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Photograph of philosopher and Templeton Prize winner Charles Taylor.

Charles Taylor in his office.

2007 Templeton Prize winner Charles Taylor is a genial man with a predisposition to laughter, often at himself. Perhaps more importantly, for a thinker who coined the term “malaise of modernity” he is also an optimist. That he, is considered a philosopher’s philosopher by his peers, exhibiting a rare mastery across an impressive spectrum of ideas only increases admiration. The author of more than a dozen books, including the widely praised “Sources of the Self” and the forthcoming “A Secular Age,” Taylor’s work explores a dizzying array of disciplines–philosophy, religion, political theory, moral theory, and ethics, among others. Lindsay Waters, executive editor at Harvard University Press, says, “Charles Taylor’s passionate philosophy allows him to zero in on the most distinctively human issues of our time, and not be afraid.” In the following Q&A, Professor Taylor explains the importance of the concept of mystery to our understanding of the universe, why “God is not Dead,” and whether he is a fox or a hedgehog.

JOHN TEMPLETON FOUNDATION: Where were you when you first learned you’d been selected for the 2007 Templeton Prize?

CHARLES TAYLOR: I was traveling in India actually and I was picking up my messages from time to time. They didn’t say what it was about, just that they wanted to talk. So then I couldn’t get back in touch because of time distances, but we finally got through to each other over email. I was in a little internet café–really just a booth–in Karnataka India.

JTF: What were you doing in India?

CHARLES TAYLOR: I had gone to participate in a conference in Delhi, but thought we should see all these remarkable sites in Karnataka. It’s where the last big Hindu dominated empire, you might say, which was only kind of finished off in the 1500’s existed. India’s a place where there are wonderful temples and palaces remaining that are almost empty except for the Indian school kids who are brought there.

JTF: In your 2007 Templeton Prize statement you spoke of “the deafness of many philosophers, social scientists, and historians to the spiritual dimensions.” What do you think accounts for this deafness? Where is that deafness coming from?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Well, we can go back and back and back … the immediate cause is that people bought into a very simple narrative of secularization. Modernity – however you want to define it, be it economic growth or urbanization or science and technology, or the whole package – makes religion shrink. But that’s not sufficient to explain it intellectually. For a long time people tried to explain the Reformation in economic terms, which is the same kind of deafness. So they buy very deeply into this narrative and I think we all live by narratives. And always have

JTF: The ancient Mayans said the universe is made out of stories.

CHARLES TAYLOR: That’s right and they’re absolutely right. The thing is these people believe in science and they don’t think they are living by narrative. They think they are just picking up the facts.

JTF: Science is just a magnet that picks up facts?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Yes … there is this idea of science, and “God is Dead” as part of the background to this narrative, that tells you that you don’t need to worry about religion.

JTF: Isn’t “God is Dead” getting old as a concept?

CHARLES TAYLOR: You’re right. But there’s a lag. People – and I’ve lived a long time – people in the last few decades are more embarrassed about just saying “God is Dead,” or religion doesn’t count … But these disciplines are like a large tanker. They are not easy to turn. You can’t turn academic disciplines around in six months. They are trained, and they have entire dissertations, and a lot invested (laughter).

JTF: In a certain sense we’re talking about “God is Dead” as an intellectual exercise, but if you take that idea out of the academy and apply it on a global scale, it doesn’t track. Religious activity is very high world-wide and over 90% of Americans say they in fact believe in god. Doesn’t this create a tension for the “God is Dead” narrative?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Well, not necessarily because the people who are really sure of this picture, of this narrative, they have all sorts of ways of accounting for this. They will always account for it by some other factor, be it economic or social factors, etc.

JTF: Is religious belief too big a phenomenon to be explained by one or two reductionistic theories?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Yes, but it’s more than that. This is something that you cannot ultimately prove except by impressing people with the fact that you have a more intelligent interpretation all the time. But it is just evident that human beings are religious animals. There’s something that intrinsically strikes people about spirituality and that’s part of the motivation. It’s part of the reason why it goes on. And it you try to circle around that, you go nowhere.

