Secular Age by Charles Taylor


Writers of an atheistic bent, struggling to find immortality in the printed word and (by definition) unconsoled by the prospect of death bringing a gathering into the bosom of Abraham, will be well-served by the latest fad in publishing: anti-religious tracts. As long as one has the wherewithal to string a few sentences together pointing out that faith lacks a scientific basis, that al-Qaeda and the Inquisition are a nasty bunch, and that happiness should be found in this life rather than in eternity, one stands a good chance of being printed by a reputable publishing house and being lapped up by a public braying for the death of God. The works of Hitchens, Dawkins and Onfray should stand as inspiration for such writers.

But this is not to say that contemporary philosophers have had nothing of note to say on the issue of belief. Agamben, Habermas, Dennett and Charles Taylor – four philosophers of wildly disparate outlooks – have, in the last few years, published works that have made real contributions to this debate.

The question motivating A Secular Age is the following – ‘in 1500, a lack of faith was unthinkable. In 2008, faith becomes one option among many. Why is this the case?’ Taylor’s specific concern is the relation between belief and the Lebenswelt—how does our lived, active engagement with the world influence the conditions of belief, and how has this changed so radically as to allow secularism to emerge?

One of Taylor’s major motivations in this book is a polemic against historiographical accounts putting forward a ‘subtraction story’, whereby the rise of secularism is to be explained by societies having ‘liberated themselves from […] limitations of knowledge’, which, having been discarded, leaves behind ‘certain features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what had now been set aside’.

Against the subtraction story, he wishes to show that the rise of secular modernity can only be explained by ‘newly constructed self-understandings and related practices’. To this end, Taylor’s first task is to show the reader how uncanny the world-view of 1500 seems to our eyes. Modernity’s boundary between the self and world—where meaning is a feature of the mind alone—is inapplicable to the Medieval world, where external objects are imbued with meaning and an individual’s emotions are identified with the actions of gods or the influence of malign forces; where the cosmos itself is seen as embodying a hierarchy of being. Medieval society is bound by collective, sacred rituals whose conception of time is imbued with ‘higher times’ and which, in contrast to the modern linear time, stress the proximity of events that stand aeons apart (the sacrifices of Isaac and Christ; Good Friday, etc.).

This is a world that exists in a profound tension. The ordinary flourishing of human life—its quotidian pleasures, the need for procreation, the centrality of pride and the warrior-ethic—stand in clear distinction to the demands of the Gospel, with its demands of celibacy and the renunciation of earthly pleasures. The monastic vocation saw the rise of a class dedicating their lives to God, taking the mantle of holiness on behalf of a laity who was not expected to show this devotion. Similarly, the Carnival—the ‘feasts of misrule’, where boys wear the mitre and fools wear the crown—allowed the tension between established order and the egalitarian ideal of Christianity to be brought into the open, instantiating the latter and thereby re-invigorating the former.

The need for a resolution of these tensions—between structure and anti-structure; between the lives of the priest and the laity; between ordinary flourishing and the imperatives of the Christian faith—drives this book’s historical narrative. These tensions, being expressions of equally compelling but mutually incompatible demands on man and society, see various attempts made throughout history to decide in favour of one side or the other; however, these tensions do not admit of resolution. Neither, however, do they admit of dissolution, and one of Taylor’s contentions is that rumours of religion’s death may have been overstated. The tensions that have driven the history of Christianity are still very much in force today.

The first two essays concern the shift away from the enchanted world to the ‘impersonal order’ of seventeen-century Deism, tracing the construction of new notions of man, society, God, time and religion. Driving this change are the tensions present in Christendom, and the desire to intensify faith and establish orthodoxy. Nominalist philosophers reject Aquinas’ notion of final causes, which, by giving natural objects an inherent good, restricts God’s freedom; the resulting world-view, consisting only of efficient causes ordered by a providential Deity, casts God to the realm of the supernatural and lays the foundation for the scientific method of Bacon. Franciscan orders take a greater role in preaching to the laity, to raise their religious conscience; this imperative intensifies and results in the Reformation, undermining the social instantiation of Christianity and placing it exclusively on the individual’s faith. Theologians increasingly denigrate practices that place God’s power in external objects, such as the relics of saints; meaning gradually retreats from the outside world, resulting in Weber’s disenchantment. The eclipse of a hierarchical order, which had at its highest points a deep connection with the otherworldly, brought down Christian practice to everyday flourishing; in doing so, it identified the Christian society with the economically productive society and denied any dimension of the spirit outside of the secular order.

