A Secular Age: Shorter Summary

For those of you feeling intimidated by my 21 part series on A Secular Age, this shorter summary could help you get a sense of the argument Taylor is making. I’ve organized this shorter summary into 11 different sections and added some links to the corresponding chapter summary that each section is drawn from. At the bottom of this page I’ve included a glossary for the Taylorisms used in the summary (the worlds included in the glossary are in bold) I’ve also included an index for my chapter summaries and some suggestions for further reading. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

(1) A Secular Age: Introduction In the first chapter of A Secular Age Charles Taylor asks a question that he will pursue for the rest of the book: “why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” What is Taylor getting at when he asks this question, what shift is he trying to describe? In describing the shift to what Taylor calls a “Secular Age,” he is not thinking of a decline in religious belief—lots of people still believe in God in secular societies. Instead, what Taylor is driving at is a shift in what he calls the “conditions of belief”, the “taken-for-granted” background assumptions, framework, or imaginary, the naive world we all inhabit even before we start thinking about what we believe. What we believe, our “world-views,” are formed in the context of, and against this background of pre-rational commitments, assumptions and frameworks. People in the middle ages lived in a world in which the “conditions of belief”, the very fabric of society, reinforced belief in God, while we today live in a world where the opposite is true. We have gone from a society in which belief in God seemed like the most obvious thing (think of the middle ages), to a society in which belief in God is “one option among many” different positions. In modern society you can be a Christian fundamentalist, spiritual but not religious, an atheist, a Hindu, a Muslim, or none of the above. In this context, with so many different spiritual, religious or non-religious “options” to contend with those of us who do believe in God find ourselves struggling with doubt, questioning our own position, and considering other positions.

For people in the middle ages God was experienced as tangibly real and present, not just through private religious experience, but in people’s everyday lives. God was inescapably present in how people imagined and experienced themselves, nature, their society, and even time itself. These people lived in an enchanted world haunted by ghosts, spirits, demons, and filled with saints, holy places, and relics. All of reality was flush with the Divine. For us today, this has changed. We live in a disenchanted, scientific world. We no longer worry about demons, or spirits, we think of the world in terms of atoms in motion or a giant machine, our society goes on without the providential protection of God. We live in an entirely immanent world, that is, in a world closed off from transcendence—from anything beyond or distinct from the universe or the physical world—in a constructed space that is entirely secular. If we believe in God that is just something we believe, an add-on to this disenchanted, scientific world, but not something we experience as tangibly present in our daily lives.

Now, some of you might be thrown off by the way I am using the word “belief” here. By saying that in the middle ages it was “virtually impossible not to believe in God,” I am not saying that people in the middle ages were more pious. Indeed, a good analogy to the middle ages might be the Hutterite experience. I would guess that it is fair to say that the vast majority of Hutterites believe that God is real. Because we live in our Hutterite communities, we live in a uniformly Christian society and this Christian culture and the social pressure that comes with it provides the “conditions of belief” that reinforce “belief” in God. However, most of us also know that believing in God in this “culturally Christian” way is not the same thing as the biblical sense of faith or belief, which denotes relational trust and faithfulness. When Christ says “follow me,” and to “believe in me,” he is calling people who already believe in God onto a new path. The genuine sense of “belief” or “faith” is not something that can be handed down but must be rediscovered anew in each generation and in each person.

(2) Chapter 1: The Bulwarks of Belief With these preliminaries aside, we can now move on to the story Taylor tells of how we got to our secular age. Taylor’s tale begins in the middle ages, at a time before the secular age. This was a world in which atheism was almost unimaginable, and God’s existence was not only unquestionable, but necessary for survival. A key feature of this was the way in which Christianity was deeply connected to society and social belonging. In the enchanted world of the middle ages, people felt constantly under threat by dangerous anti-social forces: spirits, demons, those casting “black magic” and so on. Belonging to a society and being protected by the “white magic” of the Church through collective rites, rituals, and festivals was the only way to ensure protection from these dark forces. This partly explains the medieval persecution of heretics. Wrong belief wasn’t just a personal matter, as we think of it today, but rather heresy could upend the social order, invite in dark forces or the judgement of God. A helpful analogy to this might be the way traditional Hutterites experience the distinction between “die Welt” and “die Gma.” Belonging to the “ark” of the colony, is experienced as a protection from the darkness outside as well as the only sure source of salvation. I think here of an anecdote recounted by Robert Rhodes—an outsider who joined the Hutterites—in his book Nightwatch:

