A Secular Age

Monday January 21, 2008

A Secular Age

At the beginning of his enormously erudite book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor poses the question of why it was virtually impossible not to believe in God in 1500, whilst five hundred years later for many of us, myself included, this disbelief appears “not only easy, but even inescapable.” To answer this question, Taylor undertakes an exhausting, if not exactly exhaustive, survey of the last five hundred years, attempting to lay bare the historical and cultural roots of secularism.

Taylor recognises at the outset that, although we are accustomed to claiming we live in a secular age, the nature of secularism is itself paradoxical. For despite claims to the secularity of our present era, we can hardly claim to live in an age without religion. Indeed, in the face of many predictions to the contrary, religion seems to continue to flourish. Any worthwhile account of secularism must deal with this seeming paradox, and Taylor does so fairly persuasively. Secularity, in the sense that Taylor is interested in the idea, is not so much the demise of religion, as the rise of a particular set of conditions under which faith is considered “only one human possibility among others”. Whether believers or unbelievers, Taylor argues, we are all in the same boat: we live in an age in which we confront a variety of human possibilities on a spectrum between religious fundamentalism and outright atheism, in which – to use one of his more clumsy formulations – we experience the mutual “fragilization” of perspectives. In the face of this mutual fragilization, the possibility of the kind of naive assent to religious claims that might have been common five hundred years ago is no longer open to us, and we are left in the position of no longer having any clear foundations to establish the possibility of what Taylor calls “fullness”. If secularism is the ostensible subject of his book, the underlying concern is the possibility of this fullness, which Taylor describes as a condition or activity in which there might lie a greater richness, a deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable way of living.

The historical story Taylor tells centres around the changing relationship between the self and the world. In 1500, he writes, the self was porous, and there was no clearly established boundary between the self and the world. Selves were immersed in the world and were a part of the world, a world that was conceived of as being shot through with spirits, demons and moral forces. Yet the past five hundred years have led to a recasting of the self into something that is buffered, set apart from the world. In parallel to this, the world itself has been disenchanted, a theme familiar from Max Weber; it has been emptied of the demons and spirits and moral forces that were once seen as a part of the very fabric of things. The contemporary self is a buffered self; the demons and spirits and moral forces, cast out of the world, have taken refuge where they can, as internalised dynamics playing out their rivalries within the human psyche.

Having set up the problem in this fashion, Taylor sets himself the task of tracing in detail both the causes of this transformation and its implications for the possibility of fullness. Along the way he covers a great deal of territory, drawing on an impressive range of sources. Nevertheless, one glaring flaw of this survey becomes increasingly apparent: Taylor’s almost cavalier indifference to the rise of the empirical sciences. Taylor quite properly is eager to resist as impossibly simplistic those “subtraction stories” that pit rational and progressive science in a continual crusade against irrational and reactionary religion. Such stories he rightly dismisses as chimerical, and they do not do justice to the historical realities: for many of the key figures in the rise of modern science – Galileo and Newton for example – the distinction between rational science and irrational religion would have been incomprehensible. Yet on the other hand, his book exhibits a tendency to continually underplay the role that the sciences have had in eroding the territory upon which the authority of religion in the West has held sway. It is bizarre that a book concerned with the rise of secularism should give as much, if not more, attention to Matthew Arnold as it does to Darwin. To be sure, On Dover Beach is an interesting and compelling poem, but it is interesting and compelling in part because it can be seen to express Arnold’s deep unease at the rise of Darwinian understandings of the world.

Generally speaking, in his treatment of the sciences, Taylor is far stronger on context than he is on content. He is right to say that by the time of Darwin there was already a tendency to see the world in terms of an impersonal order, as he is when he points out that evolutionary thinking in one form or another had been around in Western culture at least since Lucretius; but at the same time he simply does not take the implications of Darwinism seriously enough, soft-pedalling that which is of the most crucial importance in Darwin’s work, and most undermining of earlier conceptions of our human nature: the blind, non-teleological mechanism of natural selection. The best Taylor can do is suggest that Darwin’s findings gave a picture of nature “red in tooth and claw”, but beyond this, he he does not tackle the content of Darwin’s thought to any extent. This does not exactly inspire confidence.

As a result of precisely this kind of favouring of context over content, the picture of science that emerges from Taylor’s book verges on a kind of caricature in which the sciences are presented as both authoritarian and paternalistic, sweeping away our true moral natures, diminishing the possibility of meaningfulness, value and goodness. “Who dares argue with ‘science’,” he asks in a moment of ungraciousness, “whether delivered by doctors, psychiatrists, or visiting economists from the IMF telling you to slash health care in order to achieve fiscal balance?”

The reason for this tendency to devalue the empirical sciences becomes increasingly clear as the book progresses, for one of Taylor’s overriding concerns is to maintain a central role for religion in the contemporary world. To this end, he approvingly cites Stephen Jay Gould’s not particularly helpful idea of religion and science as non-overlapping magisteria, an idea that recapitulates Kant’s division of the world into the two great spheres of nature and of moral reasoning. Gould’s proposal of non-overlapping magisteria concedes the realm of morality too easily to the religious adherents who claim it for their own – religion is, after all, neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for morality – whilst seriously downplaying the extent to which religion has, in fact, attempted to talk about the way the world is. Yet even if we are to go along with Gould, Taylor clearly gives the magisterium of science very short shrift indeed.

Towards the end of the book, Taylor returns to the idea of fullness, and argues that, whilst it is possible to experience fullness as a non-believer, the fullness of believers is, in the end, fuller by far. As a non-believer I have to be sceptical. Late on in the book, he turns to art in an attempt to substantiate this claim, writing that that the challenge to the unbeliever is “to find a non-theistic register in which to respond” to works of art such as those of Dante or Bach, but without impoverishment. The trouble with this is that, for the believer, any response to Dante or Bach, or for that matter to anything else, without reference to God will seem impoverished; and in the end it looks as if Taylor is arguing merely that whatever is good to the unbeliever must be super-good to the believer, simply by virtue of the fact that they are a believer.

There is nothing to object to in the claim that religion can be a means to a sense of fullness: it clearly serves such a role for Taylor himself, as it does for many millions of other believers. But the claim that this religiously-inspired fullness is somehow fuller is a hard one to substantiate. For myself, I find it difficult to lament the loss of Taylor’s enchanted world. When Taylor suggests that God is “the supreme tennis player, who responds to our bad moves with new ways of countering them”, it is not so much that I disagree, it is rather that I am simply baffled by what he could possibly mean; and when he informs us that “the wrath of God… is now seen as the inseparable accompaniment of a rejection of God’s love, and the consequent isolation and division amongst sinners,” I find myself thinking that if the enchanted world contains such terrors as this, it is a world that I am pleased to live without. I am happy to leave Taylor to his demons, spirits and moral forces. Meanwhile, unbeliever that I am, the astonishment and wonder that I feel at the richness of the natural world, and the love of those worldly human virtues of kindness and wisdom, leave me with a sense of fullness that finds itself lacking nothing.

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