A Secular Age

Charles Taylor


Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?  

Where to start, in a scholarly work of this scope and insight? How to respond in any meaningful way to an almost 900-page  analysis of the dawning of the present era?

From Aristotle to Derrida, from the immanence of the supernatural in an enchanted world to the prominence of the individual in an age of materialism, Taylor expresses his complex ideas with a richness of detail and a sophistication of analysis that are weighty but compellingly readable.

I liked the depth and detail, but for some, Taylor’s fondness for complete coverage of an idea, and his compulsion to double back upon himself to revisit previous points in slightly different ways, certainly will be annoying. He can be a bit ponderous, if you’re not in the right mood for his brand of old-fashioned and thorough, tour de force scholarship. If you do choose to read A Secular Age, make sure that you allocate a large chunk of time to churn through it. If you’re like me, you’ll think it worth the effort.

Let me apologize in advance for the length of this article. I summarized and scrunched and shortened as much as I could. Even at this length — well over 3,000 words — I have been able to cover only a small fraction of the material in Taylor’s book. It would take at least ten essays of this length to do real justice to the depth and expansiveness of Taylor’s analysis. The book truly is that rich.

A Secular Age is not always a natural fit for me, especially with its long final sections on the ways that some kinds of belief can remain vibrant in an increasingly unbelieving culture. I find these sections less interesting, but I expect that for readers who, like Taylor, continue to grasp a sense of the supernatural, these chapters will have their own fascination.

It’s on the first two-thirds of the book, where Taylor makes his detailed case for the modern origins of disbelief, that I want to concentrate.

Even so, I won’t be able to deal with even the most basic ideas of Taylor’s analysis in just one posting, so I’m going to just give up and concentrate on a single thesis.

In Taylor’s version of the rise of the secular, he identifies three different but interconnected ways that religion has waned in our culture. First, religion has retreated from its former position as a central part of the formal structures of society. Second, religious practice among the faithful has declined. Third, and most relevant to the story of  ”disenchantment,”, is a change in what Taylor calls the “conditions of belief,” a shift ”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 frequently not the easiest to embrace.”

There has been a titanic change in our western civilization. We have changed not just from a condition where most people lived “naïvely” in a construal (part Christian, part related to “spirits” of pagan origin) as simple reality, to one in which almost no one is capable of this, but all see their option as one among many.

Taylor writes that “It is this shift in background, in the whole context in which we experience and search for fullness, that I am calling the coming of a secular age.”

From the start, Taylor makes it clear that his thesis is the direct opposite of those accounts that claim that when religion is “stripped away,” what’s left is a state of natural reason. He calls these “subtraction stories,” and he writes that he “will be making a continuing polemic” against them.

In his view, the secular is not only not our natural state; it is, in fact, a conceptual construct that becomes possible only when a viable alternative to the “enchanted world” exists. He writes:

I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.

Disenchantment has become so much a part of our basic worldview, Taylor argues, that many of us have no real sense of what it would be like to live in an enchanted world. The first task of A Secular Age is to remedy that ignorance, to argue that, in a central way, the mainstream of secular humanism is not a simple elimination of the spiritual but rather the creation of a dynamic alternative. In this way, says Taylor, to understand the secular requires that we understand the sacred.

It is a crucial fact of our present spiritual predicament that it is historical; that is, our understanding of ourselves and where we stand is partly defined by our sense of having come to where we are, of having overcome a previous condition. Thus we are widely aware of living in a “disenchanted” universe; and our use of this word bespeaks our sense that it was once enchanted.

The key conceptual distinction is that while we now live in a universe, we once lived in a cosmos. The universe is composed of random and neutral elements that obey the indifferent laws of nature. Morality and purpose, among other things, must be attached to these things in some way by us. In the cosmos, there is an external order, a structure that does not depend on us. The universe is temporal, while the cosmos is eternal.

In the former cosmos, morality and purpose, meaning and order, were inherent in the structure of the cosmos itself. There were spirits, angels, and demons. Places and the rites performed there were part of  a larger realm of significance. We ourselves were parts of that realm, parts of a unitary society that ranged from God at the top to us nearer the bottom. We were not, in any sense in which we now use the word, autonomous individuals, for we were neither autonomous nor really individual. We were part of the spiritual community not by choice, or by accident, but by design. There was no way to choose not to join that spiritual community, for there was no other place to go, no alternative worldview to provide the notion that something else was possible.

Taylor contrasts this older sense of being part of something else, what he calls the “porous self,” with the modern view of the individual, with what he calls the “buffered self.”

For the modern, buffered self, the possibility exists of taking a distance from, disengaging from everything outside the mind. … By definition for the porous self, the source of its most powerful and important emotions are outside the “mind”; or better put, the very notion that there is a clear boundary, allowing us to define an inner base area, grounded in which we can disengage from the rest, has no sense.

Taylor writes that “in the enchanted world of 500 years ago, a clear line between the physical and the moral wasn’t drawn. But this is just another facet of the basic fact that the boundary around the mind was constitutionally porous.”