“Several months after we had moved to Starland… I made a trip into the Twin Cities, about 80 miles away. Having lived so far from the rest of society, even for a few months, I felt a distinct anxiety when I found myself in downtown Minneapolis that first time, navigating the crowds and passing among buildings much taller than our colony’s feed mill leg, which was the tallest object in all of Sibley County. An encounter with the homeless in Minneapolis, or the sight of a man and woman begging for money beneath an overpass while their small fire smouldered and snow drifted around them, filled me with despair and dread. Returning to our place that night, down the snow-streaked county roads, past grey dairies and mailboxes with Norwegian names, I sat in the minister’s living room. I told him I was glad I had such a place to come home to, that we didn’t have to live like the people in the big evil cities. David Vetter looked at me a moment and said something I did not expect: “Spoken like a true Pharisee,” he said. “You’ve only been here a few short months, and already you’re getting to be just like us.”

The medieval hierarchical society was seen as reflecting an unchangeable cosmic order of things. People were born into a particular place or station—peasant, royal, knight etc.—and had to find their place in the unchanging order. Again, the analogies to the Hutterite system are helpful: there is also this sense of an ancient, deeply rooted, unchanging order, established by the blood of the martyrs since “time out of mind.” There is also the sense that the order is rooted in Divine Law and that the place of the community member is not to challenge the order to ‘improve it’, but rather to find their place in it.

In the “enchanted world” of the middle ages the divine saturated all of reality. The sophisticated Medieval theology, such as that of Thomas Aquinas, saw all of Reality as grounded in, participating in, and sustained in being by God. For these theologians there was no “creation” without reference to God, creation could only be understood with reference to Transcendence. In more popular spirituality the world was filled with angels, demons, spirits, etc. Wood sprites populated forests, spiritual personalities infused rivers and deserts, times of tragedy or the darkness of night unleashed evil spirits, and so on. Particular times (festivals and holy seasons such as Christmas or Easter), places (holy sites), people (saints), and objects (magic potions, the holy host and relics) could be especially strong sources of divine presence or power, or of “light” or “dark magic.” The holy host is a striking example. Taylor recounts stories of people sneaking the holy host (believed in Catholic Theology to literally be Christ’s body) out of the Church to feed to their animals, or to spread on their crops, hoping for healing or prosperity. In other cases, common people were so terrified of taking communion because of its divine power, that they had to be forced to take it once a year.

Despite the Hutterite insistence that communion is only symbolic and taken “in remembrance,” it’s always fascinating to me to observe how sacramental we still are. In the church, at a particular time and hour of the year, that particular bread and wine has a different meaning or even a different level of holiness. Even though we believe it is merely symbolic there is an obvious sense of reverence and holiness—a sense of participation in the eternal. We’re more enchanted than we think.

(3) Chapter 2: The Rise of the Disciplinary Society Taylor describes medieval society as a difficult balancing act and an equilibrium between “two speeds” of religion. On the one hand there were those—such as the monks—who lived the full demands of the gospel in their lives of chastity, poverty and pacifism. On the other hand, there were those who lived ordinary lives, the knights who fought for the kingdom, the peasant class with their folk spirituality, loose moral standards and deeply rooted traditional ways. Both of these “two speeds” lived in an uneasy tension within Christendom. Once a year, there was the carnival, in which the entire structure was inverted for the day. Anti-structure became structure, paupers became kings and immoral acts abounded. Taylor describes this as sort of “safety pressure valve” to let off the great strain of virtue that was expected of people.

