How To Be Secular In A Secular Age

I am beginning to work on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.  I say ‘work’ very intentionally because this is a monumental work that will probably be remembered as Taylor’s magnum opus.  It developed out of his 2007 Gifford Lectures and transmuted into a 900-page book that without its dust jacket could easily be mistaken for the collected works of J.R.R. Tolkien.  But I’m not the only one who has worked at this.  Taylor (as always) is a laborious, meticulous thinker and cataloger of thoughts.  If the reader rejects his telling or his conclusions, it won’t be because Taylor missed a step.  So from the very introduction, Taylor begins working on answering the question, “What do we mean by secular here?”

For our part, the question might be, how could you possibly consider America a secular nation when every President since Ronald Reagan has ended every speech with, “And God bless America?”

Taylor identifies two common meanings for the term, which he uses to isolate the uncommon meaning that he is working with.

The first common meaning is used in terms of “public spaces.”  Taylor says that these spaces have (allegedly) been “emptied of God, or of any reference to ultimately reality.  Or taken from another side, as we function within various spheres of activity – economic, political, cultural, educational, professional, recreational – the norms and principles we follow, the deliberations we engage in, generally don’t refer us to God or to any religious beliefs; the considerations we act on are internal to the ‘rationality’ of each sphere – maximum gain within the economy, the greatest benefit to the greatest number in the political arena, and so on.”

Such “public spaces” did not always exist, of course.  As John Milbank opens his own magnum opus, Theology and Social Theory, “Once, there was no secular.”  For instance, it was once believed that economics existed to serve the ends of human life, which was defined by theology.  Hence there was a ban on usury.  Such a ban would be unthinkable in a secular society.  But as John Milbank seeks to demonstrate, certain theological positions must be assumed to maintain the autonomy of economics as a discipline, such that economic science isn’t merely “public” or “neutral,” but either heretical or atheistic altogether.

The second common meaning of ‘secular’ stands with a certain ironic aloofness from the first.  Taylor observes that the United States was one of the earliest societies to separate Church and State (secularism in the first sense) but remains the Western society with the highest statistics for both religious belief and religious practice (secularism in a second sense).  Great Britain, on the other hand, still has an official state church that (for example) owns vast tracts of land throughout England, and is irremediably tied to governmental tasks and structures, is not secular in the first sense at all, but shows dramatically lower confessions of Christian belief and church attendance, so is more secular in this second sense.

Taylor’s third sense, the uncommon meaning of secular, is “closely related to the second, and not without connection to the first.”  Whereas the second examines the statistics concerning belief and lack-of-belief, the third sense focuses on the conditions of belief.  “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, [sic] to one in which is it understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace… To put the point in different terms, belief in God isn’t quite the same thing in 1500 and 2000.”  And this isn’t to say that the beliefs have changed (though of course there has been some change in both content and emphasis in the last five hundred years, but that’s a different phenomenon), but that the changing context of belief has changed what the act of believing is.

In summary, Charles Taylor describes the new, secular, context of belief this way:

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.  But we have also changed from a condition in which belief was the default option, not just for the naive but for also for those who know, considered, talked about atheism [think Hume or Kant]; to a condition in which for more and more people unbelieving construals seem at first blush the only plausible ones.

In a secular age, then, religious belief doesn’t necessarily break down, but naive religious belief does.  As Taylor says, “Naivete is now unavailable to anyone, believer or unbeliever alike.”  Because, with the exception of certain extreme fundamentalists in both groups, it is becoming more and more difficult to encounter intelligent people intelligent articulating views contrary to yours, as it is becoming more and more common to encounter well-meaning people who live good and satisfied lives according to belief-structures contrary to yours.

I am convinced of the truth of Christianity and find the naturalistic reductionism of someone like GodlessLiberal implausible and (I must say) necessarily nihilistic.  GodlessLiberal, for his part, finds my willingness to affirm belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ a tad bewildering and (probably) an example of wishful thinking.  But because we can both consider the possibility of holding positions other than our own, we can talk.


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