Modernity’s Wager

Modernity’s Wager December 16, 2016

Adam Seligman compares Modernity’s Wager to Pascal’s:

Pascal’s wager of the seventeenth century, of reason for faith, was replaced in the eighteenth century by a wager over the terms of sacrality. Modern culture and politics, I argue, staked its all on the ability to construct an authoritative locus of sacrality on a foundation of transcendental rather than transcendent dictates. We have eschewed any idea of the revealed truth of a transcendent Being in favor of “self-evident” truths, thought to be as amenable to reason as the principles of Euclidian geometry. . . . We have wagered our idea of the sacred on beliefs in individual rights, rooted in reason and serving as the “touchstone of [our] morality,” partaking in “transcendental majesty.” This appeal to reason as the sacred remains at the base of contemporary democratic and liberal ideas of citizenship, political order, and individual identities. (12-13)

At the heart of this wager is skepticism about authority. Seligman argues on the contrary that any attempt to understand the self must take account of authority: “without a sacred locus of self, any attempt to account for action cannot rise beyond the purely calculative, power-orientated acts of utility maximization. If the self has a sacred locus, however, then it must be an authoritative one as well, for what is the sacred if not authoritative?” (ix).

Seligman is not convinced that the modern wager is one we can win: “For as religious dictates are coming increasingly to reshape the personal, social, and public behavior of men and women in many parts of the world, so is there increasing concern that these newly emerging (or reemerging) religious identities will erect barriers to tolerance, understanding, and the ability to coexist in mutual respect and recognition” (13).

Our preference for individual autonomy leaves modern societies mystified about the resurgence of revealed, authoritative religious traditions throughout the world. We expect every religion to develop in the same way that Western Christianity has developed: “As society secularized, religion retreated from the public domain, reduced its claims on the public sphere, and became more and more a matter of the congregant’s internal value disposition—with the result of a concomitant growth in tolerance of other faiths. But pluralism and tolerance seem to hold only as long as religion is privatized. To us, any other accommodation seems almost inconceivable. However, this is only one historical path, the path taken by Western Christianity as it secularized. But is this model necessarily the only one? We have no reason to believe that the path of privatization in Judaism or Islam would be similar to that of Christianity, because the very terms of communal membership and individual identity are so different in these religions from what they are in a secularized Christian polity” (13).

We expect everyone to follow the path we have taken, and are surprised, and more than a little affronted, when they refuse to conform.

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