It’s precisely this tension between the two speeds of religion, held in precarious tension in the middle ages, that leads to the undermining of the enchanted medieval world. There are increasing attempts made to “raise the general standards,” to discipline the peasant class into conformity with the demands of the gospel and the norms of civilized life. For example, the vestiges of paganism in popular spirituality as well as the rowdy festivals such as Carnival were abolished, in the drive to unite all of society under a single moral code. The rise of schooling, centralized governance, and methods of discipline were instrumental in forming and molding the people into hardworking, rational subjects. The attempt was to “try to establish schooling, to increase productivity, and to inculcate a more rational, hardworking, industrious and production-oriented outlook in their subjects. Society was to be disciplined with the aim of inducing self-discipline.” Taylor calls this the process of “Reform.” This starts to pick up steam in the centuries leading up the Reformation and then culminates in the Protestant break with the catholic church. In Luther you see the rejection of Monasticism as false piety and instead the “sanctification of the ordinary:” Ordinary believers are to live up to the demands of the gospel in their everyday lives and glorify God through their work and station. There is no longer the tension between the higher demands of the gospel—celibacy, poverty, non violence—and ordinary, civilized life; the two are united into one. Religion is essential for producing the virtuous, hard working men and women needed to keep civilization running. You see here the emergence of the ideal of the Puritan: the industrious, hardworking, God-fearing man “As against the indolence and disorder of monks, beggars, vagabonds, and idle gentlemen, he “betakes himself to some honest and seemly trade, and [does] suffer his sense to be mortified with idleness”… These men are industrious, disciplined, do useful work, and above all can be relied upon.” The flip side of Protestant insistence that everyone should be 100% Christian, is that we then tend to equate ordinary, civilized, life with Christianity. Think of the Hutterite example. It’s helpful to see the Hutterites emerging in this context of an attempt to produce a society in which everyone is 100% Christian. However, we then have the problem of equating the Hutterite system with Christianity itself.

(4) Chapter 6: Providential Deism In Taylor’s view, the Protestant Reformation and the drive to Reform, contains the seeds of the modern, secular world. With Christianity so closely aligned with civilizational order, producing an orderly society and hardworking, disciplined, citizens, the focus becomes more and more immanent, or “this worldly.” Around the 1700’s we start to see the emergence of what Taylor calls “Providential Deism,” a new way of thinking about God’s relationship with humanity and the world. Providential Deism still retains the notion of a God who created the world and established a rational order of things. However, in contrast to the traditional Christian conception of God, the God of Deism is very much uninvolved in his creation. The universe does not need the sustaining power of God to remain in existence but can exist on its own: it’s like a giant machine that God has wound up and left alone. The Deist God does not intervene in nature through miracles, but instead lets the rational universe, governed by rational laws, run according to his preordained plan and order. For Deism, the moral purposes of God for humanity are reduced to human flourishing. Jesus becomes nothing more than a fine moral teacher who comes to show us how to establish the order of mutual benefit that gives us a prosperous, civilized existence: “…the plan of God for human beings was reduced to [our] coming to realize the order in their lives which he had planned [our] happiness and wellbeing. Essentially, the carrying out of the order of mutual benefit was what God had created us for.” With the God of Deism exclusively interested in producing productive, disciplined, citizens, we also see the eclipse of Grace. We can live up to these moral demands by our own lights (perhaps with the fear of hell to motivate us) and do not need the transformative power of Grace. With the fading of the medieval cosmology with its enchanted cosmos, hierarchies, inscrutable spheres, and grounding in the Transcendent—And its replacement with the clockwork universe of Deism—there is a greater optimism about our ability to comprehend the rational structure of the universe and less of a sense of its permanent inscrutability. It is from this sense of our ability to rationally grasp and control the universe that the problem of evil starts to take on a new urgency. “Now that we think we see how it all works,” it’s harder to see why God would allow evil in the first place.

