A Secular Age
Cambridge and London, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007
[a review, first published in the Christianity and History Forum Bulletin, spring 2009; republished here by the kind permission of the Reviews Editor. ISSN: 1742-3007]
When at the half-way point through a book, one’s notes for a review cover 14 pages, it is clear that a simple summary of the work at hand will be near impossible. Charles Taylor has written a remarkable study of stunning range and ambition, which is sure to become essential reading for historians of Christianity from the late medieval period to the present day. It is a work partly of history, but also of philosophical theology of a non-systematic kind, with considerable elements of religious psychology and sociology; a blend that is quite sui generis.
His central concern is to provide an account of the advent of our present secular age, of the longest possible range. Most narratives of secularisation, Taylor contends, deal with the emptying of public space and institutions of explicit religious meaning, and with the measurable decline of professed religious faith and practice, as understood by the institutional churches. The intent of this study is to go further behind these analyses, and to examine a fundamental shift in what Taylor calls the “conditions of belief”. In pre-Reformation Europe it was simply impossible to conceive of self, society and cosmos without reference to God; no viable alternatives of philosophical atheism or exclusive humanism were to hand. In the early twenty-first century, no such option of “naive theism” is available; religious belief is simply one option in a field of epistemological choice. Taylor is unconvinced by the simple narrative in which modernity is made the single efficient cause of this shift to secularity. He equally firmly rejects what he calls “subtraction stories”; the notion that “science” gradually whittled away all the unnecessary accretions to leave mature, independent Man, who had all along been struggling to slough off the strait-jacket of religious belief and be free. Far from being simply a realisation of inherent human potential, the possibility of an exclusive humanism is in fact a genuinely innovative phase in human history. In an insight of great importance to the present debates occasioned by the work of Richard Dawkins and others, Taylor tellingly shows the apparently ‘scientific’ critique of religious belief to have a history and a set of presuppositions of its own.
Taylor’s method is to proceed by a series of roughly chronological essays on aspects of the change: there are examinations of, amongst many, the ‘disenchantment’ of the natural world, the growth of the public sphere and the impact of the First World War. Descartes and Edward Gibbon, Nietzsche and Mrs Humphrey Ward all make an appearance, and Taylor engages with scholars as diverse as Keith Thomas and Norbert Elias, Mircea Eliade and Steve Bruce. Whilst little of the narrative is based on primary research, almost every page holds some striking recasting of a familiar story, or a startling juxtaposition of hitherto unconnected themes. Taylor also has an eye for a phrase: neo-Stoicism ‘is the zig to which Deism will be the zag’ (117); the confidence of the eighteenth-century mind in its own progress is ‘the ratchet at the end of the anthropocentric shift.’ (289). Without making any secret of his own faith position, Taylor is generous to a fault towards almost all the positions he engages with, even when very far from his own.
If there is any criticism that may fairly be made of a study of such range, it is perhaps one of method. In his preface, Taylor excuses himself from providing an exhaustive account of the changes he describes; and rightly, since such an account would surely run into many volumes. At the same time, each of the essays has a marked centrifugal tendency; every assertion is subsequently qualified, and byways are noted, commented upon and set aside. It is in these asides that many of the most striking insights are contained. The price, however, is that the central argument sometimes recedes, almost to vanishing point. The study perhaps needed either to be a great deal longer, or considerably more concise; as it is, it is punishingly long, at nearly 800 pages of text. As a result, it may try the patience of readers, and is likely to defeat the majority of undergraduate students and perhaps many general readers. It would however be a shame if potential readers were deterred by the dimensions of the study, since it is a quite extraordinary work, and likely to be one of very great importance.
I agree that Taylor’s work is of great importance. It is difficult, but it gives the reader a new framework in which to consider the extraordinary development of secularism and change in religious mindset in the modern, western world. I would suggest that undergraduate readers be given excerpts to read rather than be required to read the whole book, much as they would be given excerpts of Foucault to be read. This is a scholarly work, not something directed at a general reader. In fact this is a ‘must read’ for all scholars of religion and secularism in the western world.