A Secular Age, Introduction, Section 3

Secular Age

3: The nature of religion as transcendence and secularism as life without the need for transcendence.

(numbers correspond to paras in the section)

(Page 14) The word secularism is inherently complicated, thus Taylor has deciphered three different ways the word can be used (see here).

  1. All three ways of defining secularism make reference to religion as “that which is retreating in the public space.” So, besides “secularism,” we also need a definition of religion. What is religion?
  2. We don’t need a definition big enough for all world religions, but one useful for describing the phenomenon related specifically to the pursuit of fullness in the West.
  3. Essentially, what we need from a definition of religion is its the distinction of transcendence and immanence. The shift that our culture experienced was:

    “that of an immanent order in Nature, whose working could be systematically understood and explained on its own 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” (page 15).

  4. The immanent/transcendent distinction helps to understand the changes in perception of God and unbelief that our culture has undergone.
  5. So, another way to discuss secularism is in terms of whether a person recognizes something beyond or transcendent to their lives.
  6. But Taylor wants to add even more focus to the idea of religion than just ‘some sense of the transcendent.’ He adds to the discussion the goal of human life.
  7. Every person and society lives with some conception of what produces human flourishing.
  8. For our study, the question is does that human flourishing involve serving a good that is beyond (or transcendent to) mere human flourishing and self-interest?
  9. The Judeo-Christian religious tradition, the answer is “yes.”
  10. In a very different but still consistent way, Buddhism also says “yes.”
  11. For both religious traditions, human flourishing is discovered in conjunction with transcendence.
  12. Could we just say that even in religion, flourishing is achieved by self-renunciation (thus proving that even religious is concerned entirely immanent reality). No, inherent to Christian self-renunciation is the sense of giving up oneself and one’s personal good to a transcendental reality (i.e. God) that is beyond mere human good.
  13. Christianity is concerned for more than personal flourishing. There is a greater transcendental reality which reflexively serves personal good. In Christianity,

    “Flourishing is good, nevertheless seeking it is not our ultimate goal. But even when we renounce it, we re-affirm it, because we follow God’s will in being a channel for it to others, and ultimately to all” (page 18).

  14. This applies to Buddhism, too, seen in its concept of karuna.
  15. The point of this discussion of transcendence and flourishing is this: modern secularism’s rise parallels the rise of a society in which society believed it needed no goals beyond mere human flourishing, a society that has no use for the transcendent at all, and pursued human flourishing entirely through immanent means. This had never before happened in the history of the world.
  16. Not all previous religions related flourishing and transcendence as Christianity and Buddhism do, but none ever treated the transcendental as purely a means to an immanent end. [This is to say that secularism interest in purely this-worldly flourishing was completely new to history].
  17. In all previous religious systems there were higher beings or Ideas that were to be served by humans.
  18. (pg. 19) In these earlier philosophies there may have been a humanism in play, but it was not the kind of “self-sufficing humanism” that ones sees in the modern world.
  19. The thesis of this book is not that modernity brought onto the seem the first “self-sufficing humanism” ever (see Epicureanism), it’s that in the modern would it becomes widely available in a way never before seen in history.
  20. Further, the claim of this book is not that modern secularity is nothing more than exclusive humanism. There are non-religious anti-humanisms in the modernity, too.
  21. Rather the claim of the book is:

    “secularity 3 came to be along with the possibility of exlcusive humanism, which thus for the first time widened the range of possible options, ending the era of ‘naive’ religious faith. Exclusive humanism in a sense crept up on us through an intermediate form, Providential Deism; an both the Deism and the humanism were made possible by earlier developments within orthodox Christianity.” (page 19)

  22. Again:

    “a secular age is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable” (page 19)

  23. So religion can be defined for the purposes of this study as ‘transcendence.’ In secularism 1, this transcendent Person or power has been displaced from the center of social life. In secularism 2, faith in this person or power has declined in the modern world. In secularism 3, he/she/it is no longer relevant as a good to be aimed at, nor is it essential to human flourishing.
  24. Religion combines these elements of transcendence, and the secular age has abandoned them.


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