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.
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
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.
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.
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.
on October 11, 2007
Charles Taylor, a philosopher, offers a reasoned and articulate international history, largely of Christianity in the western world, considering various phases of theology, or often conflicting theologies. As the title indicates, his orientation is to emerging secularization of society and culture, evolvlng through history to the present time.
Taylor writes generally with clarity for non-specialist readers, although a glossary would have been helpful, as occasionally he employs terms unfamiliar to non-specialist philsophers and theologians. He presumes some acquaintance with European history, particularly religious history, but his manner of presentation is accessible.
This is not the sort of polemic that is becoming familiar as an aspect of the "culture wars," attacking, advocating or defending religion or non-theism. Taylor maintains an objective stance, endeavoring to present historical development without excessive partiality. Clearly Taylor recognizes and appreciates the cultural value of religion as well as its theraputic role, without becoming its proponent contra the growing secular culture.
on September 11, 2009
Quite a number of books have been written in recent years repudiating the classical secularization thesis of social science, which claims that as societies modernize, they become less religious. Peter Berger's THE DESCULARIZATION OF THE WORLD is a good example because forty years ago Berger was himself a proponent of the secularization thesis. So it was with some surprise that I eyed the title of Charles Taylor's A SECULAR AGE. Can this perspicacious Canadian philosopher actually be reaffirming the thesis? No. Taylor and Berger are quite similar when it comes to recognizing the futility of the modern attempt to liquidate the transcendent in the name of a progressive, exclusive humanism. The abuses of religion-- crusades, indulgences, inquisitions-- understandably motivated some to construct a world without religion, but the result-- our secular age-- is both liberating and suffocating. Exclusive humanists are committed to the proposition that whatever was beautiful in religion can be translated into humanism without loss. And that which was not beautiful will be well lost. Yes, that sunset is beautiful-- but it is just as beautiful (if not more so) when it is seen as a testament not to the glory of God but to the human spirit. But Taylor judges that this attempt to fit the transcendent into the Procrustean bed of "the immanent frame" has produced the "unquiet frontiers of modernity." "Our age is very far from settling in to a comfortable unbelief" (p. 727). But the critical distinction for Taylor is not between belief and unbelief but between transcendence and immanence. Like many religious thinkers, he recognizes that religiosity is not always accurately reflected in self-reports. Unbelievers can be more open to God than believers. His goal is the articulation of a religious sensibility which simultaneously leaves humans vulnerable to "external transcendence" (God)-- a vulnerability against which the autonomous modern self is "buffered"-- and acknowledges the goodness of ordinary human life (including sexuality)-- which religion has too often suppressed in the name of ideological purity. If we are to "get real," we can neither deny our humanity nor God. But that is not his goal in this book, in which he tries-- in the best Hegelian fashion-- to illuminate the cunning of history (i.e., explain how we wound up in a secular age). The reader who is able to follow Taylor's long (but accessible) history will be in a position to participate in the articulation of the needed sensibility.
on July 2, 2010
Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age" is an important, even critical, contribution to the apparently stalemated engagement between religionism and scientism.
People in whom a post enlightenment scientific world view is thoroughly embedded and who nonetheless are moved, challenged and shaped by the imagery, poetry, ritual, music, philosophy, ethics and transcendent aspirations of religion can only stand aside these days and wring their hands in despair at the superficiality, indeed banality, of the contest between religion's more militant protagonists and the more strident apostles of unbelief.
While religion's most militant promoters propose systems of belief and morality that could only be tenable in a universe parallel to, but having no part in, our own, unbelief's champions promote a psychological,philosophical and cultural amnesia that suggests that the only human thought worth regarding as in any way responsible began in the 1660's.
It's a sort of intellectual and cultural trench warfare where the gains on either side are minimal and the losses incalculable: "A senseless waste of human life".
In "A Secular Age" Charles Taylor painstakingly traces the making of our secular age and exposes the "unthought" that underlies much of the championed opinions on both sides. In doing so he lays bare the parameters of secularity and exposes the religious substrata upon which society's best and worst aspirations are based.
He does this by telling the story of how we came to this time and state, expertly revealing the story's complexity. One can't help smiling as one reads his deceptively easy style and gets the uncomfortable feeling that he's been 'reading our mail.'
Since the publication of Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age" the battle cries of militant religionists and apostles of unbelief alike cannot be taken seriously anymore. Being cut from the same cloth, their exactly alike intellectual underwear has been exposed.
The way is open for a considered, integrative approach to the relationship between secularity and spirituality. What a relief.
on September 2, 2013
Having read a review indicating that Charles Taylor's book originated in a series of lectures, it was easy to hear his voice in the writing. This book is thoroughly researched and footnoted (in case you really want more), and is so carefully paced that Taylor follows all of his chains of thought in constructing his arguments.
