Modernity & Belief

Charles Taylor's ‘A Secular Age'

In 1949, Karl Jaspers introduced the notion of an “axial age” to describe a few centuries around the middle of the first millennium B.C. when great spiritual masters planted the seeds of the great world faiths. To a world of tribal deities, primitive myths, and nature rituals, Confucius, Lao-tse, Siddhartha Gautama, the Hebrew prophets, and Greek thinkers from the pre-Socratics to Plato brought new visions of universal ethics, individual salvation, and personal quest for higher meaning. Since then, religion has never been the same.

Our “secular age,” in Charles Taylor’s view, is no less pivotal. Between 1500 and today, something “titanic” and irreversible has happened. Religion will not disappear but, again, it will never be the same.

Taylor is not the first to suggest this parallel. Other scholars have referred to the Scientific Revolution or the Enlightenment as “axial”; and sweeping schematics about ages and eras have become the stock-in-trade of a certain kind of popular social analysis, usually bent on announcing something new and dazzling or dangerous. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, $39.95, 896 pp.) is nothing like that; it does not pretend to trumpet a supposedly unrecognized development. Instead, it reexamines one that has long been the subject of massive study and debate. Rather than clever and dramatic, the book is fine-grained, subtle, exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting. It is, simply, the most comprehensive account of the process and meaning of secularization.

“Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society,” Taylor asks, “while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”

The first third of the book addresses that question. It traces the passage from the pervasive religiosity of medieval Christendom to that point when a “self-sufficient or exclusive humanism”—an outlook with no final goals or allegiances beyond human flourishing—became, for the first time in human history, widely available to masses of people. The next third describes how this exclusive humanism promptly burst into an array of rival forms of nonbelief, and how both traditional faith and the new forms of nonbelief mobilized and mutated during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Roughly the last third of the book examines the present “conditions” of belief and nonbelief—the cross-pressures and dilemmas confronting both transcendent faith and exclusive humanism.

“Belief in God isn’t quite the same thing in 1500 and today,” Taylor writes. He is talking not about important developments in doctrine but about a profoundly changed context: faith is no longer the very air we breathe. “Even for the staunchest believer,” Taylor argues, faith is now only one human possibility among others that cannot, in all honesty, be dismissed as blind or depraved.

Yet naive atheism is as difficult to sustain as naive theism. Modern unbelief can never entirely forget its origins in religion. And neither believers nor nonbelievers can escape the awareness that “intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will” hold to very different positions. “We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time,” Taylor points out. More than in the past, we must live our faith—or lack of faith—“in a condition of doubt and uncertainty.”

For all his book’s heft and complexity, Taylor is very insistent on its limits: it is an account of “a” secular age, the one that has emerged in what he calls North Atlantic civilization—the lands of Latin Christianity, particularly those that felt the force of the Reformation and the Enlightenment—and across the ocean the United States and Taylor’s native Canada. There are only occasional references to Islam, Buddhism, and other religions. There is no entry in the index for the intriguing case of Japan. Despite the impact of European and American expansion in shaping religious dynamics around the world, Taylor recognizes that secularity may take different forms elsewhere.

Four other features of Taylor’s project should be noted. First, it is offered as a corrective and an alternative to what Taylor calls “subtraction stories.” These stories assume that modern secularity is the natural state of affairs fated to emerge as soon as certain outmoded and ill-founded religious views of reality are “subtracted,” sloughed off, or stripped away, usually by science and reason. Taylor, by contrast, argues that exclusive humanism became widely plausible only because of a complex series of shifts in outlook and assumptions about God, the world, the human person, time, and morality. And each new outlook was highly constructed, often on the basis of fundamentally religious impulses.

Second, Taylor is not offering simply an analysis or an argument but a narrative; and he is not dealing simply with rival theories or ideas but with background assumptions, sensibilities, unstated norms, and expectations-what he calls, here and in his earlier work, “imaginaries.” A “social imaginary” is different from a social theory, and this difference distinguishes Taylor’s book from a history of ideas like The Stillborn God, Mark Lilla’s recent analysis of the secularization of politics.