(5) Chapter 4: Modern Social Imaginaries What starts to emerge around this time is what Taylor calls the “modern social imaginary.” The political theories of figures like Locke and Grotius start to imagine political society in a radically new way and with the emergence of Liberal democracy—especially in the United States, these political theories become reality. People now see themselves as individuals who enter into political orders that are designed to maximize freedom, human flourishing, and mutual benefit. Taylor describes the main outlines: “The picture of society is that of individuals who come together to form a political entity, against a…moral background…of natural rights; these people already have certain moral obligations towards each other. The ends sought are certain common benefits, of which security is the most important.” In the older, medieval political imaginary, people saw themselves as being inextricably tied up with their societies and part of unchanging hierarchical cosmic orders. Everyone has their place in the order: the king on the top with the Lords serving him and the peasants serving the Lords. This social order corresponds with and is grounded in some Transcendent order of things or Natural Law. The modern political order is very different, the modern political order is seen instrumentally, and exists not to reflect a cosmic order, but to ensure the freedom, equality and flourishing of the individuals within it. We are individuals endowed with “inalienable rights” entering into an order of mutual benefit. The prime example of this is the new capitalist economy which conceives of individuals acting for their own personal interest which leads to general prosperity. We each peruse our own ends and thereby ensure the prosperity of the whole: “the crucial thing in the new conception is that our purposes mesh, however divergent they may be in the conscious awareness of each of us.”

(6) Chapter 7: The Impersonal Order, Chapter 15: The Immanent Frame, A key feature of the shifts Taylor has been outlining is the emergence of a new stance humans take to the world, themselves, and others. This new stance is that of the disengaged, dispassionate spectator looking objectively down at reality and using instrumental reason to shape it according to his own ends. This stance is implicit in the process of Reform where there is a top down attempt to shape and discipline the unwashed masses into conformity. Early modern philosophers and the burgeoning new Science of this period bring this new stance into articulation. You see it in figures such as Descartes, with his ideal of the dispassionate individual who “doubts everything” except his own existence; or Bacon, who claims that the goal of the new science is to “improve the condition of mankind.” In the older, more ancient stance, people did not see themselves as “individuals” objectively standing above reality and seeking to shape it, but rather as embedded beings, rooted in reality. Rather than standing above, people stood within, deeply in touch with and rooted in, their communities, the Christian story, the patterns of reality, and a sense of the Divine. You can still get a bit of a sense of this older stance in Hutterite communities, but our embrace of modern technology is rapidly undermining this. The modern stance disengages, dis-embeds, and uproots us from our particular context, our bodies, our emotions, from reality itself. It gives us the tremendous power that the universal view of reality affords. This has given us the wonders of modern science, medicine, technology and political systems, but it has not come without its cost. It has alienated us from reality and is behind many of the environmental disasters of our time. A key feature of our Secular Age is the continued dominance of this disengaged, objectifying stance, as well as the ongoing critique by various movements such as Romanticism or in our own time, the movements of the 1960’s, as well as the various movements associated with Critical Theory.

