Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age

Many of you will have noticed that I reference the book A Secular Age by Charles Taylor quite regularly. Outside of scripture, no other book has been more influential in shaping my thinking about the Western world. Where we are, how we got here, what it means, and where we’re going.

If for some reason you don’t feel like spending 4 months digging through this 900 page tome, then there is an alternative that I haven’t read myself, but some of my friends recommend. From James Smith, the author of You Are What you Love, it is a summary of Taylor, containing many of his most important ideas, and it seems to attempt to make them explicitly and directly relevant to the Christian apologist. I also believe that Smith is Reformed, which always wins points in my book.

If those are too hard (and I strongly encourage you to take one of those two options, even as audiobooks or something) then I have found a reasonably good series of YouTube videos, they seem to be recordings of a philosophy class at a university discussing the book. They are not an alternative, but they may be helpful.

Charles Taylor on the Nature of Modern Atheism

…the prospect that religion might disappear under the forces of scientific refutation is abandoned, but the prediction that in humanity’s search for meaning in the future, religious answers will be relegated to the margins

But religion as a whole dissapear or be marginalized in this fashion? At first sight, there seems to be a difficulty with this, in that the very self-understanding of unbelief, that whereby it can present itself as mature, courageous, as a conquest over the temptations of childishness, dependence, or lesser fortitude, requires that we remain aware of the vanquished enemy, of the obstacles which have to be climbed over, of the dangers which still await those whose brave self-responsibility falters. Faith has to remain a possibility, or else the self-valorizing understanding of atheism flounders. Imagining that faith must just disappear is imagining a fundamentally different form of non-faith, one quite unconnected to identity. It would be one in which it would be as indifferent and unconnected to my selse of my ethical predicament that I have no faith, as it is today that I don’t believe, for instance, in phlogiston or natural places. This I suppose is something like what Bruce is predicting

Religion remains ineradicably on the horizon of areligion, and vice versa. This is another indication that the “official story” needs to be understood on a deeper level, as I have been suggesting above.

Something to think about as we engage with our atheist friends, especially those of the New Atheist tradition. It is always good to try to understand the deeper motivations and frameworks of the debates that we have, as well as critically evaluating arguments. We are not just out to win minds, but hearts.

All Religions are the Same: Secular Propoganda

We’ve all heard it before. It’s not really even an argument, just a rhetorical flourish. “All religions are basically the same”, says the atheist. They don’t even intend to argue for this point, they assume everyone will agree with them, and this is, in fact, the premise of their (normally implicit) argument that atheism is superior to religion. And of course, we might just chalk this up to the endemic ignorance that characterizes the New Atheist movement. But I think that there is actually a deeper and more insidious reason why this particular piece of ignorance is so prevalent.

Secularism is founded on what Charles Taylor calls “subtraction narratives”. The idea that religion and silly superstition were holding us back, and once we threw off these burdens and broke free from these chains, we were able to pursue science, rationalism, and humanism. That merely subtracting religion creates a secular person, a scientist and a rationalist and a humanist. Or at the societal level, once we stopped spending all our time worrying about religion and started actually thinking about the real world, we were able to produce the Enlightenment. Religion only holds us back and represses us, and once it is gone we advance.

This is, of course, a false narrative. In reality, the turn from Christendom to the secular age was not one of subtraction, but substitution. We didn’t lose a worldview of religion, we substituted an enchanted worldview for a disenchanted one, a theistic one for an atheistic one, a communal one for an individualistic one, etc. For a fuller treatment, read Taylor’s A Secular Age. But the point is this: we didn’t strip back the religion to find the bare “secular” man ready to be a humanist. Religion was replaced with a secular worldview, with humanism, with another set of values and presuppositions.

The secularist, now embedded in this new worldview (which is often naively accepted and never questioned) must now build a narrative of progress. And in this narrative of progress we contrast the regressive religion with the enlightened secularism. This is what motivates the grouping of all religions together: to maintain their worldview, the secularist has to see all religions as fundamentally the same, so that secularism can be fundamentally different from each, and fundamentally better. A sign of progress of humanity.

