A Secular Age, Introduction, Section 2

Secular Age

2: What are the conditions of belief? How does this concept change the way we study secularism?

Starting on page 4

(The numbers below identify the paragraphs in the text)

  1. A study of the conditions of belief is hard to write because most people focus on what is believed (secularity 2), rather than how they reached that belief.
  2. Secularism 2 is of special interest to Americans, and the rise of secularism is explained by the rise in other beliefs like science and reason.
  3. But secularism 2 offers too simplistic of an account of secularism. It’s not necessarily the case that the rise of science, logic, and even evolution must curb interest in religion (as it appears they have in America).
  4. So, rather than focus on belief and unbelief as rival theories, this book will focus on the different kinds of lived experiences that lead one to have belief or unbelief.
  5. Belief and unbelief are alternative ways of living our moral/spiritual life.
  6. We see our lives as having a certain moral shape, and in some activity there lies a fullness—where life becomes more meaningful than what it used to be (see Bede Griffith’s comments).
  7. These moments of fullness come when an experience unsettles our ordinary sense of the world, and something “terrifyingly other shines through” (cf. Robert Musil).
  8. [Taylor names three parts to the spectrum of fullness. First, the ‘positive slope.’] These moments of fullness may happen again and again, where one feels like one is moving forward, and is capable and full of energy.
  9. These experiences help us to identify “a place of fullness” by which we orient our lives morally and spiritually.
  10. [Second] The “negative slope” of this fullness is that we can lose a sense of fullness, feel exiled, absence of power, and direction.
  11. This negative side can include notions of eternal damnation and the nightmarish.
  12. There is also a third option: a “stabilized middle condition,” where we escape forms of loss without necessarily achieving fullness. We discover the middle position through a routine of life, by which we do things that have meaning for us.
  13. (Page 7) In the middle condition, the routine keeps the negative slope of exile at bay, and allows some contact with the positive slope of fullness.
  14. This description of moral/spiritual living (fullness, exile, middle) would seem to tilt towards believers because it is sounds like putting faith in salvation, not despairing of it, and making slow progress towards it over a lifetime.
  15. But there are many unbelievers whose lives are described by this middle condition, too; they aim for a good life, and try to overcome “ennui.”
  16. Even for the unbeliever a “place of fullness” is a suitable description of life, because the unbeliever wants to be the kind of person for whom this life is fully satisfying, though he cannot attain to this yet.
  17. So, the fullness, exile, middle descriptions actually allow us to understand the lived conditions of, both, belief and unbelief.
  18. For believers this fullness is defined by God, whereas for unbelievers fullness is left open or defined humanisticly.
  19. For believers, fullness comes to them and is received from another, and is slowly brought out of self.
  20. In a Buddhist (believer) context, there is no ‘another’ who gives, but the goal is to be brought out of self in order to gain a transcendental identity.
  21. For unbelievers [there are three models of fullness but] the power to reach fullness comes from within. [The first model] is centered on our rationality and ability to self-govern well.
  22. Feuerbach speculated that belief emerged from confusing the source of this awesome power. We placed outside of us what was actually inside of us.
  23. There are many naturalistic variants on this internal rational power. Not all identify it precisely with reason, but reason plays a key role in many non-believing pursuits of fullness.
  24. Existentialist thinkers like Camus argued that rising up above the meaninglessness of life to devise our own rules is a heroic and inspiring action.
  25. [A second model of fullness from ‘within’ is] that of looking for fullness in nature (a la Romanticism), or natural instincts, or both. The goal is to heal the division between reason and instinct.
  26. Some of these unbelieving philosophies bear resemblance to the religious critique of the Enlightenment, because they stress reception of something over self-sufficiency, but they are all immanent-based, giving no place to a God outside the world.
  27. A third model of unbelieving fullness are those that attack or deny self-sufficiency but offer “no outside source for the reception of power.” This is seen in post-modernity, where there is no solace in internal feelings, or in a recovered unity of reason and feeling, but in order for the world to make any sense personally, we must still believe these illusory and fictional theories of fullness.
  28. This third category is different from the first and second, but has some connection in that it draws courage from being able to face the irremediable and meaningless while still carrying on.
  29. And so we have established some ways in which the fullness, exile, middle paradigm can be worked out by believer and unbeliever. Key for the unbelieving usage of the paradigm is that the fullness comes from within/around.
  30. There are some more differences that need to be mapped out about how people live out these experiences.
  31. One such difference is that of tension. For a believer, fullness is sought in God, but there are moments of doubt and pull towards alternative models of fullness.
  32. (Page 11) Part of the modern condition is recognition of many different construals of reality besides the one we have, this can from time to time produce doubt and uncertainty.
  33. “It is this index of doubt, which induces people to speak of ‘theories’ here.”
  34. In some cases, a fullness/exile category that a (third party) person would call a theory  is experienced by another person as immediate experience. Bosch’s evil spirits did not feel theoretical to those who were experiencing them.
  35. New Testament era people did not witness a demon-possession and feel like there are many different explanations of what this could be.
  36. In West Africa, a Celestine walked home from Aventile with her mother, and a stranger dressed in white. Afterwards, her mother denied ever having seen the man, but that did not change that the Celestine immediately perceived him.
  37. So some conditions of lived experience are not hammered out through day-to-day life, they are so basic as to be immediately experienced and assumed.
  38. The way we moved from a religious society to a secular one is through these immediate forms of certainty being eroded.
  39. With the loss of this immediate certainty, most people today navigate between an “engaged” standpoint and a “disengaged” standpoint.
  40. We have also changed from a condition in which the default option was faith to one in which the default option is unbelief, and faith is seen as naive or weak.
  41. The modern world has a host of societies that are different from one another on religious and secular ideas, but there is now a presumption of unbelief that is dominant.
  42. In order to discuss belief and unbelief in our age, we have to put it in this context of lived experience (as outlined above: fullness/exile/middle; engagement/disengagement; presumption of unbelief).
  43. This means belief in God in 1500 is not quite the same phenomenon as in 2000.
  44. Because all beliefs exist in a context of taken-for-granted, we have to be open to the possibility that ours are too.
  45. One can compare the background frameworks of 1500 and 2000 relate as that of “naive” (unexamined belief) and “reflective” (examined belief).
  46. The shift in background is seen in light of other distinctions we make today: immanent/transcendent, natural/supernatural.
  47. It is this shift in background that alters how we perceive the fullness/exile/middle paradigm. How this shift in background occurred (secularity three), is what this book is about.
  48. Focusing on lived experience will enable us to analyze and frame questions more properly, and avoid naive conclusions [like unbelief is nothing more than a stripping away of unnecessary spiritual ideas].
  49. We need to understand the differences between unbelief, not just creedally, but also in terms of experience and sensibility. Here are two important differences in experience and sensibility: First, the West has undergone a massive change in the conditions of belief from naive to reflective. Second, we have to be aware of how believers and unbelievers experience their world differently.


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One comment on “A Secular Age, Introduction, Section 2

  1. […] Section 2: What are “conditions of belief?” How do they change the way we understand sec… […]

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