(7) Chapter 6: Providential Deism The shift of Deism has brought us halfway to our secular age. Now, all that is needed is the next step. With God and his creation so radically separated, and God’s purposes for us reduced to human flourishing, it’s a small step towards what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism.” Of course, this doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it’s not that you do away with God and there is a new ethic of “exclusive humanism” waiting there for you; the new ethic of exclusive humanism has to be invented. (Indeed, one might say that all of A Secular Age is one long argument about how exclusive humanism is constructed rather than discovered) In Exclusive Humanism, God/Transcendence has completely been eclipsed and we now think of our moral aspirations or goals as only including human flourishing within the here and now. For the first time in human history there is now an ethic that has no recourse to transcendence—no cosmic order, no divine law, no tribal code that has existed since time out of mind—for the first time, we have invented an ethic that is entirely immanent/this worldly. While one of the central claims of Christianity is that we are empowered and motivated by God’s agape love for us, Exclusive humanism invented or discovered new sources of moral motivation within. Some moral theorists such as David Hume pointed to the universal human capacity for sympathy towards other human beings as one such source of moral motivation. The new modern moral order of individuals interacting for mutual benefit is another key resource here because in it we see the emergence of a self-sufficient moral framework with no recourse to Transcendence. The goals of exclusive humanism are entirely immanent/this wordily, there is no longer the earlier Christian ethic of pursuing goals that take us beyond human flourishing (think of Christ’s extreme calls to renounce wealth and violence) but now what we pursue is our own flourishing or that of others. What Taylor is keen to emphasize is that Exclusive Humanism is a unique and new invention, rather than just a discovery of how things really are. In the whole story Taylor has been telling, he has been arguing against what he calls “subtraction stories:” Accounts that explain “the secular” as merely the subtraction of religious belief, as if the secular is what’s left over after we subtract superstition. In contrast, Taylor emphasizes that the secular is produced, not just distilled.” The basic subtraction story runs something like this: Once upon a time we were stupid and ignorant and didn’t know anything about the world, so we created myths and stories, to help us describe an otherwise baffling universe. However, with the rise of reason, modern science, and medicine, these myths, stories, and superstitions slowly faded away and we came to see the world as it really is. In this story, our modern, secular world with its scientific worldview, individualistic political orders, and rational ways of knowing are just the way things are once we get rid of religion. This “subtraction story” contains the implicit assumption that religion and the religious impulse is essentially delusional, that religion is a sort of “failed science” and therefore will inevitably decline as modernity advances. Taylor contests this. Rather than telling a subtraction story, he tells a construction story of the creation or invention of secularity and exclusive humanism. By telling the story of how exclusive humanism emerges from Christendom and the process of Reform, we see how it both depends on earlier sources, but also moves beyond them to bring new moral modes into being. For the first time we have “an opening to the universal which is not based in some way on a connection to the transcendent:” Taylor writes: “The subtraction story doesn’t allow us to be as surprised as we ought to be by this achievement—or as admiring of it; because it is after all one of the great realizations in the history of human development, whatever our ultimate views about its scope or limitations.” While we tend to see the features of our Secular Age such as exclusive Humanism, the “Immanent Frame”, the “buffered self”, indivualism, or rationalism as the shape of reality itself, Taylor’s account shows us that these are all inventions, constructions, and stances we take to the world. The Secular Age is not reality itself, people have, and continue to, see reality very differently.

(8) Chapter 9: The Dark Abyss of Time Up until now we have been telling Taylor’s story of how we got to our Secular Age, now we turn to the descriptive side of Taylor’s work. To describe what it is like to live in a Secular Age. With the disenchantment of the medieval cosmos, the rise of exclusive humanism, and modern individualistic political orders we have constructed an entirely secular world. Taylor calls this constructed secular world or space the “immanent frame,” and this is the water all of us swim within, whether we are believers or not. The political and social world that we have constructed is entirely self-sufficient and is not grounded or connected to Transcendence or the Divine any way. People can live their lives entirely within this “immanent frame” pursuing moral goals, living lives of fulfillment, going about their lives, without making any connection to transcendence. A large number of people in our society do not feel that they need God to ground the political order they participate in, motivate their moral lives, appreciate art or nature, explain the origins of the universe, or find fulfillment in life. In the secular age, God and the Christian story is no longer something we inhabit and experience as tangibly present. The Hutterites are an interesting exception, in many ways, we still inhabit a pre-secular age and God infuses our social structures and pervades our everyday experience. We remain deeply rooted in a community that experiences itself as part of the great Christian story, as well as part of the great chain of Hutterite witnesses and martyrs. In a Hutterite community God is an inescapable reality and the Christian story is something that pervades our everyday lives. Similar things could be said about many other Christians or believers who are part of communities of faith. However, these believing positions are under continuous cross pressure—challenge, tension, doubt—from unbelieving positions. The same thing goes for unbelieving positions, they can be pulled in the opposite direction, repulsed by the hollowness of a world drained of the Divine and pulled towards a believing position.

