Charles Taylor, “Introduction”

Charles Taylor, Canadian Philosopher

Charles Taylor, Canadian Philosopher

Our modern civilization is made up of a host of societies, sub-societies and milieux, all rather different from each other.  But the presumption of unbelief has become dominant in more and more of these milieux; – Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, pp.12-13

A good Introduction is hard to come by.  Which is why it is such a treat to read Taylor’s “Introduction” to A Secular Age, the publication of his enhanced Gifford Lectures from 1999.  Now, the Gifford’s don’t always produce good books.  On the other hand, there are three of which I can name off the top of my head: Varieties of Religious Experience by William James; The Nature and Destiny of Man by Reinhold Niebuhr; God In Creation by Jurgen Moltmann.  These three are seminal works by acclaimed thinkers whose appearances in Edinburgh have been supplemented by the publication of their lectures.  A Secular Age joins the ranks of these other important publications, having won the 2007 Templeton Prize For Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities.  That is no small achievement, indeed.

The best “Introductions” do just a few things, and do them well: they define the subject matter, including the terms under examination; they explain why the subject matter is or is not limited in thus-and-such a way and perhaps not another way; finally, they lay the groundwork for the reasons why the method chosen to investigate the questions under consideration is preferable to alternatives.  Taylor does all of this in his usual manner, which is to say combining clarity with a roundabout, almost apologetic tone for not having taken other paths, or leaving alternatives behind.  Consider, for example his discussion of the definition of “secular”, the word under examination, and one which, Taylor admits, all users assume to know even as there is much confusion about it:

What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age?  Almost everyone would agree that in some sense we do: I mean the “we” who live in the West, or perhaps Northwest, or otherwise put, the North Atlantic world – although secularity extends also partially, and indifferent ways, beyond this world.  And the judgment of secularity seems hard to resist when we compare these societies with anything else in human history: that is, with almost all other contemporary societies (e.g., Islamic countries, India, Africa), on one hand; and with the rest of human history, Atlantic or otherwise, on the other. (p.1)

That is the opening paragraph.  It is classic Taylor-style writing.  Yet, in writing this way, he demonstrates the complexity of the issues involved, the reasons for restricting his investigation to particular geographic and historical time periods, and wanting to be clear, before moving forward and asking of what this secularity consists, just what we all mean by this word.

And Taylor offers two familiar definitions: the first is the removal of religious language from our social and political discourse and/or the removal of religious institutions from roles in state power (Taylor admits this is not true in Great Britain or the Scandinavian countries, which have state churches; in practice, however, religious life in these places is almost non-existent and the difference, therefore, is meaningless in any practical sense): second, and somewhat related, is the decline of religious belief.  Taylor continues on pp.2-3:

Now I believe that an examination of this age as secular is worth taking up in a third sense, closely related to the second, and not without connection to the first.  This would focus on the conditions of belief.  The shift to secularity in this sens consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.  . . . . .[I]t seems to me evident that there are big differences between these societies in what it is to believe, stemming in part from the fact that belief is an option, and in some sense embattled option in the Christian (or “post-Christian”) society, and not (or not yet) in the Muslim ones.

. . .[W]hat 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 soceity 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. . . .

Secularity in this sense is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual or religious experience and search takes place.  By ‘context of understanding’ here, I mean both matters that will probably have been explicitly formulated by almost everyone, such as the  plurality of options, and some which form the implicit, largely unfocussed background of this experience and search, its “pre-ontology”, to use a Heideggerian term.

Among the reasons for this “conditions of belief” is Taylor’s dissatisfaction with typical discussions of the rise of secularism, particularly the alleged conflict between scientific discovery and religious belief.  Furthermore, just as he wants to focus attention on secularism within the bounds of “conditions of belief”, so, too, does he want us to understand “religion”, that which is often contrasted as the opposite of secularism.

I want to talk about believe and unbelief, not as rival theories, that is, ways that people account for existence, or morality, whether by God or by something in nature, or whatever.  Rather what I want to do is focus attention on the different kind of lived experience involved in understanding your life in one way or the other, on what it’s like to live as a believer or an unbeliever.(pp.4-5)

This, then is not so much a “history of ideas”, because Taylor is not interested in secularism as an idea anymore than he is interested in religion as a set of ideas.  This is, rather, an investigation of the historical conditions through which a certain part of the world moved from a set of lived conditions in which religious belief (of a vaguely Christian kind; Taylor is well aware both of the varieties of Christian belief as well as the conflicts between and among those varieties), understood as a set of practices, to one in which religious belief is just one among a number of options, including no belief at all, belief in other religions, etc.

Taylor is well aware that, despite the enormity of the investigation, it is also quite limited, biased toward a vague understanding of Christianity in a particular, and that even the vague understandings he is using here as definitions will not satisfy everyone.  The point is not what these things mean, but what they are as part and parcel of living in this society at this particular historical moment.

In his further discussion of the terms under which he will investigate, he invokes the idea of “the naive”, the unprocessed assumptions and background against which life is normally lived.  He writes that “we have largely eroded these forms of immediate certainty.”(p.13)  Later he calls this “the disruption of the earlier background”, in which nature is no longer related to something called the supernatural; that immanence is no longer understood in contrast to or in relationship with transcendence.

It is this shift in background, in the whole context in which we experience and search for fullness, that I am calling the coming of a s secular age, in my third sense.  How did we move from a condition where, in Christendom, people lived naively within a theistic construal, to one in which we all shunt between two stances, in which everyone’s construal shows up as such, and in which moreover, unbelief has become for many the major default option?

 . . .[O]nly by identifying the change as one of lived experience, can we even begin to put the right questions properly, and avoid the naivetes on all sides: either that unbelief is just the falling away of any sense of fullness, or the betrayal of it (what theists sometimes are tempted to think of atheists) or that belief is just a set of theories attempting to make sense of experiences which we all have, and who real nature can be understood purely immanently (what atheists are sometimes tempted to think about theists). (p.14)

To my mind, Taylor has constructed the model “Introduction”, a model helped by his unique personal style of writing, which combines simplicity and clarity with circumlocution and an apologetic insistent that, knowing alternatives exist, he believes his chosen path is preferable.  So even as we move through the introduction, we get a sense of how Taylor writes; we understand what he means when he uses words like “secular”, “religion”, “naive”, etc.; and we know why he has made the choices he has made, understanding as he does alternatives – perfectly acceptable alternatives! – exist.

The journey will be long, and I hope you join me as we wade from these shallow (!) waters at the beginning through the next 20 chapters and over 750 pages.