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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
A Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year
A Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
A Tablet Best Book of the Year
Winner of a Christianity Today Book Award
“One finds big nuggets of insight, useful to almost anybody with an interest in the progress of human society.”
“Taylor takes on the broad phenomenon of secularization in its full complexity…[A] voluminous, impressively researched and often fascinating social and intellectual history.”
—Jack Miles, Los Angeles Times
“A Secular Age is a work of stupendous breadth and erudition.”
—John Patrick Diggins, New York Times Book Review
“A culminating dispatch from the philosophical frontlines. It is at once encyclopedic and incisive, a sweeping overview that is no less analytically rigorous for its breadth.”
—Steven Hayward, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“[A] thumping great volume.”
—Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian
“Very occasionally there appears a book destined to endure. A Secular Age is such a book.”
—Edward Skidelsky, Daily Telegraph
“It is refreshing to read an inquiry into the condition of religion that is exploratory in its approach.”
—John Gray, Harper’s
“A Secular Age represents a singular achievement.”
—Christopher J. Insole, Times Literary Supplement
“A determinedly brilliant new book.”
—London Review of Books
From Publishers Weekly
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About the Author
- ASIN : B002KFZLK2
- Publisher : Belknap Press; 1st edition (September 20, 2007)
- Publication date : September 20, 2007
- Language : English
- File size : 3338 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Sticky notes : On Kindle Scribe
- Print length : 872 pages
- Best Sellers Rank: #103,313 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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He wrote in the Preface to this 2007 book, “This book emerges from my Gifford Lectures… in the spring of 1999, entitled ‘Living In a Secular Age?’… the scope of the work has expanded… Parts IV and V deal with matters I wanted to discuss then, but lacked the time and competence to treat properly… I ask the reader… not to think of it as a continuous story-and-argument, but rather as a set of interlocking essays, which shed light on each other, and offer a context of relevance for each other.”
He explains in the Introduction, “What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age? Almost everyone would agree that in some sense we do: I mean the ‘we’ who live in the West… And the judgment of secularity seems hard to resist when we compare these societies with anything else in human history… But it’s not so clear in what this secularity consists… The difference… consist[s] in this, that whereas the political organization of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection… The political society is seen as that of believers (of all stripes) and non-believers alike… in our ‘secular’ societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God…” (Pg. 1)
He continues, “belief is an option, and in some sense and embattled one in the Christian (or ‘post-Christian’) society… the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others … whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith. There will be people who feel bound to give it up, even though they mourn its loss. This has been a recognizable experience in our societies…” (Pg. 3)
He continues, “It is this shift … in the whole context in which we experience and search for fulness, that I am calling the coming of a secular age… How did we move from a condition where, in Christendom, people lived naïvely within a theistic construal, to one in which … unbelief has become for many the major default option? This is the transformation I want to describe…” (Pg. 14)
He states, “My claim will [be]… secularity … came to be along with the possibility of exclusive humanism, which thus for the first time widened the range of possible options, ending the era of ‘naïve’ religious faith. Exclusive humanism in a sense crept up on us through an intermediate form, Providential Deism; and both the Deism and the humanism were made possible by earlier developments within orthodox Christianity…” (Pg. 19)
He states, “The Reformation as Reform is central to the story I want to tell---that of the abolition of the enchanted cosmos, and the eventual creation of a humanist alternative to faith.” (Pg. 77) He adds, “The Reformation, in closing the gap (at least in theory) between elite and ordinary, clerical and lay piety, was continuing an enterprise which had been launched in different form before.” (Pg. 85) “Part of our story seems to lie in the increasing interest in nature… for its own sake, not simply as a manifestation of God; an interest which can be seen in science…” (Pg. 90) “The world as so represented comes more and more to be the world as lived, in which spirits, forces and higher times are less and less directly encountered. They become relatively experience-far objects of belief.” (Pg. 145)