But in reality, secularism is just another worldview. It’s not fundamentally different to a “religious” worldview, and in fact I’d call it a religious worldview itself. It attempts to situate us in the world with grand narratives of progress and humanism (as opposed to grand narratives of salvation and redemption), it provides its own set of values and doctrines which can’t be questioned. It even gives a “sacred order” from which we derive a “social order” (see: Rieff’s Deathworks). But the secularist can’t accept that secularism is one competing religion among many, and must find some way to make it fundamentally different.

The truth is that not all religions are the same. They differ not only in doctrine or history, but in values, in the kinds of community or society they create, etc. Some religions are implicitly hostile to what we today think of as science, while one religion (Christianity) gave birth to science. Only a Christian worldview can give rise to something like science, while a Buddhist worldview cannot. For a fuller treatment, see Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason. Some religions lead to ethical treatment of minorities and disadvantaged groups, some do not. Some religions lead to societies governed for the welfare of the citizens, and some do not.

Look at all the secular values that I have appealed to there: science, humanism, rationalism, equality. The reason I do this is to point out that even from a secular point of view, treating all religions as fundamentally the same is foolish and ignorant. But of course the secularist has deep pressure to remain ignorant and foolish here, because part of the narrative of their religion requires that all other religions are the same.


Saturday Links 25/8/18


Sorry posts have been a bit sparse lately, I have just started a full time (secular) job. I still need to work out how I am going to manage my time between all of my projects.

Biblical Justification for Classical Arguments

Since I am Reformed, I have often been criticised for my use of classical apologetics such as Cosmological Arguments on the basis that it has an unbiblical anthropology. The presuppositionalist claims that we shouldn’t grant the ground to the atheist that they can use reason, since reason is grounded in God and depends on God. Under their worldview, there is no God, so there is no justification for why they can use reason.

Further, claims the presuppositionalist, by doing this we allow man to sit in judgement over God. Man gets to weigh the evidence, and then use their reason (for which they depend on God) to judge whether God is God or not, whether God exists or not. But in reality, God is the judge, and we have no authority over Him.

I think there is some merit to this, but I do not think this disqualifies classical arguments. And indeed, I think there is biblical precedent for these arguments and a place for them in apologetic practice.

First and most obviously, we appeal to Romans 1. Here is the section I have in mind (please read the context yourself):

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

Why are men without excuse? Because knowledge of God was freely available to them: His eternal power and divine nature are displayed in creation. But they did not approve of having God in their knowledge, so they suppress the truth and their foolish hearts were darkened.

This affirms what cosmological arguments claim: that we can look at the world, and reason about it, and deduce that there is a God. This also applies to fine-tuning arguments. Paul affirms that this kind of reasoning (though not individual arguments, just the kind of reasoning) is valid, and in fact, people are morally guilty for failing to accept the conclusions of this kind of reasoning.

Now the presuppositionalist claims that yes, this is the case. But their foolish hearts were darkened, and they cannot see this any longer, as they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. The only thing that can undarken their hearts is God regenerating them, the hearing of the Gospel, and faith in God.

I agree. And I think that no apologetic encounter is complete without the Gospel, and in fact, the proclamation of the Gospel must always be central. Don’t get me wrong, if you walk up to someone, run them through the LCA, and leave, you’ve done them basically no good.

But I don’t think that means that cosmological arguments do no good. Part of the proclamation of the Gospel is that there is a God, there is a Designer and a Judge, and we have failed to live up to His standards. And if we must justify that claim, we will, and we will use cosmological arguments as part of that justification.

And of course, no-one will listen unless God regenerates their heart. But if God does regenerate their heart, as is His prerogative, then cosmological arguments which demonstrate to their mind the truth of God can be an effective part of Gospel witness. And if He doesn’t, then they expose inconsistency. More on that later.

The second main point I want to make is this. The presuppositionalist says that the atheist has no ground for using reason without appealing to God, no reason to believe that reason is reliable apart from God. I want to point out that that is precisely the same way cosmological arguments proceed, but in reverse. The presuppositionalist claims “Reason is reliable only if God exists”, and the classical apologist claims “If reason is reliable, God exists”. These two statements are logically equivalent. For we assume reason and conclude God, so reason entails God. And so when the atheist says they can use reason but have no God, then if the classical arguments are sound, we can say that they are inconsistent.

