Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age
A work of impressive erudition, philosophical sophistication, subtle historical discernment—not to mention considerable weight (776 pages, not including the notes and index)—Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age 1 has won wide acclaim and critical attention. 2 His Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, 3 also the object of wide critical praise, earlier demonstrated the prodigious philosophical and historical insight on display everywhere in his latest effort. The author’s intellectual interests are broad. He has written and lectured on psychology, 4 philosophy, 5 social theory, 6 political culture, 7 and religion. 8 Discussions of literature, music, and art regularly crop up in his work. Yet all his writings address the theme of the nature of modern human beings: their spiritual struggles, their virtues and vices, their loves and hatreds. A Secular Age is—to put it plainly—a great book, and anyone with more than a passing interest in understanding “modern man” cannot afford to miss it.
The perception that the Christian church was incorrigibly hostile to ordinary human joys and pleasures was a major factor in the alienation of masses of people from their religious traditions.
A Secular Age offers a provocative answer to the question of what the “secularization” of the West amounts to. It is not a history in the sense of an objective account of all relevant events between the late medieval period and the 1960s. Taylor is a Christian philosopher and but also an historian. He is convinced that the rise of Western secularity has not been adequately understood, either by most Christians or by secularists. He therefore seeks to offer an alternative account of how the West was secularized—alternative, that is, to the conventional explanations that attribute this to science or to a heroic emancipation from a paternalistic, authoritarian culture. But his book does more than that: it also attempts to describe the character of contemporary Western unbelief and explore the prospects of Christian faith in this unprecedented era. 9
But where does one begin? Taylor helps himself over the hurdle of starting points by asking under what conditions a society could move from a culture of belief to an easygoing culture of disbelief. His answer is that, first, a culture had to emerge in which the supernatural was sharply distinguished from the natural; and, second, that same culture had to come to believe that it was possible to live entirely within the confines of the natural, without reference to anything beyond. Taylor’s argument is that in the West the first of these conditions was deliberately constructed, but that the second arose accidentally, at least initially. His book is largely a description of how this in fact occurred.
Taylor locates the beginnings of the development of the secular in late medieval European societies at the height of the age of Christendom, before the advent of modern science which is usually credited with bringing religious faith to its knees. The Middle Ages were not conducive to atheism in any form that might be familiar to us. God was easy to believe in because the natural world was understood to be directly controlled by him. The phrase “act of God” was used quite literally to refer to large and small events orchestrated by God. Secondly, as Christian society was believed to have been established by God himself (which public worship and ritual reinforced), God was clearly evident there as well. Thirdly, the medieval world was an “enchanted” world, in which demons, spirits, and various moral forces impinged in a tangible way on human lives (26). What kept those forces from overrunning the world and continuously creating havoc was God, the guarantor of order and of the ultimate victory of good over evil. Rejecting belief in God in that age would have meant leaving the order in the world without a credible explanation, would have undercut the cohesion of society, and would have left believers at the mercy of malevolent forces and made their lives a potentially unrelenting chaos.
Beliefs in demons and spirits, however, though Christian to some extent, differed not much from pagan beliefs. In the late Middle Ages, many in the Western church were dismayed at the lack of genuine Christian piety in all classes of society. To remedy this deficiency, reform movements of various kinds were initiated to close the gap between the Christianity of the most pious (this usually meant the religious orders, e.g., Franciscans, Carmelites, Dominicans, Augustinians and others) and the popular, semi-pagan Christianity of the masses. Significantly, the difference between the two was thought to consist in the deeper understanding of Christian doctrine and the practices of inner prayer and meditation by the religious. Lay people tended to possess little of the former and practiced almost none of the latter, focusing instead on the observation of religious duties like church attendance and various liturgical acts (63). With the help of itinerant preachers like the Franciscans, lay people were taught the essential truths of the faith and introduced to spiritual practices, especially private prayer. Reform moved ahead, creating, as such movements often do, an appetite for even more.