JTF: What do you make of the Richard Dawkins/Sam Harris argument that religious moderates of all faiths empower, and in some cases allow, religious extremists to exist by dint of their tolerance? In a sense the moderate broad-mindedness enables the extremist’s narrow-mindedness.

CHARLES TAYLOR: This doesn’t make an awful lot of sense to me. I know my Muslim friends are not tolerating extremists. They say, “This is awful, a distortion, a travesty of what I consider my faith.” Now, if they aren’t saying that, then it is a political criticism to make to them very severely, “Why are you shutting up?” But what Dawkins means is that by propounding the core doctrines of Islam or Christianity we are somehow empowering Pat Robertson’s or what have you. That seems to me to be absurd. Particularly if you think these doctrines are correct, and that these doctrines are the only antidote to this kind of rage. I would also throw back to Dawkins, ‘Are you empowering Stalin? Are you empowering Pol Pot?’ These people took their violence out in destroying religious institutions. So is Dawkins empowering them by saying that religion is a terrible curse, a virus that has to be stamped out? I’m sure he would say “no, Joseph Stalin, don’t shoot those priests. Be a nice guy!” But that’s exactly what we’re trying to say to religious extremists! So if we’re supposed to stop promoting these doctrines because people carry them to extremes, then he is surely guilty of doing the same thing.

JTF: Why are we encountering fundamentalism–in all stripes–atheists, Christians, Islam right now?

CHARLES TAYLOR: We’re living in an age of anxiety where everybody is made insecure in their own deep sense of meaning by the fact that there are all these competing elements. One of the ways you can calm down that anxiety about your own sense of meaning is by diabolizing the others, making it absolutely clear and undeniable that they are wrong.

JTF: Some scientists criticize religion for not properly understanding science’s incredible ability to explain the natural world.

CHARLES TAYLOR: The Christian tradition got totally pulled off-track in the 17th century where a very simple scientific influenced notion–through Newton–arrived at design; thinking of the universe like a clock.

JTF: They thought if we just start to peel off the hands and then we’ll get to the inner cogs and we have just start to really understand the universe as a mechanism.

CHARLES TAYLOR: They saw it as this fantastic design. But they lost the sense of a really great mystery; the sense that there is maybe something here we can’t understand. And a great deal of Christian apologetic since then has been based on this incredible oversimplification of our universe. The result has been, in a certain sense, a kind of not very fruitful spirituality.

JTF: The battle over the mystery that you speak of is one that many scientists are keen to engage in. Will science come up against a fundamental limit?

CHARLES TAYLOR: I don’t know. It’s something you’d have to guess at. We know that Newton had oversimplifying ideas. Although the mystery has been pushed further out, it’s not just the mystery of how it all began that is important here, but there’s also of course the absolutely untouched yet mystery of how we–intelligent beings–arose out of all of this. Today, the equivalent of the Newtonian mind are people in genetics. They say, ‘we’ve got the human genome.’ But it’s laughable, they are no closer to understanding how it really works. People talk about a gene for this, a gene for that. But then you’ve got to press them, how does it really work? They say, ‘something switches it off, and then something switches it on.’ What’s missing here is a holistic account of how it all works. My hunch is that it’s very, very unlikely that we will have a complete resolution on how this extraordinary rise of species came about in terms that are consonant with current molecular biology.

JTF: As a philosopher, what do you think about the role of neuroscience in pushing back this mystery?

CHARLES TAYLOR: I’m not a great expert, but I am a great consumer of it. The people that are really cutting-edge are making a lot of sense, but they are more backing me up than anything else… what we really need is a kind of field theory and nobody really knows what that could be.

JTF: If you were hired to consult with all the great world religions, with the idea toward finding a pluralistic solution that guaranteed mutual respect, how would you get around the obvious problem that the closer the world religions come together, the more they must flatten their beliefs into a universal theme, denying their depth and differences?

