Charles Taylor on the Human Propensity for Violence

(This is Neil.) I trust that most of you have heard that the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has won the Templeton Prize. I hope that many of you have already had a chance to read his brief statement at the March 14, 2007 news conference. I did want to post an excerpt here, because, while I did see many blogs sharing news of the award, fewer seem to have drawn attention to Professor Taylor’s very interesting subsequent remarks.

Before speaking of the end of secularization theory in the face of the new forms of religiosity in our present (some admittedly quasi-nationalist and threatening), Professor Taylor responded to something that the Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg once said: “there are good people who do good things, and bad people who do bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.” I’m sure that we have all heard some version of this sort of observation before.  

Taylor obviously disagrees with Weinberg’s claim, but also takes care to mark his dissatisfaction with its mirror-image:

… What the speaker is really expressing is something like this: the terrible violence of the 20th Century has nothing to do with right-thinking, rational, enlightened people like me.  The argument is then joined on the other side by certain believers who point out that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc., were all enemies of religion, and feel that good Christians like me have no part in such horrors.  This conveniently forgets the Crusades, the Inquisition, and much else.

Both sides need to be wrenched out of their complacent dream, and see that no-one, just in virtue of having the right beliefs, is immune from being recruited to group violence: from the temptation to target another group which is made responsible for all our ills, from the illusion of our own purity which comes from our readiness to combat this evil force with all our might.  We urgently need to understand what makes whole groups of people ready to be swept up into this kind of project.

But in fact, we have only a very imperfect grasp on this.  Some of our most insightful scholars, like René Girard, or Sudhir Kakar, have studied it.  Great writers, like Dostoevsky, have cast great light on it, but it remains still mysterious.  What is equally imperfectly understood is the way in which charismatic spiritual leadership, of a Gandhi, a Mandela, a Tutu, can bring people back from the brink.

But without this kind of spiritual initiative, the best-intentioned efforts to put human history on a new, and more humane footing, have often turned this history into a slaughter bench, in Hegel’s memorable phrase.  It is a sobering thought that Robespierre, in the first discussions on the new revolutionary constitution for France, voted against the death penalty. Yet the path to this peaceable republic, which would spare the lives of even its worst criminals, somehow led through the nightmare of the Terror.

We urgently need new insight into the human propensity for violence, and following the authors I mentioned above, this cannot be a reductive sociobiological one, but must take full account of the human striving for meaning and spiritual direction, of which the appeals to violence are a perversion. But we don’t even begin to see where we have to look as long as we accept the complacent myth that people like us (enlightened secularists, or believers) are not part of the problem.  We will pay a high price if we allow this kind of muddled thinking to prevail.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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One Response to Charles Taylor on the Human Propensity for Violence

  1. Pingback: Elijah, Violence, and the Voice of God « Catholic Sensibility

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