“I speak of ‘imaginary,’” Taylor writes, to focus “on the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms.” Instead, “it is carried in images, stories, legends, etc.”—and in the social practices that such a common background understanding makes possible. “Theory is often the possession of a small minority,” while the social imaginary, which may begin as an elite’s theory, is ultimately “shared by large groups of people, if not the whole society.” Although “social imaginary” is the encompassing notion for Taylor, he also writes of a “cosmic imaginary” to indicate the deeply implanted understandings (not just theories) of the physical world that govern a society.

Third, this is an astonishingly Catholic book. That description might well make Taylor uncomfortable. Philosophers no less than novelists or poets fear being pigeonholed as doctrinaires or apologists. This would be entirely unfair to Taylor, who exhibits an extraordinary evenhandedness toward transcendent faith and exclusive humanism throughout the text. He is quick to specify modestly that the “we” of his text refers only to inhabitants of the modern North Atlantic world, but much more importantly this “we” clearly embraces both believers and nonbelievers. Still, it is not common in a book written by a leading scholar for his intellectual and academic peers to find that by page 10 he has put his cards on the table as a believer, or to find arguments extensively illustrated by examples drawn from Catholic culture and history. (Many of Taylor’s examples reflect his Québécois roots.) I do not mention this either as praise or criticism (Catholic readers will find an added dimension here; others may wish there had been more mention of key figures in the Protestant and Jewish struggle with modernity), but simply as a comment on our intellectual culture. Books written by Catholics for an intellectual or academic readership are usually more discreet about religious leanings, even where those have clearly shaped the authors’ perspective. Still more typical are books like Lilla’s, where modern Catholic thought is dismissed in a puzzling footnote as marginal and irrelevant to the story of religion and politics in the modern West. It is a jolt to read a book where Catholic poets and popes and masters of spirituality are cited as knowingly as canonical figures of modern intellectual and cultural history.

Fourth, just as this is not a “subtraction story,” it is also not a wrong-turn-in-history story: it does not assume that the intensely religious world of, say, the Middle Ages would have been naturally perpetuated except for some Great Error committed by Occam, Luther, Descartes, or Rousseau—and that it has been all downhill since. This is instead a dialectical account, with loss and gain in every episode. (The book even has a brief epilogue, in which Taylor, in fine Hegelian style, belatedly attempts both to rebut and to absorb into his own account the wrong-turn or “Intellectual Deviation” story characteristic of the Radical Orthodoxy movement.) Certainly our secular age has its grave problems. But for Taylor it is also the age of universal human rights, of individual freedom, especially freedom of conscience, and of an unprecedented sense of personal responsibility to combat suffering and injustice even on far continents. And Taylor considers all these things authentic developments of the gospel.

“Modern culture...carried certain facets of Christian life further than they ever were taken or could have been taken within Christendom.... We have to face the humbling realization that the breakout was a necessary condition of the development.” Taylor wrote this in his 1996 Marianist Award lecture, “A Catholic Modernity?”—and he reaffirms it here, although he does not repeat his provocative comment that perhaps Christians owe “a vote of thanks to Voltaire and others for (not necessarily wittingly)...allowing us to live the gospel in a purer way, free of that continued and often bloody forcing of conscience which was the sin and blight of all those ‘Christian’ centuries.”

Ever since Max Weber, modernity has been viewed as entailing the “disenchantment” of a premodern Christian world where invisible forces inhabited everyday life—God, angels, demons, interceding saints, and a host of malevolent or beneficent powers surviving from the pagan past. Reward and punishment, offense and propitiation worked themselves out in plagues, blights, and good or bad harvests. There were places, objects, and people that channeled these spiritual agents: relics and sacred wells and hags possessed of the evil eye. Taylor sees more in this world than superstitious or prescientific beliefs needing only a good dose of rationality to clear them out. He sees a religiosity that was collective or communal. He sees a tenuous equilibrium between hierarchical constraints and repressed energies that was maintained by periodic moments of transgression, release, and reversal like Carnival or the medieval Feasts of Misrule. He sees a sense of time ordered by the rhythms of divine drama rather the regular movements of a clock, a calendar set by battling cosmic agents rather than indifferent cosmic motions. He sees a universe that should properly be called a cosmos, its very structure conveying meaning for humanity.