CHARLES TAYLOR: It’s a very, very deep question and when I’ve been in dialogues across these barriers, that haven’t been of that watering down kind, but where there’s something else, there’s a deep sense that there’s something very important and valid there even if you don’t end up believing it. That in this other spirituality there is something very deep. I’ve talked to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and I’ve said ‘tell me what really makes you tick, and don’t water it down, and I’ll do the same for you.’ And this has been a remarkably spiritually rewarding experience for me. You don’t need to find some middle-point, some syntheses, that doesn’t make sense . . . The Dalai Lama, someone I admire very much and I’ve had some discussions with said about this issue, ‘you don’t put a yak’s head on a sheep’s body.’

JTF: Do you think the 21st century is going to be pulled towards religious pluralism? Or do you think the forces of fundamentalism are going to be a wedge into that concept?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Well, the jury’s out. We have a battle on our hands whether we end up getting into a clash of civilizations mindset. At the moment in the West, we have a huge cultural fight within ourselves against Islamophobia. There’s a kind of mindless Islamophobia that says all 1.2 billion Muslims believe the same thing and that what they believe makes them do terrible things. I’ve seen this in Europe and in North America and we have to fight this kind of thinking very, very hard.

JTF: You say in your JTF essay that now more than ever we need “trail-blazers, who will open new or retrieve forgotten modes of prayer, meditation, friendship, solidarity and compassionate action.” Who are some figures that qualify in your mind as past trail-blazers?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Well John Main, who created a Christian meditation practice, and Mother Teresa come to mind.

JTF: There is a long-standing debate about the relationship between science and religion. Some see modern science as a new kind of explanatory power, capable of pushing into territory once held exclusively by religion. Others see science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria?” (To quote Stephen Jay Gould) Where do you fall in this dialogue?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Science and religion are not quite totally non-overlapping magisteria, but he is right in the sense that if anybody said, ‘I’m going to solve all the problems of the meaning of life, by only looking at the evolutionary view,’ they would be mad, they do not understand the limitations. Or, on the other hand, reading the Bible to understand how human beings evolved, that’s equally unrealistic.

JTF: So it is perfectly reasonable to believe in both God and evolution…

CHARLES TAYLOR: Yes, of course.

JTF: Aristotle talked about the good life and what it means to live a good life. What is the Taylor view of how to live the good life in the 21st century?

CHARLES TAYLOR: You have to look at it like this: what do you want to give to your children and grandchildren? You want to give them some range of these very profound spiritual languages that have come down to us, with the understanding that they will always have to tweak them and change them, but you want to give them some starting insight. What is really disconcerting in a lot of the modern world is how many young people no longer have contact with Shakespeare, or what a biblical reference is, and they are really cut off.

JTF: You work has focused on some of the most horrifying realities of human existence: religion and violence, the malaise of modernity, and yet in so much of your writing contains real optimism. Where does that come from?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Yes, it’s terrible. It’s just temperamental, I can’t stop myself! My friends keep saying I’m ridiculously optimistic.

JTF: Isn’t being optimistic a little bit at odds with philosophy?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Definitively, it’s at odds with the zeitgeist. But I recognize that I must be as realistic as possible and that I must not get carried away. On the other hand, if you don’t have optimism you just give up in a way that I don’t want to do.

JTF: You studied under the famed political philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin at Oxford, Are you a fox or hedgehog?

CHARLES TAYLOR: (laughing) Oh very definitely a hedgehog.

JTF: You’re a hedgehog? He said you were a hedgehog, but I’m surprised to hear you say that.

CHARLES TAYLOR: Everything connects.

JTF: Everything connects, but I see in your range of interests and your ability to go across multiple disciplines, a fox-like demeanor. Are you not a hedgehog disguised as a fox?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Yes, ok, as a fox. (laughs). But don’t blow my cover!

Still curious?

Explore the John Templeton Foundation’s funding in Philosophy & Theology, including Programs in Islam and Programs in Latin America.