He says, “My thesis is that the effect of the Christian, or Christian-Stoic, attempt to remake society in bringing about the modern ‘individual in the world’ … helped to nudge first the moral, then the social imaginary in the direction of modern individualism.” (Pg. 155) He continues, “The original idealization of this order of mutual benefit comes in a theory of rights and of legitimate rule. It starts with individuals, and conceives society as established for their sake. Political society is seen as an instrument for something pre-political. This individualism signifies a rejection of the previously dominant notion of a hierarchy, according to which a human being can only be a proper moral agent embedded in a larger social whole, whose very nature is to exhibit a hierarchical complementarity.” (Pg. 170)
He summarizes, “The eighteenth century generated new, stadial theories of history, which saw human society developing through a series of stages, defined by the form of their economy; e.g., hunter-gatherer, agricultural, etc., culminating in the contemporary commercial society. This made people see the whole transition I have called the taming of the nobility, as well as the internal pacification of modern societies, in a new light. Commerce… was endowed with this power to regulate martial values and the military way of life to a subordinate role, ending their age-old dominance of human culture. Political societies could no longer be understood simply in perennial terms; one had to take account of the epoch in which things happened.” (Pg. 218)
He observes, “[some theories] show benevolence to be an inner capacity … [but] the very idea of a deep inborn nature is often anathema to the ethics of rational discipline which descend from Locke and Helvétius… [But] the discovery/definition of these intro-human sources of benevolence is one of the great achievements of our civilization, and the charter of modern unbelief.” (Pg. 256-257)
He argues, “The slide to Deism was not just the result of ‘reason’ and ‘science,’ but reflected a deep-seated moral distaste for the old religion that sees God as an agent in history… The prevailing doctrine of majority damnation and divine grace were calculated to make God look like an arbitrary tyrant, playing favorites in a capricious manner, and more concerned with arcane points of honor than with the good of his creatures.” (Pg. 274)
He adds, “The connection between pursuing a moral or spiritual path and belonging to larger ensembles---state, church, even denomination---has been further loosened; and as a result the nova effect has been intensified. We are now living in a spiritual super-nova, a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane.” (Pg. 299-300) Later, he adds, “[In the late 19th and early 20th centuries] the alternatives open to unbelief are multiplied and enriched, prior to their diffusion to society as a whole in the process I’m calling ‘super-nova,’ which mainly takes place after the Second World War.” (Pg. 377)
He notes, “Once the cosmos ceases to be lived and experienced as the locus of spiritual forces, once you have to prove that it is God-given by its design, then the detail of the argument is inevitably going to focus on the implications for human beings… God appears as a fussy parent, anxiously moulding every detail of creation to our well-being and comfort. The rebellion cannot but come, but it often is made by people who still believe in design in general, like Voltaire, [who] cannot stomach … the absence of any place in the story for the tragedies that life itself produces, like the famous earthquake at Lisbon.” (Pg. 342)
He observes, “the trauma of the First World War… damaged the credibility of the synthesis as nothing earlier could have done. The synthesis incorporated ‘civilization,’ one of whose key components was to protect life from violence through order and law. The war was supposedly fought for ‘civilization’… and yet the massive slaughter turned out to be a greater negation of civilized life than any foe threatened. The attempt to salvage a justification by promising a quantum leap in peace and welfare and social justice in the aftermath just made things worse when none of these promises could be made good on.’” (Pg. 407)
He suggests, “the post-war slide in our social imaginary … [has] had the effect … of explosively propelling people into the fractured world… the village community disintegrates, the local factory closes, jobs disappear in ‘downsizing,’ the immense weight of social approval and opprobrium begins to tell on the side of the new individualism. So the expressivist revolution has undermined some of the large-scale religious forms of the Age of Mobilization: churches whose claim on our allegiance comes partly through their connection to a political identity… the connection to the spiritual has been broken for those in the new post-Durkheimian dispensation.” (Pg. 491-492)
