Caputo: Chapter One—Modernity and the Eclipse of Truth—Part Five

Caputo finishes up chapter one sort of summarizing where he thinks we are, what modernity has led to, and how he plans to proceed.  He begins:

“In modernity, truth was not eliminated, of course, but eclipsed, truncated, cut down to fit the size of reason.  Instead of reason as a moment in the life of truth, truth was measured by the standards of reason, and the fly in the soup was God.”

Caputo goes on to note, again, why this happened.  The step between “Mine is the only true religion” to the next step of potential violence (and actual as we have seen historically and even now) seems woefully short.  Given that, he goes on:

“So in modernity religion is treated as a matter of opinion, a private matter, which is to be kept out of public affairs and dinner parties.  Now the point I want to raise is this: that solution may be practical, polite and political, but it is not philosophical.  The public order (reason) behaves like a court that declines to hear the case.  It refuses to rule on the ‘truth’ of religion.  In matters of religion, modernity is like a politician whose lips are moving but who is not answering the question.”

In other words, modernity never won in the realm of ideas or philosophy.  It was purely a power move.  Often that is what happens when one’s world seems to be a disaster (30-Years-War)—we get that.  Extreme measures are taken.  Still, modernity has never really justified itself, its existence, philosophically.  It has simply set up court in response to the practical political needs of the time.  In some ways, it is an accident of history.  The problem is that the times change.  The problems then are not the same as they are now here in the west.   And when times change and one has no philosophical reason for existing, then power alone becomes the operating principle.  We have to recognize another principle here too: When the secular says “Mine is the only true religion” or “What is true is that religion is false” then the step to actual and potential violence is just as short.  This is what we currently see in the “War on Terrorism.”  The secular will resort to any violence necessary to ensure its hegemony.  Such is not a comment on whether that is good or bad; it is simply a statement of fact.  Let us disabuse ourselves (since it comforts us so) of this idea that religion=violence and the secular=peace.  The wars of the twentieth century, again, were not started and prosecuted by priests or religious groups.  Caputo continues:

“Modernity has put the prize of peace and calm before truth.  This is the centerpiece of modern democratic theory, ‘freedom of religion’, which is right up there with ‘innocent until proven guilty’…In principle, religion is treated with a maximum of tolerance, but this tolerance is merely polite [See Bernard] and political.  This is to say the public secular order combines a maximum of political tolerance with a minimum of epistemic respect; it grants religions the freedom to organize and express themselves while not acknowledging any truth-content in religion.  When the topic of religion comes up, the emphasis falls on religious freedom, not religious truth.”

Again, this is simply the Great Condescension.  And one never won in a discourse over ideas and their philosophical power (the true, the good, the beautiful) over time, in a long conversation, but rather one simply seized in a move of political power for practical reasons (religious wars) at a historical moment in time.  Caputo:

“Without advocating a return to theocracy, I think there are problems with this solution, one of which is that the people inside the various religions, at least the core believers, have a very different self-understanding—they think their religion is true.”

Caputo notes that in ancient pagan times this wasn’t really a problem because of polytheism.  Many gods were believed to exist—the more the merrier.  He goes on:

“The problem modernity is trying to deal with was set in motion by monotheism, by saying there is only one true God, which is a short step from saying, only our God is God.  For in fact, it never fails, the one true God always turns out to be our God, and religious truth turns out to be a zero-sum game in which the truth of our religion comes at the cost of the falsity [Bernard’s complaint] of other religions.”

Conversely, this is exactly what the secular tells us whenever it acts as if all religions are equally false.  It, therefore, by default, becomes its own mono-secularism/religion.  It leaves the secular as the Supreme Voice—the only Voice.  So the secular cannot wag its finger at religious conflict and say “shame, shame”.  It plays the same zero-sum game.  And how this manifests in the secular state is through a worshipful patriotism, which guards the treasury (whether meaning taxes or protecting our economic system) and trust me, the state will use all force and violence at its disposal to see that this liturgical system and worship remains without rival.  Of course, this is all seen as “normal” and non-religious but it is the very essence of religion.  Everyone is a worshiper—everyone has a god.  Modernity was (is) a grand illusion trying to escape this fact.  The state and economics simply replaced God.  This is why our great cathedrals are shopping malls and capital buildings.  We worship money and power.  And we will blow you to bloody hell if you touch them—we will declare a “War on any Abstract Thing we can Name” if it means justifying our violence to protect “our way of life”.  That is why secularists get so worked up about politics and economics.  After all, these areas go to their very creeds—their beliefs.  The secular, if we were to be honest, is a form of philosophical, social, and political apartheid.  I exaggerate.  Or do I?  Caputo goes on regarding modernity’s view of religion:

“Nowadays, if the citizens of the contemporary western democracies are pressed on the issue of religious truth, their first response as tolerant, proper democratic people might very well be the same as the Romans’, to say that all religions are true.  Religion is a matter of opinion, so if your religion works for you so be it.  That’s what ‘true’ means when it comes to religion: if it works for you.  Believe in what you like just so long as you don’t get violent or bore us with it…if they are at all pressed about what they mean, this great show of tolerance on their part would in fact turn out to be hollow.  They mean, if truth be told, that no religion is actually true.  Truthfully, they are really just being polite [Bernard’s “taste” reasoning] or civil, trying to get along, but they didn’t mean it.  In truth they think there are no serious ‘truth’ claims in religion, just different songbooks, stories, rites and feelings; a variety of preferences and tastes…”

Caputo also notes how modern pluralism is a long way from the ancient polytheism like that of the Romans.

“In the good old days of polytheism, all the religions really were considered true because there were many gods, each a part of the local landscape, like the local mountains or streams.”

Whereas in ancient times, even though there were many gods and religions, they could all be true because their being true was specific to their location, purpose, and role.  Regardless, they were believed to be true—to “truly” exist.  In modernity, pluralism just means we will tolerate you as long as you understand we don’t really believe your religion (or anyone’s) to be true.  Or to translate: we only believe ours (the secular) is true—but “you” people are free to walk about the place…in certain areas that is…just watch yourself “boy.”

Caputo also brings up the attempts by Christian leaders and theologians to address the issue of only one religion being true while maintaining a pluralistic culture.  He mentions the great progressive Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (1904-84).  He like many others suggested the “many roads” to heaven perspective—that people of other faiths were “anonymous” Christians—ones who just didn’t know they were Christians yet.  But the problem, as noted by Caputo is:

“It would be like telling women that their demand for equal rights are justified because they are ‘anonymous’ men.”

And there have been many inter-faith counsels and conferences over time attempting to deal with this issue, especially in the last one hundred years.  Unfortunately, they too seem to opt for modern political solutions rather than explore alternatives.  Caputo finishes chapter one thus:

“I think this all goes back to a faulty idea of religion, of religious truth and, ultimately, of truth itself.”

With the next post we will start chapter two, which is entitled: What do we do with religious truth?
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11 Responses to Caputo: Chapter One—Modernity and the Eclipse of Truth—Part Five

  1. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    Reading this, one gets the impression you believe there is some sort of institutionalized attack on religion, or something, by the “secular” (whatever that means).

    I don't think there is any sense in saying the secular opposes religion. Rather, it is indifferent to it. A secular state, for instance, purports to be totally neutral in religious matters. It does not officially hold any opinion whatever on religion, pro or con. Therefore, it cannot act as if all religions are false. Nor as if they are true.

    In fact, while the above may hold in theory, in practice secular states favour religions in many ways, for example through generous tax exemptions or by allowing extreme forms of indoctrination of children in some religious schools.

    Or perhaps you are saying a state should officially endorse some religious doctrines?


  2. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    Well, I think Caputo in all these posts, and in his book, refutes what you are suggesting–that is sort of the point. Is there something specific he writes, where you think him wrong and can tell us why?


  3. Burk Braun says:

    “In other words, modernity never won in the realm of ideas or philosophy.”

    This is bald assertion, is precisely the contested point, and is in my view quite wrong. Christianity has been fighting rearguard battles since the reformation, and lost in the philosophical realm long ago. The sad (and misguided) battle of Eric to posit that it is even reasonable, let alone correct, is one small example. It is completely unreasonable, and unless your philosophy encompasses fantasy and wish-the-world-were-this-way as its axioms, there is just no way to square the circle.

    This is obviously why there is so little epistemic respect- because that the amount deserved.

    “… their philosophical power (the true, the good, the beautiful) …

    You are not talking philosophy here, but art and social utility. Truth has been dealt with above.. it has its own criteria and methods. Good and beautiful are a different story.

    “Everyone is a worshiper—everyone has a god. “

    Another tired argument, of the I'm rubber variety. Some get by just fine without gods. The attempt to equate the practical institutions of state and economics with god or religion, when they deal with the most obvious and practical issues.. ones that religious people seem to get themselves worked up about from time as well, one might note … it is just sad.

    Alright.. I am sorry you feel so beset by the Totali-fasci-mono-massa-secularists. All that is needed is to demonstrate that it (religion) all makes sense, and we will share your belief. I know it makes psychological sense. But philosophical sense is another matter. What do we do with religious truth.. a very good question indeed.


  4. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    In fact, I'm talking of what you are saying, not Caputo. I should have been clearer.