By the turn of the sixteenth century, the reform movement was intensifying and being extended beyond the bounds of personal piety by encouraging orderliness, self-discipline, and productivity as public demonstrations of personal devotion to God. Taylor describes the development this way:
Around 1500, this drive begins . . . to take up a more ambitious goal, to change the habits and life-practices, not only religious but civil, of whole populations; to instil orderly, sober, disciplined, productive ways of living in everyone. This is the point where the religious drive to reform begins to become interwoven into the attempts to introduce civility, thus to “civilize”, as the key term came to be. This was not a simple take-over, a deviation imposed on the drive to religious reform; because religious reformers themselves concurred that the undeniable fruit of Godliness would be ordered, disciplined lives. They also sought to civilize, for good theological reasons. (244)
On Taylor’s reading, the Protestant Reformation “is the ultimate fruit of the [late medieval] Reform spirit, producing for the first time a true uniformity of believers . . .” (77). The uniformity was, ironically, achieved in part by rejecting religious orders and monastic life whence some of the impetus for reform had come, and this had the effect of promoting an egalitarianism that was later a condition of the advent of democracy. But the jettisoning of special religious callings did even more: It upset the equilibrium and complementarity that had been in force between the hierarchically ordered tiers of medieval society. By equalizing Christian piety across social classes, the Reformation set the stage for significant social and political changes.
The Reformers also abetted the disenchantment of the natural world. By attacking magic, of which church “white magic” (religious relics, special prayers, and sacramental objects) was one kind, they eroded belief in the forces that magic invoked (72). By extension, these assaults undercut easy belief in the world as an enchanted and magical place, rich in wonders and signs. Bereft of supernatural beings and reduced in transcendent meaning, the cosmos becomes semiotically vacant. One consequence of this development is that greater attention is paid to the subject—the “buffered self,” as Taylor calls it—as the originator of such meaning as once might have been “seen” in the world. Another is that the natural world could be interrogated and brazenly investigated without fear of malevolent supernatural forces or God. In this sense, the development of rationality and natural science in the West was moved along by religious opponents of enchantment.
THE ROLE OF NATURAL SCIENCE
For Taylor (as for most narrators of the transition) the role of natural science in the disenchantment of the natural world is undeniable; but characterizing that role is not a simple matter. Typically, one hears that as science advanced and explained phenomena once accounted for by reference to God, there was less and less explanatory work for religion to do. So religion receded. The role of science, on this telling of the tale, was one of progressively eliminating religious explanations until people no longer needed the “God hypothesis.” Taylor, however, argues that this account begs the question of what place faith in God has in the lives of believers. With some adjustments, it remains possible, even in the face of scientific explanation, to conceive of God as communicating, even communing, with men and women and intervening in ordinary events; he does not function for believers solely as a handy explanation for the unexplainable.
Taylor then offers the alternative interpretation that in the eighteenth century rational explanations were increasingly welcomed (primarily by educated elites) as disproof of a certain conception of God because of what he calls a “deep-seated moral distaste for the old religion that sees God as an agent in history” (274). Why this moral distaste? Its basis, says Taylor, was the emerging ethic of human freedom and the dignity believed to arise from it. For Enlightenment thinkers, human dignity comes from acting as a free (i.e., unconstrained) rational agent, voluntarily subjecting oneself to an order that is itself governed by rational principles (282). On this reading, an interventionist God—one who contravenes as he pleases the laws of the universe and requires pious subordination to his inscrutable will—is at odds with human freedom and dignity (283); he undercuts the assumption that rational engagement with reality, unimpeded by non-rational “authorities” or demands, is the primary route to knowledge and happiness. In later versions of this type of humanism, this God is flatly declared the enemy of freedom.
On a deeper level, then, the conflict between science and religion in the eighteenth century is less a contest between different accounts of how the world works than a struggle between competing conceptions of human agency. Moreover, this particular battle is paradigmatic of other tensions between Christianity and secularity. One of Taylor’s main theses in A Secular Age is that the advance of secularity involved not just the removal of superstitious ideas about how the world operates but the positive development of new concepts of the self, agency, time, the social order, and the universe and how these related to each other. The re-fashioning of these notions inevitably involved repudiating the Christian notions they replaced, but the negation did not go so far as to erase all evidence of the latter. The belief that life can be lived fully and completely without reference to a transcendent reality (Taylor calls this “exclusive humanism”) required moral and spiritual resources to sustain that life. Taylor argues that the idea of “benevolence” functionally replaced agape as the basis of society, which was now understood as an order of mutual benefit (245, 680). This order may have rejected divine love as its basis, but in adopting benevolence for that purpose, it chose something that bore a distinct family resemblance.