Taylor traces, in extraordinary detail, the gradual emergence of a “buffered self” no longer vulnerable to all these immaterial agents. This kind of self was an individual claiming to be prior to society, someone rejecting crude outbursts of passion or anarchic conduct, pursuing control over nature, living by more refined and rigorous codes of conduct, and advocating a new moral order of mutual benevolence in the public sphere. This transformation, which began among the elites of Europe, had many sources, material, intellectual, psychological. But the one Taylor emphasizes is the force of religious Reform. His capitalization of the word links it to its most familiar historical manifestation, the Reformation. But Taylor sees it as an impulse going all the way back to the revolution of that first axial age. The religious quest was both individual and universal, not simply tribal or communal; it called for a new interiority alongside ritual; it elevated spiritual goals like repentance, selflessness, and justice above more practical concerns about protection and prosperity. Reform challenged what Taylor memorably calls religion that is “two-tiered,” or operating at several speeds—a higher, more demanding spirituality for the adepts or religious specialists in their caves, monasteries, and pulpits, and a minimal and more worldly religiosity for ordinary people, who are typically invited to share in the merits of the spiritual betters whom they support. It is easy to see this impulse for Reform in the late medieval insurgencies that preceded the Reformation: the movements of lay spiritualities; the demand for access to the Scriptures; the critique of celibacy, monasticism, and hierarchy; the return to a “pure” Christianity stressing ethics over ritual or doctrine; the preference for word and music over the more tangible painting, stained glass, statuary, and relics as vehicles for belief and prayer. What burst forth in Lutheran and Calvinist rebellion had its parallels in earlier Catholic reform.

Taylor repeats here what he had argued in Sources of the Self (1989): that this reform impulse bestowed a new dignity on ordinary life as a way to holiness. Ordinary life, and society with it, were now disciplined by a new “rage for order.” Animals were expelled from church, heretics from the community. Carnival and similar rowdy feasts were removed from the calendar. Nature was to be tamed—material nature with the help of the new science, human nature with the help of reformed religion and new codes of etiquette. A new ethic of rational control was proclaimed. The world had an increasingly discernible order, but it was the order of a blueprint or a machine, inert in itself and open to human purpose rather than an organism already alive with purpose and inviting human participation.

Here I am skimming very quickly over all the transformations, little and big, that Taylor sketches in great detail. They are multidimensional: changes in our understanding of bodily intimacy, of time, of nature, and of politics. And the changes are not necessarily linear. In discussing the neo-Stoicism of the “key figure” Justus Lipsius, Taylor writes, “Neo-Stoicism is the zig to which Deism will be the zag.” The emergence of deism, the intermediate step between post-Reformation Christianity and exclusive humanism, entails an “anthropocentric shift” that extends certain elements in Reform. God’s goal for creatures, which had once included love, praise, and worship of the divine, is now understood more narrowly: building a moral order for human benefit. This task is to be achieved through the reason and benevolence (or harmonious self-interest) with which God has endowed humanity; no longer is it dependent on active grace.

God, of course, stands at the beginning of this process as Divine Architect and at the end as Divine Judge, though there were growing reservations about eternal punishment. But with praise, grace, mystery, sacrament, mystical transformation, etc., all eliminated from the here and now—the span of life where humans were supposed to be applying their intelligence and energy to improving the world—it is not surprising that some people would eventually decide that God was superfluous. This is a familiar “subtraction story,” captured by Laplace’s often quoted reply to Napoleon’s query about the place of God in the mathematician’s astronomy: “I had no need of that hypothesis.” According to Taylor, the shift from deism to a humanism that excluded all transcendence did not merely emerge when religion was lopped off from the beginning and end of life. In fact, the whole movement was propelled by important aspects of Reform, by a faith-based drive toward constructing a moral order, and by a confidence in the triumph of reason and benevolence that deism borrowed from the belief in Providence. “Bishops could have slept peacefully in their beds, if they had only to face Lucretian-inspired skeptics” or Humean rejecters of miracles, instead of a highly moral “exclusive humanism of freedom, discipline, and beneficent order” derived from Christianity and striving to deliver, at last, so much that Christianity had promised.

