Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Secular Age: Intro

I haven't blogged since November, so I figured I should get back to work on blogging.  In my last post, I made some reading goals for 2011.  So far, I've read the two fiction books on my list, Brothers Karamazov and The Corrections.  I enjoyed them both.  I'm also reading Church Dogmatics along with J.R. Daniel Kirk's reading group (  Due to some recent reading I've done, I've become more and more interested in reading Charles Taylor's A Secular Age.  What pushed me to read it now is I just read on James K.A. Smith's blog ( that he's currently teaching a seminar on A Secular Age.  He made his syllabus available online and also started a blog to go along with the reading of the course (  While I'm a week behind on the class readings, I'm hoping to catch up and read along with his class.  I’m reading the Kindle Edition, so I will be citing location numbers rather than page numbers in my own reflections.

Taylor begins the introduction asking, “What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age?”  By “we,” Taylor is referring to those of us who live in the “North Atlantic world” (loc. 31–35).  Taylor then notes that we in the west don’t have a clear understanding of secularity.  He gives three ways in which secularity is characterized:
  1. “The first concentrates on the common institutions and practices—most obviously, but not only, the state.  The difference 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.  Churches are now separate from political structures (with a couple of examples, in Britain and the Scandinavian countries, which are so low-key and undemanding as not really to constitute exceptions).  Religion or its absence is largely a private matter” (loc. 35–40).  Taylor notes that this was until recently the standard view of secularity, which he calls secularity 1.  Secularity 1 is characterized by an understanding of “public spaces” that have been “emptied of God, or of any reference to ultimate reality” (loc. 49).  Secularity 1 contrasts with earlier periods in which “Christ faith laid down authoritative prescriptions, often through the mouths of the clergy” (loc. 52).
  2. Secularity 2 “consists in the falling off of religious belief and practice, in people turning away from God, and no longer going to Church” (loc. 58).  Taylor says secularity 2 can be seen in the countries of western Europe—“even those who retain the vestigial of public reference to God in public spaces.”  On the other hand, Taylor notes that while the US was “One of the earliest societies to separate Church and State, it is also the Western society with the highest statistics for religious belief and practice” (loc. 55–60).  Note that Taylor does not just focus on religious belief, but also practice, and later he also discusses experience and search.  Taylor thus understands belief and unbelief as “lived conditions, not just theories or sets of beliefs subscribed to (loc. 145–147).
  3. Taylor then says that he wants to examine the secular 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 sense, the US is fully secularized, while most Muslim societies and India would not be, even if church attendance in the US was higher than mosque attendance in Jordan (loc. 60–65).

So, within A Secular Age, Taylor says “the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us 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.”  While Taylor, and myself, see it as inconceivable to abandon faith, many see belief as simply one option among others (loc. 65–71).

Smith notes this on his blog about Taylor’s introduction:

One of the biggest challenges in reading a big book like A Secular Age is keeping track of the argument through the thickets and rabbit trails of such a sprawling account. One way to keep in task, then, is to keep in mind Taylor's quarry--his concern and project. The project is to answer a question that is formulated in a couple of different ways early in the book:
How did we move from a condition where, in Christendom, people lived naively within a theistic construal, to one in which we all shunt between two stances, in which everyone’s construal shows up as such; and in which moreover, unbelief has become for many the major default option?” (p. 14)
Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” (p. 25)
I find Taylor’s three-fold understanding of secularity helpful.  It prevents simplified understandings of secularity.  This introduction helps see the important questions that Taylor wants to answer throughout the book.

The two questions that Taylor raises are important for contemporary people of faith.  Even though I am a devoted Christian and even serve as a minister, why is my default position often unbelief when it concerns the miraculous?  While I disagree with the dualisms of American society that tell me that my faith should be private and separated from my public life, I often do exactly that.  I’m hoping that reading Taylor will help me become more aware of some of these issues and help me see ways in which I can understand belief and unbelief holistically, rather than rationally.

No comments:

Post a Comment