A Secular Age:

Secularism of a new kind

posted by Robert N. Bellah

secular_age.jpgI have long admired Charles Taylor and have read most of what he has written and always found him helpful. Yet for me, A Secular Age is his breakthrough book—one of the most important books to be written in my lifetime. Taylor succeeds in no less than recasting the entire debate about secularism.

From the very first pages it is clear that Taylor is doing something different from what others writing about secularization have achieved, because he distinguishes three senses of secularity. Almost all the literature on secularization with which I am familiar falls under Taylor’s first two categories of secularity:

• Secularity 1: the expulsion of religion from sphere after sphere of public life.

• Secularity 2: the decline of religious belief and practice.

Many excellent books have been written on these two aspects of secularization.

But Taylor’s focus in this book is on what he calls

• Secularity 3: “the conditions of experience of and search for the spiritual” that make it possible to speak of ours as a “secular age.”

I doubt that many people have even perceived this third dimension, and Taylor’s book should be as much a revelation to them as it has been to me.

To bring Secularity 3 into view, one must call in question some of the presuppositions of the usual discussions of Secularity 1 and 2: namely, that “science” (or “rationality” or “modernity”) has undermined the possibility of religious belief. Taylor devotes much of his book to a history of the conditions that gave rise to Secularity 3, and they simply can’t be summarized with the usual formulae.

Taylor argues that the Reformation—with its radical rejection of the monastic life and the demand of a kind of monastic discipline for everyone—is just the preliminary culmination of a thousand years of pressure of Christianity toward Reform. He then shows how, even when Protestantism itself comes in question, long-term pressure toward Reform continues, first in 18th-century Deism and its attendant strong emphasis on Benevolence, and then in the 19th-century emergence of unqualified (secular) humanism with its emphasis on progress.

According to Taylor, it is not “science” or “Darwinism” that accounts for these developments, but the continuation of a moral narrative that was already long present in Christianity. Even the emergence in the late 19th century of anti-humanism (Nietzsche) cannot be understood except in terms of the particular features of what was being rejected: namely, both Christian and secular social ameliorism. By seeing the emergence of the secular age in narrative form primarily, rather than as a theoretical discovery, I think he makes the whole thing far more intelligible and explains our present quandaries far better than any competing accounts.

Perhaps the most obvious person to compare Taylor with would be Peter Berger, whose many books cover some of the same ground but never with the same thoroughness or historical depth of Taylor. José Casanova, particularly in his important book Public Religions in the Modern World, deals with some of Taylor’s issues, but again his canvas is much smaller. David Martin has written interestingly on secularization, but has stayed mainly within the framework of Taylor’s Secularity 1 and 2. I really can’t think of anyone who has explored what Taylor is calling Secularity 3 with anything like his breadth and penetration.

Perhaps the closest predecessor for Taylor’s arguments is Max Weber, though Taylor’s differences with Weber are still major. Like Weber, Taylor argues that the Reformation attempted to obliterate the difference between the religious (in the sense of monastic) life and daily life by giving the latter a profound religious meaning in the doctrine of the calling—an effort that, to the extent that it succeeded, ended up undermining the very tension that the Reformation itself generated. But he diverges from Weber in maintaining that the success of the drive toward Reformation, mirrored to more than a small degree by the Counter-Reformation initiative, gave rise to new problems.

On the one hand, the very success of these efforts seemed to imply that their religious underpinnings were no longer necessary—that secular “progress” could take over from religious impulses. Yet, as the book’s Part III shows, the new secularity produced its own problems, sometimes but not necessarily leading to a retrieval of religious belief. What we have now is a situation in which neither belief nor unbelief can be taken for granted and where ever more numerous examples of both continue to appear on the scene.

Part IV and particularly Part V outline the possibilities and conundrums in the midst of which we live.

In closing, it is worth pointing out this is not a work of apologetics. Indeed, it would be hard to find a book in this area with so little polemic, so generous an understanding of all the possible positions—including those farthest from his own—and with so little need to show that any side in this multi-sided process of change is more virtuous than any other. Taylor is clear from the beginning that he writes as a believing Catholic: he believes that the Christian effort to reinvent itself as part of the new secular world is a positive event. Yet he is merciless as to its many failings.

I have always admired Taylor’s generosity of spirit, his lack of the usual scholar’s need to put other people and other positions down. That he has been able to maintain his irenic spirit in considering issues of the greatest importance not only to the modern world but to himself as an individual is a tribute to him and an example to be followed.

I think the book could well be the primary text for graduate seminars, and parts of it could be assigned in undergraduate courses, though it is a little too long and perhaps too demanding to be used as an undergraduate text except in a few universities and liberal arts colleges. I would also consider the book a “must read” for anyone concerned with religion and modernity—and that includes a great many people in today’s world.

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3 Responses to “Secularism of a new kind”

  1. avatar Richard Madsen says:

    I fully share Bellah’s admiration of Charles Taylor’s “generosity of spirit, his lack of the usual scholar’s need to put other people and other positions down.” It is indeed hard to find a great book of social theory with “so little polemic, so generous an understanding of all the possible positions.” Nonetheless, it is worth noting that this book presents devastating challenges to the conventional sociology of religion. The challenges are both theoretical and methodological.

