Charles Taylor, Philosopher

Taylor’s introduction to his seminal text A Secular Age queries what exactly we mean by the term secular, and what do we mean when we say that we live in a secular age. We being those in the West, in the North Atlantic world.

Taylor’s first ‘candidate’ of secularism’s character is that of common institutions / practices, not only, but most obviously, the state. The ‘West’ is now free to engage in politics without engaging in the state’s corresponding decreed faith. In past societies, religion was everywhere. It was interwoven and did not constitute a separate ‘sphere’; so Taylor suggests that ‘one understanding of secularity then is in terms of public spaces’.[1] Although there has been an ‘emptying of religion from autonomous social spheres’ it still remains possible and compatible for the majority of people to continue believing in God (Taylor gives the US as an example where Church and State are separate but they have the highest statistics for religious belief and practice).[2]

de Witte, Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft (1650, Met)

‘This is the issue that people often want to get at when they speak of our times as secular, and contrast them nostalgically or with relief, with earlier ages of faith or piety’. This is Taylor’s ‘second sense’ – where fewer people are attending Church, ‘even those who retain the vestigial public reference to God in public space’.[3]

The third sense Taylor frames his examination within, is ‘the conditions of belief’. A move from an unchallenged and accepted belief in God, to one where religion is ‘one option amongst others’. How is it that the Western world has moved ‘from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.’[4] ‘Secularity in this sense is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual or religious experience and search takes place’.[5]

Taylor focuses upon the ‘conditions of belief, experience and search’ is because he doesn’t accept that science refutes and hence crowds out religious belief’, e.g. that the findings of Darwin are cogent to the refutation of religion.[6] Belief and unbelief are treated by Taylor, not as rival theories (ways people account for existence and morality) but as a focus and means of understanding different types of ‘lived experience’; for Taylor then, these choices become alternative ways of living our moral / spiritual life.[7]

He then goes on to explain our search for inner fullness, received actively or sometimes spontaneously and unexpectedly, can help orient us as we consider the sense of what is the presence of God, or nature, or life force etc. Humanity often struggles to articulate these visionary experiences. Taylor quotes Griffiths’ experience of seeing what he had seemingly never truly seen before when walking: “If I had been brought suddenly among…the Garden of Paradise & heard a choir of angels singing I could not have been more surprised”. Such an energising experience seems to compel us to define it, and can provide direction to our lives. Likewise, it can also leave us wanting, feeling an absence and distance, ‘the ‘spleen’ of Baudelaire’.[8] The awfulness of this condition is that we may well have forgotten what fullness looks like, but the loss and absence is still acutely felt.

Bosch, Figure from The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490, Prado)

Taylor also refers to Bosch’s monstrous animal forms which can be viewed in the tradition of complete damnation, ‘deserved and decided exclusion forever from fullness’.[9] Can we, Taylor suggests we can, escape these forms of negation, emptiness and exile by when we ‘are doing things which have some meaning for us’, e.g. husband, children, vocation (all three if possible). This position can only be maintained when there is a sense of slow movement toward it, if this is absent the middle condition becomes undermined, therefore unsustainable. This ‘middle condition’ as Taylor calls it, is a behaviour which fits the believer well, e.g. that there is something beyond death and what we are doing here on earth has meaning, whereas to the non-believer, this here on earth has monumental significance and meaning or as Taylor says ‘no small thing’.[10] Life, here, has to be fully satisfying, ‘in which all of him can rejoice’.[11] But what if he has the job, the house, the wife, the car, the children etc., and is still not experiencing fullness?

For the believer, fullness requires reference to God, for unbelievers, it is a human potentiality. Taylor believes the ‘lived conditions’ of human life need to be understood in order to examine these complexities of fullness in-depth.

Recurring themes of lived experience:

For believers: it comes upon them, from beyond them and makes them opened and brought out of one’s self (an essentially Christian formulation).

For unbelievers: the power to reach fullness is interior, and centres upon our nature as rational beings (Kantian variant is most upfront form of this). Although Taylor doesn’t go so far as to say it, he does indeed seem to be implying that the interior rational view of the unbeliever is one driven by ego, of the individual, even millennial attitude of the self – in Kantian terms a more heteronomous than autonomous way of being.[12] The power of reason then becomes entirely heroic, e.g. Copernicus, Darwin or Freud. Humanity can then be ‘both frail and courageous, capable of facing a meaningless, hostile universe without faintness of heart, and of rising to the challenge of devising our rules of life’.[13]

Sources of power can be found in our inner depths, or in Nature (or in both): transcendent immanence here being a direct descendant from Romanticism.

Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818, Hamburg)

Taylor moves on to discuss the ‘index of doubt’ many people live under, which ‘is typical of the modern condition’.[14] The theories we use to discuss our lived experiences, historically or present day, are by virtue of being theories, imbued with indeterminacy, ambiguity and lack of resolution. They await more evidence, they only theorise. But lived life is more than theory, and for Bosch and his contemporaries, the monsters he painted ‘were objects of real fear, of such compelling fear, that it wasn’t possible to entertain seriously the idea that they might be unreal’. Nor the people from the New Testament who saw someone possessed of an evil spirit. Their belief in the situation was based on the immediacy of experiencing the real suffering of this condition, that they would not have entertained the idea that it may just have been ‘an interesting explanation for a psychological condition, identifiable purely in intra-psychic terms…of other more reliable aetiologies.[15] The condition of these lived experiences have an immediate reality, like stones, rivers and mountains.[16] They were an accepted construal (of mostly Christian ideas).

It has since become a series of possible construals, co-existing; one option is often the default one, whether that be to believe or not believe, but ‘all see their option s one among many’.[17] Life in the medieval times for example was a Christian construal, regardless of class or wealth. Nowadays the whole background / context of our understanding has changed, for example we accept there is a decline in Hell, we accept the world is older than we would have done two hundred years ago. This background for Taylor’s discussion about our lived experiences in the world, contribute to what he calls ‘the coming of a secular age’. Taylor asks how we have moved from a theistic construal, to one where unbelief has become, for many, the major default option? [18] In essence the new framework is one which has moved from a naïve (accepting) one to a reflective one. We must also be mindful how believers and non-believers experience the world differently.

Taylor’s introductory discussions are centred around the problematic terms ‘secular’ and ‘secularity’. Reiterating his three pronged ‘senses’ of the word, Taylor says they all make reference to religion as that which is retreating in public space:

  • Secularity in public spaces
  • The decline of belief or practice
  • Conditions of belief – one option amongst many

Taylor then raises the basic question of ‘what is “religion”?’[19] He rightly points out the major differences of ‘religious’ phenomena and the endlessly varied beliefs, practices, institutions etc. make such an attempt an insuperable task.

The happy resolution for this is, somewhat cowardly or convenient as Taylor admits, the change which matters most to people: the change from seeking externally to oneself, to seeking within. ‘The great invention of the West was that of an immanent order in Nature, whose working could be systematically understood and explained on its terms, leaving open the question whether this whole order had a deeper significance, and whether, if it did, we should infer a transcendent Creator beyond it.’[20] This is useful because Nature sits on a different side to the supernatural / the Godly / the gods / the supernatural etc. Taylor thinks this is a wise move for it permits us the intellectual space to consider the cultural changes for which this distinction (between immanent /transcendent) has become foundational.[21] In this thinking, we should now ask whether people recognize something beyond or transcendent to their lives.[22]

Everyone single person is somehow enlivened by the thought or concept of fulfilment. Taylor discusses this through the word ‘flourishing’ which he sees as being an essential part of our Make-up, whether it be through Christian motivators (we flourish for God because God wills it) or through humanism (no goal beyond human flourishing, and no allegiance to anything). [23]

Christianity’s definition of flourishing involves renunciation, and a negation of earthly trappings is a call to centre everything upon God and therefore to flourish in His view (although to flourish is not our only goal). Taylor is careful not to say ‘that modern secularity is somehow coterminous with exclusive humanism’ and acknowledges other alternatives, e.g. ‘deconstruction’ and ‘post-structuralism’ which are rooted in the writings of Nietzsche.[24] Taylor’s suggestion that naive religion faith somehow ended with the growing possibility of alternatives, such as exclusive humanism. This certainly seems to have relevance to the nineteenth century (which Taylor does tackle in this book).

Taylor offers a one-liner: ‘a secular age is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable; or better, it falls within the range of an imaginable lie for masses of people.’[25] The two opposing sides: total denial of religion, and transcendent religion is what shapes this debate.

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Rossetti, detail from Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849, Tate)

Unfortunately, ‘naïveté is now unavailable to anyone, believer or unbeliever alike’.[26] For many the answer as to why this has is the case, is simply that modern civilization cannot but bring about a “death of God”.[27] For Taylor, Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and be explained in terms of perennial features of human life’.[28]

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), pg. 2.

[2] Taylor, A Secular Age, pg. 2

[3] Ibid

[4] Taylor, pg. 3

[5] Ibid

[6] Taylor, pg. 4

[7] Taylor, pg. 5

[8] Taylor, pg. 6

[9] Ibid

[10] Taylor, pg. 7

[11] Ibid

[12] In Kantian philosophy, heteronomous behaviour is acting in accordance with one’s desires rather than reason or moral duty: Autonomous behaviour is acting in accordance with one’s moral duty rather than one’s desires. In order to counteract the risks of becoming purely self-driven human kind has to ensure morality is autonomous.

[13] Taylor, pg. 9

[14] Taylor, pg. 11

[15] Ibid

[16] Taylor, pg. 12

[17] Ibid

[18] Taylor, pg. 14

[19] Taylor, pg. 15

[20] Ibig

[21] Taylor, pg. 16

[22] Ibid

[23] Taylor places exclusive humanism within modernity, when it becomes a widely available option.

[24] Taylor, pg. 19

[25] Taylor, pg. 20

[26] Taylor, pg. 21

[27] Ibid

[28] Taylor, pg. 22