The chief consequence of this idea, which was felt as more the way of the world than thought as an idea, was that disbelief was virtually impossible. And when disbelief was evident, it was ruthlessly attacked, “there was great pressure toward orthodoxy.”

Living in the enchanted, porous world of our ancestors was inherently living socially. …

We’re all in this together. This has two consequences. First, it puts a tremendous premium on holding to the consensus. Turning “heretic” and rejecting this power, or condemning the practice as idolatrous, is not just a personal matter. Villagers who hold out, or even denounce the common rites, put the efficacy of these rites in danger, and hence pose a menace to everyone. …

As long as the common weal was bound up in collective rites, devotions, allegiances, it couldn’t be seen just as an individual’s own business that he break ranks, even less that he blaspheme or try to desecrate the rite. There was an immense common motivation to bring him back into line.

Taylor writes that this spiritual sense of the world has been lost, not so much as an idea that can no longer be thought — it can, and among believers it often is — but as the foundation of the way we view reality, as our essential “condition of belief.” He writes that “all this has been dismantled and replaced by something quite different in the transformation we often roughly call disenchantment.”

What’s different? In the simplest terms, the eternal cosmos of which we were necessarily a part became a universe of natural law and indifferent forces, in which each individual must construct a personal world view and determine a personal course of action.

This change, operating in the context of the new science, a vast subtopic that I am ignoring deliberately here, emerged from the two great revolutions of the Age of Reason – Reformation and Enlightenment.

It is these two revolutions, one a reconception of the meaning of faith, the other a reconstitution of society, that Taylor credits — or blames, as he is equally likely to do — for the change from the eternal to the immanent, from the spiritual to the temporal.

In the eternal cosmos, society was a unitary expression of the order of creation, and its different roles reflected a hierarchy of being and of grace, from God at the apex, down to us.

Within this cosmic view, the bishop and the lord, the yeoman and the vassal, had their appointed places and fulfilled the social and spiritual functions pertinent to their stations. There was no real sense of individuality, for being an individual meant being outside of the structure of eternity, and how was that possible?

It was not until new conceptions of the self, of society, and of the universe emerged after 1500 that the world we recognize not just came into existence but became — for the first time outside the elite circles of certain philosophers — possible at all.

With the Reformation, Taylor argues, with the change from devotional forms bound up in the rituals and structures of an eternal hierarchy to a more personal search for redeeming faith, the social and religious forms of the old world began to break down.

There was a “turn to a more inward and intense personal devotion, a greater uneasiness at ‘sacramentals’ and church-controlled magic, and then latterly the new inspiring idea of salvation by faith, which erupted into a world riven with anxiety about judgment and a sense of unworthiness.”

In the new, Protestant faith, the individual is dependent not on the dispensational ministrations of an elevated clergy, but on a personal life of faith. In an ironic way, then, the Reformation’s push for a more intimate relationship between the individual and God helped to create a conception of rationalism and individual morality that, in the long run, was a crucial part of the transformation of religion from the core of society as a whole to the variable spiritual understanding and practice of individual believers. In this new conception, it becomes, for the first time, possible to redefine religion and faith in a multitude of different, often competing ways.

The next step, from individual ownership of faith to individual rejection of faith, now requires only something with which to replace the cosmos. That something, as we saw briefly above, is the universe.

Both science and virtue require that we disenchant the world, that we make the rigorous distinction between mind and body, and relegate all thought and meaning to the realm of the intra-mental. We have to set up a firm boundary, the one, as we have seen, which defines the buffered self.

It took the new science, which replaced the cosmos with the universe, to provide a new worldview, replacing the enchanted world of spirits with the mechanical world of things.

These are not just two different stances, but two incompatible ones. We have to abandon the attempt to read the cosmos as the locus of signs, reject this as illusion, in order to adopt the instrumental stance effectively. Not just on a level of popular belief, as a world of spirits, do we have to disenchant the universe; we have also to bring about the analogous shift on the high cultural level of science, and trade in a universe of ordered signs, in which everything has a meaning, for a silent but beneficent machine. We can see how this turn runs well together with the drive to disenchantment implicit in Reformation theology. It is not an accident that this kind of science flourished in England and Holland. The same crucial features recur here as in the story of the ultimate effects of the Reformation: disenchantment, the active instrumental stance towards the world, and the following of God’s purposes, which means beneficence. And these are the key features of the new emergent exclusive humanism.

The emergence of modern science is a topic that I can’t cover in this short space, so I’ve chosen to ignore it, other than the brief mentions above.

The next dimension of the secular worldview comes with the reconstruction of society. If the enchanted cosmos is gone, then the eternal hierarchy that embodied it no longer serves. And as individual faith rose from the Reformation, so too individual citizenship rose from the Enlightenment, when “society itself [came] to be reconceived as made up of individuals.”

