A Secular Age: Introduction

In this series of blog posts, I will summarize each chapter of Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age.

In the introduction of A Secular Age, Charles Taylor seeks to define key terms and outline the scope of the book. Taylor begins by exploring what it means to say that we live in a “secular” age. He distinguishes between 3 senses of the secular. The first, which he calls secularity 1 is the separation of Church and state.  While in the past, God and religion infused all of social and political life, in a secular 1 society, God or religion no longer plays any major public or social role. In a secular 2 society, there has been a decline in religious belief and practice. In a secular 3 society, belief in God has moved from being axiomatic and homogeneous across a society, to being contested and “one option among many.” It is this third sense of the secular, concerning the “conditions of belief”, that Taylor is interested in. How could western societies go from it being almost impossible not to believe in God, to belief in God being merely one option among many? Taylor believes that this was made possible by major shifts in the cultural imaginary, in our background assumptions that took place in the transition from pre-modernity to modernity. Taylor doesn’t think that what is at stake here is so much a contest of beliefs, science versus God for example—he sees no conflict between the two. Rather, Taylor sees the shift to secularity 3, as primarily one of “lived experience.” 

Taylor is also interested in exploring the differences between the “lived experience” of  contemporary believer and unbeliever. To do this, Taylor gives us a map of the highs and lows of our existential condition. First, there is what he calls “fullness”: “Somewhere, in some activity, or condition, lies a fullness, a richness; that is, it that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more what it should be.” Fullness is where life is the most true, real, good and beautiful, this sense of the ordinary being shattered or transformed by something beyond. Second, on the opposite end of fullness, is a sense of exile from fullness and a fear of never returning. Third, Taylor posits a “middle condition,” the place where one is freed from exile, but not in fullness, and yet striving towards it, and occasionally achieving it. Taylor notes the asperational quality of the middle condition, we are striving towards a place we are not in now. While these three conditions, fullness, exile and the middle condition, are part of the experience of both the unbeliever and the believer, Taylor notes that there is a difference of how this common experienced is lived and interpreted. The believer experiences fullness as a gift from Beyond himself, while the unbeliever, experiences fullness as coming, in some sense, from within himself or the immanent order. These differences in existential outlook will become more important in later chapters.

Taylor notes a key shift that has taken place in our secular 3 age. While we, in a secular 3 age, recognize a distinction between our experience of the fullness, and our construal of it, (What does our sense of fullness mean? What is the source of our fullness? God or some inner depth?) pre-moderns saw no such distinction. Our religious construals of the world are captured and disrupted by doubt, while for the ancients, spiritual realities were just “facts” in the world. We alternate between an “engaged” stance—living within our religious consensual—to a “disengaged” stance, recognizing our construal as one among many. We have moved, in our secular 3 age, from naive belief, to reflective belief. In Christendom, there was naive belief in God, in our secular 3 age, disbelief almost approaches naive belief: 

“But we have also changed from a condition in which belief was the default option… to a condition in which, for more and more people, unbelieving construals seem at first blush the only plausible ones. They can only approach, without ever gaining the condition of “naive” atheists, in the way that their ancestors were naive, semi-pagan believers; but this seems to them the overwhelmingly plausible construal and it is difficult to understand people adopting another.” 

Taylor concludes the introduction with a definition of religion. He notes that religion is related to or involves a belief in transcendence in three distinct ways. First, religion recognizes a higher good than human flourishing. Taylor sees some similarities between Buddhism and Christianity in this regard: “…the believer or devout person is called on to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing in their own case; they are called on, that is, to detach themselves from their own flourishing, to the point of the extinction of the self in one case, or that of the renunciation of human fulfillment to serve God in the other.” A secular 3 society on the other hand, sees no higher good than human flourishing. Taylor calls this “exclusive humanism:” “By this I mean a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.” Like ancient Epicureanism, when the gods cease to concern us, all that is left is human flourishing. A second sense in which religion involves transcendence is the belief that you can be transformed by something beyond yourself to allow you to peruse a transcendent good. Finally, religion involves a belief that life extends beyond death. So, religion involves transcendence in three ways: a good beyond human flourishing, transformative power coming from beyond yourself and a life beyond death. 

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