The result of these changes is a revolutionary shift in the conception of the subject. The demarcation between man and world becomes absolute, and an increasing emphasis is placed on man’s ability to effect change upon the world, bringing about a fundamental shift in his relation to himself, to his society, to the world, and to God. As religion becomes disembedded from external objects and social practices, the conception of the state moves from an eternal, hierarchical order to a break from nature, imposing its edicts upon the raw material of man. Political philosophy and man’s social imaginary begin to adopt an instrumental stance to the state, which is justified by the benefit it brings to its subjects, and man’s virtue is defined in terms of his contribution to this mutual benefit.

The tensions inherent in Christianity—between human and Christian flourishing—are not resolved by these changes. Ordinary human flourishing becomes Christianised but, in doing so, Christianity becomes identified with the flourishing of the world. God can then drop out of the picture.

Taylor’s book wishes to do far more than merely chart the rise of secularism from the Middle Ages to the Postmodern age. This history wishes to undermine the residual dualism which attributes the decline of religion to material conditions in society—a thesis which is dualistic insofar as it fails to recognise ideas and material conditions of society as being a part of man’s Lebenswelt. The history of religious life from the Middle Ages to the Reformation is a thorough demolition of the subtraction story, and shows just how far the ideas of man and society which underpin modernity cannot be understood if they are not seen as novel constructions of man’s relation to the world; we cannot account for the decline of religion by the rise of science or the decline of traditional authority without seeing how their effects only matter against the background of the ‘buffered self’ of modernity.

A second, and related, aim is to show that historical changes which ‘inevitably’ bring about secularisation can, in fact, provide the background for new forms of spirituality to emerge—the tensions which motivate the narrative of Reform are not resolved by modernity; indeed, they are felt more keenly, and resolve themselves into a range of spiritual positions. The narrative which sees the waxing of modernity to bring about the waning of religion is refuted by Taylor’s history, which demonstrates how the conditions of modernity can as easily bring about a resurgence of the spiritual life, be it Methodism in England or the French Counter-Reformation.

Indeed, Taylor attempts to analyse the ‘subtraction story’ itself as part of the rise of modernity. Edward Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire is seen as a paradigm example of a new social science, which tries to cleave off God from explanatory forces in human history; man’s action is now seen as the motor of human progress, whose telos is man’s immanent flourishing. But for Taylor, this supposedly value-free account of social science is anything but—it is motivated by a conception of man being in control of history, an understanding of man which depends on the condition of modernity. The various subtraction-stories of Kant, Comte, Freud and suchlike are shown to be blind to their own historical context, and primarily motivated by ethical reasons—to wit, the desire to slew off the ‘childlike’ features of faith and face the world via the ‘adult’, value-free concepts of science. The conception of religion as a method of social control, so popular in today’s atheistic manifestos, is very easily seen as a mistaken application of the conceptions of modernity applied to a system of belief that cannot be understood in this manner. Taylor’s analysis is thus a salutary lesson against this reductive account of religion, and stands as a real contribution to the analysis of God and man.

The rise of exclusive humanism brings with it dangers of its own. Taylor’s analysis of Carnival and the ‘hierarchical complimentarily’ are absolutely key to his account of human flourishing. The hierarchical roles people pay in medieval societies threaten to alienate people from their primal energies; the rigid codification of the law threatens to alienate us from the egalitarian community which the law serves; the City of Man threatens to eclipse the City of God; there is a primal energy in man, resisting integration into the symbolic order, which must be paid its due. Carnival allows these tensions to be held in equilibrium, strengthening the law of man by showing that the ultimate law lies beyond this, allowing the fundamental egalitarianism of this ultimate law to reign, however briefly.
Crucially, however, Taylor does not take the step of taking Carnival to be a model for a society which can, provided we can find the perfect structure, exist in this world. He analyses this step as the root, not only of the decline of religion, but also of totalitarianism—the utopian longing of the anti-structure is identified with the ultimate good of man. This anti-structure has no limits to its enforcement, can brook no disagreement, and cannot tolerate the view that man’s nature is contradictory, his goods many and mutually exclusive. Taylor is unsparing in his condemnation of those revolutionaries who would immenatise the eschaton—be it Christian devotion, the General Will of Rousseau, the non-alienation of labour envisaged by Marx or the ‘play’ of the revolutionaries of May 1968. The failure of their utopian longings is neither due to historical contingency (‘the Revolution would have succeeded, were it not for Stalin’s betrayal…’) nor an inadequate account of man’s true good—it resides in the very totalising nature of the emancipatory project.

Certainly, one of the canards of contemporary secularism—that we should not equate the atrocities of Stalin with atheism in the same way that we can equate Torquemada with Christianity, since Stalin’s motivations are Marxist, not purely atheistic—is undermined by Taylor’s analysis. The danger of totalitarianism resides in any belief system which holds an univocal analysis of human good, seeing its opponents as spiritually degenerate, class traitors, or what have you, and there is no reason why exclusive humanism could not fall into this trap.

