Saturday, December 5, 2009

Charles Taylor and the Future of Secularism

12/5/2009--I was asked a question the other day that shocked me, how could I not have taken account of Charles Taylor, and his opus, A Secular Age, in writing about secularism? It shocked me because I don't think you can and I thought I had. I thought I had because I wrote a review of the book for Expositions, the magazine of the Villanova Center for Liberal Education (Vol. 3, No 1). But since most of you don't have access to it and since you have to pay to read it (don't bother), I thought I would post my opening here. It tells you enough. I found that Taylor knows nothing about secularism because he has no interest in it. He is interested in reversing the way the church contributed to bringing us to this secular age.

I began to read Charles Taylor’s acclaimed work, A Secular Age just after I had finished writing a manuscript of my own about modern secularism—Hallowed Secularism. Naturally, given Professor Taylor’s reputation and learning, I studied his book for help. And I learned a great deal from the book about the “main story behind secularity.” (774). In other words, I learned how we in the West came to be in a secular age.

But I did not learn very much about secularism. Specifically, I learned nothing at all about how one might be secular in a secular age.

In retrospect, the reason for this is obvious. Taylor is not a secularist. He is a believing Christian. Taylor considers “secularity” (his term) a mistake that we would do well to reverse.

I know that this characterization of his position directly contradicts the stated thrust of the book, which is to examine how the “conditions of belief” in the West that moved, between the years 1500 and 2000, from a condition where almost everyone believed in God to a condition in which it is problematic to believe in God. A change in understanding that fundamental actually changes the kinds of experiences that people can have. Thus, it would not seem to be the kind of change that could be reversed. Indeed, the impossibility of traditional belief in the old way is part of what it means to live in a secular age. All this is stated in A Secular Age.

Nevertheless, at the end of the book, Taylor presents the reader with two possible futures for this secular age. In one, religion continues to shrink because it is not plausible, while atheism continues to grow. In the other, “we all have some sense” of the fullness of human life that is a “reflection of transcendent reality” that cannot be completely grasped within the “exclusive humanism” of the immanent frame. This leads to “conversion”, “breaking out into the broader field.” (768-69).

Which future will be our future? Taylor is prepared to say only this: where there is only imminence, so that “many people even have trouble understanding how a sane person could believe in God” subsequent generations will develop “a sense of living in a ‘waste land’” and many young people will begin to explore beyond immanence, perhaps to a state in which they acquire “in some fashion a sense of God.” This is the condition for which Taylor had earlier in the book borrowed Mikhail Epstein’s term:“’minimal religion’” (533).

So, these are our choices for the future. Conversion to what amounts to orthodox biblical or theistic belief or an atheist waste land so bereft of hope for deep human fulfillment that our descendents will be driven by despair to take up the religious quest again. There is no doubt that Taylor means religious conversion quite literally since he calls the last chapter of the book “Conversions” and describes there experiences such as Walker Percy’s conversion to Catholicism. Nor is there any reason to doubt Taylor’s sincerity when he calls secularity a waste land. He really means it.

Why are these stark alternatives the only futures that Taylor allows? There is a quite specific reason for this. Though he puts it as a question, Taylor does not believe that an “intermediate position” is viable. (606) The intermediate position he is rejecting is one in which the “phenomenology of universalism—the sense of breaking out of an earlier space and acceding to a higher one, the sense of liberation” that many people experience despite the secular age is ultimately frustrated by an ontology of imminence. (609) Secularists cannot live deeply because they live immanently. And the only alternative ontology Taylor acknowledges is “belief in some transcendent source or power” that “for many people in our Western culture” means “the choice…whether to believe in God. (600). It’s God or the waste land.

In Taylor’s terms, the manuscript I wrote was an attempt to describe a viable intermediate position that seeks to avoid just these unacceptable alternatives of traditional belief in God or empty secularism. My book tries to portray a secularist way of life that remains in the neighborhood of the fulfillment of human possibility promised by traditional religion while rejecting traditional religious dogmas, including the existence of the biblical God.


  1. Thank you for responding, and of course I didn't know about your book review. I cited Taylor because of this statement: "Christianity lost its power to impose its will on civil society in the West because its internal wars were so violent." This statement is thoroughly refuted in A Secular Age. So how can you say that through the book you "learned how we in the West came to be in a secular age."?

    I still have no idea why you keep asking "how one might be secular in a secular age." Don't believe in god. Live. That's it.

    Of course, that's trite, but your quest to live deeply and with the fulfillment of human possibility, as opposed to empty secularists, bereft of hope for deep human fulfillment doesn't make any sense to me. What is preventing anyone from living "deeply" without belief?

    Not sure if I suggested this before, but you should really check out a local Unitarian Universalist church.

  2. I love the UU. The problem for me is that, as they used to say of the Church of England and the Tories, the UU is the Democratic Party at prayer. The people are great but the politics are predictable. Any church that only tells people what they already know is wasting everybody's time.

  3. "Any church that only tells people what they already know is wasting everybody's time." Whoa! What UU church is doing this? Certainly not any I've been to. In fact, this is completely antithetical to UUism.

    And why the exclusive focus on politics? There might be some congregations (especially small and/or lead by laypeople) that play up the left side of the political spectrum, but does that prevent them from focusing on things that you would call hallowed secularism? I don't think so.

    There are UU political conservatives btw:
    Pfarrer Streccius

  4. Secularism Revisited

    A Secular Age by Charles Taylor treats secularism as a belief system, a system of ideas. But churches are actually emotional systems: sets of practices to alleviate existential fear.

    Churches were invented to help societies recover from the early stages of traumatization that was prevalent from primitive times: harsh child-rearing practices for survival in harsh ecological niches. Developmentally, it was a necessary move. You gotta remember that the main ritual of Roman Christianity -- the Eucharist -- was fully formed by the fourth century, and cathedrals started popping up in the seventh century. They were the Prozac of their time. And of course one of the key features of this arrangement was a punitive and paternalistic authority system.

    So secularism is not about beliefs, it is about introspective method. It is about how people handle existential fear. It is unchurched spiritual inquiry.

    As such, secularism includes the very foolish and the very advanced. That is the risk we take for doing it ourselves, but doing it ourselves is the only way to experience the true nature of human nature.

    So, once a lot of people start start to have a more healthy self-structure, they start to quit therapy. These are the "heretics". In Europe, once Martin Luther made heresy viable (previously they had all been burned at the stake or the like), innovation in spiritual inquiry took mulitple forms, including science and a host of weird experiments. But the central tendency of the innovation was to re-acquaint many people with the experience of the true nature of human nature. This was a great and necessary advance over the stale doctrine of the churches.

    One big scholar who got this was Eric Voegelin (1901-1985). In Vol IV of Order and History he says:

    "[Human] experience has a dead point from which the symbols emerge as the exegesis of its truth but which cannot become itself an object of propositional knowledge. …... Unless precautions of meditative practice are taken, the doctrinization of symbols is liable to interrupt the process of experiential reactivation and linguistic renewal. When the symbol separates from its source in the experiential, the Word of God can degenerate into a word of man that one can believe or not."

    And although conservative Christians loved his anti-Communism, they always wondered why he never went to church.

    So, here we are in the twenty-first century, and the completion of our spiritual destiny requires us to grow up and quit church. Of course, my recommendation is Full Body Sensing as your main method. But whatever you do, be secular (and be careful).