In one sense, what happens is that uncoupling the structure of society from a larger conception of eternal order raises new questions: How are we social? What binds us together into a society?

If there is a new conception of the individual, thanks to both the new faith and the new science,  then it follows that our conception of the structure of society must start with the recognition that society is a grouping of separate, distinct persons.

The very act of individuation invokes a certain level of equality, a new perception of citizens as similar social “units,” relatively free of the former hierarchies. As Taylor writes, “In one way or the other, the modern order gives no ontological status to hierarchy, or any particular structure of differentiation.”

It is through this new conception of the free and equal individual that Enlightenment thinkers reconceive the ways that society works.

The presumption of equality, implicit in the starting point of the State of Nature, where people stand outside of all relations of superiority and inferiority, has been applied in more and more contexts, ending with the multiple equal treatment or non-discrimination provisions, which are an integral part of most entrenched charters.

Taylor is careful to reassert his view that, like disenchantment, the rise of the individual is not simply a “sloughing-off” of an imposed sense of hierarchy. He is adamant that it is as much a mistake to conceive of individual rights as the “natural” state of human society as it was to consider reason the “natural” state of our cognition.

He argues here, as in the first part, that rather than a “subtraction” story, the rise of individualism is fully bound up with the ideas which it replaced. In his view, it’s the dynamic that makes sense of the change, and the change itself is an emergent rather than an inherent state.

Our secular age is not what remains after we shed belief; rather, it’s the result of a necessary paradigmatic dialogue, a dynamic tension between the old world of faith and the new world of reason

So the process of disenchantment, the decline of mystery, continues. With the Enlightenment, God becomes less an unfathomable font of power and grace, immanent in the cosmos and everything in it; instead, he becomes a metaphor for order and reason, in a rule-bound universe organized for our benefit.

It’s a fundamental reversal, and Taylor typically argues that the end-point could have been reached only through a conscious reconstruction of the previous order. In his usual terms, the secular is not what’s left after you “subtract” the spiritual. The secular is the latest stage in an historical tension between belief and unbelief.

Exclusive humanism wasn’t just something we fell into, once the old myths dissolved, or the “infamous” ancien régime church was crushed. It opened up new human potentialities, viz., to live in these modes of moral life in which the sources are radically immanentized.

Thus, modern secularism rises from this idea of dynamic tension, of engaged dialogue, between two incommensurable conceptions.

The claim I’m making here can be broken down into three sub-parts. First, I’ve been saying that what I’m calling exclusive humanism arose in connection with, indeed, as an alternative set of moral sources for, the ethic of freedom and mutual benefit. Second, I want to say that it couldn’t have arisen any other way at the time. But third, I want to make the further claim that this origin still counts today; that the much wider range of unbelieving positions available today is still somehow marked by this origin point in the ethic of beneficent order.

Taylor claims that an exclusive focus on the emergence of positive alternative ideas — products of the Reformation, of Enlightenment political theory, and of modern science — is an incomplete explanation of the factors that gave rise to “exclusive humanism.” He writes that “this account I am offering runs athwart the widespread subtraction story which sees the development of unbelief as coming simply from the progress of science and rational inquiry.” The real story is more complex.

In short, the buffered identity, capable of disciplined control and benevolence, generated its own sense of dignity and power, its own inner satisfactions, and these could tilt in favour of exclusive humanism. But there was also a negative motive. We can notice, running through much of the Enlightenment a motif of anger at, even hatred of orthodox Christianity. This was more powerful in some places than others; more so, for instance, in Catholic countries, or in general where the influence of “Deism” wasn’t strong enough to soften the opposition between anthropocentrism and Christian faith.

One piece of strong evidence Taylor offers is that there is an alternative strand of rebellion against the old order, a form of revolt that rejects both the sacred and the humanism that threatened to replace it.

Now in a similar way, the founding importance of the exclusive humanism of freedom, discipline, and beneficent order remains ineradicable in our present world. Other modes of unbelief—as well as many forms of belief—understand themselves as having overcome or refuted it. The whole Nietzschean stream is a case in point, depending as it does on seeing the filiation between Christian belief and beneficent order, and then defining itself against both.

In short, to understand contemporary humanism fully requires awareness of its historical and continuing relationship to that which it reforms, rejects, or denies.

For Taylor, we are not now, finally, human because we have thrown off the blinkers of religious superstition and let our essential humanity shine through at last. In his view, our current worldview is a direct successor of the world of faith. To understand where we are, he argues, we must understand how we came to be here, rather than somewhere else.

Despite the extreme length of this article, I could go on and on writing about A Secular Age. It’s very frustrating to be able to share so little of the book’s richness. Taylor comes at his subject from a personal religious and moral stance which I do not share. And as I said near the beginning, I found the last third of the book less interesting for just that reason. Yet I am greatly impressed by his insights into the contrast between the supernatural and the material, the eternal and the temporal.

If you’re looking for an informative and stimulating 900-page book on the emergence of the modern world, look no further.


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