And notice that no matter which path we take, classical or presuppositional, we must appeal to reason at some point. If we do present a convincing argument that reason is grounded in God, the atheist must use reason to accept the argument. We both assume they are able to reason, even if they don’t have a sufficient ground for it.

Now it is true that discussions cosmological arguments can often get lost in what we might call meaningless minutia, and we lose our focus on God. But I submit that not only is this true for any kind of argument, but also that it isn’t a huge problem. While every conversation we have must have Christ at the centre, not every sentence needs to. Clearly, in negative apologetics, we know this, when we respond to a supposed contradiction in the Old Testament we normally don’t talk much about Christ in that particular subpoint.<

We also see from Paul at Mars Hill that it is valid to in a sense “enter into” someone else’s worldview in order to preach the Gospel. Paul begins his evangelistic and apologetic work at Mars Hill by appealing to a god the Athenians worshipped, the unknown God. He identifies this god with God, claiming that this God created the universe and everything in it. He then quotes parts of some works describing Zeus and attributes them to God. Paul enters into their worldview to make a point, to demonstrate the truth of God inside their worldview. Because of course, we know that any worldview without God is inconsistent. So if we enter their worldview and pretend that it is consistent, we ought to be able to prove God exists. This is what cosmological arguments do: let’s enter into the atheistic worldview, pretend that we can reason, and deduce that God exists.

But as we saw above, the dark-hearted fools who are unregenerate won’t accept it. More often than not, they admit they have no response to the argument, but retreat to “Well sure maybe God exists. But if He does, He is a moral monster and is evil and I would never worship Him.” And this is the appropriate place to quote Romans 9: “And who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”. We affirm, like our concerned presuppositionalist does above, that God is the judge and we are not. We point out their pride and wrong-headedness in sitting in judgement over God.

They pretend their disagreement with God is intellectual, not moral. But we know from our study of Romans 1 that it is indeed moral. Cut away their intellectual pretence, and they are forced to admit the truth. This is where we cut to the heart: man placing Himself above God. And if God grants them a regenerated heart to see this and repent, then they can turn and be saved.

This is why I think cosmological arguments, and other classical arguments, are valuable. Never do they comprise the entirety of our apologetic preaching or methodology, but they are valuable components. Paul affirms their soundness in Romans and applies a similar methodology (to Pagans rather than atheists) at Mars Hill. Not the only valuable arguments, but good ones to have in our bag when the need arises.

Saturday Links 18/8/18

Saturday Links 11/8/18

Is Teaching Children Religion Indoctrination?

This point often comes up in debate: the atheist will claim that teaching your children that your religion is true is indoctrination. They will claim that we should tell our children that our beliefs are merely one among many, or that we should present our beliefs and let our children decide for themselves.

I think for the Christian to do that would be child abuse, or at the very least neglect.

Consider this analogy: should I teach my sons to treat women as being equally valuable to men?

The atheist cannot say “no”. Of course we should teach them that, we should teach them common decency and morality and how to be good people. We shouldn’t leave open to them the option of treating women poorly. We should explain to them why we must treat women as being equally valuable (they are as much persons as you are, etc.) but in the end, they must accept our answer here. Any other answer is unacceptable, and they will be punished for it if they don’t treat women well.

The atheist might say “but we are sure about women being equally valuable to men, we are not sure about religion”. But of course, the Christian is sure about religion. The atheist, if atheism is true, is right in saying that we shouldn’t teach children to be Christians. We shouldn’t teach them false things. But of course the atheist can’t assume atheism to be true to make their point, they are attempting to convince me, a Christian. And if Christianity is true, and if we are sure of it (as I am), then this argument fails.

The atheist might attempt to sidestep this and suggest that since people disagree about religion, even if we are confident ourselves we shouldn’t teach it. But they leave themselves open to the obvious response: people disagree about treating women equally too. Lots of them. I am sure you’ve probably noticed that.

Finally, the atheist says that gender equality is based on reason and evidence, and we present this to our children. While we just force our children to believe Christianity without presenting any reason or evidence. But of course that is false, a good Christian parent is one who makes a compelling age-appropriate case for Christianity. Not only with arguments, but with how they live their own life, full of love and holiness and obedience.

So where does the atheist go from here? Can they make a case that we should teach our sons to treat women as being equally valuable to men, while we should not teach them to follow Christ? I do not think the atheist can make this case.

