a secular age

Yesterday I started Charles Taylor’s massive book, A Secular Age (874 p.) which won the Templeton Prize in 2007.  Taylor’s story of how western society became secular is the sort of history I like—he paints with broad interpretive strokes which, while leaving plenty of room for quibbling over this detail or that, also enables us to make sense of our world.  I’m only 90 pages into the book (introduction and chapter 1), but here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Taylor says that secularism can mean 1) the naked public square—omitting God from public policy and conversation, 2) the decline of religious belief and practice, or 3) the new conditions of belief.  The latter is the focus of this book.  How has the way we live and think about our world made it difficult to believe in God?

Taylor explains that while there have always been atheists or agnostics, our secular age is the first time in western history where belief in God is only one option among many, and it often isn’t the easiest one to embrace.  Belief in God is no longer the automatic default option.  It’s hard.  In the Middle Ages people might naively and unreflectively believe in God, but now every believer (and unbeliever) realizes that there are other viable options.

Taylor says that many people try but cannot bring themselves to believe in God.  They mourn their loss of belief, but they honestly cannot believe what they no longer think is true [I would argue from Romans 1:18-32 that there is more going on here than Taylor sees.  Paul declares that atheism/agnosticism is never entirely honest].

From what I’ve read so far, here is how Taylor thinks we got here:

1. The Medieval “enchanted” world believed that God and “charged” objects in the external world (e.g., sacraments, relics, bile) dramatically affected our “porous selves” (i.e., selves which are easily influenced by the objective world).  The relics bestowed miraculous power, sacraments delivered salvific grace, and excess bile caused disease.

2. Late Medieval Reform, including the Reformation, taught us that we could seize control and improve our world.  No longer at the mercy of forces beyond our control, our “buffered selves” learned that the supposed problem of bile was only in our heads and that relics and sacraments didn’t have the special powers the church had taught (and had used for nefarious purposes, combining them with indulgences to sell salvation).

3. The late medieval/modern reforms were successful at improving ourselves and our world, which led us to place more confidence in ourselves and less in external, magical powers, such as God.  [Although Taylor hasn’t explicitly made the connection yet, it was the West’s belief in the Christian God which inspired them to care for and improve his world.  But we got so good at it that we “discovered” that we didn’t need God after all].

4. Modern people didn’t remove God right away, but made room for him as the distant, watchmaker god of deism.  This transitional worldview was too unstable to last, and soon the distant god of deism became the non-existent god of naturalism/secular humanism.

5. Secular humanism is a new event.  There have always been people who cared only for their own pleasure and didn’t believe in God (e.g., Epicureanism), but our secular age is the first time in human history when this view is a widely available option.  Now great numbers of people believe that human flourishing is the only goal of life and that there is no God or nothing more beyond this life.

6. Secular humanism is the wedge which opened the door to a plurality of other religious beliefs.  Once orthodox Christian theism was no longer the only viable option, it was only a matter of time before other challengers sprouted.

Although Taylor doesn’t explicitly say it, his argument here implies that there is a direct line between Modernity (secular humanism) and Postmodernity (religious pluralism).  This is his most interesting point so far.  What do you think?

4 Comments

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  1. “Although Taylor doesn’t explicitly say it, his argument here implies that there is a direct line between Modernity (secular humanism) and Postmodernity (religious pluralism).”

    Isn’t this roughly the same point James KA Smith is making in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

    As you might recall, the secularization of American society was the topic of the paper I presented at ETS last year (you remember – the paper you walked out on). It sounds like Taylor’s book would have helped me in much of my background survey. Although, and perhaps this is just a product of your summary, ie, lack of space, but it sounds like Taylor is using a reductionist view of history and philosophy. C. John Summerville and Steve Bruce, among others, have provided some rich insights into how even seemingly religious societies can actually be secular. I look forward to reading Taylor and unpacking his argument myself.

  2. Sorry for walking out on your paper, Jonathan. I remember thinking that you were done!🙂

  3. Jonathan Shelley October 22, 2009 — 1:49 pm

    Not quite, but we did lose power in that room shortly after you left. I took that as a sign of God’s deep displeasure with my presentation. I was so distraught by this double rejection that I immediately [went to the hotel bar] and [did my best Gary Meadors impression].

  4. Here’s the connection I see:

    Humanism says “man is valuable because he is the pinnacle.” It’s a short step from there to the “every person’s view is equally valuable” of religious pluralism.

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