A Secular Age:

Casting away our crutches

posted by Sarah Allen

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor associates the rise of modern Western secularism primarily with a shift in the shared horizons that condition our experiences, practices, and beliefs, from a relatively uniform, unquestioned or “naïve” belief in (the Christian) God to a “reflective” horizon within which a plethora of options of belief and non-belief are open to us. Non-belief, moreover, has become the default position, and whatever belief or non-belief we may happen to hold is put into question—“cross-pressured” or “fragilized,” in Taylor’s words—by its constant exposure to other beliefs.

The various essays on A Secular Age gathered in Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen and Craig Calhoun’s Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age raise a host of important and interesting questions with respect to Taylor’s account of secularism: Do we really need recourse to a notion of transcendence that takes us beyond the immanence of natural and human life in order to re-enchant our world? What kind of history—or, perhaps better put, story or narrative—of secularism is Taylor offering us? Can one properly define Western secularism in isolation from explicit consideration of the West’s encounters and intertwining with non-Western cultures?

What I think is most intriguing, however, about this book is how it unfolds as a dialogue between various visions of secularism informed by different background beliefs, thus illustrating the very kind of interaction between different options of belief and non-belief that characterizes secularism itself according to Taylor. It is by examining the spirit in which Taylor (and, I might add, William E. Connolly, in his excellent contribution, “Belief, Spirituality, and Time”) calls for dialogue between different positions of belief and non-belief that we can get to the heart of what Taylor is trying to do in A Secular Age. As he clarifies in his “Afterword: Apologia pro Libro suo,” he is certainly not focused on offering us a Christian apologetics; nor is he pining for some lost golden age of Christianity. Rather, he is seeking to stimulate dialogue between different positions of belief and non-belief, to work towards a common horizon of understanding within which this dialogue can take place, and to promote an attitude of openness, friendship, and reconciliation toward positions other than our own.

It is worth examining in more depth this horizon of understanding and this attitude of openness, friendship, and reconciliation, for they form the basis of what one might call an ethics for a secular age, an ethics for a pluralistic society, and perhaps even an ethics for life in a globalized world. The horizon is, in reality, fluid and incredibly complex, but Taylor gives us a simple, three-part framework for grasping it: his characterization of all forms of moral and spiritual life as understandable in terms of a place of fullness and self-realization towards which we strive, a middle condition of routine and everyday life within which we function for the most part, and a place of exile and meaningless that we try to avoid and keep at bay. While we may all have different associations to fullness, everydayness, and exile, conditioned by our differences in experience and belief, we also all have some lived sense of these three places that allows us to communicate meaningfully with others about our differences. All communication across difference requires some common horizon, some sameness. Taylor’s three-part framework is a simple way of characterizing what can unite us in our difference.

It should be noted, however, that Taylor’s three-part framework is merely a bare-bones description of a common horizon that has always to be fleshed out through ongoing dialogue with others. Moreover, a common horizon is never enough by itself to ensure communication and some level of mutual understanding across difference; hence the importance of the attitude with which we present ourselves and approach others within this horizon. It is important, of course, that we actually do present ourselves—that is, voice our own views—without hiding behind some kind of “objectivity,” “neutrality,” or overextended ideal of “political correctness.” And it is perhaps in this spirit that we can understand Taylor’s profession of his own Catholic faith, and what some have—I think, mistakenly—portrayed as a Catholic, Christian, or even more generally religious bias (understood in a negative sense) in his account of secularism. However, as this self-expression is the part of communicating with others that we probably have the least trouble with, I would like to emphasize the other, often underplayed or overlooked side of communication, namely, listening to and engaging with what others actually have to say, instead of assuming that we already know in advance what their position is.

Taylor uses a particularly powerful image to characterize the tendency we have to build up the strength of our own beliefs, and to protect ourselves from the legitimate challenges that others may raise, by functioning with caricatures of other people’s views, which we can then easily discount or dismiss. (By the way, this tendency to caricature is particularly noticeable in academic misreadings of other people’s works.) According to Taylor, these caricatures are the crutches upon which we support ourselves and move around in the world with our own consequently crippled beliefs. The un-crippling—and thus, true strengthening—of our own beliefs can only come about in our present pluralistic situation when we cast away these crutches and truly open ourselves to learning from others by exposing ourselves not only to what is easily dismissible, but also to what is powerful, sometimes threatening, and sometimes enlightening, in their beliefs. To this end, we need to approach those who hold positions different from our own in a spirit of friendship and reconciliation, or at least, with what William Connolly calls “agonistic respect.” This is not reduction or “demonization,” nor complete tolerance or indifference to otherness; it is respectful and serious engagement with it.

The hope is that such an attitude can come to be shared across differences in belief. The hope is that such an attitude can be transformative for everyone involved, allowing us to stand up straight and move harmoniously around in a world populated by different options of belief and non-belief. The hope is that we can build some commonality of spirit in the way that we hold our beliefs, if not in the beliefs themselves. This is what I would call the ethical spirit of Taylor’s secularism.

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One Response to “Casting away our crutches”

  1. avatar Gabriella Gentile says:

    Taylor calls for a way to positively maneuver through the now shared horizons of belief and non-belief in today’s world. Our biggest crutch, he says, is the frequency with which people develop caricatures as a way to view others, picking out certain characteristics of their belief systems that they can easily dismiss or reject. It seems to me that the deeper problem is the illiteracy that lies behind these caricatures, quietly supporting them and fostering incorrect assumptions. In his book Religious Literacy, Stephen Prothero defines the term as “the ability to understand and use in one’s day-to-day life the basic building blocks of religious traditions” (15). With the rise of secularism, this literacy should be applied not only to religion but to all kinds of belief and non-belief because our shared horizons constitute a wide array of opinions. The key word in Prothero’s definition is understand. Understanding is exactly what these caricatures lack. This misreading and judging of others’ beliefs, or illiteracy, often leads to intolerance and disrespect. Horizons will never have the ability to be shared peacefully under those circumstances. Taylor calls for communication in which both parties have the ability to express their true beliefs as well as listen and engage with each other without resorting to preconceived notions. Taylor’s most interesting point, and the one I believe is the hardest for most people to accept, is that with this understanding comes a strengthening of one’s own beliefs. By crossing these barriers of difference and opening our minds to the beliefs of others, we learn as Allen puts it, “what is powerful, sometimes threatening, and sometimes enlightening, in their beliefs”.

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