It would be easy to get impatient with the detail, but take your time, follow the links, look up some of the references, and fill out a superb description of our secular age as it transformed life from enchanted to secular.
I began this book reading a library copy (hardly checked out, it seems, and in pristine condition), and graduated to my own copy on my Kindle after not too many pages.
As one who has often wondered about how we "lost" the enchanted world and became secular, I am so glad that Taylor also wondered, and then researched, lectured, and wrote about it.
on July 5, 2009
Becoming Children of Modernity
A Consideration of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age
Thaddeus J. Kozinski, Ph.D.
No one gets out of here alive:
Although trying to write the intellectual biography of modernity is an important, even necessary, task, ultimately, it is impossible. There is something asymptotically elusive about modernity: The depth and comprehensiveness of our definitions increase with abstractness and distance; the accuracy, nuance, and precision of our characterizations increase with narrowness and obscurity. Moreover, the more one studies secular modernity, the more it becomes apparent that it is a phenomenon not easily separable from reality itself; it is nearly as immune to exhaustive intellectual comprehension and description, nearly as impossible to escape or transcend.
This is the main thesis of Charles Taylor's recent magnum opus, A Secular Age, and I think it is a defensible one. Modernity is, in a very real sense, inescapable. As Taylor puts it--we are in it. In other words, there is something almost ontological about secular modernity. Even though what we are talking about is, of course, an artifact of man, not God, that is, a cultural and historical phenomenon, not a natural or supernatural one equivalent to a change in being itself (I am no Hegelian); nevertheless cultural and historical being is, at least for us, that is, for the culture-dependent rational animals that we are, the ineluctable mediator of any "pure" being that we may experience.
As Alasdair MacIntyre has argued persuasively, pace the Enlightenment's "view from nowhere," we never encounter reality unmediated by tradition, cultural artifacts of human language, conceptual schemes, social practices, ritual and narrative, moral norms, etc.; and though we can ultimately transcend tradition, history and culture to attain timeless truth, it is only through the cultural resources and productions that we both create and are created by, as it were, that we can do so.
Nevertheless, in light of the notorious, anti-Christian and anti-human fruits that appear to have grown solely in the soil of secular modernity, it would seem an obligation for not only Christians but also true humanists to be against it--whatever its ontological status. Should Christians not create adequately anti-modern, domestic, social, cultural, political, educational, and liturgical environments if the ones secular modernity has given threaten their salvation?
However, if secular modernity is more akin to an ubiquitous consciousness or pre-constructive theoretical and practical framework, that is, not a particular ideology or structure-of-sin, but something underlying these, then "anti-modernness" is illusory, and escape futile. Christians are indeed obliged to resist and ultimately "escape" from secular modernity, but that is because Christians are obliged ultimately to transcend all finite times and places when they become idols preventing the attainment of union with the timeless and placeless God--not because modernity is intrinsically evil.
The end of naïveté
What should we say secular modernity is then? Taylor attempts to define it, and it takes him almost eight-hundred pages of historical, sociological, psychological, anthropological, economic, political, scientific, and theological analysis to do it. It is by far the most sophisticated and erudite attempt I have ever read to define what might be, along with God, being, and the individual human person, a most indefinable reality. Out of the many trenchant and profound descriptions of modernity Taylor offers us, this one is especially helpful for our purposes:
"[T]here 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. We all learn to navigate between two standpoints: an "engaged" one in which we live as best we can the reality our standpoint opens us to; and a "disengaged" one in which we are able to see ourselves as occupying one standpoint among a range of possible ones, with which we have in various ways to coexist. . . . The shift to secularity in this sense consists, among other things, of a move 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. . . .[A] secular age is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable; or better, it falls within the range of an imaginable life for masses of peoples."
Note that his characterization of secular modernity is eminently non-ideological and non-condemnatory; it is neither the rigid denunciation of the traditionalist, nor the insouciant glorification of the humanist. Rather, Taylor identifies secular modernity as something more akin to a radically new paradigm or consciousness shift, in itself neither moral nor immoral, true nor false, good nor evil, pro-Christian nor anti-Christian. It is not to be identified with exclusive humanism, managerial liberalism, and fascist fundamentalism, on the one hand, or the resurgence of public religiosity, the priority of liberal democracy and human rights, and the intolerance of religious intolerance, on the other. For these, according to Taylor, are only its diverse ideological interpretations and embodiments, the structures of thought and practice that have built upon and with secular modernity's peculiar consciousness and potentiality, what he calls the "immanent frame":
"We have undergone a change in our condition, involving both an alteration of the structures we live within, and our way of imaging these structures. This is something we all share, regardless of our differences in outlook. But this cannot be captured in terms of a decline and marginalization of religion. What we share is what I have been calling "the immanent frame"
Although we can think about, and thus gain some distance from, this background and structure in an abstract, philosophical manner, we cannot entirely escape and transcend it.