He observes, “Being ‘spiritual but not religious’ is one of the western phenomena which … usually designates a spiritual life which retains some distance from the disciplines and authority of religious confessions… What also remains important… is some continuing sense of the importance of following one’s own spiritual itinerary, and the sense that … ‘Knowledge, morality, art, government and the economy should become religious, but freely and from inside, not by compulsion from outside.’” (Pg. 535)
He states, “people … say, ‘I’m not religious,’ in the same tone of voice as they might say: I don’t like turnips, or Elvis Presley. My guess is that if pressed to look at the issues, even they would begin to sense that they stood in one or other relation to faith as an identity-defining issue. And certainly the argument about faith and unbelief which circulates in our culture… [is] understood on this ethically-charged level. Religion remains ineradicably on the horizon of ‘areligion’; and vice versa. This is another indication that the ‘official story’ needs to be understood on a deeper level…” (Pg. 592)
He notes, “But there does not seem to be any place for divine violence, as it were, destruction and suffering as part of the fulfilled divine plan. A God who purposes nothing but our human flourishing couldn’t want to inflict this. It would make no sense. God, if anything, must be on our side in trying to repress and desacralize human violence. How could he himself give it positive meaning?... the way in which a sense of destruction as from God licenses our joyful participation as agents of God, engaged in sacred massacre, the repudiation of human violence seems to require the denial of divine destruction. So in this anthropocentric climate, where we keep any idea of the spiritual, it must be totally constructive, positive. It can’t accommodate Kali, and is less and less able to allow a God who punishes. The wrath of God disappears, leaving only His love.” (Pg. 649)
He outlines, “how can human nature as we know it be in the image of God? Here’s a hypothesis from within a Christian perspective: humans are born out of the animal kingdom, to be guided by God… [which] means some kind of transformation of these [sex/aggression] drives… so that all the energy now goes along with God… the aggression turns into energy, straining to bring things back to God, the energy to combat evil… There is now something higher in one’s life, a dimension of something incomparably higher… of longing and striving which one can’t ignore. Evil is capturing this for something less than, other than God. This is a tremendously powerful temptation… human life as we know it … succumbed to this temptation… This is the fallen condition… God is slowly educating mankind… transforming it from within… But at the same time, the pedagogy … has been misappropriated… the education is occurring in this field of resistance.” (Pg. 668)
He notes, “joy strives for eternity, even if all that is available is a lesser version of it… Now all this doesn’t show that the faith perspective is correct. It just shows that the yearning for eternity is not the arrival and childish thing it is painted as… Doesn’t the fact that this is a serious, and unstillable longing just show up even more the courage you need to be a clear-sighted atheist.” (Pg. 721-722) He adds, “the moment of death, is the privileged site from which the meaning of life can be grasped. Death can offer a vantage point, beyond the confusion and dispersal of living. A need for meaning, a desire for eternity, can press us against the boundaries of the human domain. But death in another way can offer a way to escape the confinement of this domain, to breathe the air beyond.” (Pg. 723)
He admits, “the major struggle over codes lies in the area of sexual ethics; and sexuality is a crucial dimension of our bodily existence. Making theological sense of this once again will undoubtedly involve another look at certain issues of sexual ethics: contraception… and homosexuality, among others… We have to recover a sense of the link between erotic desire and the love of God… and find new ways of giving expression to this… sexual life involving in some form both differences and attraction is undoubtedly one of them. Here… one needs a sense both of the continuing background and the changing forms. And one needs both these today in order to explore again the profound interpenetration of eros and the spiritual life. This terribly fraught area in Western Christendom, where the sexual meets the spiritual, urgently awaits the discovery of new paths to God.” (Pg. 767)
This book will be of keen interest to those studying contemporary theology, the philosophy of history, and related issues.
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.
Top reviews from other countries
encapsulating its foundational causes. However what rivets me is the, almost poetic language that Charles
Taylor uses to convey his ruminations . Excellent.
Fundamental para se estudar nossa visão de mundo hoje: basante secular (e pouco ou nada espiritual/religiosa).
Reviewed in Brazil 🇧🇷 on July 18, 2020
Fundamental para se estudar nossa visão de mundo hoje: basante secular (e pouco ou nada espiritual/religiosa).