A Secular Age, Chapter 1, Part 1

Secular Age

[numbers indicate paras]

  1. Why was it basically impossible to not believe in God in 1500, but today many find it not only easy, but inescapable?
  2. How did an alternative become thinkable to a society that almost universally believed in God?
  3. One reason is that many aspects of their world [or how they mentally constructed their world] supported belief and made God’s presence undeniable. Three such aspects can be noted.
  4. First, the natural world they lived in was understood to be part of a cosmos created by God, and interacted with by God through plagues, or prosperity, etc.
  5. Second, God was understood to be the cause of society, because human societies were grounded in a higher reality.
  6. Third, they lived in an “enchanted” world (not so much fairies and imps, but the antonym to Weber’s idea of the “disenchanted” modern condition). This is a world of spirits, demons, and unseen moral forces.
  7. People who lived in this kind of world (see 4-6) may not believe in the Christian God, but at least in Europe in the 1500s, it was the Christian God who determined that good would ultimately triumph in a world like that.
  8. And, conversely, atheism is basically unthinkable in a society that believes 4-6. So, what happened to get us here?
  9. As stated in the introduction (see section 4, para 8), what happened was more than a subtraction story. There was also need for a positive account of how one could attain fullness in a non-religious world.
  10. So Taylor’s account will cover both, God recessing from belief AND explaining how something else could become the “positive slope” to “fullness” for modern people (see introduction, section 2, paras 6-8).
  11. A common subtraction story is that with the rise of science, the world became disenchanted (see para 6) and therefore lost belief in God, too. But this radically over-simplifies what happened. Disenchantment of the world did begin with the rise of science, but people still believed in God while it was happening.
  12. Even revolutions against church authority were not necessarily an act against God, because many of these revolutions happened in the name of other churches or Providence.
  13. An exhausted subtraction story says that the secular age was both disenchantment and the fading of God’s presence in all three domains (see 4-6) made alternative understandings of morality and fullness possible.
  14. Taylor contests that even this explanation is too simple. Some in the academy may have thought this way, but for ordinary lay people, the theories didn’t ‘connect’ with them.
  15. What was needed to make these alternatives possible was a new sense of the self and its place in the cosmos.

    “not open and porous and vulnerable to a world of spirits and powers, but what I want to call ‘buffered.'” (page 27)

  16. The non-theistic ethics of the pagan world (Plato, Stoicism, Aristotle) offered some helps towards created this new sense of self, but only “very partially,” because these ethics were still decidedly situated within a larger spiritual cosmos.
  17. Some might point to Epicureanism as a suitable ethic from which pre-moderns could build a new self. This is true to a degree (Lucretius was important to David Hume). But modernism needed more than Epicurean ethics. It needed an ethic with the ability to actively shape society that was motivated by a concern for human good. Essentially, it needed a good replacement for the Christian notion of agape love.
  18. “An acceptable form of exclusive humanism had to be created, and this couldn’t be done overnight.”
  19. By the late 1800s we do have those alternative beliefs and alternative accounts of the self formed in society, but even that was a lesser state of secularity that what we have today.


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