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Charles Taylor's Secular Age
on December 6, 2007
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.