The Taser's Edge


(You are now entering Post 3 on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. The Table of Contents for all the posts is found here.)

In Taylor’s Introduction, he lays out three secularities. The first two are other people’s interests. The third is his own.

1. “The first [secularism] concentrates on the common institutions and practices–most obviously, but not only, the state. The difference [between secular and non-secular societies] would then consist in this, that whereas the political organization of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection…” (Taylor 1-2).

This first secularism becomes more fascinating later as Taylor goes on to talk about the boundedness of all systems in secular thought. At one time (as above) members of a society could not understand themselves without reference to something outside themselves (not only the divine, but one another, and the world around them). Today, not only does political theory need no reference to some form of “ultimate reality;” but an individual human being is self-created, without the help of background, family, tradition, larger society, let alone God (Hauerwas in my head: “The story of modernity is the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story”); and contemporary scientific cosmology certainly has no need to refer to anything beyond that which is study-able (aside from all those different universes out there).

2. “In this second meaning, secularity consists in the falling off of religious belief and practice, in people turning away from God, and no longer going to Church” (Taylor 2).

This is the most common understanding of secularism as we use the word in conversation, whether we see secularization as human progress toward a more enlightened and less superstitious future or we see it as something to be mourned and resisted.

[Aside: Perhaps most fascinating about this quote to me is that Taylor capitalizes “Church.” Thus far, Taylor does not seem to want to be doing theology, but he slips into it sometimes. Why not “no longer going to church?” It’s an argument in the form of a capitalization. Yes, Taylor is Roman Catholic.]

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 sense 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. In this meaning, as against sense 2, at least many milieux in the United States are secularized, and I would argue that the United States as a whole is. Clear contrasts today would be the majority of Muslim societies, or the milieux in which the vast majority of Indians live” (Taylor 3).

This “conditions of belief” is a fascinating term, because it means that secularism is about how we experience life, not just how we theorize about it. It sets the tone for the rest of the book too. Can Taylor convince us that he is able to get inside the hearts, minds, and lives of the pre-Moderns and that he understands in the same way those of us living in the West today? (For me, 90 pages in, YES.)