Spiritual Prizes

I’m rather intrigued by Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher who has won this year’s Templeton Prize – worth more than $1.5 million.

Taylor investigates people’s desire to seek meaning and spiritual direction, and has suggested that the world’s problems can only be solved by considering both their secular and spiritual roots. He argues that by failing to take individuals’ spiritual needs into account and focusing only on the economic and political, politicians have left out a large part of how people of all religions find meaning in their lives.

“I think the reason why young children turn to violent in Gaza City is not just through socio-economic factors but also through the meaninglessness of their lives,” (Taylor) said yesterday. “They feel no purpose and people come along and offer them a ’cause’.

“Or take the people who were involved in the July bombings in London. What we know is that some were highly successful and integrated in British society and yet they did what they did, because they were excited by some greater cause of Islam on a global level. They were giving some sense to their lives by becoming fighters. We need to understand this ‘dark spirituality’ as the West is very unschooled in this.”

Ok, I can see just how this will be interpreted by some of our more-right-wing commenters. And on the face of it this seems little different to Sayid Qutb’s reasons for rejecting Western values. I know also that the philosophical “schools” mentioned in connection with Taylor (Bakhtin, Heidegger, Wittgenstein etc) are very unlikely to find favour at Harry’s Place.

But Taylor has a history of involvement with Social democratic politics and is not exactly arguing that modernity should be scrapped, merely that something is missing;that traditional liberal theory’s conceptualization of individual identity is too abstract and one dimensional and has in the process of coming into being somehow neglected the individual’s ties to community.

This may sound strange coming from an atheist (although I am taking “spiritual” here in its broader sense of “connection to something greater than oneself”) but in modern life many people do seem to be spiritually deprived. Something of their humanity is stolen from those who do endless, dreary monotonous jobs. Those who monotonously process food for a living are, it has always seemed to me, not terribly far from processing human beings through gas chambers- perhaps just a change in orders from above away in fact .

Doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on “normalization,” the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as “the way things are done.” As Arendt pointed out, Adolf Eichmann was an utterly innocuous individual, operating unthinkingly, following orders, efficiently carrying them out, with no consideration of their effects upon the human beings he targeted. On a much smaller but also much wider scale I worked for many years with people with learning difficulties, starting off rather idealistically, but by the end I could have easily killed one of them, and judging by my recent experiences with a school many teachers seem to be taking the same route.

Could it be, that for all it’s benefits modern life is killing off something which makes us human? We have talked many times of the experiences of Qutb (which led to him rejecting the west and joining the muslim brotherhood on his return to Egypt) but are many of us gradually and slowly becoming more like Adolf Eichmann?

Cutting to the chase, is our western idea of what constitutes “progress” all good? Or are we actually prepared to admit to a downside?