A Secular Age, Chapter 1, Section 3

Secular Age

[numbers indicate paras]

  1. (Pg. 29) Even if we need to tell the ‘story’ of how the West became secular, still need some analysis along the way in order to understand what is happening in the story. So, Taylor lays out some of that analysis broadly, as he contrasts the modern world with the pre-modern world (ca. 1500), and notes five changes [he will discuss these over the course of chapter 1].
  2. The first change is “disenchantment” and the removal of obstacle three (see paras 4-6 of chapter 1, section 1). [The rest of section three focuses on the movement in conditions of belief from an enchanted world to a disenchanted world]
  3. We moved from an enchanted world of spirits, demons, and invisible moral forces to a disenchanted world in which “the only locus of thoughts” and “feelings” is the mind. And our minds are bounded, so these thoughts only happen “within.”
  4. This space “within” a person has the possibility to one degree or another of self-awareness and “radical reflexivity.”
  5. [Paras 5-8 appear to be a digression]. By talking about the mind, Taylor is not trying to advance a certain theory of the mind-body relationship. He is just establishing this crucial component to how modern people construct their world. It is rooted internally and subjectively in the mind.
  6. This concept of mind is a crucial part of understanding how society went from a “naive understanding” in which it was unthinkable to doubt God’s existence, to a reflective understanding where God is, at best, only one answer among many.
  7. Taylor [over?-]analyzes the modern world’s rejection of spirit beings, saying it is not a new form of “naive understanding.” [BTW NOTE: Is this what he is saying here?]
  8. Taylor’s discussion of the mind is how he will ‘unpack’ this change in society from naive, enchanted belief in God to reflective, disenchanted uncertainty about God.
  9. So, back to the mind. It is a bounded inward space in which thoughts, etc occur.
  10. Thoughts, feelings, identity happen in the mind.
  11. This is a key difference from the enchanted world [in which the world impinges on the mind].
  12. Again, this ‘mind talk’ is not trying to wade into the deeper philosophies of the mind. It’s just establishing the point that in a disenchanted world meaning happens “within.”
  13. As an example, think of the philosophical materialist fantasy in which we are all just brains in a vat, manipulated by scientists into thinking there really is an outside world ‘out there.’ But it’s just experiments causing our minds to think we perceive an outside world. The point of the example is that meaning and perception happen within the mind (in the modern world).
  14. BUT in the enchanted world, meaning is not ‘in the mind,’ it is ‘out there.’ This is first seen in that there is believed to be something besides human minds populating the world, there are spirits and demons ‘out there.’
  15. In addition to demons, there were good spiritual agents, too.
  16. There is some contact between this enchanted view and the modern view of the mind, in that this essentially there are other minds out there to besides human minds. But there is more to the enchanted world than just spiritual beings with minds.
  17. Besides spiritual beings, there are “things” that objectively hold power  (relics, sacraments, candles, etc).
  18. So much power did they hold that, in the enchanted world, the line between personal action and impersonal force was not clearly drawn. Relics could give cures and curses could regardless of personal intention.
  19. So, in the pre-modern world, meaning is not only in the mind, but can also reside in things. These things possess power in two ways that are different from today.
  20. First, these external things can impose meaning on us. This still is true today, even in the modern world (i.e. tragedies that happen to us), but it was very different in the pre-modern world.
  21. These things may impinge in two ways.
  22. (1) We observe them and they can the way we see the world. (2) As external things that are continuous with our bodies, we are in constant relation to them, and since we are responsively shaped, our moods and motivations can be affected by what happens outside of us..
  23. In the enchanted world, the meaning is there independent of the minds perceiving it, in the modern world this is not the case. So (3) [Taylor adds a third way] in the enchanted world an object can impose meaning on us by bringing us into its sphere of power/influence. It can impose meaning on us that is alien to our nature (i.e. grace, illumination, or curse).
  24. The world does not just affect us by presenting us with various states of affair that we react to “out of our own nature.” In the enchanted world, the meaning and power exist out there, and can change us, and even take us over.
  25. But in the disenchanted world, for instance, if I am angry it can wear you down and eventually put you in a bad mood, but that “bad mood” was in the repetoire of your nature already, it’s circumstances that brought it out.
  26. Or even if someone were to show you a human behavior or philosophy that was entirely new to you, it would still be something that happens within the sphere of humanness; not ‘within us’ but ‘between us’ and that is much the same thing.