Taylor follows the trajectories of this new unbelief from the Enlightenment to Romanticism to scientific materialism and, finally, to the counter-Enlightenment unbelief of Nietzsche, who rejected the benevolence, universalism, and egalitarianism of modern humanism as but one more shoot of the poisonous root of Jewish-Christian slave morality. “The positing of a viable humanist alternative,” Taylor writes, “set in train a dynamic something like a nova effect, spawning an ever-widening variety of moral-spiritual options, across the span of the thinkable and perhaps even beyond.”

Unbelief, in his view, not only passed from the elites to the masses during the nineteenth century; it grew “deeper, more anchored forms” as it plumbed the depths of space and time, grappling with the vastness of the universe and the mystery of human origins. Romanticism introduced the aesthetic as an ambiguous zone in between materialism and religion, where those dissatisfied with what seemed like a “flattened” existence of Enlightenment reason could experience a quasi-transcendence without making any religious commitment. Questions of theodicy took on a new intensity as exclusive humanism’s dedication to a new, benevolent moral order sensitized the culture to suffering and held God as well as humanity responsible for its relief.

The growing depth and diffusion of unbelief was matched by a mobilization of religious forces. Evangelical Christianity enjoyed revivals in nineteenth-century Britain and the United States. Catholicism rebounded from the depredations of the Revolution in France. Belief and unbelief became “neo-Durkheimian” expressions of social and political identity: church organizations, on the one hand, and workers’ movements, on the other, promoted the personal discipline, ideology, and class or national loyalty essential to maintaining the current social order or bringing about an alternative one. Religion in France actually grew stronger through much of the nineteenth century, peaking in 1870. Taylor believes that this “Age of Mobilization” lasted through World War II and continues in contemporary American civil religion, which assumes a general religiosity as foundational to good citizenship. Only in the 1960s was the “Age of Mobilization” succeeded by an “Age of Authenticity,” in which faith shed much of its significance for social order and became a matter of personal choice and individual identity. In a development Taylor calls “post-Durkheimian,” faith is uncoupled from any collectivity, whether the religious community or the civic order. Here, too, his account, incorporating recent historical studies, challenges the linear, mono-causal narrative of a steady decline of belief since the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

Taylor’s depiction of the past two centuries is rich with insights and subtle analyses. His exploration of the important role of art as a border zone between the strictly immanent framework of unbelief and the transcendent dimension of religion is one. Another is his examination of the reasons for rejecting religion and the superior appeal for many thinkers of reductive materialism, of an impersonal order of exceptionless laws, of the idea that humanity creates its own moral norms, or even of an existence doomed to absurdity. There were of course the authoritarianism, obscurantism, and political reaction of traditional religious authorities; Taylor’s emblematic figure is Pius IX. But Taylor also demonstrates that abandoning religious belief for materialist and deterministic outlooks—or in order to generate one’s own norms in a meaningless or bleak universe—did not follow from any conclusive logical arguments but from the appeal of certain virtues and a compelling narrative. Such stances were felt to reflect courage, manliness, and a willingness to confront the void. They told a story of passage from wishful childhood to an intrepid and disabused or Stoic maturity. Religion was a refuge for those, in Max Weber’s words, “who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man.” Finally, Taylor probes at length the sources, often the secret sources, of violence. They lurk in both the sacred and the secular, even within the humanitarian drive to universal sympathy and solidarity that he considers one of the most remarkable fruits of this secular age.