TURNING ON RELIGION
The turn against religion had much to do with a deepening appreciation of the value of earthly happiness and welfare and a growing confidence in people’s ability to set their own agendas and, by using reason, to pursue them successfully. Taylor suggests that important orthodox doctrines sat uncomfortably beside these values. Self-confidence made it difficult to understand the need for the help of divine grace to accomplish anything good. Likewise, the doctrines of original sin, of predestination, and of atonement understood in terms of penal-substitution painted a picture of human beings and their destiny that was sharply at odds with the new self-reliant humanism which claimed benevolence as a defining feature.
Churches further antagonized rational humanists by the means they used to impose discipline on a population unaccustomed to it. Hell-fire and brimstone preaching was practiced by both Catholic and Protestant clergy on the assumption that only fear and threats would properly motivate the laity to change their immoral, disorderly ways (496f). In fact, an excessive moralism infected many European churches in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, resulting in a harsh and joyless practice of religion, says Taylor. The perception that the Christian church was incorrigibly hostile to ordinary human joys and pleasures was a major factor in the alienation of masses of people from their religious traditions. The perception is still widespread.
Taylor calls this growing approval of human happiness as a worthy goal the “anthropocentric turn.” It began already in the eighteenth century when it manifested itself in people’s growing reluctance to sacrifice their happiness for religious virtues. At about the same time, Deists proclaimed an absentee God who nevertheless had the good sense to order the world for the happiness of human beings before he left. Their Jesus was above all a teacher of the moral truths that would best serve human happiness. Orthodox theologians in one sense bucked the trend by defending a God who providentially directs the course of events in the world. But by ignoring the Incarnation and the life of prayer and devotion vital to faith (225) 10 they contributed inadvertently to the disaffection of the educated classes from religion. The “faith” they defended was an eviscerated version of Christian faith, focused narrowly on moral conduct. The skeptical were not simply obstinate in rejecting it. Such errors in judgment meant that the momentum towards anthropocentrism in the eighteenth century and later—encouraged by a social order that already placed high value on prosperity, peace, and mutual benefit (266)—would gather speed. Christianity appeared to offer nothing that improved on these goods, and much that detracted from them. By the middle of the 1700s, some philosophers were advocating atheism as the logical, rational alternative to oppressive, anti-rational religion.
AFTER THE ENLIGHTENMENT
The story of the replacement of Christendom by a modernity created by exclusive humanism of course continued well beyond the eighteenth century. Taylor emphasizes, however, that the line from the disdainful atheism of La Mettrie, Diderot, and others to the placid mass atheism of the twentieth century is not at all a straight one. Religious revivals popped up from time to time (the Wesleyan movement in Great Britain, the great awakenings in America, the periodic resurgence of Catholicism in France, etc.). But even new versions of humanism arose that rebelled against earlier versions. Romanticism, for example, while it accepted that the meaning of life was to be found in this world alone, criticized the excessive rationality of exclusive humanism and its denigration of the role of feeling and emotion in an authentic human life. In the nineteenth century, more radical critiques of humanism were expressed by philosophers like Schopenhauer and especially Nietzsche who made no effort to hide his contempt for what he considered its slavish and debasing values of pity, benevolence, and egalitarianism.
Nevertheless, by the nineteenth century exclusive humanism in one or another of its inflections was a potent cultural force, and a declining number of Europeans considered a simple return to Christian faith, let alone Christendom, to be a viable option. Scientific advancements (Darwin), psychological theories (Freud), political thought (Marx) each contributed to the self-assurance of secular humanism, as well as to the belief that religion was at its heart irrational, illusory, and oppressive—an enemy of ordinary human hopes, desires, and dreams. The political revolutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries along with the great wars also played significant if sometimes ambiguous roles in the drama, which according to Taylor reaches a kind of conclusion in the 1960s. It is at that point that religious belief and observance fall precipitously in Western nations (the United States being the great exception) and practical atheism becomes the rule (425).
THE MALAISE OF THE MODERN
Perhaps even more interesting than his counter-narrative of the rise of secularism is Taylor’s analysis of the attractions and anxieties of Western secularism. Its atheism, he intimates, is typically not bitter in the sense of involving a disbelief in all higher meaning as well as in God. Western atheism takes the form of “expressive individualism,” and the culture that nourishes it he calls a “culture of authenticity.” A variety of Romanticism once confined to the upper echelons of society, expressive individualism has permeated Western popular culture in the last half century, encouraging each person to discover for herself what brings her fulfillment. Not surprisingly, a plethora of philosophies, religions, and new age movements are birthed in this milieu. Taylor nicely sums up our situation when he says, “We are now living in a spiritual super-nova, a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane” (300).
