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Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher who has written extensively on the interplay between the religious and secular attitudes towards life. His recent book, "A Secular Age" explores this relationship in great and thoughtful detail from both a historical and a deeply personal perspective. The book is based in part on the Gifford Lectures that Taylor delivered in Edinburgh in 1997. (William James, a philosopher Taylor admires, also delivered a set of Gifford Lectures which became "The Varieties of Religious Experience".) But the book was expanded greatly from Taylor's Gifford lectures, and he aptly advises the reader "not to think of it as a continuous story-and-argument, but rather as a series of interlocking essays, which shed light on each other,, and offer a context of relevance for each other." (Preface) Taylor's book received the 2007 Templeton Prize. The Templeton Prize is awarded "for progress toward research or discovery about spiritual realities." It carries with it the largest cash award of any major prize or honor.

A good deal of Taylor's book is devoted to understanding the nature of secularism and the different contexts in which the word "secularism" is used. For the larger part of the book, Taylor describes a "secular age" as an age in which unbelief in God or in Transcendent reality has become a live option to many people. He describes our age as such a "secular age" especially among academics and other intellectuals. He wants to give an account of how secularism developed, of its strengths and weaknesses, and of its current significance.

Taylor's book is written on a personal, historical, and contemporary level. Taylor is a believing contemporary Catholic, and much of his treatment of religious belief reflects his own Catholic/Christian commitments. At times, I thought that Taylor's description of the religious life (necessary to his consideration of secularism) was focused too much in the nature of specifically Christian beliefs, such as the Incarnation and the Atonement, which would be of little significance to non-Christian practitioners of religion, such as Jews, Buddhists, or Zoroastrians. Taylor is, in fact, fully aware of the diversity among religious traditions, but his discussion of the religious outlook still at times tilts greatly towards Christianity. The advantage of Taylor's approach (in emphasizing his own religious commitment)is that it gives the book a sense of immediacy and lived experience. The key difference between secularism and religion for Taylor is that the former tends to see human good and human flourishing as focused solely in this world, in, for example, a happy family, a rewarding career, and service to others, while the religious outlook insists that these goods, while precious are not enough. The religious outlook is Transcendent and sees the primary good in life as beyond all individualized, this-worldly human goods.

From a historical perspective, Taylor tries to reject what he calls the "subtraction story". This story sees secularism as resulting purely from the discoveries of science -- such as Darwin's evolution -- taking away assumptions basic to religion leaving a secular, nonreligious world view by default. He offers learned discussions of the medieval period, the reformation and the Enlightenment, of Romanticism and Victorianism as leading to the development of secularism but to new forms of religious awareness as well. The "subtraction story" for Taylor is a gross oversimplification. Secularism, and the religious responses to it, has a complex, convoluted history with many twists and turns. The impetus for both views, Taylor argues is predominantly ethical -- developing views on what is important for human life -- rather than merely epistemological.

Taylor's approach seems to me greatly influenced by Hegel. He offers a type of dialectic in which one type of religious belief leads to a resulting series of secularist or religious responses which in turn result in other further variants and responses. In spite of his own religious commitments, he acknoledges, and celebrates, the diversity of options people have today towards both secularism and religion. The book is also deeply influenced by Heidegger (and Wittgenstein) in its emphasis on the unstated and unexamined views towards being in the world that, Taylor finds, underlie both religion and secularism.

I found the best portions of the book were those that specifically adressed modern life, as Taylor asseses the importance of an "expressivist" culture, which emphasizes personal fulfillment especially as it involves sexuality, of gender issues and feminism, of this-worldy service to others, and of fanaticism and violence upon issues of secularism and religion. Taylor emphasizes that people today tend to be fluid in their beliefs and to move more frequently than did people in other times between religions, between alternative spiritualities, and, indeed between secularism and religion. He attributes this to the plethora of options in a fragmented age and to a search for meaning among many people that did not seem as pressing in earlier times. Peggy Lee's song "Is that all there is?" is a theme that runs through a great deal of Taylor's book.