Familiarity with Taylor’s book is now the entry ticket for any serious discussion of secularization. The ticket does not come cheap. A Secular Age is nearly eight hundred pages of text, plus another seventy of notes. (I leave aside the $39.95 price tag.) It is the work of many years, articulated in lectures (most notably, the 1999 Gifford Lectures) and previously published articles, now brought together in a fashion that Taylor hopes will be “interlocking,” but which might also be described as layered. Its argument has so many moving parts—wheels within wheels—that Taylor is constantly recapitulating it, sometimes it seems as much for his own sake as for the reader’s. Determined to capture the many phases and sides of the developments he is analyzing, he typically leads the reader through series of “stages,” “aspects,” “facets,” “forms,” “features,” “axes,” “vectors,” “positions,” “clusters” of issues, “cross-pressures,” and “dilemmas.” He doesn’t hesitate to interrupt himself (“Before turning to this, I want to double back...”) in order to elaborate on earlier developments.

Taylor cannot be denied the privilege of many historians, social scientists, and philosophers in creating their own terminology. But in such an extended account, these terms pile up: “disciplinary society,” “buffered self,” “great disembedding,” “anthropocentric shift,” “modern moral order,” “immanent counter-Enlightenment,” and many more. Terms also seem to overlap or to appear in one chapter and then disappear for many more (or forever) or to breed subspecies, as when the “social imaginary” spins off not only a “cosmic imaginary” but in passing a “denominational imaginary” and a “citizen imaginary,” or when “Durkheimian” comes in non-, paleo-, neo-, and post-Durkheimian varieties. There are places where terms like “Modern Moral Order” or “Closed World Structure” are spelled out (with or without capital letters) and places where, in the style of philosophical journals, they become MMO and CWS.

Taylor is quite capable of arresting phrases and eloquent passages in this book, but there are also a lot of jarring usages and neologisms, some of them carried over from French: “dilemmatic,” “disintricating,” “excarnation” (yes, they’re in my Oxford English Dictionary) and “fragilization,” “immanentization,” “disambiguation,” “metatopicality,” “desemanticisation,” and “resemanticisation” (no, they’re not).

In many respects, the size and style of the book merely match the complexity and comprehensiveness of its argument. They may, however, prove an obstacle to otherwise sympathetic readers and a reason for the less receptive to dismiss it. “What Taylor says is wise, persuasive, and fascinating,” wrote Christopher J. Insole, the astute reviewer in the February 1 Times Literary Supplement, “but, overall, the book evokes the same sort of awe and bewilderment that we might feel about a map of the world that was the same size as the world.” One longs for a Taylor for Dummies, a glossary of all his terms, or a wall chart outlining the full argument in parallel columns and different colored inks.

Where does Taylor’s account fit into the existing literature on secularization, especially the raging debate over the “secularization thesis,” the idea that traditional religion cannot survive what Walter Lippmann, in a memorable phrase, called the “acids of modernity”? For two centuries, this thesis was held by almost all the great social thinkers in the West.

That modernity meant the decline of religion was so widely assumed, in fact, that the thesis was scarcely ever investigated empirically. When it was, problems emerged. Chief among them, of course, was the United States. Defying Lippmann’s 1914 assertion, the society that was virtually the exemplar of modernity remained stubbornly religious. Over the past several decades fierce debate has ensued largely between American social scientists and European ones. Was religious America the anomaly that needed to be explained? Or was Western Europe the anomaly? Reinforced by the emergence of aggressive religious forces on other continents, from Latin American liberation theology to radical Islam and political Hinduism, Americans seem to have declared victory. “Secularization Falsified” ran the lead headline on the cover of the February issue of First Things. (The corresponding article, by Peter L. Berger, was much more nuanced than the headline.) Americans, alas, have a weakness for premature declarations of victory.

As José Casanova pointed out in another landmark study, Public Religions in the Modern World (University of Chicago, 1994), theories of secularization and modernization have been tightly interwoven. At the core of both has been the understanding that modernity involved the emancipation of different spheres of activity—primarily the state, the economy, and science—from premodern religious tutelage. Each of these spheres of activity claimed to proceed by what Max Weber called its own “internal and lawful autonomy”; each had its own rules and methods. Think Machiavelli (or Grotius), Bernard de Mandeville (or Adam Smith), and Galileo (or Darwin). Over time and to varying degrees, other spheres or subdivisions followed suit: education, medicine, art, even spiritual and moral guidance in the form of modern therapy. Religion was to occupy a sphere of its own, no longer claiming oversight over the full range of human activities but now drawing on its own lights and resources to specialize in meaning, morality, salvation, and consolation. Casanova believes this process of differentiation is the incontestable core of secularization in the West.

