book review

A Secular Age

Charles Taylor
Belknap Harvard, 2007, 874 pages

To top
Other Book Reviews

A Secular Age

Charles Taylor

Reviewed by

I n this age of unreasoning, even rabid, anti-religious sentiment, it is refreshing ito find an author who is capable of a thoughtful discussion of the origins of modern secularism from a historical perspective. Christians, like Charles Taylor, have a concept of time that includes an appreciation of the Eternal; Taylor shares this experience with the reader who, reading this 870-page book, also gets a good feeling for things that are, or at least seem to be, eternal. Despite its manifest lack of brevity, however, the book makes many interesting points.

The conventional view concerning secularism is that the concept of a worldly "mechanism" was the main factor that displaced Christianity from its central role in life. This concept of life as mechanism arose in large part from the insights of early biologists and chemists, who showed us that living organisms were chemical machines that were not unique, but a part of the physical world. No longer was the concept of a supernatural soul necessary to explain movement and thought. Without the soul, and with Christian cosmology fatally undermined by paleontology and the theory of evolution, the entire pantheon of angels and gods shook and finally, in large parts of the West, collapsed. Taylor calls this viewpoint the "subtraction" account of modernity. In reality, says Taylor, the church was not a passive victim, but participated in, and to a large extent created the rise in modern secularism.

The basic tenet of Christianity is that it is necessary to accept being a sinner and surrender control of one's life, asking God to control your fate. Doing so thereby removes the burden of guilt and, especially in earlier times, the threat of damnation. Trying to figure out right and wrong on one's own, when your basic thought processes are corrupted by venial desire and delusion, according to Christian ideology, is a hopeless task.

In the Middle Ages, damnation was an endless source of concern, and Christianity adopted an instrumentalism that served to reduce the sinner's anxiety, but not coincidentally also happened to enrich the Church and its leaders. During the Reformation, Christianity tried to expunge itself of this instrumentalism as well as its alliance with paganism, which had earlier helped it conquer the religious mind of Europe. But, says Taylor, doing so led to "disenchantment", a rejection of the magical and secular aspects of religion. God no longer cared about your crops or about your personal problems, but became more distant and at the same time more divine. Disenchantment led to what Taylor calls the "great disembedding", where a person's identity was no longer derived exclusively from their role in society. The world came to be seen to be constructed by individuals rather than as a static entity created by God. "Mechanisms" were relegated to the secular world, where they flourished. This led to an explosion in technology and worldly ideas. As Taylor writes (p.80), "a great energy is released to reorder affairs in secular time."

Other factors, such as the abandonment by the Church of the juridical-penal model of salvation, also encouraged secularization. Starting with Locke, political philosophy adopted this model and became more prescriptive. Marxism took the concept to its extreme, by positing that a society could be engineered from the ground up.

However, Taylor's conclusion that the "subtraction" theory is inadequate to explain Western secularization is in some ways unconvincing. Historical cause and effect are always inextricably mixed. It may be true that our modern concepts of justice and equality originated in the Church. But since the Church was omnipresent in those days, what does that really mean? Many readers may also find the wide, general scope of Taylor's arguments too vague. His writing style is often reminiscent of the language of the Ents in Lord of the Rings, who sometimes took all day just to say "Good morning."

Modernity and the supposed problems therewith have been a fruitful area of philosophical speculation for many years. In The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion Score +5, Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a. the Pope, and Marxist philosopher Jürgen Habermas discuss religion and modernity in excellent, tightly-written, and above all, polite essays. Habermas, whose writings about modernity are far more dense, if not necessarily clearer, than Charles Taylor's, followed the lines of Hegel in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, a critique of both modernism and post-modernism.