Taylor has written a difficult, challenging work that is unlikely to change many people's opinions about their own secularism or religion but that may lead to an increased understanding of individuals for their own views and for those of others. This book is not for the casual reader. It will appeal to those who have wrestled for themeselves with questions of spirituality and secularism.

Robin Friedman
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on October 5, 2007
If you have no previous experience of Charles Taylor, this is not the place to start: 872 pages are a heavy commitment, and Taylor is far from being a great writer. If you want your thinking challenged, try his short essay A Catholic Modernity?: Charles Taylor's Marianist Award Lecture, with responses by William M. Shea, Rosemary Luling Haughton, George Marsden, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, where he previews the argument that secularism actually makes for a fuller realization of Christ's teachings than Christianity allowed. Or, from a different perspective, try William Connolly's Why I Am Not a Secularist, which argues that secular principles are better realized by relaxing secularism.

That said, A Secular Age is vintage Taylor, tracing the roots of secularism deep into the furthest reaches of theology and tracing a series of complicated genealogies of modern thought. It's tough going, and Taylor does have a tendency to loop and qualify in the course of elaborating his claims. But if you have the patience for this kind of Hegel-inspired intellectual-philosophical history, you can count on having your thinking nuanced and complicated as well as encountering all sorts of nearly forgotten thinkers from across the Western tradition. It extends and completes some of the arguments advanced in his earlier Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity
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on March 24, 2013
The Kindle edition is useless for serious readers. The "Kindle editors" who prepared this edition clearly have no knowledge of why scholarly apparatus (notes, bibliograpny, index) is important. These research tools were given little or no consideration. The index is in impossibly small type that cannot be enlarged. Kindle's X-ray feature is apparently not available for this title, so the page numbers in the index are useless anyway. This also means that quoting from this Kindle edition is impossible. Looking up page references to this work from other authors is also impossible. The notes are gathered at the end, and the text callouts do not take you there. You must pick your way through via "locations" -- and this book is 896 pages long! (It makes me wonder if the Kindle digitizers have ever even read a "real" book.)

At a price of $36.80 for this Kindle edition, I expected the digital formatting to be properly done. Shame on both Amazon and The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press for selling this shoddy and useless edition for such an outrageous price.

Charles Taylor is a brilliant thinker. His work deserves far better editions than this Kindle one.
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on January 6, 2008
As someone who spends much of my time as an undergraduate teacher of theology and church-based adult educator, I regularly run up against what Taylor calls the "subtraction theory" of why secularism has largely replaced Christian faith in the Western world as the default starting point for educated people. Taylor's painstaking, detailed journey through the past five hundred years shows the constructed nature of this implicit "common sense" and then thoroughly demolishes it. Anyone who has sought to engage "atheists" or "agnostics" on why they presume (rather than express a reasoned basis for their view) that religion is for "fools" or children owes a deep debt of gratitude to Taylor's work.

Other reviewers have noted several of the stylistic flaws, such as the tendency toward repetition, the assumption that readers speak French, and so forth. I'd simply like to add a brief note of two substantive limitations.

First, Taylor's definition of "religion" is narrow, and thus misses the "religious" aspects of other forms of social/cultural bonding that function as "religions" in our world, from the relatively trivial (such as sports partisanship) to the more serious (such as patriotism and scientism). His argument is thus directed between "belief" and "unbelief," rather than between various forms of belief systems. As he notes (but does not discuss in detail), scientism functions religiously for many, including such popular authors as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, famous for their supposed "debunking" of "religion." This diminishes the power of his argument to refute some of the more powerful forms of "belief" in our world today.

Second, he gives short shrift to two forms of inner-Christian distortion that have enormous power to generate "unbelief": fundamentalism and reactionary Catholicism. I see every day young adults who describe themselves as "atheists" when what they are rejecting is the experience of one of these distortions. I realize that Taylor has striven wherever possible to establish a non-polemical stance and perhaps wanted to avoid "attacking" these positions. However, the result again is a loss of potential power in the face of very prevalent and vocal positions in our culture.