Given the above, it is unsurprising that Taylor’s conception of human flourishing takes its intellectual pedigree from the value-pluralism of Isaiah Berlin. The rise of the secular order has not ridded us of the tensions of the previous era, and the development of the society and philosophy is far from a straightforward ascent from Christian superstition to Enlightenment.

The disenchanted world, where God is at best an architect, morality enlightened self-interest, and aesthetics a feeling of subjective pleasure, is a world which the human spirit naturally rebels, to preserve something higher. It is against this background that Kant identifies morality with noumenal freedom; the Romantics seek to re-unify reason and nature, both in our desire and in nature; the egalitarian benevolent order is held by Ernst Jünger and Nietzsche to deny the hero-ethic and the possibility of human flourishing which goes beyond dumb happiness, and is to be replaced by a vertical and hierarchical order which is grounded in immanent concerns only. Aesthetics, ethics and politics become bulwarks against the flattening concerns of the immanent frame, and their considerations are brought to bear on society—whether in Mill’s concern to rescue higher pleasures from the clutches of Benthamite utilitarianism, the Evangelical movement and the French Counter-Reformation, Marxism and Fascism. The immanent frame is one in which a range of intellectual, moral and political positions are allowed to flourish, albeit with varying degrees of success.

The range of these positions between orthodox belief and the ‘immanent frame’ becomes huge in the 1960s, which stresses that, if the individual is to find a spiritual path, it must be one which truly expresses the self, which allows the individual to ‘become what he truly is’, to use Heidegger’s phrase. This can take the form of the soixonte-huitards, who wish to bring a new form of utopianism, where play is central to human life; more prosaically, it can take the form of the bourgeois bohemian (the ‘BoBos’, to use Taylor’s hilarious designation) who make their peace with capitalism, using it as a background for self-development (typically by taking up yoga and working for Google).

The title of this book could be expressed in an interrogative form. One of Taylor’s intentions in this book—arguably the main intention—is to show how far the conditions of modernity and post-modernity allow new forms of ‘spirituality’ to develop, keeping the immanent frame open to transcendental considerations. This is because the tensions driving the Christian reformation remain at a deadlock, even after we have ruled out transcendence as the locus of human flourishing.

The repudiation of man’s fallen nature casts sin into the realm of exogenous, societal pressures, or else dubs it an illness, thus rendering the perverse dignity which Christianity gives to the sinner, illegitimate. By blaming society for man’s evil, the work of reform is pressed into the denial of man’s fallen nature, which is to be removed from society either by force (in the case of Bolshevism) or into a mass therapisation of society (feminist speech codes, cracking down on smoking, and suchlike)—a project of reform which, in its repudiation of ordinary desires in the name of immanent transcendence, can be read as a secular Calvinism, and whose results certainly match religion in the quantity of blood spilled in the pursuit of this ideal. Those secularists who hold that an essential harmony between man can be achieved, such that his pursuit of good becomes coterminous with society’s, are equally guilty as Christianity of failing to acknowledge the plurality of incompatible human goods, and equally devastating in their attempts to transform the world in the name of their vision. The desire to alleviate suffering on a purely immanent basis can easily breed misanthropy when faced by the insurmountable size of this task. We are far removed from the end of religious history.

None of this is original. However, Taylor’s response to this deadlock—unambiguously and unashamedly Christian—is quite stunning. Taylor seeks to rehabilitate agap?. In his reading of Ivan Illich, Taylor finds, in the Christian ethic, an essentially revolutionary force, with the love of the Christian for his fellow man as constitutive of a new kind of freedom, breaking out against the strictures of society. It is a love that exists between individuals, in their particularity, and as such is universal; it is a love that cannot be hypostatised into an institution without losing this essential aspect. The emphasis on embodied individuals is crucial—it opposes the scientific viewpoint of the human body as an object, or as a tool, and emphasises our embodied experience within the world; agap? is to be seen as a love emanating from one such embodied individual to another, and is a love that cannot be translated into universal moral codes. It is in agap? that Taylor seeks to overcome the alienation from the body which repelled the Romantics; in its inevitably contingent nature, he finds a morality which can acknowledge the plurality of human goods; which can address our darkest tendencies without bowdlerising or seeking to rid us of them. Taylor’s rehabilitation of Christianity is based on a desire to identify a necessary gap between the demands of faith and the social order; in this, he finds a truly human faith, and one which can, if not resolve the tensions of modernity, at least provide an understanding of these tensions as eternal aspects of the human condition, recalcitrant to any solution. It is a universalism that does full justice to the particular.

  • About

    Michael Withey was born and raised in West Wales. Michael took a BA and MSc in Philosophy and History of Science at the LSE. When not writing for Bedeutung, he works as a political aide and plays the jazz clarinet.

    His book review of Charles Taylor's Secular Age appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 2/ Human & Divine, available here for purchase.