led to widespread acceptance of the idea that our knowledge has no absolutely secure and unassailable foundation. Faith was suddenly something that philosophy and theology have in common, rather than what sets them apart. Parisian philosophers began writing in praise of the apostle Paul as a paragon of committed knowledge.

Religion’s restored prominence produced a backlash from the defenders of science and enlightenment. The so-called “new atheists” appeared. “God is not great,” sputtered Christopher Hitchens. Religion is childish, incoherent nonsense, said biologist Richard Dawkins. I found this response obtuse, but not because I wanted to speak for some unreconstructed revenant called religion. I thought rather that there was new ground to be mapped - a new and perhaps unprecedented religious situation to be investigated. Philosopher Richard Kearney, who leads off this series, had then just published a book called Anatheism: Returning to God after God. His new word, anatheism, gave a name to the condition I was interested in exploring - one that was neither theistic nor atheistic in the older sense of these terms. (The God Who May Be, an earlier series in which I first introduced Kearney on Ideas is also available on this site.) The other thinkers in the series echo Kearney - John Caputo speaks of “religion after religion” in much the same sense as Kearney speaks of “God after God.” James Carse makes the case that “belief” is not definitive of religion. Roger Lundin, adapting a phrase of W.H. Auden’s, speaks of “believing again” as something fundamentally different than naive first belief. William Cavanaugh, who had then just published a collection called Migrations of the Holy, argues that the main site of “religion” in our world is not the church but the state. These five comprise the line-up of the series in the following order:

Program One - Richard Kearney

Program Two - John Caputo

Program Three - William Cavanaugh

Program Four - James Carse

Program Five - Roger Lundin

Flesh and Stone

I first heard of Richard Sennett through a broadcast on Ideas in the later 1970’s. He was discussing his book The Fall of Public Man which had been published in 1974. The book, in very curt summary, argues that public life has been diminished by the idea that the intimate and the personal is always more intensely “real” than the more formal and artificial gestures which inevitably structure the interactions of relative strangers in public. Sennett was reacting, most immediately, to that current of 1960’s thought which had argued that “the personal is political” and that the path to liberation lay in bringing the private out of the shadows and making it public. But he takes his story back to the 18th century when the public world, in his view, still provided a stage on which people could act at a certain remove from the nagging questions of identity - who am I? - which so dominate contemporary discourse. This public realm, he argues, was undermined by the cult of authenticity which began to take hold in the 19th century and now exerts almost total sway. For me Sennett’s book was an aid to reflection on a topic which continues to preoccupy me today: what do we mean by the word public when we speak, for example, of public broadcasting. At the time The Fall of Public Man appeared, and even more today, most people involved in public broadcasting were in full retreat from any appearance of formality in their broadcasting style. The preferred stance is casual, the preferred tone familiar, as if one were addressing an intimate friend and not, as is actually the case, a distant stranger. Sennett helped me to develop a thought that had already begun to occur to me - that this collapse of the distance between broadcaster and listener might be a dangerous and de-politicizing illusion - the substitution of a self-serving mirage for real community.

The character of public life has been one of two great subjects that Richard Sennett has pursued during a long career as a sociologist. In books like Flesh and Stone, from which I took the title for this series, he has studied the ways in which city life is embodied and experienced, and the ways in which urban form has fostered or inhibited the encounters that, for him, are the glory of urbanity. His second great subject has been work, and the social classes it defines. His 1973 book, with Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class explored the painful ways in which class is experienced in a society like the United States in which the very existence of social hierarchy is often denied. Later, he studied the new world of precarious and fragmented work in a series of books that began with 1998’s The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, and continued with Respect in a World of Inequality, and The Culture of the New Capitalism, which had just appeared went I went to New York to interview him at his home in Manhattan in 2006. Both subjects are treated in a graceful literary style, in which story-telling takes precedence over the quantitative methods of many of his sociological colleagues. In what follows, Sennett talks about his urbanism in the first episode, and his sociology of work in the second…

Modes of Thought

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In 1988 I broadcast a series of programs called “Literacy: The Medium and the Message”which I have already posted on this site. The series explored the latest scholarship on a theme first broached at the University of Toronto by Harold Innis: how the techniques by which we communicate shape the way we think about the world. It was recorded at a conference organized by two University of Toronto professors, David Olson and Derrick de Kerckhove, and held at the University of Toronto in 1987. Five years later David Olson organized a two-day workshop which posed the topic of modes of thought, or mentalities, in more general terms - looking not just at the cognitive implications of orality and literacy but at all the ways in which our styles and habits of thought are formed. He assembled psychologists, anthropologists, historians and philosopher interested in this question, and, knowing of my continuing interest in the subject, he again invited me to observe and report on the proceeedings. The result was a book called Modes of Thought, edited by David and Nancy Torrance, which was published by Cambridge in 1996, and a series of four radio programs, also called “Modes of Thought” which I broadcast in 1995. Their theme, to say the least, remains current. The participants are as follows:

Part One: David Olson, Brian Stock, and Myron Tuman

Part Two: Jerome Bruner, Carole Feldman, and Keith Oatley

Part Three: Geoffrey Lloyd, Paul Thagard, and Deanna Kuhn

Part Four: Scott Attran and Ian Hacking