Having said this, I am very glad for having invested the time and effort in engaging Taylor's long argument. Whether or not one agrees with him on every point is not nearly as important as the exercise in clarification of thought which the effort generates.
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on November 5, 2011
Charles Taylor's A Secular Age has many excellent insights into the development of secularity today. I recommend it to anyone who seeks enlightenment on the subject. However - be warned! -- his writing style is deplorable. I suppose he dictated the book to a stenographer who faithfully recorded every errant word that fell from his lips.
His sentences are long and tedious with innumerable asides. He repeats himself endlessly; refers to items 1, 2, and 3 as if the reader can remember the subtle differences between each point; and often interrupts himself mid-sentence with irrelevant asides. After all the work of reading a dozen pages I am not sure if I've learned anything at all.
After reading 70% of the book I decided he probably has nothing more to say; and, if there is more, it's not worth the effort. If the book is ever republished, I hope an iron-butted editor will rewrite every sentence and make it palatable to readers.

SIX MONTHS Later
I finished the book and have decided to read it again. I have often thought about the place of Christians in our post-modern, post-Christian society. Mr Taylor provides invaluable insight, but he sure makes me work for them.
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It is not surprising that there are more than a few reviews which give less than the full five stars. I have read a few of them, and I am inclined to thing comments about its being "unreadable" are just a bit unfair. I found it relatively easy to read. Make no mistake about the subject. It is scholarly and just a bit conjectural.

I came to it before I realized it was one of the famous Gifford Lectures in natural theology. This means something, as only those people with well-established credentials in a subject related to theology is offered the chance to give them. The best known Gifford Lecture series to most of us is William James' classic "The Varieties of Religious Experience" In fact, Taylor even wrote a book on James' lectures. A small one, thankfully.

My first impression of Taylor's book (unlike the one by James) is that it could have been much shorter, and still made the main points. His primary thesis is that modern secularity began with the Reformation. Parts of his argument may be thin, and I am inclined to wish he would have cited some more concrete examples. When he mentions Jonathan Edwards, for example, he does not explain how citing Jonathan Edwards makes his point (not everyone knows much about Edwards beyond that one famous sermon.)

What really convinced me to drop my rating from five stars to four is that this thesis is not new. It was part of Max Weber's famous thesis about capitalism and the Protestant ethic. In fact, one of the best things I got from Taylor's book is Weber's application of the word "disenchanted" to the change in world view as a result of the Reformation. Taylor gives fair credit to Weber on detailed points (mentioning Weber 12 times and his Protestant Ethic book 5 times.

Where Taylor goes beyond Weber is that he is looking at the secular world from the post-Christian era, rather than Weber, who was comparing it to the way of life before the Reformation. His argument is also elaborate in its description of three types of secularity. Taylor is probably easier to read than Weber, but he makes me want to go back and see some of the finer points Weber made, since his basic idea seems to be alive and well, in spite of some heavy criticism.

The notes were good, but for a scholarly book, I found them just a bit thin. I would have liked more substance in the references. You may want to check out one of Taylor's shorter books to see if you like his writing, before commiting to reading this very long work.
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on December 25, 2007
Charles Taylor has written one of the most rewarding and demanding books I have ever read. He describes the changing conditions of belief in Latin Christendom over the last 500 years. He explains in rich detail the move from an enchanted, hierarchical world in which time was not linear and unbelief was not an option, to our present modern era, in which time is linear, the natural is separate from the supernatural, society is organized in a largely horizontal manner, and the choices of belief/unbelief are many.

While we frequently think of this as linear progress, Taylor reminds us that something has been lost in this move. Reading Taylor's description of the many stages of the changing conditions of belief (his term for the way we frame the world - our unstated assumptions about reality) makes one rethink their own decisions about belief. It is one of those rare books that one does not have to agree with to appreciate.

I have several problems with the book. The author makes extraordinary demands of the reader: not only is the book quite long, but Taylor assumes you know Latin and French (not all quotes are translated), and are familiar with dozens (if not hundreds) of authors (he frequently cites a name rather than describing a set of beliefs). His sentence structure frequently defies the rules of grammar. So set aside a large chunk of time if you want to read this book.

