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A Secular Age (1): Charles Taylor

Charles_taylor0314 The Canadian scholar, Charles Taylor, has been described as the greatest philosopher working in the English language today, and although he has yet to definitively claim the title of Canada’s greatest philosopher, it is perhaps only a matter of time before he earns this recognition. His work demonstrates an absurd degree of erudition, effortlessly moving between French, English and German philosophical schools, and draws together themes and ideas from disparate sources, often putting a fresh spin on the works of philosophers that are otherwise ignored (such as Hegel) or subject to suspicion (such as Heidegger).

Born in 1931, Taylor pursued a brilliant academic career in the 1950s and 1960s, which culminated in his doctorate at Oxford University, under the supervision of Isaiah Berlin and Elizabeth Anscombe (a student of Wittgenstein), both of whom are key figures in twentieth century philosophy. He has since held numerous professorships at major universities. Politically active, he has four times run for office in his home state of Quebec, most famously against future prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 1965.

Despite the brilliance of his work, Taylor suffers from a lack of recognition – both among the academy, and in wider circles. There are probably two key factors behind his relative obscurity, the first of which is the rambling quality of his prose. While all Taylor’s work is expertly studious, brevity has never been his strong suit (the book we will look at in this serial is veritable tome, weighing in at 850 pages and 3 lbs). Taylor’s other problem is that the recurrent theme behind his philosophy is a critique of naturalism – that is, the idea that all human and social phenomena can be understood reductively on the model of natural behaviour, using canonical scientific explanations. Since naturalistic beliefs are endemic in the academic world and enjoy something of an “intellectual hegemony”, this somewhat marginalises Taylor's work. However, this does not make Taylor an enemy of the scientific endeavour, but rather a staunch critic of what might be considered the substitution of scientific assumptions for philosophy.

Taylor grew up in a family that represented a collision of cultures and beliefs. His mother’s family were Catholic, he father was an Anglican and his grandfather a “Voltarian anti-clerical” atheist with a passionate love of Paris, all of which pulled him in disparate directions. Although as an adult he was to become a practicing Catholic, he says that he “didn’t have a faith that came from the Bible”, and in fact only came to the Church as a result of his fascination with French-language theology in the early 1950s that was eventually to inspire Vatican II. As a theist, Taylor is practically a lone voice in modern philosophy, yet his politics are vastly outside of conventional Catholic rhetoric, marking him out as a genuinely unique thinker.

His mentor, the late Isaiah Berlin, said of Taylor: “Whatever one may think of his central beliefs, [they] cannot fail to broaden the outlook of anyone who reads his works or listens to his lectures or, indeed, talks to him”. Indeed, while I enjoyed reading Taylor’s short work The Ethics of Authenticity, reading A Secular Age has had a profoundly transformative effect on me, not least of which has been a vast reduction in my hostility towards militant atheism, in part because I have become accustomed to being a lone voice on this subject (neither embracing materialist polemic nor retreating into dogmatic certitude) and reading someone else whose concerns accord with my own has brought me to a thoroughly new and invigorated space.

The focus of A Secular Age is summarised in the opening paragraph of the first chapter:

One way to put the question that I want to answer here is this: why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?

It is this phenomena which Taylor considers the central issue of secularity, and he identifies three distinct readings of the term. Firstly, the pragmatic shift in the cultural centrality of religion, manifested in the emptying of public spaces of reference to God or ultimate reality, which Taylor denotes as secularity 1. Secondly, the way the term is sometimes used by materialist intellectuals, namely the falling off of religious belief and practice, which Taylor denotes as secularity 2. Finally, the change expressed by the question above, namely the change in the conditions of belief, for instance, the move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and unproblematic to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace. This is what Taylor terms secularity 3, and it is in this sense that he refers to our time as “a secular age”, as this quote attests:

So what I want to do is examine our society as secular in this third sense, which I could perhaps encapsulate in this way: the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith.

Over the next two months we will take a journey through the last five hundred years of the history of Europe and North America (“the West”, which Taylor also terms “the North Atlantic World”, and includes Australia within its remit), and the philosophical currents that have given birth to modernity. Against this background, we will be exploring Taylor’s carefully constructed argument against the conventional narrative of secularization – namely that the age of religion is ending. As Taylor writes at the end of his introduction:

I will be making a continuing polemic against what I call “subtraction stories”. Concisely put, I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizon, or illusion, or limitations of knowledge… Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.

The very essence of this exploration is the idea that “our past is sedimented in our present, and we are doomed to misidentify ourselves as long as we can’t do justice to where we come from.”

Next week: Social Imaginaries


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Hmmm, as an asian person I found myself being terribly offended at his anglocentrism.

Perhaps it's reflexive racism, or maybe your choice of quotes. Or not.

