A Secular Age
Harvard University Press, 2007
It took me a couple of years to work slowly through Charles Taylor’s massive tome A Secular Age, before finally finishing it in 2011, but I thoroughly enjoyed the journey. It was like a good fruit cake; eaten in small slices (mostly) but each piece rich and delicious. This will be not so much a review as an impression: the book is 776 pages long, with another 75 pages of notes at the end. Taylor is Canadian, now Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal after a long and distinguished career as a philosopher. He is also a believing Roman Catholic.
Taylor opens his book with the question, ‘What does it mean to say we live in a secular age?’ He is not going to give the kind of answer that some give – that is that to live in a secular age is to live in an age which has (rightly) outgrown religious belief and where more and more people have been freed (and will be freed) to live without the distortions that such illusions foist on us. He has the eyes to see that things are more complex than that.
Taylor begins by defining three senses of ‘secularity’: firstly the absence of religion and religious foundations from society’s political structures and spheres of shared activity; secondly the declension of religious belief and practice in the population, and thirdly, a set of conditions for belief which mean that believers experience religious faith not as an obvious and axiomatic part of life, but as one possibility amongst others; perhaps as a minority view in a society more likely to think of religious faith as implausible and inconceivable. It is this third sense of secularity which Taylor proposes to examine. In particular he wants to tell the story of how Western culture got from a situation where it was ‘virtually impossible not to believe in God’, to a situation where not believing in God is ‘easy, even inescapable’ (p 25).
Another foundation Taylor lays in the introduction is his discussion of what is ‘religious’ and what is ‘unbelieving’. Taylor is interested in where one looks for ‘fullness’, that is the full, rich, meaningful, admirable, empowering, joyful mode of life. Believers live, suggests Taylor, thinking of this place of fullness as located ultimately beyond this world, and the flourishing that is possible for us within our ordinary lives. Ultimately, reaching fullness is a matter of undergoing a transformation that opens us to something transcendent (e.g. God). On the other hand, unbelievers live thinking of the place of fullness as immanent within the conditions of our human lives and what ordinary flourishing we can enjoy. Living for something beyond our present life will only be to the detriment of our actual experience of fullness.
Setting up the distinction in this way does capture something deep about families of world views and approaches to life and is a helpful way to approach the matter quite generally. Taylor does not leave things there, however. His book is an exploration of the exploding gamut of believing and unbelieving positions that have arisen over the last five centuries, and the way these react to and upon one another to produce an even more complex array of moral and spiritual outlooks. Ultimately, suggests Taylor, this nova of new spiritual options underlies secularity as we experience it today. Whatever we believe, we are aware of others who believe differently—our position is just one option amongst many, and everyone’s position is cross-pressured and made more fragile by the existence of the other options. This does not mean that everyone feels uncertain about their world view, but it does mean that at least some feel the pull and pressure of other positions, and can find them plausible and attractive, without adopting them (cross-pressure). It also means that we may not share the spiritual outlook of our parents or children or our siblings. (Mutual fragilisation—e.g my family: my dad professes atheism, I am a Christian, my mother and one brother have become Christians since I have. Another brother would be something else again, I suspect. In another age/place, family and culture would almost certainly determine religious outlook. Not in our secular age.)
Taylor describes his book not as a continuous story and argument, but rather as ‘a series of interlocking essays, which shed light on each other’ (p ix). These sets of essays do move broadly forward through an historical progression, providing a loose narrative with many dimensions, beginning at 1500 C.E (!) or so and ending in the present. I cannot now come even close to summarising the various lines of argument and topics of definition and discussion that Taylor unfolds. I can say that I found just about every page and every discussion absorbing, insightful and instructive. His tone is sympathetic, his writing style is easy and conversational, his thinking is broad and deep. His discussion of the nature of religion and unbelief, of the porous self and the enchanted world giving way to the buffered self and the disenchanted world, of the modern moral order and modern social imaginaries is all rich and fascinating, and this main line of the story has plenty of fascinating side discussions about the way we think of and experience time and eternity, the nature of modern art and music, even extended discussions in later chapters of points of Christian doctrine such as the atonement and issues which surround it, or of modern atheism. As one reviewer put it, the book is ‘an education in itself’ (David Martin, quoted on the dust jacket), and thus even to outline and discuss the main lines of argument would take some doing.
Instead I will mention a few more of the themes which impressed themselves on me. One important thesis is that modern secularity has been constructed via a series of historically contingent religious, intellectual and cultural moves, rather than the alternative kind of view (which Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’), that modern secularity is rather the result of stripping away various wrong (religious) ideas about the human person and the cosmos in order to uncover the true (modern, secular) sense of the human self, society and the universe. It is important to Taylor to challenge the idea that our modern, secular condition is that we have seen through to the self-evident truths about who we are and how we are related as individuals and societies, in contrast to our unenlightened forbears who believed in the Great Chain of Being, or that goals beyond ordinary human flourishing might direct us towards true fullness of life. Taylor wants to tell the story of how the outlook that seems self-evident to us was constructed through a contingent historical process.
