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 18/8/18

Discipleship in the age of Dawkins, Gaga, and Amazon

This podcast from TGC is one of the best I’ve heard in a while. Explaining discipleship in the context of a biblical eschatology vs. three competing modern eschatologies of enlightenment, sexual revolution, and consumerism. The focus on eschatology was extremely interesting and perceptive. If you want to think about how the church can engage modern culture, this may be very useful.

Modern Culture – A Sickness Unto Death

“A Theological Sickness Unto Death – Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age” is the title of a paper published in TGC’s Themelios journal. I have read Rieff’s My Life Among the Deathworks and am working my way through the related A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. For evangelists and apologists wondering what is going on in our culture, and wanting to survey the cultural landscape in order to better strategise our evangelism and apologetics, this article may be helpful.

In Rieff’s view, therapeutic ideology, rather than Communism, was the real revolution of the twentieth century. Compared to Freud, the neo-Marxists were cultural conservatives who still believed in the notion of authority and the idea of a cultural code. The proponents of Freudian therapeutics, on the other hand, would not countenance authoritative frameworks and normative moral codes. In a therapeutic culture, authority disappears. In place of theology and ethics, we are left with aesthetics and the social sciences. Thus, therapeutic culture was born. This tradeoff would turn out to be so destructive that Rieff would describe the United States and Western Europe (rather than the Soviet Union) as the epicenter of Western cultural deformation.

In contrast to the first and second world cultures whose social order is undergirded by a world beyond the visible and a moral authority beyond the self, third world cultures (contemporary Western cultures) sever the connection between sacred order and social order, limiting the “real” world to the visible and locating moral authority in the self. Similarly, whereas each of the first two worlds sought to construct identity vertically from above, our third world rejects the vertical in favor of constructing identity horizontally from below. Rieff knew the result of this rejection would be nihilism: “Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing.

The construction of a fourth world will involve a recovery of sacred order and, by extension, recoveries of revelation and authority, and of transcendent meaning and morality. Recoveries such as this do not enact themselves; they await a people who will speak and act responsibly. This fourth world “people,” Rieff argues, must articulate and embody seemingly defunct notions of truth and virtue, a formidable task in our radically disenchanted and morally permissive third world culture. Nonetheless, in spite of the formidable challenges posed by third world order, there are already cracks in the foundations; although it once seemed liberating to fire God from his post and live without limits, the third world will soon realize that a world without boundaries is a frightening—not a freeing—place. Thus, a responsible people must arise to manifest the beauty of the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.”