A Secular Age – Introduction

I have long been fascinated by the arguments that I have come across found in Charles Taylor’s massive tome A Secular Age. I’ve read very small portions of the book myself in the past (mostly when I was doing some preliminary study for my master’s thesis on Kierkegaard). I also read James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular which is meant to be a sort of guide through the larger book. I remember that I found it fascinating at the time.

Since then, I’ve mostly taken a break from properly “academic” works. But I’ve never lost the nagging feeling that I still wanted to tackle Taylor’s work someday. Today’s that day. At the beginning of the year, I set very few resolutions. Mostly because I don’t really trust the efficacy of New Year’s resolutions in creating long-term change. Of the few that I made though, reading and blogging through A Secular Age in 2021 was one of them.

I suspect for most people who read this blog (there are a few of you!), this may be a little bit boring and heady. I get that, and don’t expect much interest. That is fine. This is meant to be a sort of personal journey through Taylor’s work, and I want to make sure I internalize the thesis and argument of the book itself.

In a nutshell, from what I can tell, Taylor wrote this book to get at why our current era in the West is so drastically different in terms of religious devotion than it was, say, 500 years ago. He seems to be aiming to do two things:

  1. Define the term “secular” — how might we define this term to be useful and help us gain insight into the current state of belief in transcendence.
  2. Give an overarching answer for “how we got here” — “here” being a secular age.

Given our current moment: the political and cultural polarization that we are experiencing, the lack of a moral foundation for either the right or the left, the religious/non-religious hodge-podge that we live in — this work of Taylor’s strikes me as extremely important. We need not only an understanding of where we come from, but how we got here, and how that has laid the foundation for where we are going.

So, in this first post (as in all the others), my aim is simply to relay his arguments in a digestible format. The plan is not to evaluate — just to understand. I hope that this will help me gain a better grasp on what I and many others deem to be an interesting problem.

In the introduction, the first thing Taylor does is define the term secular in three different ways. Two of these are already used in the common vernacular:

Secular(1) is when we think about the public or political sphere: “In our ‘secular’ societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God” (1). The modern Western state, in its current existence, can exist without reference to God or some other transcendent guarantor of rights or a common moral foundation.

Secular(2) is the reference to the decline of religious belief and practice. That is, while a _majority_of people still believe in God or some higher power, there has been a sharp decrease in overall religious belief and practice — going to church, praying, etc.

Secular(3) is closely related to secular(2), but is not quite the same. For Taylor, secular(3) focuses on the “conditions of belief.” In other words: “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged… to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace” (3). This last bit is key for Taylor’s analysis. One option among many, and not the easiest to embrace. We live in a time where it is more difficult to believe in the existence of God or some transcendent reality than to not at all. And it did not used to be this way. “Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives” (3).

One thing that Taylor makes note of next after these definitions is existential realities that humans encounter. Historically, these existential realities have been defined in terms of religious belief. He defines these existential realities on a spectrum:

Fullness/Richness ——- Middle Condition ——- Absence/Exile

It is normal to the human condition that we have moments of fullness or richness. Moments or conditions that make life “fuller, richer, deeper, more worth while, more what it should be” (5).

On the opposite end of this spectrum is absence/exile. I.e., a feeling or condition where we cannot reach or even, perhaps, remember what the sense of fullness even is, or whether it ever was attainable in the first place.

“In between” these conditions is what he simply calls the “middle condition.” That is, the creation of a routine, a standard way of life that keeps away that sense of exile and absence, while (perhaps) steadily moving towards a sense of fullness.

The challenge, however, is that for many non-believers in transcendence, the middle condition is “all there is.” There is no sense of fullness that can be attained outside of the daily routines of life. Any sense of “fullness” is inherently and only a function of immanent material reality. And this reveals the reason Taylor even describes this spectrum in the first place. Secular can’t simply be defined as “lack of belief” in transcendence or lack of practice in religious rituals. Nor can it be defined solely as the public/political sphere absent reference to God. Secular must refer to a condition of belief. Belief and non-belief are “lived conditions” — not simply theories or beliefs “subscribed to” (8).

Another piece of this puzzle is that a sense of fullness is sought after by believers and non-believers alike. The difference here, however, is that believers see fullness as something that is “received” and the self is is in some ways transcended to reach a fullness separate from the self (thus keeping this true for both Judeo-Christian formulations of transcendence and Buddhist formulations).

Non-believers, however, if they do seek a fullness, must seek that fullness “from within.” There is a self, but it need not be transcended because it cannot be transcended. The nearest thing to fullness (in the West) for non-believers is reason. This allows one to remove personal bias and get at objective truth. There are other forms as well, including a deeper understanding of the place of humanity in ecological terms (understanding our place in nature), and also postmodern formulations that largely place self-sufficient reason in doubt, but have no answer to the “fullness” question, as they are primarily concerned with suspicion regarding meta narratives.

Ultimately however, these are different formulations of a condition that affects everyone in the modern West. The condition is such that, while I may seek fullness/richness through my own construal of what the world is like (“worldview” may be a simple term to use here), the explanation I give for that fullness is always haunted by some amount of doubt or possible objection. Here’s a fuller explanation by Taylor:

“This is typical of the modern condition, and an analogous story could be told by many an unbeliever. We live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and uncertainty.” (11).

It is this overall change in the background of belief/non-belief in general that Taylor is trying to get at. Historically, non-belief in God or the transcendent was rare. And this speaks to the tacit, unspoken condition of knowledge and belief than it does to simple changes in culture.

These changes in the conditions of belief (“secular(3)”) have come up alongside “a society in which for the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. In other words, the Christian good (or other religious forms of “the good”) sees human flourishing as a good insofar as it coincides with loving/serving/glorifying God. Human flourishing is not the highest good. Whereas a nonreligious/non-believing good offers as its end goal human flourishing as the highest possible good (for the most part, radical environmental activism notwithstanding).

So, secularity(3) is a condition in which we all live, believers and non-believers alike, and it is a condition in which, for the first time in Western history, an exclusively non-transcendent humanism is widely available as a legitimate option. Further, naiveté regarding other construals is not an option for nearly anyone.

We are all aware that there are other construals. There are other options. The conditions of belief have changed.

The questions are: why? And how?

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