A Secular Age, Chapter 1, Section 2

Secular Age

[numbers indicate paras]

  1. Why tell a story of the changes in conditions of belief from 1500 to 2000? Why not just give an analysis?
  2. The reason to tell a story is that identity is always shaped by understanding of history. Our understanding of what it means to be secular is tied up with our understanding of how we got here.
  3. Because identity is tied up with the past, “there is an inescapable… God-reference in the very nature of our secular age” (pg. 29).
  4. Our past is present in our current identity, and we so we can’t understand ourselves without understanding our past.
  5. But in view of how big the West is, there is more than one story that could be told. This book will focus on the broadest of narratives of how the West became secular.


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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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A Secular Age, Summary of the Introduction

Secular Age

KEY TERMS IN INTRODUCTION: 1) Secularism 1, 2, and 3; 2) the conditions of belief; 3) a place of fullness; 4) positive slope; 5) negative slope; 6) stabilized middle condition;  7) engaged and disengaged standpoint; 8) naive and reflective ages; 9) transcendence and immanence, 10) self-sufficing humanism;  11) secularization theory; 12) subtraction stories.

[Section 1] In the introduction to A Secular Age, Taylor begins by defining secularism. He notes three legitimate ways to define it. Secularism 1: the loss of God-talk in public space. Secularism 2: the disappearance of belief in God. Secularism 3: the conditions that make faith or unbelief possible. A Secular Age will study secularism 3.

[Section 2] Essentially that means this book will offer an insider look at the lived conditions that made it possible for people to conceive of a world in which God and religion were no longer necessary parts, and were at best only one option among many. This book will look at how people came to a point of being able to find ‘fullness’ without reference to the divine, but purely by immanent resources within a person, society, or nature.

Another feature of this lived condition is that, now, faith and unbelief happen in a spectrum of engagement and disengagement where there are moral/logical/experiential temptations to ‘apostatize’ from religion or secularism in order to convert to the other.

[Section 3] Taylor defines religion broadly as: belief in the transcendent and the conviction that it is necessary for human flourishing. Meanwhile, secularism believes in a “self-sufficing humanism” in which flourishing can be accomplished immanently and without regard to the transcendent.

[Section 4] Offers a brief summation of the intro and a look to what is coming in Chapter 1 (which is an account of how the West became secular). This account will play rival to secularization theory that says ‘as the world becomes more modern it necessarily becomes less religious.’ It will argue that the process was more complicated than this. Taylor adds two caveats: first, his study is focused only on the West, and second he rejects a ‘subtraction story’ approach to understanding secularism.


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A Secular Age, Introduction, Section 4

Secular Age

4: A summation of the introduction and a peek ahead at chapter 1

[numbers indicate paras in the section]

  1. Taylor restates that his focus in this book is secularism 3, the change in conditions of belief that made it possible to imagine a world without reference to a transcendent person or power.
  2. This change in the conditions of belief make it so now no on may naively believe in God, it must be in a context of their being alternatives to faith.
  3. This is the context of s society in which there are many options, and the presence of options cannot be dismissed as “exotic error.” Alternatives to faith are part of the landscape in Western society.
  4. Exclusive humanism is what brought into being this kind of society that has alternatives to faith.
  5. Many people say that the cause of exclusive humanism is really simple, and they appeal to ‘secularization theory’ that says as the world becomes more modern it necessarily becomes less religious.
  6. Taylor rejects this theory, and will in Chapter 1 provide his own counter-explanation of how exclusive humanism became a reality.
  7. Taylor prefaces his account of the development of exclusive humanism with two points: First, he is only described the West and not other parts of the world (though modernity has left its mark on Eastern and Southern societies too).
  8. Second, Taylor rejection all “subtraction stories.” Subtraction stories say that modernity was just people sloughing off and shedding religion, and becoming liberated from cumbersome belief systems.

    “Against this kind of [subtraction] story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial feature of human life.” (pg. 22)

  9. The discussion in chapter 1 aims to unpacks these points.


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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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Charles Taylor, A Secular Age [MAIN PAGE]

Secular Age

[This book summary is going para by para through A Secular Age. It is a work in progress, DV, to be finished by the end of 2017]


Section 1: Ways of studying secularism, and this book’s focus on “conditions of belief.”

Section 2: What are “conditions of belief?” How do they change the way we understand secularism?

Section 3: What is religion? Broadly, it is belief in the transcendent. Secularism is life without the need for transcendence.

Section 4: Final thoughts on the intro and a look ahead to chapter 1

Part 1: The Work of Reform

Chapter 1, “Bulwarks of Belief”

Section 1: Reason for belief in 1500 is outlined, subtraction stories are questioned, and the conditions needed for alternative beliefs are set.

Section 2: The process of secularization needs to be told as a story in order to be understood rightly.