  27. This clarification of ‘between us’ needs to be added because of how unhelpfully atomistically the human mind can be understood.
  28. This is all different from the pre-modern enchanted view of the world in which powers beyond human minds can affect us ‘within’ and ‘between.’
  29. In the pre-modern enchanted world, power “exogenously” induces and imposes meaning on humans. These “charged” objects can affect us and other things in the world.
  30. (pg. 35) This matches the High Renaissance theory of correspondences.
  31. Things have influence and causal power.
  32. Distinctions that we make between mind and world are hazier in the pre-modern world.
  33. The pre-modern self is porous and susceptible to the influence of exogenous powers.
  34. As an example of this porousness, think of demon possession. A demon can take you over whether you want them to or not.
  35. And there are a variety of levels of influence that the ‘outside’ can have on a person.
  36. Influence does not have clear boundaries.
  37. If you worship Aphrodite, when life goes well she is the one responsible. Even good moods are a gift from her.
  38. This makes even our inside or ‘within’ more external and outside, because even the depths of our thoughts are porous and penetrable by these enchanted powers.
  39. Much the same as was said about Aphrodite’s influence could apply to demonic influence.
  40. In the modern world, we have lost this sense of danger to spirits, witches, and demons.
  41. Along with vulnerability to evil, there is the need to propitiate the anger of these forces, too.
  42. The relationship between humans and cosmic forces is more than an analogy of human-to-human relationships. It is complex, requiring its own model.
  43. This enchanted world has significant consequences for our lived experience.
  44. As an example: melancholy does not just exist as an attitude, because our emotional life is porous and extends to evil forces beyond us that have a meaning of their own independent of us.
  45. A modern is told your melancholy is tied to you: your diet, your body chemistry, your hormones.
  46. A pre-modern is told it comes from outside of him. Black bile is melancholy.
  47. The modern person has a buffered self. The pre-modern a porous self.
  48. The difference between these two selves is that a modern can distance himself from the world, achieve meaning from within.
  49. But for the porous self, the most influential forces are those that are outside the mind.
  50. The buffered self can see itself as invulnerable and as master of its own meaning.
  51. There are two important contrasted between the porous and buffered selves. 1) The porous self is vulnerable to outside forces, the buffered self does not live in this world of this kind of fear.
  52. It’s not that the buffered self is free of trouble, but those troubles are now “within” and are dealt with differently.
  53. Our nostalgia for by-gone pre-modern eras relieves how little we understand about the lived conditions and the fears bound up with a porous self.
  54. 2) The buffered self can disengage and create its own “autonomous order” to life.
  55. The boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy in the enchanted world, and this is not thought of by pre-moderns as ‘a theory’ but a fact of experience.
  56. Additionally the enchanted world did not abide by the different between science and meaning/spiritual faith. What ailed the body was understood to be bound up with matters of the soul.
  57. Though, many people still took the physical remedy without regard for the spiritual component.
  58. One also finds vestiges of the old belief that illness happens because of sin.
  59. 500 years ago, there was not a clear line between the physical and the moral. This is because of porous understanding of reality.
  60. Additionally, today we hold a Newtonian cause and effect view of the non-human elements of the world.
  61. 500 years ago, these non-human elements were understood personally as agencies of evil or good.
  62. So… how does all this relate to the conditions of belief?
  63. “First, disbelief is hard in the enchanted world.” This is because you cannot navigate an enchanted world without God and expect much success.
  64. “Going against God is not an option in the enchanted world,” because reality is perceived as porous. Thus, the invention of the buffered self removes a huge barrier to unbelief.
  65. The buffered self makes unbelief a possibility, but not necessarily a reality yet. For that we need to follow the process of disenchantment a little more, first.

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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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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 2018]


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.

Section 3: Part of the creation of conditions for unbelief was a change in the perception of the self, and the move from a porous view of reality to a buffered view of reality.

Section 4: In 1500, the self was communally-oriented in a way that the modern buffered self is not. Community needed individuals, individuals needed community for safety and flourishing.

Section 5 [in progress]