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Templeton Prize Winner Taylor Talks About Spirituality in Modern Society

March 20, 2007 at 3:05 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: This year, the Templeton Prize, given for research or discoveries about spiritual realities, went to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. The prize is worth more than $1.5 million, making it the largest annual monetary award given to an individual.

Taylor’s currently a professor at Northwestern University. He won the Templeton for his study of societal problems, like violence and bigotry, and advocacy of solutions that are both secular and spiritual, rather than secular alone. And Charles Taylor joins me now.

Welcome, Professor. And congratulations.

CHARLES TAYLOR, Winner, Templeton Prize: Thank you. Thank you very much.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’ve been critical of the way things have been going, certainly in the West. And one thing you wrote kind of popped out at me: “The culture of the humanities and the social sciences has often been surprisingly blind and deaf to the spiritual.” How?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Well, because they try to explain everything human beings do by talking about economic factors, political factors, drive for power, all of which are important, but they leave out what I call the spiritual dimension.

I mean, that means the answers people give to certain very deep questions, like the meaning of life, or what is really good in human life, or how can I make my life better or more pure, and that sort of thing, which actually also motivates people. And that’s why you never can really understand what’s going on if you just set them aside.

RAY SUAREZ: Motivate people, yes, but can we see as easily, as we do maybe in the drive for wealth and power, how the spiritual affects the way we live day to day?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Well, sometimes it gets terribly, terribly evident. I mean, some terrible phenomena that worry us very much, like this kind of extreme violence that we see in parts of the world, young people hanging around, they don’t know really what their life adds up to, they have no dignity.

And somebody comes along and gives them a tremendous sense of meaning and dignity and power if they join this movement and even sometimes do some terrible things. Now, that is power of those questions in human life, which is very clearly operative.

RAY SUAREZ: So I guess that leads to what you’ve also said to several people: We don’t understand what’s going on unless we understand that, as human beings, we are spiritual beings. So what should we be doing?

CHARLES TAYLOR: That’s what I mean.

Using spirituality in politics

RAY SUAREZ: What should we be doing to answer people's what you call spiritual hungers that we're not doing right now?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Well, you know, there's only one way to answer a bad form of spirituality; it's a better one.

But I think that -- I'm speaking for people who are trying to make decisions in politics and so on, they have to understand the people they're dealing with. So they have to have a sense of what is moving them on that level, in other words, not just see what economic needs they have, what political power loss they've experienced and so on, but see what's actually driving them on that level.

And I think that's terribly true when we get to the what we call terrorism in the world today, which is largely driven -- the people actually doing it, you know, are not in there for more money. They're in there for some kind of sense of fulfillment.

And unless we understand that, unless we begin to understand what could maybe take the place of that very destructive form, and we encourage those other forms, we're never going to be able to deal with it intelligently and effectively.

RAY SUAREZ: So if you were advising foreign ministers, diplomats who are heading to another part of the world, they shouldn't just know what the gross domestic product is or the life expectancy. They should know what else?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Well, they should know what kind of spiritual answers people find powerful in that society, you see. Because when you see that, you can see what's moving them. You know how to talk to them on all levels, not just on the level of economics and politics, and you can see how to deal effectively with them.

I mean, just take an example. When we had -- after 9/11, we defined it or many people defined it as a war on terror. I think the mistake, a big mistake was made there, because if you define it just as a war, you're going to lose it.

If you see that the only way effectively of dealing with this is that somehow those young kids get something else in their lives that can really move them in the same way, then you're beginning to see that it's hearts and minds that matter, much more than actually military force.

I'm not saying there isn't a military role, but there's more than that. And it's typical of our, you know, tunnel vision in the West that we follow this right away in military terms and right away in terms of war-making, and not in terms of what could change the hearts and minds in those societies.

Templeton Prize effect

RAY SUAREZ: If you look at the list of previous Templeton Prize winners, in recent years there have been an awful lot of scientists. If you look at the list overall, there have been also a lot of religious leaders.

You're a philosopher. How does that fit into the broad sweep of who has won this award in the past?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Well, I don't know if there is a broad sweep. I think there's been a lot of changes going on. There is a single thread, perhaps, but I think when they move to begin giving them to scientists, they were thinking of how to bring together science and religion.

And then I think they had another thought, which was very good for me, how to bring together, if you'd like, social science and spirituality, how to see if there isn't a spiritual dimension that could transform the way we understand other people in social science and in history. And I think that's maybe why, because of that turning, that they gave me the prize.

RAY SUAREZ: So does something like this, perhaps, have the effect of bringing more attention to your work? Are you seeing that already?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Yes, and it's not just my work. You know, this complaint I've been making about social science being too narrow, it's already changing. And there are lots of networks of people and groups and younger scholars who are beginning to look more seriously and trying to understand what the religious movements in the world are doing, and how they're changing, and how they're morphing.

And so I think that whole movement is going to be given a lift, and I'm really, really happy about that.

'Human life is multi-causal'

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you've been critical of the way people try to use the mechanics of modern life without spirituality to take a look at society's problems. Conversely, do you make a mistake if you look for a spiritual answer only, without looking at those other sort of nutsy-boltsy things that make up our daily life?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, the thing about human life is it's tremendously multi-causal. There's all these things working all the time. You can't afford to leave anything out, and you have to know how they all intersect in a given society.

I mean, there's another way I think in which we've been dumbed down very much. And there's a tremendous moralization that very often goes on when we look at politics. You have on one side people who think purely in terms of power and realism; on the other side, people who think purely in terms of, you know, these are bad people, like we say, they hate freedom.

And you just never give yourself the chance really to understand what motivated those people and, therefore, to understand how maybe you could change what they're doing. So I think, in these two ways -- I mean, by heavy moralization on one hand and very reductive explanations of human life on the other, we're just missing so much of what's actually the moving parts of the world in which we live.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you have any plans for the money?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Well, I want to carry on the kind of work that I've been doing. And, you know, I do it mainly in networks, because this kind of thing, you can't be just in one little discipline and work it all out. So I really want to help whole networks in which I'm already engaged to, you know, meet more and be able to be more active and to push ahead some of this research.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Charles Taylor, thanks for being with us.

CHARLES TAYLOR: Thank you very much.