    Taylor’s primary aim, as Bellah notes, is to portray the “context of understanding in which spiritual experience takes place.” The most fundamental characteristic of the secular age, Taylor claims, is that “the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable.” Even if people believe that human fulfillment depends on transcendent causes, their religious faith has to be exercised in a context in which it is possible to believe in a purely immanent basis for human fulfillment.

    This portrayal of the secular age’s context of understanding presents a major challenge to conventional sociological methodology. How could one “operationalize” a context of understanding? How could one derive testable hypotheses to verify it? One couldn’t do a survey that counted up the times that people expressed belief or unbelief in certain specified ideas or doctrines. Belief and unbelief as Taylor defines them, can’t be defined in terms of assent to discrete propositions, they are modalities of mutually interdependent experiences. A modern experience of belief is always colored by the possibility of unbelief and vice versa. One can’t get at this through any approach that involves counting and analyzing.

    Taylor’s portrayal of the secular age also challenges conventional scientific theory, which purports to establish an agnostic (and therefore “objective”) vantage point above the fray, to stand outside of the clash between belief and unbelief. If he is right about the pervasiveness of our secular context of understanding, then there is no standing above the fray. The effort at scientific understanding itself must be carried out within the tension between belief and unbelief.

    Usually, social scientists can protect themselves from such theoretical and methodological heresy by marginalizing it, by dismissing it as some soft, humanistic, interpretive cultural study that doesn’t belong in their company. But Taylor’s book is not only so erudite, but rings so true to life, that it can’t be ignored. For example, social scientists may have a hard time distilling any testable hypotheses from his account of the meanings of death in the secular age – but if they look in the mirror, if they examine their own lives they may have to recognize what he says as true, and recognize that he has reached a level of reality that their theories and methods cannot attain.

    Thus, irenic as he is, Taylor is a scandal to conventional social science. He is a prophet – albeit, in Weberian terms, an exemplary rather than an emissary prophet.

  2. avatar Courtney Bender says:

    1. I’m struck by the comparisons Robert Bellah makes between A Secular Age and previous sociological writings on secularization. Bellah invokes of a lineage of secularization theorists from Weber and Martin to Berger, and positioning Taylor as the next volume in this line suggests a somewhat different reason for why sociologists should read A Secular Age than those already offered by Bellah and Madsen.

    It is fair to say that what distinguishes the volumes in Bellah’s short list of texts is their remarkable staying power. Each continues to be read and thought with, and each beautifully captures a different generation’s (or historical moment’s) central vexations about modernity and the place of religion within it.

    A second distinguishing feature of each of these volumes is that despite their importance, many of their central theses have proved inadequate. For example, Peter Berger long ago publicly repudiated the thesis that religious pluralism hastens secularization, a central thesis in The Sacred Canopy. It is fair to say that we read these books to gain insights about the philosophical structure of modernity, and much less frequently to gain theoretical or methodological insights about how to approach religious life. These volumes have much to tell us about the history of various generation’s struggles to properly articulate the shape of inquiry into our shared moral predicaments and, in reading them, we find their concerns refracting in interesting ways with our own. But we rarely take from them a sense of the lived, felt or experienced qualities of secularism or of modern life.

    I suspect that many sociologists of my generation will approach A Secular Age with this lineage in the back of our minds. Reading Taylor’s book in this spirit, we will come away having learned an enormous amount. But I nonetheless expect that many of us who are born during the Vietnam era or after will also find Taylor’s concerns to be somewhat foreign to our own. I suspect strongly that my cohort is much less unsettled by the conditions that have given rise to A Secular Age‘s argument than the generation of scholars that precedes us. What this means for us remains unclear at present.

    2. The question remains, of course, as to how much Taylor’s book can tell us about the experience of living in a secular age, and whether it might provide new ways to approach the complexities of religious, spiritual, and secular formations. Certainly Richard Madsen is correct when he says that “contexts of understanding” cannot be adequately pursued via quantitative analysis or survey research. But I expect that he would also agree that such contexts cannot be merely conjured or remain propositional. They need to be observed, analyzed, and interpreted in some manner. Fortunately, survey methods are far from the only tools that sociologists have at our disposal. Over the last several decades, sociology has marked out useful and sometimes novel ways to investigate the social contexts in which belief, value, and other cultural forms take shape. At the same time, and in the face of the sheer complexity of the cultural forms in which we live (and perhaps have always lived), we have also become more modest about our ability to pin down a story about our age, and we have admittedly become suspicious about others’ attempts to do so.