Certainly the notion that "Western Society" has moved from 1500 to 2000 in a straight narrow line from more religious to less religious seems silly to me.

To me, it's makes more sense to consider that all viewpoints have been broadened due to multiculturalism - by being exposed to the notion of other Faiths, it's easier to start questioning your own.

I'm very intrigued by this series. I studied a little bit of Anscombe's work in university, but alas, am not yet familiar with Taylor. Looking forward to subsequent posts with much anticipation.

Hey Chris--I've still got two of Taylor's mammoth tomes paperweighting around the house, but I'm sure you won't mind if I treat this series as a somewhat abridged version :) Or hopefully a prompt to resume reading him. Very happy to see this post.

zeech: If Taylor's work and focus is on Western society and religion, I fail to see sense of charging him with anglocentrism.
Moreover, nothing about his work suggests the reductive view of a "straight narrow line" from religion to irreligion. In his (delightfully brief) Ethics of Authenticity, Taylor affirms that modern, individual belief can be far more meaningful than it was in homogenously theistic ages past.
Multiculturalism and pluralism of all stripes generally enrich, and that's why he's talking about "stories of subtraction"--that rich faith traditions of every kind have been squeezed out of meaningful social and cultural spheres.

"why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?"

'cause if you didn't, you'd be in the torture chamber until you did! Have you seen some of the stuff they've got in those places? I'd kiss a statue's feet as many times as it took if I was being threatened with that : (

Jack: Well, I havent read Taylor so I'm talking from a perspective of ignorance here, I stated that already.

But I do feel that when you decide to exclusively focus on the west and religion, and then make statements like "the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others" is a bit myopic in that he's describing in terms of a linear shift rather than a mere demographic broadening.

Hmm, I just invented some new terms that dont mean anything :P

Also, I really question that "in 1500 it was impossible not to believe in God". Common sense suggests that most people of the culture he's referring to believed in God in the same way most people today believe in science - they've been taught about it, and know about it, and don't question it, but they aren't passionate about it, nor do they derive any particular meaning from it.

This probably shouldnt be lumped together with the "faith" or "belief" we normally mean when talking about religious people.

A similar example are some Ukranian friends I had - they were raised under the orthodox church, they go to church regularly and participate in events, when asked if they believed in God they'd shrug and go, "well, yeah", but ultimately they think the church is mostly BS and go there for socialising and cultural reasons.

They dont particularly think or care deeply about religious matters, and if you tried to engage them in theological discussion you'd find that ultimately their true beliefs more closely resemble agnosticism - they dont know, and dont particularly care about god.

zeech: Taylor focuses on the West in order to narrow the discussion to something manageable in 850 pages, and narrows it to religion because that's the topic he wants to talk about. You can't accuse him of bias simply because he's written about one topic instead of all topics! :)

Jack's take on this is the correct interpretation: it's not that Taylor doesn't care about what happens outside of Western culture, or recognise influences from outside it (more on that further down the line) it's that this is his area of expertise, and to widen the debate to cover the changes in other cultures would make the book impossible for him to write.

And you grossly misunderstand the culture of the early modern era in Europe if you think that belief in God wasn't central to society at the time. More on that next week, although by virtue of the abridgment I have to miss out all the amazing details about life in the 1500-1650 period that Taylor provides. If you truly want to get that experience, you'll have to read the book yourself. :)

I strongly advise you to suspend your conclusions about the narrative that Taylor constructs in this book until you've seen a little more of it, although I am sure you will still have plenty more to object to further down the line. ;)

Deirdra: thanks for the encouragement! Many of the players here forget that I need some of that from time to time. ;)

Sirc: ha, I'll resist countering this on the assumption that you're joking and don't really believe that the Spanish Inquisition fully encapsulates 500 years of Christian history. :) I will, however, note that not believing in God was seldom the central issue for such matters. That's a distinctly modern misconception.

Jack: I appreciate your position here - it's taken me over a year to read "A Secular Age". It's been utterly rewarding, but boy has it been hard work!

Happy to be your source for abridgment, and if this prompts you to pursue the tomes further so much the better. ;)

Best wishes!

*offers words of encouragement too*

This sounds yet more interesting stuff that will be, as often things are here, way way over my head, but I'll enjoy reading and trying to see what I can glean from it. :)

Thanks Rik! This shouldn't be too difficult to follow, I think, but then I frequently misjudge just how complex my posts will be. :)

Best wishes!

Thanks for info on Charles Taylor Just heard him speak on C-span and was very interested if his book read like he talks.
I see him as an original thinker. q

HarOLD: Taylor is one-of-a-kind. His books have a very conversational feel, often having been adapted from lectures he gave, so I imagine he does read much as he talks (I've only read him, alas, so can't really comment). There's a serial here on "A Secular Age" which is a good introduction to that mammoth work if you're interested.

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