A Secular Age

I did it!  I finally finished Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.  The 776 page tome took me from October 2010 to last night, February 10th, to read from cover to cover (okay… I didn’t exactly read all of the endnotes–but most of them!).  I’ve never felt quite so accomplished when finishing a book.  Not only has 4 months of reading finally come to an end, but the book was one of the most incredible grand narratives I’ve encountered.

I hope to briefly summarize and engage the contours of Taylor’s historical depictions, philosophical analyses, and theo-political insights.   Over the next few weeks, I will spend some time laying out his concepts, terminology, and guiding convictions.  I’m hoping such engagement will not only spark conversation, but will also help me digest the book and orient myself in its trajectories and suggestive conclusions.

To begin, the main thrust of the book, as indicated in the title, is getting a handle on what it means to live in a “secular” age.  There are a number of stories circulating in our North Atlantic culture about the meaning of secularity for us.  In addition, the academy is debating and filling out various “secularization theories” which Taylor engages.  In the end, Taylor hopes to tell a more convincing story about how we–the peoples of the North Atlantic: Europeans and North Americans–came to be where we are in our modern, secular situation.

So what are the stories?  First, before I sketch an outline of those stories, we should get a sense of what Taylor means by “secularity.”  Typically, we mean something like “non-religious” or “without the sacred.”  In church, we often hear phrases like “secular music” or “the secular world.”  Secular means the non-Christian or un-believing person, institution, or artifact.

For Taylor, there are three senses of secularity that are important to distinguish between:

  1. Secularity 1–this focuses on the institutions and practices of a community (state, nation, etc).  To be secular in this sense means that there is no explicit or express connection between the political organization of a society and God/Ultimate Reality.  In other words, the political organization is not expressly based on, guaranteed by, or socially legitimated from the “sacred” or divine.    This is the church/state divide dimension of secularity.  Taylor describes it helpfully this way:  “you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”  Religion is a “private matter” (page 1).
  2. Secularity 2–this is sense of secular that is often lamented in churches and praised by other who feel religion is a hindrance to progress or science or what have you.  Secularity 2 consists in the falling off of religious belief and practice.  Thus, whenever statistics are called in to show how religion is “declining,” this sense of secularity is at work.
  3. Secularity 3–The above two notions are linked and inter-related, but also distinct.  Taylor engages these forms of secularity, but they do not tell the whole story, in his view, and are not the primary matter to be addressed.  Instead, he is interested in “the conditions of belief/experience.”  In other words, he wants to picture our current society (and our self-understanding(s) in that society) in terms that take account of a profound historical shift:  how could it be that we moved “from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequentlyu not the easiest to embrace”? (3)

There are a couple of ways to make sense of Taylor’s question.  These are the “secularization theories” that are circulating in the academic world and, to some extent, wider popular audiences.   The most dominant is the thesis that history marches on with great progress, sloughing off superstition (religion) as reason (science) explains more and more of our world.  As people become more “rational,” religion loses its place (in-credibly explaining things, consoling with illusions, etc).   This view assumes that there is nothing real to religion, that it isnt’ addressing, articulating, or answering anything real in human life.  Thus, there will come a time when something else (scientific information, psychological therapy, economic prosperity, etc) can replace the function religion occupied in human societies.  What we need, then, is education and discipline to open the eyes of the faithful to the march of reason.

This theory has not done the best job accounting for “the American exception.”  In the US, there is vast economic wealth, a high degree of separation of church and state, saturation of scientific culture, etc and yet religion is flourishing; belief and practices are persisting (and expanding).

Dedicated to a view that religion serves no real, valuable purpose in human life; the secularization theory can be augmented to account for such explanatory disparities.  There are some intractable qualities of human existence, namely the lure of (religious) illusion (simplistic ways to make sense of the world, “opiates” for suffering, weakness of will, etc).    So the exception merely demonstrates that the march of secularity is not exactly linear and uninhibited, but must be a battle that is waged against the forces of unreason which erupt and re-manifest.

Taylor wants to tell a more complex, more generous, more explanatorily powerful story–one that better accounts for the irregularities and common-places in our current situation.

He does this by suggesting that focusing primarily on changes in theoretical knowledge over time–usually dominated by educated and clerical elites–will be important (necessary) but not sufficient.  It can’t explain how secularity (3) comes to be a mass phenomena–something most all of us can experience in our society, whether we are educated or not.   So he cannot tell the most convincing story by merely outlining intellectual changes that occured from the Middle Ages, through the Enlightenment period, and into our Modern situation.  He must also offer a “Reform Master Narrative” which focuses on the motives and social structures (political organizations, cultural institutions, etc) of people over time.

To sum it up, Taylor wants to look at two sides of the same mountain (as he puts it in his Epilogue–page 775); he wants to talk about changes in our theoretical knowledge (advance of scientific and humanistic studies, beliefs, understandings) as part of a larger story of social change in which there is a perpetual “play of destabilization and recomposition” (775).   For Taylor, in order to explain religion and secularity in our world today, we need a sense of both sides of the mountain.

At play in all this, as I see it, is an abiding commitment to:

a)  the deep ambiguity of life–the lack of determinacy that characterizes human life.

b) the value of religion–we can’t just write it off as superstition or illusion, however much our understanding(s) of it changes over time

While not giving secularity the force of “inevitability”, Taylor never demonizes secularity.  He concedes that we have truly gained something over time with the decline of certain beliefs and the “fragilizing” of our religious commitments, even if such gains are riddled with loss and haunted by an inescapable underside.

There is much more to comment on and consider.  Taylor’s work is rich and engaging–even if it meanders and circles back on itself again and again.   He treats human life with a respect and dignity worthy of our “modern age” by allowing for complexity, conflictual forces, and open-ended trajectories.

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2 thoughts on “A Secular Age

  1. Thanks, Michael, for beginning this laying-out of the book! A Secular Age is on my list after Gillespie’s “Theological Origins of Modernity” (which I’ve written a bit about over at rootweaving.wordpress.com).

    It’ll be interesting to read your coming posts on it with Gillespie’s version of events in mind; one of his projects is to show how “modernity” (often including such “secularist” commitments as the march of progress and science as we get rid of religious “superstition”) is grounded in theological debates about God.

    The major point that Gillespie seems to indicate (I haven’t finished the book yet) is that the “nominalists” — who argued that God has to be absolutely powerful — had really unravelled our ability to “know” anything. The science that gets built back up in the face of that is necessarily one that only claims to be representing things, not describing true reality.

    It’s interesting to wonder what the role of the church is, faced with our lack of ability to really declare anything with finality.

    Can we move forward — carrying with us all the gifts of a “secular age” — and still find new ways to hold the deep and sacred meaning of the human people of God?

    I look forward to discussions here.

  2. I need to read this book, but it’ll be a while before I have time to do so. This was a very helpful and well-written post, and I hope you’ll keep it up.

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