If God is omniscient, all possible universes exist in his mind, and you shouldn’t expect any specific afterlife.

This is the title of a reddit post which presents a fascinating and original argument against God. It contains some premises that many Christians will be reluctant to accept, but given my particular idiosyncratic ontology and philosophy of mind, it does seem to be effective against me. Unless I can come up with a good response, I may be forced to change some of my beliefs. But it is early days yet. Here is the argument:

  • P1: God exists and is omniscient.
  • P2: Omniscience entails fully detailed, perfect knowledge/representation of everything.
  • P3: “Everything” includes all “possible/hypothetical worlds” (if this is not true, God can’t entertain counterfactuals, which is a pretty weird hole in omniscience).
  • P4: These possible/hypothetical worlds would be known in full, perfect detail/representation (P2)
  • P5: A perfect representation of a person would experience itself as an actual person with consciousness (like a simulation or “matrix”).
  • P6: Some portion of these worlds contain holy books telling them that God has such and such plans for it and the people within (P3).
  • P7: Some percentage of the worlds in P6 in which a given person experiences going to hell, or just living on forever in their body, in whatever sorry state they died in, and every other possible afterlife. Regardless of what they did in life (P3).
  • P8: There are more undesirable afterlives than desirable ones, as there are more ways for something to be miserable or suffering-inducing than for them to be perfect and happy.
  • P9: There is no way to determine whether one is in the specific world God created (if he even created any), or instead exists within a “simulation world” (P5 & P6).
  • P10: There are more “hypothetical/possible” worlds than actual, specifically created ones (trivially true unless he creates all of them, in which case the conclusion is still valid).


I give some suggestions towards a response in the thread, but I am not yet convinced I have a good response. Probably there is something simple which I am missing, but I thought I’d share it to praise it for being original, and to get the opportunity to hear other people’s opinions on it.

Mackie’s Problem of Evil

John Mackie has presented one of the most popular formulations of the problem of evil, it can be accessed here. I will not reproduce all of his arguments, but he attempts to argue that the existence of a totally good, all-powerful God is incompatible with the existence of evil.

Of course, many believers have put forward objections to these arguments over the centuries, and so Mackie attempts to show why those objections fail. I think one of these attempts is no good, and I will briefly explain why.

One of the primary tools of the theist here is the appeal to the higher order good. God may allow the evil of fear to exist so that the higher order good courage might exist, for example. Clearly, courage would not exist without fear, and courage is good. Perhaps in God’s mind, the goodness of courage makes the evil of fear worth it. I don’t intend to imply that we can somehow measure the goodness of the situations and compare them numerically, I certainly don’t want to endorse utilitarianism. I only need to say that there is something about the higher order good case that justifies the lower order evil.

Mackie responds that sure, we can say that. But then we also have 2nd order evils, perhaps cowardice. And now we need to justify the second order evil. And of course, the tempting route for the theist is to justify it using perhaps a third order good. But Mackie says (denoting a second order evil by “evil (2)”):

But even if evil (2) could be explained in this way, it is fairly clear that there would be third order evils contrasting with this third order good: and we should be well on the way to an infinite regress, where the solution of a problem of evil, stated in terms of evil (n), indicated the existence of an evil (n + 1), and a farther problem to be solved.

I think this response is not very good. I think Mackie has assumed without justification that there exist n’th order evils that need to be explained. But it’s not clear to me that that is the case. I couldn’t tell you how high in order evils go, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that good could go a level higher. It’s not surprising that there would be an asymmetry between good and evil, where good is in some sense “more real” than evil. Many classical theologians have formulated notions of good that are convertible with being, so goodness is being and being is goodness. And under an idea like this, we would be shocked to see levels of evil for each corresponding level of good. Eventually, we’d expect to get to a point where good was simply higher than evil, and no equivalent high order of evil existed. There is a sense in which good is “bigger” than evil.

Mackie then moves on to discuss a particular case of the higher order good: free will. Being a Calvinist I am not particularly interested in making a free will defence when it comes to the problem of evil, nor defending a libertarian free will from Mackie’s objections in the paper. But I think this flaw with higher order goods is sufficient for the Christian to remain justified in their beliefs.