(9) Chapter 8: The Malaises of Immanence, Chapter 10: The Expanding Universe of Unbelief This ongoing tension between Christian Orthodoxy and Exclusive Humanism generates what Taylor calls the “nova effect,” the production of new positions and options. People may feel repelled by the apparent totalitarianism of Orthodoxy, but also be repelled by the sense of flatness, alienation, hollowness, or sense of meaninglessness of an entirely immanent cosmos drained of transcendence. At the same time they are pulled in both directions: attracted by both the Transcendence of Orthodoxy and by the freedom of Exclusive Humanism. This phenomenon of push and pull, revulsion and attraction, Taylor calls “cross pressure:” the extreme poles of exclusive Humanism and Orthodoxy push and pull people towards “alternative spiritual sources.” And so from this “cross pressure” all kinds of new worldview positions, and stances are formed in response to the perceived inadequacies of Exclusive Humanism and Orthodoxy. Indeed, one of the most striking and important features of the secular age is the ongoing sense of the insufficiency, meaninglessness, and hollowness of the modern world. The sense of “emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture; the cardboard quality of supermarkets, or neat row housing in a clean suburb; the ugliness of slag heaps, or an aging industrial townscape.” The sense that modernity alienates us from the depths of beauty, passion, transcendence, or tradition. That the modern moral order and commercial society closes us off from heroism, suffering, and death, enveloping us in a safe, artificial world. If you have the eyes to see, you can see this sense of alienation and meaninglessness reflected all over pop culture, in popular novels, movies, memes, music and so on. A few examples. Take the popular “Doomer” meme, which is described by the authoritative meme website, Know your Meme as: “early 20’s male who suffers from depression and has a bleak outlook on the world…The character is often discussed on various 4chan boards in the context of mental health, drug addiction, economic strife.” The meme is intended to capture the pathetic existence of a “doomer” and features captions such as: “Forgot how to laugh or cry,” “constant existential horror,” “binge watches youtube to keep sane,” or “wishes to die in his sleep every night but always wakes up the next day.”

The song Helplessness Blues by the band Fleet Foxes, bemoans the shallow conformity of modern, disciplined society, with the sarcastic lyrics. The writer has the sarcastic realization that instead of being a “unique snowflake” he would rather be a “function cog” in the machine to keep the great consumer society running:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me

The 1999 hit movie Fight Club has the main character revolting against a fake, plastic, consumer society and embracing heroism and violence in an underground “fight club.” Eventually the “fight club” turns on modern society itself, engaging in acts of vigilantism and sabotage, hoping to destroy it all and return to an age of heroism. There is a revolt here against the stultifying commercial society and a desire to return to a primordial masculine “Death-Drive which has been suppressed by the modern moral order. Or again, Walker Pearcy’s novel The Moviegoer, captures powerfully the sense of malaise of modernity. In a passage near the end of the novel, the main character Binx Bolinx declares that he is:

“…living in fact in the very century of merde, the great [dung]house of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, where everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead, and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.”