My other quibble with the book is that Taylor does not extend his discussion into current scientific thinking about the embodied mind. While a full discussion of this area is well beyond what he attempts in this book, his treatment of science is very superficial and more than a little dated. He attempts to address the challenge of science to transcendent belief without really understanding the issue.

That said, this book should be read by anyone seriously interested in religious belief in the modern era. I would love to see a panel discussion with Charles Taylor, Pascal Boyer and Karen Armstrong.
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VINE VOICEon October 20, 2007
This book is right on target for me! I am thrilled to have CT address the central concerns I find myself faced with teaching philosophy and wanting to expose students to questions of meaningfulness in the secular age we find ourselves trying to make sense of today. The very difficulties I face in contrasting religious views along with the progress of science, as expressed in the book Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life by Anthony T. Kronman but not resolved by Kronman, are marvelously thought through in this book. Notice however that this is not an introduction to these issues and the book clearly requires solid backgrounds in comparative religion, theory of knowledge, Hegelian studies as well as post-Hegelian Continental thought, and practically everything else pertinent to the topic. This is a master work.
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on November 30, 2007
If stunning beauty can be defined by a work that somehow captures the ideas and forms of expression that precede it, puts them together with new insight into their deeper meaning and power, and then adds an entire new perspective that startles, amazes and brings a deep sense of joy (think of a Mozart symphony or a Monet painting), then "A Secular Age" by Charles Taylor is one of the most intensely beautiful works I've ever read. The work describes what our secular age, and its contrast with the religious age it evolved from really means for us the people who occupy it. I've studied philosophy from many perspectives, and I've never thought of spirituality and religion, or secularity for that matter, in all of these ways. You will feel both uplifted, and wiser as you read it.

Taylor has integrated into a construct of religion and philosophy in the modern age the concepts of "lived experiences" of all members of society as they have evolved over recorded history, as opposed to merely the theoretical underpinnings of religion and spirituality as documented by educated elites. He explores the interplay of the lived experiences of the people of a culture or time with the philosophical expressions of thought that initially develop in the educated elites and then interact with the entire population to create a new "social imaginary" - the way people in a given time and culture instinctively and implicitly make sense of things. He weaves this conceptual fabric as a background for which he tells the story of how religious, social and scientific thought have evolved from the "enchanted" time before 1500 to the present, "disenchanted" or secular age.

What I think he does so beautifully is to incorporate all aspects of the human "lived experience" into his thesis, from prehistorical tribal rites, to ancient carnival traditions, through forms of artistic expression and to the modern technological and scientific enterprise. It's just amazing to see how well he can blend all of the disparate shards of thought embedded in the landscapes of philosophy, history, anthropology, arts and literature, psychology, economics, politics, sociology and science together into a coherent and compelling story of what it means to be a human today, and how that relates to what it was like to be a human 500, or even 2000 years ago and beyond.

As I read I became interested by how many of the evolutionary elements of thought and behavior that he has described still wash through our culture, as if "ontogeny is recapitulating phylogeny". He really describes what I see as networks of change, and I'm still trying to get my thoughts around it, but I can sense something absolutely fascinating in this line of exploration. I think it's the dynamic sense of human culture that he creates that is so exciting to explore with him. He does not so much give answers as he highlights the questions that such a dynamic nature of our existence begs.

"A Secular Age" is a masterwork for any true seeker.
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on October 10, 2007
Taylor sets himself the formidable task of exploring how we have come to dwell in a secular age, that is, one that sees the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing. His focus is on how the background context to the way we live our lives has been transformed. For many today, unbelief is the default option. This may have been the reflective stance of some in the past, but it was never the naive default option. Taylor is highly critical of what he calls `subtraction stories' according to which secular human nature emerged in pristine form by sloughing off ignorance and superstition. Against this he argues that what we see today is a new invention. Furthermore, this newly invented world is one that struggles to cope with the very issues (such as scapegoating violence) that it had hoped to have set aside. Though this is a long and complex book, it has held my attention and fascination as few others have in recent years. A pleasing feature is that it is quite free of the vitriol that is so typical of recent debates in this field.
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