Religion Is Not the Problem

Secularism & Democracy

The category “secular” developed largely within Latin Christendom, initially as one term of a dyad contrasting profane time with the eternal, or sacred time. Certain places, persons, institutions, and actions were seen as closely related to sacred or higher time, and others as pertaining to profane time alone—thus the similar distinction made in the dichotomy of “spiritual/temporal” (for example, the state as the “temporal arm” of the church).

So one obvious meaning of “secularization” dates from the aftermath of the Reformation and refers specifically, in this sense, to the moment when certain functions, properties, and institutions were transferred from church to lay control.From the seventeenth century on, however, a new possibility arose—a conception of social life in which the secular was all that existed. Where “secular” had originally referred to profane or ordinary time, now profane time came to be understood on its own, with no reference to “higher” time. The meaning of “secular” was thus profoundly changed, because its counterpoint had been fundamentally altered. Gone was the contrast with another temporal dimension in which “spiritual” institutions had their niche; rather, the secular, in its new sense, opposed any claim made in the name of the transcendent. Needless to say, those who imagined a “secular” world in this sense saw claims regarding the transcendent as unfounded, and tolerable only to the extent that they did not challenge the...

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About the Author

Charles Taylor is professor emeritus of philosophy at McGill University and winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize for Progress toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. Among his many books are Sources of the Self and The Ethics of Authenticity.