Two other understandings of secularization had been commonly derived from the reality of differentiation, however. One was the conviction, arising from the Enlightenment critique of religion and expressed by Lippmann, that religion—the whole, now—distinct sphere of religious belief and practice—was destined to disappear altogether. This, Casanova writes, was “a myth that sees history as the progressive evolution of humanity from superstition to reason, from belief to unbelief, from religion to science”—a myth he pronounced thoroughly contradicted by the facts.

The other thesis was less radical but similarly normative. Religious belief and practice might very well persist in modernity but only in a sphere of the private or personal; it was destined to lose its influence in public space, especially political space. Casanova’s book, with its case studies of “deprivatized” religion in Spain, Poland, Brazil, and the United States, was a massive rebuttal of this second thesis-and with no more than passing references to developments in Islam!

Casanova did not claim that religion was immune to decline; decline had clearly occurred in Western Europe. Nor would religion necessarily retain a public influence; that depended on the intentions and skills of religious believers and leaders, especially in adapting to the realities of modernity’s differentiated spheres. Perhaps because the United States was the first nation to undergo successful differentiation in the key area of church and state, religion here had proved unusually (though not entirely) resistant to secularization.

Taylor frames his question somewhat differently. He, too, recognizes secularization as involving differentiation. The political structures of modern nations have been cleansed of religion, and as other spheres of activity also have come to operate by norms and principles independent of explicit religious dictates, religion has faded from public space, concentrating itself in personal belief and practice. Taylor notes the understanding of secularization as the steady collapse of religious belief and practice before the relentless forces of science and rationality, but finally his own concern is with the “conditions of belief,” both religious and nonreligious, rather than with the degree of belief. His analysis always emphasizes the social—the social imaginary, the contending narratives—but though he mentions churches and humanitarian groups like Médecins San Frontières, for him the conditions of belief seem ultimately to be conditions for individual believers or nonbelievers rather than for the religious or humanistic movements that might sustain them. By comparison, much of the other secularization literature has focused on the prospects for religious traditions and institutions.

Still, there are important points of intersection between Taylor and other scholars of secularization. Appropriately enough, the Anglo-French Canadian Taylor stands halfway between the American and European camps. On the one hand, he rejects the thesis that modernity necessarily entails the disappearance of religion or its banishment from public influence. And he also joins the critics of the secularization thesis in detecting an unrecognized antireligious bias in the work of adherents of the thesis, although he puts this very politely.

On the other hand, confessing a possible bias in his own conclusions, he gives these adherents considerable credit for identifying forces that undermined existing religious forms and bodies. He shows little interest in those American enthusiasts who insist that really nothing much has changed and that modernity is as amenable to religion, sometimes conveniently redefined, as any other age. On the contrary, Taylor believes that the present situation is extremely problematic. It is “different and unrecognizable to any earlier epoch. It is marked by an unheard of pluralism of outlooks, religious and non- and antireligious,” all of them fragile and unstable. “It is harder and harder to find a niche where either belief or unbelief goes without saying.”

“There has certainly been a ‘decline’ of religion,” he concludes, hedging with the use of quotation marks. But then again “the interesting story is not simply one of decline, but also of a new placement of the sacred or spiritual in relation to individual and social life. This new placement is now the occasion for recompositions of spiritual life in new forms, and for new ways of existing both in and out of relation to God.”

While Casanova insists that modern religion must adapt to the given of differentiation—the church cannot claim political hegemony or dictate scientific matters, for example—he leaves, to this reader at least, the impression that differentiation is ultimately a rather neutral development for the future of religion. Taylor, on the other hand, adds immensely to our sense of what the differentiation process involved—namely, changes at the deepest level of our understanding of the self, society, physical nature, and time, changes posing challenges far greater than simply learning not to make undue claims about religion’s competency in politics, science, economics, law, or art.