    For example: “The secular will resort to any violence necessary to ensure its hegemony.

    The “secular” is at war against religion? On this planet?

    Or: “Conversely, this is exactly what the secular tells us whenever it acts as if all religions are equally false. It, therefore, by default, becomes its own mono-secularism/religion. It leaves the secular as the Supreme Voice—the only Voice.

    Or again: “The secular, if we were to be honest, is a form of philosophical, social, and political apartheid.

    Frankly, I don't see where this is coming from.


  5. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    “Frankly, I don't see where this is coming from.”

    It's coming from reading Caputo and many, many others. It is reflected in these posts. You mean this is the first you are hearing this? I thought this was a rather old and common line of thought by many people of faith and by many postmodernists. I'm saying nothing new here.

    There is a difference between not seeing where something is coming from and whether or not you agree or disagree with what is being asserted. Whether many agree with me or not, they certainly see where this is coming from. So, not sure your point.


  6. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    If all this is only a battle of ideas, it is difficult to understand what you're referring to in the passages I quote above. But, yes, certainly some are attacking religion on these lines.

    If, on the other hand, you're referring to what happens in the field, so to speak. as embodied in our institutions, some clarifications would be useful.

    Do you claim, for example, that the secular state, by its very existence, constitutes an attack on religion? Or secular schools?


  7. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    “Do you claim, for example, that the secular state, by its very existence, constitutes an attack on religion? Or secular schools?”

    I don’t think the existence of the secular constitutes an attack on religion just as I don’t think religion, by its very existence, constitutes an attack upon the secular. However, and something that goes to my point, is that many of the new atheists (secular fundamentalists really) clearly do see religion as inherently bad, dangerous, and a constant threat to the secular.

    Do you agree? Also, what exactly do you think (whether you agree or disagree) Caputo is trying to communicate in these quotes I've given in all these posts?


  8. Darrell says:


    Just to follow up on my last response and your assertion, “Frankly, I don't see where this is coming from,” are you aware of essays like this one?

    A random Google search of the new atheists (Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) will bring up a plethora of articles and essays like the one noted above. This has been a national debate and conversation going back decades. All of which moves me to ask, “Frankly, how could anyone wonder where this is coming from?”

    It also shows who sees the “other” as attacking and their very existence as dangerous. This is the hallmark of all fundamentalism both secular and religious. Caputo is speaking against both types of fundamentalism.


  9. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    I've looked at the Hedges interview and, frankly, it's very puzzling that you would link with approval to something like this.

    Take the title: “I don't believe in atheists”. What does that mean? Is he engaging on an attack on those who call themselves atheists? What would it mean to say “I don't believe in christians”? Doesn't that sound strange to you?

    But then he switches gear and talks about only the “new” atheists. And then, not all of them, but specifically Harris and Hitchens. Dawkins? No, he's different, he says, because, of all things, he's british. And Dennett? No mention at all even if, last time I checked, he was still considered one of the “four horsemen”. So, really, he's after two particular individuals.

    And why is he attacking H&H? Because of their atheism, one would think, given the title of the piece. Not at all! What he doesn't like are political opinions they allegedly defend. The whole diatribe spiced with an overboard personal attack on Hitchens: “I think he’s completely amoral. I think he doesn’t have a moral core. I think he doesn’t believe anything.” You can't get more ad hominen than this. And, I would add, philosophical ideas on God and political opinions are largely if not entirely unrelated.

    So, you see, from the political opinions of a few persons (well, two), Hedges goes on to condemn the whole new atheist movement. Do you think this is a sensible approach to take?

    And there is more than this., as you no doubt realize. There are many very misleading statements. Just at the beginning: “[…] outspoken secularists who depict religious structures and the belief in God as backward and anti-democratic.” While the Catholic Church, for example, is obviously not a democratic structure, who said that the belief in God, by itself, is anti-democratic?

    And so on.

    If this is typical of what you're referring to, then, frankly, this is very disappointing.


  10. Darrell says:


    You miss the point entirely. My point was how one could ask “where is this coming from” when it is obvious that fundamentalists on both sides believe the “other” is a threat and they have been writing and speaking out like this for decades. And this clearly comes from the secular side as well. Or do you only notice it when it comes from religious fundamentalists? That one article was just one example, there are many, many others. My goodness, no one would disagree that the new atheists and all those who agree with them are attacking religion, think it a bad thing, and wish it would disappear.

    Neither Caputo nor I are defending either side. In fact, we eschew each side and Caputo is trying to show a way past fundamentalism. Do you agree that such is a good thing or would you rather people fall into one ditch (either secular fundamentalism or religious) or the other? What exactly do you understand Caputo to be saying based upon my posts and his quotes?


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