A Secular Age?

Charles Taylor, Board of Trustees Professor of Law and Philosophy at Northwestern University, is causing quite a stir with his new book A Secular Age. Among his more interesting arguments is that Christianity itself is responsible for the rise of secularism. Robert Bellah has written a glowing review:

I have long admired Charles Taylor and have read most of what he has written and always found him helpful. Yet for me, A Secular Age is his breakthrough book—one of the most important books to be written in my lifetime. Taylor succeeds in no less than recasting the entire debate about secularism.

From the very first pages it is clear that Taylor is doing something different from what others writing about secularization have achieved, because he distinguishes three senses of secularity. Almost all the literature on secularization with which I am familiar falls under Taylor’s first two categories of secularity:

• Secularity 1: the expulsion of religion from sphere after sphere of public life.

• Secularity 2: the decline of religious belief and practice.

Many excellent books have been written on these two aspects of secularization.

But Taylor’s focus in this book is on what he calls

• Secularity 3: “the conditions of experience of and search for the spiritual” that make it possible to speak of ours as a “secular age.”

I doubt that many people have even perceived this third dimension, and Taylor’s book should be as much a revelation to them as it has been to me.

. . .

Taylor argues that the Reformation—with its radical rejection of the monastic life and the demand of a kind of monastic discipline for everyone—is just the preliminary culmination of a thousand years of pressure of Christianity toward Reform. He then shows how, even when Protestantism itself comes in question, long-term pressure toward Reform continues, first in 18th-century Deism and its attendant strong emphasis on Benevolence, and then in the 19th-century emergence of unqualified (secular) humanism with its emphasis on progress.

According to Taylor, it is not “science” or “Darwinism” that accounts for these developments, but the continuation of a moral narrative that was already long present in Christianity. Even the emergence in the late 19th century of anti-humanism (Nietzsche) cannot be understood except in terms of the particular features of what was being rejected: namely, both Christian and secular social ameliorism. By seeing the emergence of the secular age in narrative form primarily, rather than as a theoretical discovery, I think he makes the whole thing far more intelligible and explains our present quandaries far better than any competing accounts.

Read it all here. And read other commentaries by other (including Taylor himself) on the themes of his book here.

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