The appeal of secularity goes beyond its championing of human flourishing, says Taylor. Insofar as they sacrifice the “easy consolations” and “illusions” of religion and face the “harsh facts of reality” as science presents them, the secular compliment themselves on their courage and maturity (561ff). In denying themselves rewards for acts of benevolence that can have no ultimate worth in an indifferent universe, they can take pride in the purity and nobility of their motives. Appealing also is the freedom and equality secularity promises to peoples of all nationalities and races of the world.
Taylor cautions us, however, against taking the apparent stability and contentment of the “immanent frame” of secularity at face value. There are numerous “cross-pressures” that threaten the calm certainty with which the secular hold their convictions. For example, despite an implicit commitment to materialism, many are uncomfortable with the idea that their actions are “determined,” as behaviorism or sociobiology can suggest; or with the implication that their sense of higher ethical motives is somehow illusory; or with the failure of materialism to provide a convincing explanation for their aesthetic responses to nature and art (596). The secular also are prone to a nagging unease with the emptiness of their lives; the lack of demanding ideals; the disconnection from their deeper selves, their community, and nature; and the pursuit of forms of happiness that often feel demeaning (311–320).
Evangelical Christians are likely to see these as chinks in the armor of secular humanism that should be exploited to win the lost. Taylor certainly acknowledges the possibility of conversion (his last chapter looks at modern converts to Christian faith), but would warn Christians that their own position is no more stable or less fraught with dilemmas, many of which parallel those of the secular (674). 11 As Taylor reminds us, “we both emerge from the same long process of Reform in Latin Christendom. We are brothers under the skin” (675).
Taylor’s book does more than underscore the complicity of Western Christianity in exclusive humanism’s rise to dominance. It identifies the major gains and losses—real and potential, for both the Christian tradition and society—of the dethroning of Christianity as the principal cultural force in the West. Taylor does not conceal his Christian commitments, but is judicious in his judgments. He insists that secularity continues to draw on the spiritual and moral legacy of Christianity, even when it criticizes the moral lapses of the Church. But Taylor is not unappreciative of the achievements of exclusive humanism. He even ponders the notion that modern unbelief has in some sense been ordained providentially, having established the “practical primacy of life [which] has been a great gain for human kind” (637, my italics). Still, he cannot hide his deep belief that “the metaphysical primacy of life espoused by exclusive humanism is wrong, and stifling, and that its continued dominance puts in danger the practical primacy” (ibid., my italics). The idolizing of the human is one of the greatest threats to the human.
This is the paradox that Taylor asks us to contemplate: only by acknowledging and pursuing goods that transcend human flourishing can human beings maintain the inner-worldly flourishing they can achieve on their own. He is not optimistic that this truth will soon be acceptable to moderns, always suspicious of claims of transcendence and fearful that religion cannot help but “crush, mutilate or deny what is essential to our humanity” (640). Interest in even learning about the “great languages of transcendence” is in steep decline—“massive unlearning is taking place” (727). Yet Taylor cannot suppress a cautious hope for the future of a faith of some kind:
. . . the sense that there is something more presses in. Great numbers of people feel it; in moments of reflection about their life; in moments of relaxation in nature; in moments of bereavement and loss; and quite wildly and unpredictably. Our age is very far from settling in to a comfortable unbelief. Although many individuals do so, and more still seem to on the outside, the unrest continues to surface. Could it ever be otherwise? (727)
Whether this “sense that there is something more” will lead to a resurgence of Christianity in North Atlantic countries seems doubtful, however. Along with the “massive unlearning” Taylor refers to comes a reduced ability to identify, among the legion of spiritual options that vie for attention today, those that are worthy of serious consideration.