    With this in mind, and in contrast to Madsen’s suggestion, I do not believe that A Secular Age presents a scandal or an indictment to sociology. Rather, I believe that it presents a clear invitation to a conversation where we will be required to articulate our recent disciplinary projects within a more expansive intellectual frame. Sociologists bring to this conversation several decades of rethinking our basic theoretical understandings of culture, knowledge, institutions, memory and relationality. We also bring countless empirical studies that routinely complicate our understandings of how culture works. We certainly bring skepticism about narratives of social change that draw primarily on philosophical texts. Sociologists should neither dismiss A Secular Age as an irrelevant philosophical text nor simply fete its accomplishments.

  3. avatar Michele Dillon says:

    We can well admire with Robert Bellah that Charles Taylor is “doing something different from what others writing about secularization have achieved.” In addition to Charles Taylor’s own intellectual brilliance, I think the originality of his achievement in A Secular Age has a lot to do with the fact that he is a philosopher and not a sociologist and hence has the freedom to use a different method of inquiry and a different standard of evidence than sociologists are expected to emulate. From the outset, Taylor states very clearly that his analytical focus is the North Atlantic world though he also modestly acknowledges that “this canvas is on the verge of being too broad; there are many regional and national paths to secularity within the North Atlantic world” (p. 21). It is precisely these varied paths and their more local manifestations that sociologists tend to explore in their research and theorizing and hence to achieve a partial but nonetheless detailed and rich understanding of the complexity of the lived realities of religion/secularity in specific contemporary contexts. (In this regard, for example, it is not clear to me why Taylor refers to Ireland as a “wannabe” nation [p. 459] given that it managed to successfully establish an independent sovereign nation-state against the forces of British imperialism, on the one hand, and an over-reaching Catholic hierarchy on the other, while at the same time being cognizant of its confessional culture.) Sociologists do not presume the legitimacy to make grand claims about too-large a canvas and are often skeptical of any scholar who does. While this is a healthy skepticism, it does not preclude sociologists from taking philosophers and other scholars seriously and I hope that many will engage with Taylor’s broad portrait, notwithstanding the quibbles they will surely have with some of its strokes.

    Taylor’s construal of Secularity 3 is powerful: a society in which belief and unbelief, even for the staunchest of believers/non-believers, is one human possibility among others. I would like to believe with Taylor that “all see their options as one among many,” and that we all navigate between two standpoints, an engaged one in which we live as best we can the reality of our standpoint and the disengaged one where we see ourselves occupying one standpoint among a range of possible ones and with which we have to coexist (p. 12). I think there is great awareness today among many in the North Atlantic world that there are many ways of being, and there is indeed a certain tolerance at some general level of this diversity. But I think it is also a naïve tolerance. We sincerely respect the paths of others, their belief/unbelief, but I don’t think we really take their Otherness seriously. This is what makes truly meaningful dialogue so difficult across religious traditions as well as between any believers and unbelievers. We are typically quite satisfied with our own standpoint and are not willing, or afraid, to immerse ourselves and take seriously the possibility of abandoning ours in favor of an alternative possibility. So my sense is that there is still more naivete than reflexivity amidst today’s secular conditions.

    I think perhaps that Charles Taylor and Robert Bellah are among the few who are able to articulate in public an intellectual perspective that they self-consciously ground in an intertwined faith and reason. For many of us, different milieux require one or the other, and in any case as intellectuals, we find hope in the presumption that the scientific analytical method will elucidate the “truth” irrespective of the investigator’s belief/unbelief. Most of us, I think, prefer to compartmentalize the messiness of belief/unbelief and to foreclose thinking about what strategies we would or should pursue if perchance reason commands us to abandon our belief/unbelief standpoint.

    I especially welcome Taylor’s emphasis that the decline in religious belief and practice and the move toward an individualized spirituality should not be read as a narrative of “subtraction.” He counsels rather a view that sees each stage of this secular process as involving “new constructions of identity, social imaginary, institutions and practices.” (p. 530). And importantly, as he notes, “The new framework has a strongly individualist component, but this will not necessarily mean that the content will be individuating” (p. 516).

    But given this “positive” interpretation of secularity, I am left wondering about the character and implications of what Taylor calls a post-Durkheimian world. Taylor states “A thoroughly post-Durkheimian society would be one in which our religious belonging would be unconnected to our national identity” (p. 516). Although I appreciate the national identity functions of civil religion (as so beautifully elaborated by Bellah), I have also always understood Durkheim to mean that religious belonging was tied into political society broadly defined to include the nation but additionally all those intermediate groups between the self and the nation. In other words, the decline of the nation as a salient source of identity/solidarity (as in our current “post-national” moment; cf. Z. Bauman), and the disconnection of religious belonging from national identity does not necessarily spell the demise of the social bonding function of religion/spirituality. As Taylor recognizes, collective options still hold sway amidst spiritual individualism, and I would add that spiritual individualism can produce individuated selves who through self-growth are emboldened to participate in meaningful communal relationships. I would prefer then to think of the secular age and its ongoing transformation as still a neo-Durkheimian rather than a post-Durkheimian society; as yet another phase in the evolution of the sacred and of the solidarities that humans necessarily seek. But I am open to changing my mind should my interpretation of Durkheim and Taylor be erroneous.

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