A Secular Age – Charles Taylor

There are at least three different senses of the word ‘secular’ as pointed out by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age:

Secular – the classic definition. The secular in its earliest meaning just refers to any activities which are not sacred, even though all public space was in some sense perceived to be sacred in this early period. Secular as non-religious activities means anyone, including religious people, could engage in secular work in this sense. For instance, a monk making beeswax candles would be engaged in secular work.
Secularism – a move towards non-religious neutrality. Secularism as a process of ‘emptying out’ of the sacred from public spaces begins after the Enlightenment. There is an attempt to be neutral, for instance a secular government would seek to remain neutral with reference to religion. The development of the word secular from a mere adjective to an ‘ism’ expresses a change in the way society perceives the sacred. A secular person is one with no religious affiliation.
Secularity – when belief is one option among many. Taylor gives a third meaning of secular which goes beyond the usual two. Secularity focuses on the lived conditions of belief. In modern Western society everyone, even the most fervent believer, is aware of the plurality of possibilities when it comes to belief. On this definition, secularity is an unavoidable quality of the modern age, because everyone is aware of the possibility of other faith options – therefore both believer and non-believer are secular in this sense.

These three definitions of the secular are convenient because they mirror the process by which the modern world has come to perceive questions of faith and their relation to social and political realities. In fact, Taylor shows in his book the surprising extent to which the ‘neutral public space’ of the secular in fact originates in religious processes, and is bound up with them.

Therefore, when we talk about the ‘rise of secularism’ we are usually talking about a process perceived to have begun around the time of the Enlightenment, in which religion is ‘pushed back’ from certain spaces to create ‘neutral’ zones in which reason is the sole authority. Some key points on a timeline would look like this:

Key Phases in development of ‘the secular’

  • Reformation – not to be overlooked as a precursor to secularisation,
  • Religious wars of 17th cent – often cited as stimulus to development of Enlightenment
  • The Enlightenment – French and Scottish – thinkers like Diderot, Voltaire, Hume began to question and even mock religious beliefs
  • The French Revolution – political application of ideals – attempt to rename days of week/months as a way to abolishing sacred time; destruction of religious monuments, the erection of ‘Goddess Reason’ in Notre Dame Cathedral, the beheading of the Carmelite nuns at Compiegne, the persecution of Catholics in the Vendee
  • Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
  • The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud
  • Globalisation/multiculturalism
  • The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

For many religious people, secularisation as conceived in Taylor’s second sense is problematic because it relegates faith to a private, inner decision which has no bearing on one’s public life. This is because religion is seen to be a matter of private choice, which should not be allowed to impinge on decisions such as rights, equality etc. One example of this would be pro-choice demonstrations in which people have signs saying “Keep Your Rosaries off our Ovaries” – the implication being that Catholic pro-lifers praying for unborn children are unwelcome because they are interfering with a woman’s ‘reproductive rights’.

The very notion that religion should or can be relegated to a ‘private’ sphere is itself not able to be established a priori from the nature of reason, although there is sometimes a strong secular narrative that this is the case. For instance, the most common narrative concerning the development of secular modernity describes the development of rational neutral secular public spaces as the inevitable result of the waning of the superstitions of organised religions. When these superstitions were seen clearly (because science was able to give credible ‘material’ explanations which didn’t involve a supernatural agency), the story goes, the grip of organised religious faith was loosened on society, and was able to be ‘rolled back’ so that reason could assume its rightful authority.

This misses two key points. The first is the extent to which processes of reform and intellectual currents within Christianity actually prepared the ground for ‘the secular’, and the second is the problematic nature of the idea of ‘neutral’ public space, grounded as it is in value-laden liberal assumptions about the nature of reason, the individual and society.

As Charles Taylor puts it:
secularism in sense 2 has often been seen as the decline of Christian belief; and this decline as largely powered by the rise of other beliefs, in science, reason, or by the deliverances of particular sciences: for instance, evolutionary theory, or neuro-physiological explanations of mental functioning…Part of my reason for wanting to shift the focus to the conditions of belief, experience and search is that I’m not satisfied with this explanation of secularism 2: science refutes and hence crowds out religious belief. I’m dissatisfied on two, related levels. First, I don’t see the cogency of the supposed arguments from, say, the findings of Darwin to the alleged refutations of religion. And secondly, partly for this reason, I don’t see this as an adequate explanation for why in fact people abandoned their faith, even when they themselves articulate what happened in such terms as “Darwin refuted the Bible”, as allegedly said by a Harrow schoolboy in the 1890s”


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