Part 1 is entitled The Work of Reform. Taylor uses the term Reform to refer to one of the great historical and cultural forces that has shaped the western outlook, the great, multifaceted and ongoing project to make over the whole of society so that it conforms to the higher standards of an ideal whose realisation lies in the future, rather than seeing the present order as something not needing to be ‘made over’, but to be received and participated in as it is. The roots of Reform lie in the Middle Ages, and work themselves out in the Reformation(s) and Counter-Reformation within Christendom, but Reform spills out beyond Christianity to produce the ongoing reform movements of the present day, such as civil rights, feminism, or the normalisation of homosexuality.
He begins by seeking to help us into the sense of self and the cosmos that was shared by Europeans around the beginning of the sixteenth century. He draws the reader into imagining a quite foreign conception of the human self—a porous self, susceptible to penetration by external forces and agencies, which were features of an enchanted world. This was also a society ordered by God, making the desire for reform rather dubious from one point of view. And yet the Christian gospel contains the dynamic of Reform, as it calls people to turn away from the world and towards the kingdom of God, whose transforming fullness is yet to be consummated in history. Hence, in various ways from the middle ages, the church tried to mobilise ordinary Christians to engage in the Christian life in a more disciplined and radical way. From a political point of view, a disciplined society became desirable because it was more productive and could field more effective armies.
Part 2 of the Book is called The Turning Point. As Taylor see it that turning point for the western story is the emergence of an exclusive humanism (exclusive of God, that is) as a viable alternative to Christian orthodoxy for more than a very few. Taylor argues that the efforts within Christendom towards reform and discipline transformed the sense of self and its relation to the world that we share. We became buffered, disciplined selves in a disenchanted world, reimagined as a world created and beneficently ordered by God so that we humans enjoy happiness and flourishing as we engage in mutual service. Thus a providential deism emerged, that allowed the possibility of sidelining God as inessential to the achievement happiness and flourishing. With God sidelined, it could simply be that humans enjoy happiness and flourishing as we engage in mutually beneficial service. And this new exclusive humanism was able to win wider allegiance than the ancient exclusive humanisms (Lucretius and Epicureus) because it carried over in a sense of universal benevolence, a trace of the Christian agape (love). Thus in place of the grace of God putting the love of our neighbour into our hearts we may rely upon the benevolence within our own nature, and the guidance of our reason, to impel us to mutual service.
As this exclusive humanism became a viable option to Christianity in the west, it provoked many reactions, both believing and unbelieving, giving rise to new spiritual options. Unbelieving anti-humanisms arise (quintessentially Nietzsche, but many others too), as well as believing reactions that are not a return to orthodox Christianity (many Romantics). This Taylor calls the is the Nova Effect, and Part 3 of the book tells that part of the story, which covers the resurgence of piety that the nineteenth century saw with, e.g. the Evangelical Movement, as well as the renewed turning to unbelief in that century, which Taylor argues was deeper and more deeply anchored in a universe that was experienced very differently because of the reimagining of the old cosmos of Christendom.
The last stage of the story is the way that the pluralisation of religious options that were available to the elite became the spiritual condition of the whole society. In Part 4, Narratives of Secularization, Taylor explores the revolution that we have been living through since the 1960s, which has seen dramatic decline in religious adherence in terms of church going and religion in public life in many places. He dubs the last 200 years as the Age of Mobilisation, where the great social changes wrought as modernity arose through revolutionary industrialisation, urbanisation, specialisation etc. compelled new religious forms, practices and polities to be envisaged and created. The Methodist movement is an important example. These religious forms were successful until the Age of Authenticity began to flower in the 1960s. In the Age of Authenticity, individual expressivism reigns, and insight and feeling by and for each individual are what counts. Being mobilised to conform to a group culture in a church and to submit to the authority of a community run counter to the spirit of this new age, and Christians find it hard to address people with this outlook of individual expressivism.
Part V of the book is a long meditation aptly entitled Conditions of Belief. I found this to be the most abstract and difficult part of the book (in patches), but fascinating nonetheless. Taylor traces out the interaction between three poles or camps of belief—believers, humanist unbelievers and anti-humanist unbelievers, and argues that far from any one camp having all their problems solved, they all wrestle with the same dilemmas, favouring different ways of seeking their resolution. Taylor wants to promote mutual understanding and sympathy in the midst of some angry and shortsighted polemics that go on in our culture. He also engages more and more with his own religious position, which I might guess could reasonably be approximated by the label ‘liberal Roman Catholic’, addressing his readers more and more from this perspective.
As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this book and I’m not really in a position to offer him a lot of advice about all the things he’s missed and the ways he could make the book better. The book contains the reflection of a lifetime. So I’ll just say that I found his book a great companion for those couple of years it was my companion, and feel like it could be one of those books worth reading again down the track. He’s down on Calvin and substitutionary atonement (which I’m not), but I wasn’t reading him for theology I agreed with completely. I’m interested in the sociology of secularisation, and this is a very intellectual tour of secularisation—thinkers and ideas more than societies and cultures. But that’s ok—I love intellectual history. I recommend this book to all and sundry. I’m sure you’ll learn something. I learned plenty.
Ben Underwood, WA