This review of Charles Taylor's remarkable new book A Secular Age will appear in the next issue of The Philosophers' Magazine.
(I should also point out that there's a Social Science Research Council blog, The Immanent Frame, devoted to question of secularism, religion and the public sphere. Contributors include Charles Taylor himself and Robert Bellah.)
Charles Taylor has always taken seriously Hegel’s dictum that philosophy is its own age comprehended in thought. As he did in an earlier work, Sources of the Self (1989), Taylor asks in his new book (which is even more prodigiously comprehensive than its already substantial predecessor) how we got here. That is, how we Westerners arrived at a distinctively “modern” self-understanding in which it became possible, and remains possible, for religious belief to be regarded as just one “human possibility among others”.
In fact, Taylor is interested not only in the question “how did we get here?” but also in asking “what is it we’re living through?” The counterpart, therefore, to the historical question of how our current secular dispensation emerged is an analytical one about what secularity is exactly. And the answer to that, Taylor suggests, is less obvious than it sounds. There are at least three (not necessarily compatible) ways, he says, of construing what it means to say that a given social milieu is “secular”.
On the first construal, secularity refers to common institutions and practices. A society is secular, therefore, when its political organisation has no connection with faith in god. Most modern Western states are secular in this sense; and even in those, like the UK, which still have established churches, religious belief is nevertheless a largely private matter. Secularity in the second sense, meanwhile, refers to the falling away of religious belief and practice, declining church attendance and so on. And, in contrast, modern Western societies are by no means uniformly secular in this sense: it may be true that religious belief is in steep and irreversible decline in Western Europe, but the same certainly can’t be said of the United States.
In any event, it’s the third construal that really interests Taylor. The focus here is neither on the role of religion in public institutions nor on the extent of religious belief, but rather on its conditions. The shift to secularity in this sense, Taylor argues, consists 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.” It is the slow emergence of secularity in this sense that Taylor sets out to explain, at formidable length, and in remarkable historical and philosophical detail.
Binding all that detail together is an argument that Taylor manages to sustain over nearly eight hundred pages. Simply put, A Secular Age is a magisterial refutation of what Taylor calls the “subtraction story” of secularization. On this familiar narrative, secularization is simply an effect of the progress of science and rational inquiry. Taylor raises two related objections against it: first, that it misses the essentially moral dimension of the “exclusive humanism” that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, and which, in his view, is closely tied to an “ethic of freedom and beneficent order”; second, that the emergence of that humanism is too substantial an achievement to be explained by the subtraction story, which makes it seem as if human beings simply “fell into” conceiving of their moral capacities without reference to god.
Taylor goes further: not only is the discovery of “intra human” sources of benevolence the “charter of modern unbelief”, but religion itself played a significant role in shaping that ethical vision. Such a claim is not unprecedented – Max Weber famously argued that the “innerworldly asceticism” that created the modern world was in fact rooted in certain currents of Judeo-Christian monotheism. But Taylor builds on this analysis, paying particularly close attention to deism, which rejected on moral grounds the idea of God as an agent perpetually intervening in history, and to the “inward turn” in modern culture (the subject of Sources of the Self), which itself was often driven by religious motives, notably during the Reformation. Whether contemporary secularists will be willing to accept Taylor’s contention that “re-invention and innovation” have existed on both sides is another matter, of course.