Brad S. Gregory’s new book, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, is very much in the tradition of and in conversation with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Both are large, sweeping books that change the way we understand modernity and the world in which we live. For Gregory, that new understanding comes from looking all the way back to the Protestant Reformation, and connecting all that’s come since in ways that scholars have thus far resisted.
He discussed the book with us in a recent episode of the Harvard Press Podcast, which you can hear or download via the player below.
During that conversation, he explained the ways in which he understands modern Western life as stemming from developments of the 16th and 17th centuries:
I don’t think anyone who’s self-reflective about it would deny the rather banal claim that the world that we’re living in today is the product of the past. The issue is what aspects of the past help us to understand and to explain the character of the situation in which we find ourselves. What’s unusual about my book is that it parts ways from the normal methods and the normal assumptions by which even professional historians tend to explain the present. That is, it tends to be assumed that we can account for the world in which we’re living today in the West—North America and Europe—this side, as it were, of the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the French and American revolutions in the late eighteenth century. And, one of the central arguments I’m making in The Unintended Reformation is that that is not the case, and that all of those developments indeed are critical to understanding where we are today, but what we really need to understand are the religious disagreements of the Reformation era, and the unintended processes that they set in motion, without which we will not understand the character of the problems that we’re facing in the early twenty-first century.
It’s Gregory’s claim that the Western world today is “an extraordinarily complex, tangled product of rejections, retentions, and transformations of medieval Western Christianity.” Our failure to understand that lineage, he argues, prevents us from fully recognizing the disaggregation that our society has experienced. From The Unintended Reformation:
On the eve of the Reformation, Latin Christianity comprised for good or ill the far from homogeneous yet institutionalized worldview within which the overwhelming majority of Europeans lived and made sense of their lives. Diversely, early twenty-first-century Westerners live in and think with and even feel through the historical results of its variegated rejections and appropriations in such knotted ways that it is difficult even to see, much less to analyze, them. In getting from the early sixteenth to the early twenty-first century, this study develops the claim from my first book that “incompatible, deeply held, concretely expressed religious convictions paved a path to a secular society.”
Elsewhere in the book, he fleshes out the implications of having lost the common ground that Latin Christianity had previously represented:
A centrally important, paradoxical characteristic of modern liberalism is that it does not prescribe what citizens should believe, how they should live, or what they should care about, but it nonetheless depends for the social cohesion and political vitality of the regimes it informs on the voluntary acceptance of widely shared beliefs, values, and priorities that motivate people’s actions. Otherwise liberal states have to become more legalistic and coercive in order to insure stability and security. In the West, many of those basic beliefs, values, and priorities—including self-discipline, self-denial, self-sacrifice, ethical responsibility for others, duty to one’s community, commitment to one’s spouse and children—derive most influentially in the modern Western world from Christianity and were shared across confessional lines in early modern Europe. Advanced secularization, precipitated partly by the capitalism and consumerism encouraged by liberal states, has considerably eroded them in the past several decades and thus placed increasing pressures on public life through the social fragmentation and political apathy of increasing numbers of citizens who exercise their rights to live for themselves and to ignore politics. This is one way in which modernity’s failure is under way, a symptom of which is the constant stream of (thus far, ineffectual) proposals about how to reinvigorate democracy, restore public civility, get citizens to care about politics, and so forth. More abstractly but important in different ways, the ideological secularism of the public sphere and the naturalist metaphysical assumptions of academic life, combined with the state of philosophy and the explanatory successes of the natural sciences, prevent the articulation of any intellectually persuasive warrant for believing in the realities presupposed by liberal political discourse and the institutional arrangements of modernity: that there are such things as persons, and that they have such things as rights. Secularization and scientism are thus subverting modernity’s most fundamental assumptions from within, developments that are facilitated by the same institutional arrangements of liberalism that solved early modern Europe’s problem of religious coexistence.
That’s worth unpacking, because it’s extremely significant to Gregory’s argument in The Unintended Reformation, a book that Anthony Grafton calls an “astonishing achievement.” In essence, Gregory’s explaining here that Western society is built on values presumed to be shared, and yet the basis for those values—Christianity—has been marginalized by law and “disproven” by science, leaving us a bit like Wile E. Coyote over the cliff’s edge. Gregory’s book is a warning that, whether or not we look down, we’re already falling.
He extends the argument further:
(T)he exclusion in the secularized academy of any religious claims or metaphysical assumptions besides naturalism has eliminated any possibility of justifying the belief that members of the species Homo sapiens are persons, or that rights are real. There are certainly no grounds for thinking that rights are natural, rooted in nature as many Enlightenment theorists claimed… Rights and dignity can be real only if human beings are more than biological matter. The modern secular discourse on human rights depends on retaining in some fashion—but without acknowledging—the belief that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, a notion that could be rooted in nature so long as nature was regarded as creation, whether overtly recognized as such or not. But if nature is not creation, then there are no creatures, and human beings are just one more species that happened randomly to evolve, no more “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” than is any other bit of matter-energy. Then there simply are no rights, just as there are no persons, and no theorizing can conjure them into existence. The intellectual foundations of modernity are failing because its governing metaphysical assumptions in combination with the findings of the natural sciences offer no warrant for believing its most basic moral, political, and legal claims.