"Religion Today” comes closer than any other chapter in A Secular Age to mapping those challenges not so much for individuals as for religious communities and leaders. It follows Taylor’s description of the “Age of Authenticity,” the cultural revolution centered in the 1960s. Taylor underlines, as do many others, the new level of individualism in our society and the disconnection of belief from any social or communal matrix. He mentions the search for direct spiritual experience and, despite the loss of communal religion or maybe because of it, the significance of festivity and moments when we feel a sense of fusion with others (for example, at rock concerts or stadium Masses). There is an insistence on the sensual and a recovery of the body, which sparks rebellion against the sexual codes of Christianity but also against the modern moral order with its utilitarian, productive ethic and disciplines.

Now confronted with a vast range of spiritual alternatives, the individual often opts for “believing but not belonging,” a separation of convictions from any regular practice, or for a do-it-yourself “bricolage,” patching together bits and pieces from a variety of religious traditions. Taylor foresees more shifting and switching among religious outlooks and less continuity from one generation to the next. Though Christianity and other religions have always had large numbers of the less committed among their flocks, Taylor expects an even larger “penumbra” of those who are nominally Christian in today’s secular society. Sociologist of religion Grace Davies calls this “vicarious religion,” a widespread European phenomenon in which people stand at some distance from an inherited religion, with which they nonetheless maintain an affectionate identification. For them, religion becomes either “an ancestral memory” or a resource for marking rites of passage, especially funerals, or for providing “comfort and orientation in the face of some collective disaster.”

If Taylor is right, although a secular age may not in principle entail loss of belief, it certainly raises serious questions about religion’s institutional redoubts. Some of those are addressed in his final chapter. Titled “Conversions,” it looks at the passages of a number of people from living within the immanent frame of exclusive humanism to living within the transcendent frame that is open to a fullness even beyond human flourishing. Here Taylor endorses a Christianity that chooses to be a “loyal opposition” to our times rather than identifying with some past Christian social order. He sees a corruption of Christianity in the bureaucratic hardening of the church that over the centuries has often reduced the Gospel of Agape to rules and codes. He affirms Vatican II while warning against a one-sided view of its work. He calls for a Catholic rethinking of sexuality, gender, and diversity.

Yet because this chapter features, in passing or at length, so many giants of religious sensibility and spirituality—Dostoyevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, Charles Péguy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles de Foucauld, Thérèse de Lisieux—it seems to be more about the exertions of religious virtuosi than about the ordinary work of institutional leadership. If a much higher proportion of believers will be shifting and switching in their beliefs and adherence, if there will be far less continuity from parents to children, if many more people mix and match their beliefs out of various traditions, if many will keep a guarded distance from their inherited faith, turning to it for solace or solidarity no more than, say, a dozen times in their lives, how can the institutions necessary for the formation of a genuine religious identity—let us specify, a genuine Catholic identity—be maintained, reexamined, and renewed?

Suppose we try to imagine a Catholic identity capable of confronting an unprecedented array of religious and spiritual options that cannot be easily dismissed, capable of living with greater doubt and uncertainty, and likely to undergo crucial formation in early adulthood rather than childhood. Excepting, of course, those natural religious virtuosi, is such an identity really possible without a quantum leap in theological knowledge, intellectual openness, and spiritual guidance compared to the past? Will it be found in homilies, parish life, Catholic educational initiatives?

Is this growing penumbra of the less committed a stable aspect of our secular age? Or is it transitional, an intermediate stage on the way to that disappearance or marginalization of religion the traditional theorists of secularization anticipated? Taylor himself is not sure. And it should be said that this section of his analysis is perhaps the least original and distinctive. It is aligned with much recent literature on the subject, not all of it very rigorous. Is Taylor merely reflecting conventional wisdom or standing with a solid consensus?

“Here, I confess, I am making stabs in the dark,” he writes, and later, “We are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee.”

He is right: no one can foresee the outcome. But thanks to A Secular Age we have a much better idea of the terrain, the impasses, the perils, and the possibilities.


Related: Sex & Christianity and The Sting of Death, by Charles Taylor



About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.