Everybody is Religious, It’s Just How Human Beings Are

“The religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity. (This is not a theological statement but an anthropological one—an agnostic or even an atheist philosopher may well agree with it.) It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good.” -Peter Berger, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics

Thomas Merton’s Description of the 21st Century

A society “whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.” Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain


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.


Back to A Secular Age table of contents.

A Secular Age, Introduction, Section 1

Secular Age

1: Defining Secularism: A study in the conditions of belief and unbelief.

(the numbers below identify the paragraphs in the text)

  1. We live in a secular age, but what does that mean?
  2. First, some think secularity consists of common institutions and practices (like the State) that have no connection to a faith or god.
  3. In this view, secularity means that we live in a society in which you can fully engage in politics without coming across religion in any concentrated way.
  4. A few centuries ago this would have been unthinkable, because religion was involved in every part of society, political or otherwise.
  5. If we go back even further in history, distinctions between religion and state were not intelligible at all.
  6. So, one way to think about secularity is to think of public spaces that have been emptied of God and his authoritative divine prescriptions, or any reference to ultimate reality, and are now ‘ruled’ by each social spheres ‘internal’ rationality.
  7. Many even find this emptying of God from social spheres still to be consistent with privately held religious beliefs (see American separation of Church and State).
  8. A second meaning of secularism is a drop-off in religious faith and practices; a turning from God and church.
  9. There is a third meaning of secularism, too, and that is: secularity has to do with the conditions of belief. Secularism is about a shift in society where belief in God was once thought to be unproblematic, but is now only one option among many, and not the easiest to embrace anymore.
  10. This book will focus on secularity in this third sense: “the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.”
  11. Secularity is now the whole “context of understanding” in which our moral, spiritual, and religious experience take place.
  12. An age is secular or not, because of the conditions of experience and search for the spiritual.


Back to A Secular Age table of contents.

Secularism’s Tendency Towards Injustice

“But what if unbelief is precisely the problem? What if it is precisely the secularization and naturalization of our political life that ends up absolutizing it, engendering an intolerance and reign of terror for any who violate its orthodoxy? A society that forgets it is not ultimate is by nature the most prone to injustice. In that respect, unbelief is not a protection from holy wars—it is exposure to holy wars by other means.” -James K.A. Smith


Charles Taylor’s Features of the Old Theistic World

1.The natural world testified to divine purpose and action.

2. God was implicated in society. Earthly kingdoms were grounded in something higher than human action and secular time.

3. People lived in an “enchanted” world. A world in which there are spiritual and invisible realities beyond what the eye can see.

[From Taylor, A Secular Age]

Calvin: Haunted By Transcendence

“At this point we ought to note that, however much they struggle against their own senses, and wish not only to drive God thence but also to destroy him in heaven, their stupidity [!!] never increases to the point where God does not at times bring them back to his judgment seat.” -John Calvin

BTW NOTE: I quote this from Calvin, simply because it reminded me of Charles Taylor’s comment that the secular world is haunted by transcendence. In this quote, we see that Calvin was saying that long before Taylor.

Secularism As Dependent on Christianity

“It is my governing conviction… that much of modernity should be understood not as a grand revolt against the tyranny of faith, not as a movement of human liberation and progress, but as a counterrevolution, a reactionary rejection of a freedom which it no longer understands, but upon which it remains parasitic.” -David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, pg. 108

Some Forms of Freedom Are Actually Slavery

“It is, at the very least, instructive to realize that our freedom might just as well be seen–from certain more antique perspectives–as a kind of slavery: to untutored impulses, to empty caprice, to triviality, to dehumanizing values. And it can do no harm occasionally to ask where a concept of freedom whose horizon is precisely and necessarily nothing–a concept that is, as I have said, nihilist in the most exact sense–ultimately leads.” -David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, pg. 105