In one sense, A Secular Age gives the church nothing new to do. Taylor points out the ways in which the modern West is quasi-Christian, but the church’s reason for being remains the same: to be a community of believers governed by the rule of love, a herald of the good news of the kingdom of God, a living hope of a humanity reconciled through Christ. A church guided by these understandings of itself should ordinarily put to rest fears that religious faith diminishes those who embrace it. In another sense, the account Taylor gives of secularization changes the context in which the church lives out its purpose. Its backdrop is a culture that is not simply blindly and obstinately rebellious but one that despite its rejection of Christian faith continues to be connected to it both in what it loves and what it despises. The defining ideals of the modern moral order—justice, benevolence, equality, democracy, peace, prosperity, freedom, individualism, and community—each have an analogue in the Christian tradition. And despite modernity’s spotty record in decisively realizing any of them, it can still make a case that it surpassed the Church’s record on most of those same scores. Western Christianity must humbly recognize a debt to the secular order for normalizing certain humane sensibilities, regardless of its vices and shortcomings.
According to Taylor, however, this backdrop has a serious wrinkle in it, and this is likely to affect the church’s mission. Whatever else the term “postmodern” might mean, it names a critical and often antagonistic reexamination of the confident humanism that has been the centerpiece of the secular world. If I understand him correctly, Taylor’s fear is that with the disavowal of that humanism the practical primacy of life will steadily decline and lead Western society into a future where life will become more commonly “nasty, brutish, and short.” One can only imagine what the future will hold for a society that turns its back on the best in its humanist tradition. The church’s mission to the most vulnerable in society and witness to the world may well involve a more explicit articulation of the Christian humanism that corresponds to the gospel it proclaims. Its mission will entail preserving the gains of what David Bentley Hart calls “the Christian revolution” 12 and keeping alive at least one of the “great languages of transcendence.”
Making us more keenly aware of the character of the modern West and what we confront in the postmodern era are just two of many benefits of Taylor’s engaging study. Unfortunately, this essay has not done justice to the subtleties of its arguments or the wealth of its insights. Read the book, and don’t be intimidated by its heft. It is a most welcome exception to the rule that a big book is a big evil.
- Cambridge, MA, and London, UK: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007. References to particular pages will be given in the text of this essay.
- The March 2010 issue of Political Theology published papers from a roundtable on Taylor’s book. A short while later Modern Theology (July 2010 issue) featured five articles on the book by some high profile theologians (Graham Ward, Stanley Hauerwas, Gregory Baum, among others), with Journal of Religion following suit with an extensive article by a team of prominent scholars, “Grapling [sic] with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age” (v. 90, no. 3: 367–400). Michael Warner, et al., focus their attention on various aspects of the book in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). Dozens of critical reviews of the book have also appeared in various academic journals and newspapers.
- Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
- The Explanation of Behaviour (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964).
- Hegel (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1975); Hegel and Modern Society (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985); The Malaise of Modernity (Concord, ON: Anansi, 1991; published in the U.S. as The Ethics of Authenticity [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992]).
- Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).
- Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
- Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
- “Unprecedented” is not too strong a word, says Taylor. Western history has seen outbreaks of atheism prior to the modern period, but they were largely limited to an educated elite and never became a live option for large segments of society. What we have in the West today is mass unbelief, implicit and explicit atheism on a scale that history has never before seen. Note that Taylor carefully limits his observations to the “North Atlantic world” the history of which is rooted in Latin Christendom. Dipesh Chakrabarty, however, suggests that his book may offer insights into developments in contemporary India. See his discussion of A Secular Age in “The Modern and the Secular in the West: An Outsider’s View,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77, no. 2 (2009): 393–403.
- On this point, Taylor cites Michael Buckley’s At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), in which Buckley argues that poorly considered apologetic decisions rendered the intellectual case for atheism much easier to make.
- In “Naked Strong Evaluation” (Dissent 56, no. 1: 105–109), Andrew Koppelman criticizes Taylor for failing to make this point: “In a religious worldview, one can say that what grounds one’s commitment to treating people decently is that the will of God makes everyone sacred. But then what grounds one’s belief in God? We have moved from one shaky foundation to another; there is no gain in confidence” (107). Taylor’s thesis assumes that belief in God is indeed unstable in the modern era (hence, his book). And he resists the facile argument that an ethical commitment based on the source of being itself differs substantially from one based on an arbitrary personal preference. Ultimately, for Taylor, a “gain in confidence” comes not from tidy arguments and well-articulated positions but from the witness of those who with extraordinary dedication have sought to live by faith in God. And even that will be ambiguous insofar as that witness will include failures and sins (754).
- David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2009). See Paul Doerksen’s review article in this issue.