(10) Chapter 13: The Age of Authenticity, Chapter 14: Religion Today Finally, there can be no proper accounting of our Secular Age without discussing the revolution of the 1960’s. The 60’s have had a profound impact on the shape of modern culture. In the Sexual Revolution and the “hippie” movement there is a revolt against the modern disengaged, objectifying stance and the stultifying, disciplined consumer society. Modern society is seen as being “conformist, crushing individuality and creativity, as too concerned with production and concrete results, as repressing feeling and spontaneity, as exalting the mechanical over the organic.” In its place we see the emergence of new ideals: equality, anti-consumerism, living in harmony with nature, the unity of opposites (eg. work/play, male/female, heaven/earth, science/spirituality), authenticity and non-conformity, a re-emphasis on the body, sensuality, sexual expression, etc. We see the emergence of the “ethic of authenticity” which is pervasive in our culture. We see this captured in slogans like “follow your dream,” “be yourself,” or “you do you.” According to the implicit ethic of Authenticity, the individual should not conform to ready-made identities, what society tells her or the group he belongs to, but rather embark on their own spiritual quest, find their own path, follow their heart, desires, or inner self. There is an increasing emphasis on self-expression, showcasing and being proud of your own, authentic self. Social media plays a key role here, giving people the opportunity to express and curate their own identities. Connected with this is the rise of “spiritual seekers,” “nones,” the “spiritual journey” and other forms of searching for an authentic spirituality. There can be shallow forms of this such people looking for a spirituality that suits them. Or more profound forms of quest spirituality where people are pursuing meaning, answering a sense of longing, following their intuitions or honestly seeking fulfillment, depth, wholeness, beauty and so on. In this context we see the decline of institutional religion, which is perceived as being dogmatic, rigid, imposing arbitrary rules on people. At the same time, some people are also drawn to older, more liturgical forms of Christianity such as Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. This return to traditional, more deeply rooted forms of life is an attractive option for those feeling alienated from the noisy shallowness of modernity. If Christianity is to reach this generation of seekers, we will have to show and live out how the way of Jesus and union with the triune God can address our deepest longings.


Conditions of Belief: The pre-rational background assumptions, the framework which form the context of our beliefs. Taylor sees the shift to Secularity as a shift in the conditions of belief, as we move from a society in which belief in God is a widely assumed naive, “background assumption”, to a society in which belief in God is one option among many.

Enchanted World: The premodern experience of the world as filled with spiritual presences. (angles, spirits, demons, etc.) Contrasted with the modern “disenchanted world” where we experience the world as inanimate, mechanical, and operating according to scientific principles rather than spiritual forces.

Immanence: Within the universe, “natural”, “this worldly” and immediately obvious to the senses.  

Transcendence: Beyond and distinct from the universe, “supernatural”.

Reform: “Taylor’s umbrella term for a variety of late medieval and early modern movements that were trying to deal with the tension between the requirements of eternal life” and the demands of ordinary life by seeking to raise the general standards of morality. A response to the “two-tiered” religion that culminated in the Protestant Reformation.

Providential Deism: An early modern re-framing or construal of the relationship between God and the world. God is seen primarily as the creator, the one who establishes a rational order of things, which if discerned rightly and followed will lead to human flourishing. Deists rejected any notion of God intervening in creation or revealing himself through divine revelation.

Social Imaginary: “The way that we collectively imagine, even pre-theoretically, our social life in the contemporary Western world.” For example, the Hutterite social imaginary is the way we imagine, conceive, or think of what it means to be a Hutterite and how this conception is shaped by our songs, stories, Lehren, daily interactions, social pressures, Ordnungen ect.

Exclusive Humanism:  A vision of the good life, that affirms the goodness of human flourishing without reference to Transcendence. In contrast to the religious humanisms of the Renaissance, it is an exclusive humanism because it excludes any higher, transcendent goal for human life that would be in tension with “living your best life now.”

Subtraction Story: “Accounts that explain “the secular” as merely the subtraction of religious belief, as if the secular is what’s left over after we subtract superstition. In contrast, Taylor emphasizes that the secular is produced, not just distilled.”

Immanent Frame: “A constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural, (rather than supernatural) order.”

Nova Effect: The explosion of new positions for finding meaning or spirituality which is produced by the felt inadequacy of materialism or Orthodox Christianity.

Cross Pressure: “The simultaneous pressure of various spiritual options; the feeling of being caught between an echo of transcendence and the drive towards immanentization producing the nova effect.”

Ethic of Authenticity: Seeking one’s own authentic path rather than conforming to ready-made identities, such as those proscribed by your religious community, nationality, or cultural background. “Post-60s age in which spirituality is deinstitutionalized and is understood primarily as an expression of “what speaks to me.” Reflective of expressive individualism.”

