A Secular Age
by Charles Taylor
Harvard University Press, 2007, 874 pp., $39.95
Religious faith today is one option among others. Many people—call them secularists—live without any transcendent source of value. Some, but not all, are militant atheists. A millennium ago, this would have been unimaginable. Everyone believed in God and oriented their lives in reference to that belief.
Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age offers an invaluable map of how the modern religious-secular divide came into being. He concludes that modern Western secularism has its roots in Christian theology and that secularism and Christianity reveal a common ancestry in their shared commitment to human rights—a commitment that does not follow from atheism as such.
Taylor is Catholic, and he is clearly trying to make the case for theisms like his own. Taylor’s history refutes what he calls the “subtraction view” of the movement toward secularism, according to which the decline of religious belief is simply the result of the falling away of superstition and the growth of knowledge. Rather, modern secularism is a religious worldview, with its own narrative of testing and redemption, and shares the vulnerabilities of such views. The news that secularists also live in glass houses has implications for ongoing stone-throwing operations.
In the primitive world of nature rituals and tribal deities, there was no clear distinction between the immanent and the transcendent. The sense of cosmic order pervaded everything; there were no clear boundaries between self and non-self, personal agency and impersonal force. Possession by demons was a real and terrifying possibility. In such circumstances, unbelief was unthinkable.
Around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., the great world faiths appeared. Confucius, Lao-tse, Siddhartha Gautama, the Hebrew prophets, Socrates, and Plato brought new visions of universal ethics and individual salvation. A world that had been unified was now divided between the disordered lower realm and the higher aspirations toward which individuals were to strive.
A Secular Age focuses on the evolution of the Christian world. From the beginning, Taylor argues, there was a tension in Christianity between salvation for all, promised by a transcendent God, and the pagan practices and habits of mind that persisted among the laity. This kind of tension, between the life of religious ascetics and the inevitably less perfect lives of ordinary people, is present in all civilizations organized around post-pagan religions, but Latin Christendom is distinguished by “the deep and growing dissatisfaction with it.”
The movement that culminated in the Protestant Reformation began in the Middle Ages. There were repeated efforts by the church, first to reform its own practices and later to restrain as idolatrous the veneration of saints’ re...
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