Further Reading:

The best book to read to really start to dig into what Charles Taylor is getting at, is James K A Smith’s little book How Not to be Secular. In a mere 160 pages, Smith expertly summarizes the main themes of Taylor’s book while drawing connections to contemporary pop culture. Smith’s book is clear, accessible, and immensely helpful, I doubt I would have been able to read Taylor for myself if I hadn’t read Smith first. Smith’s public lectures on A Secular Age, such as here or here, could also be good introductions. A good podcast episode with Smith can be found here.

Andrew Root is another person worth checking out. He has just completed a trilogy called Ministry in A Secular Age looking at faith formation in light of Taylor’s work. He did a series of talks at CMU that are good as well: part 1, part 2. A long but fascinating interview with Andrew Root can be found here.

For some of my own thoughts on A Secular Age, I’ve written a series of blog posts summarizing each of Taylor’s 21 chapters, which I am publishing weekly on this blog. I’ve included an index to each of my blog posts below. (Another blogger has done a series of 10 posts on A Secular Age over at Only A Game.) Look under the tag “Hutterites” to see where I connect the Hutterite experience to Taylor’s work. My blog posts probably aren’t very accessible for those who don’t already have some background with Taylor’s work, so I would recommend reading Smith’s How Not to be Secular, even before you read my blog posts. I’ve also thought about possible responses to A Secular Age in some of my other pieces. See my piece on Christian politics, my piece on Christianity and the Meaning Crisis, my review of The Patient Ferment of the Early Church and my piece the Rationality of the Foolishness of Christ.

Index of Chapter Summaries:

A Secular Age: Introduction

Chapter 1: The Bulwarks of Belief

Chapter 2: The Rise of the Disciplinary Society

Chapter 3: The Great Disembedding

Chapter 4: Modern Social Imaginaries

Chapter 5: The Spectre of Idealism

Chapter 6: Providential Deism

Chapter 7: The Impersonal Order

Chapter 8: The Malaises of Immanence

Chapter 9: The Dark Abyss of Time

Chapter 10: The Expanding Universe of Unbelief

Chapter 11: Nineteenth Century Trajectories

Chapter 12: The Age of Mobilization

Chapter 13: The Age of Authenticity

Chapter 14: Religion Today

Chapter 15: The Immanent Frame

Chapter 16: Cross Pressures

Chapter 17: Dilemmas 1

Chapter 18: Dilemmas 2

Chapter 19: Unquiet Frontiers of Modernity

Chapter 20: Conversions


6 thoughts on “A Secular Age: Shorter Summary

  1. Thanx for this summary. Very helpful. Your use of the “Hutterite experience” was really good. It is tempting for those of us for whom it is alien to romanticize the Hutterite way. Nevertheless, there are important aspects of it that we can all find relevant and SANE.


    1. Thanks Richard, I figured you might find this helpful. Hopefully it wasn’t too bogged down by Taylor speak. On the Hutterite part of it, I think the sense of strangeness many people feel looking in from the outside helps us get a sense of how different the pre-modern world was. Maybe that can give them a glimpse of the strangeness of secularity and the “immanat frame”—it doesn’t have to be this way, this a take, a construction, people can see the world very differently. Likewise, for my Hutterite readers, understanding our own embeddedness in a society in which belief in God is the default option, helps us understand secularity and pre-modernity.


  2. Still love reading your writing Julian, I don’t get around to reading all of it because of my own pile of books I still have to get through but Charles Taylor’s book looks tantalizingly relevant to where I am going with G K Chesterton’s works (which, like yours, are pretty prolific). Your anecdote on Robert Rhodes is a reminder to everyone that In many of its aspects, secular civilization is merely the impersonal, disinterested, systematic pursuit of human welfare which your earlier posts pointed out. A Christian community is no assurance of personal and intimate relational life, but everyone, i think, understands early in life, the basic principle that none of us can help anyone else without becoming involved, without entering with our whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded, or even destroyed in the process.


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