Book review: “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor

I am excited to finally get my review out for Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. I was starting to doubt whether I would actually be able to finish it, because this thing is MASSIVE. I usually hit a good pace of finishing a book (maybe 2) a week, but I’ve been chugging at this thing for a good two months. I picked A Secular Age from my Goodreads to-read list, because I wanted to delve into something meaty, but I can’t quite remember where I picked it up from. I’m (pretty) sure it’s from the bibliography of any of the other religious books I’ve been reading recently, or at least ones that deal with religion to some extent– The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt or Eliade’s The History of Religious Ideas, but I couldn’t quite track it down to what source.

From what I picked up from reading his Wiki page (and what I gleaned from the book itself), Charles Taylor is a Catholic philosopher/historian/political scientist/sociologist. He’s from Canada, and he did his PhD work under Isaiah Berlin (whose The Power of Ideas I happen to be reading right now). I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into when I picked up A Secular Age, but after reading, I can tell you what this book is not:

  • A polemic of modern-day culture, democracy, or atheism (kind of like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed)
  • A triumphal sage of Enlightenment reason over the dark powers of religion

While Taylor does have a bias as a believer, and acknowledges it throughout his writing, he has a gift for compellingly arguing both sides of any argument before giving his own take. And in the end, his own take seems to very nuanced– not something I would think would be argued from a traditional Catholic perspective, which I will show below. I would think that Intelligence Squared did themselves a disservice with they had a Catholic MP and a priest face down Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry in a debate over whether “the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” Someone like Taylor would probably have done it justice.

Taylor’s book is extensive, and I don’t want to even attempt to cover all the compelling points of his arguments. I will give a short thrust of the book, a few particularly resonant points, and an idea of how this fits into my thinking at the moment. Taylor’s main point of the book is how we got from 1500 to 2000 in terms of religion, describing this process of secularization. But Taylor is clear to give a distinct definition of secularization: he doesn’t simply mean a decline in belief, which, you could argue, has occured. Instead, he frames secularization as a process from a society where belief was the default position to a pluralistic society where they are multiple shades of belief and unbelief with shades of gray in between:

The shift to secularity in this sense consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.

Some of the book is historical in that it outlines characters and events that moved this process over time. But on the whole, it is more analysis than an account of history. It can get dense at times, and you have to be careful to keep track of the vocabulary he builds up over time, of social imaginaries (kind of how people perceive their social environment that can’t easily be broken down into easily definable beliefs or theories, and that isn’t usually consciously observed) and the modern moral order. This book is masterfully written, and it doesn’t seem to leave a stone unturned. He doesn’t leave believers or unbelievers at peace, putting all their assumptions and narratives they tell themselves under a microscope. While I can’t say that many of the ideas I encountered were entirely novel (I want to examine below how I’ve run into similar threads in my reading lately), it’s his sense of narrative, how he’s able to capture everything and relate it to everything else that makes it so good.

Unfortunately, most of what I write about here will likely be biased towards the end of the book: I tried to hold it all in my head, but two months man– it was hard.

Tribalism

One common critique of religion is that it brings out the tribal in us– an us versus them mentality. And Taylor doesn’t let religion off the hook here. But he also argues that overcoming tribalism isn’t so easy, and even if you shed your religious roots, you haven’t magick-ed away the tribal instincts:

But on the other hand, when we examine more closely some of what we might call the religious uses of violence, in particular its appeal to scapegoat mechanisms, and the self-affirmation of our purity by identifying all evil with the enemy outside (or provisionally within, but who therefore needs to be expelled), we find that all this can easily survive the rejection of religion, and recurs in ideological-political forms which are resolutely lay, even atheist. Moreover, it recurs in them with a kind of false good conscience, an unawareness of repeating an old and execrable pattern, just because of the easy assumption that all that belonged to the old days of religion, and therefore can’t be happening in our Enlightened age.

The rising sense of tribalism in a political context is totally obvious if get on Twitter or observe the news cycle. It’s getting really bad. Amy Chua covers this really well in her recent book Political Tribes:

Humans are tribal. We need to belong to groups. We crave bonds and attachments, which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family. Almost no one is a hermit. Even monks and friars belong to orders. But the tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It is also an instinct to exclude.

And on the religious side, Jonathan Haidt does a good job at trying to rescue the positive aspects of religion in The Righteous Mind.

I really appreciated how Taylor brings this element of religion into conscious observation: how by labelling outsiders or non-conformists as bad, you have externalized the evil so you can go to sleep at night with a good conscience. I can easily see how this can work in religious communities, but I increasingly observe similar tendencies in the extremes of right and left politics. There is no nuanced argument here, no acknowledging of faults, but rather blaming the entirely of society’s faults on the other side. It’s just good politics, right?

Heresy

In a similar thread as Taylor’s outline of scapegoating is his examination of heresy. I was actually surprised at some of his conclusions. I assumed Catholics, like Mormons, were equally invested in a “one true church” kind of mentality. And I’m sure there are some out there. But check out this line here:

Another negative feature of both axial breakthroughs and Reform has been its tendency to homogenize. The urge to reform has often been one to bring all of life under the sway of a single principle or demand: the worship of the One God, or the recognition that salvation is only by faith, or that salvation is only within the church. And this Reform has frequently been carried through by ironing out or sidelining whatever in human life might seem not to consort easily with this single demand.

And I shouldn’t have been surprised: Chesterton was the one who wrote so beautifully in his biography of St. Francis that the Church was large enough to contain all that was good in St. Francis, while the Franciscans weren’t large enough to contain all that was good in the Church. There is room for a diversity of beliefs. I’m going to again quote my favorite line from Nikolai Berdyaev on heresy that fits in beautifully here (from The Desintny of Man).

A fanatic of orthodoxy who denounces heresies and exterminates heretics has lost the vital fullness and harmony of truth, he is possessed by one emotion only and sees nothing but heresy and heretics everywhere. He becomes hard, forgets about the freedom of the spirit and has but little attention to bestow upon men and the complexity of individual destinies. Heaven preserve us from being obsessed by the idea of heresy! That obsession plays an enormous part in the history of Christianity and it is very difficult to get rid of it. A conviction has been bred for centuries that a religious fanatic, who mercilessly denounces heresies and heretics, is more religious than other men, and those who think that their own faith is weak respect him. In truth, however, a religious fanatic is a man who is obsessed by his idea and completely believes it, but is not in communion with the living God. On the contrary he is cut off from the living God. And for the sake of the fulness of divine truth, for the sake of freedom and love and communion with God, it is essential to uproot in oneself the evil will to denounce heresies and heretics. A heresy should be opposed by the fullness of truth and not by malice and denunciations. Fanatical denunciations of heresies sometimes assume the guise of love and are supposed to be inspired by love and pity for heretics. But this is hypocrisy and self-deception. Heresy hunters simply flatter themselves and admire their own orthodoxy.

Bureaucratization

And perhaps even more surprising was this awesome section on the “bureaucratization” of the Church. I just got back from Church where we had our local ward conference. The stake president was trying to get us all motivated to be the awesome-est ministers ever and make sure we were all reading our Come Follow Me Curriculum. They even handed out an “Area Plan” to get us all on board. I immediately bristled– a gut response to such initiatives has become ingrained since my mission. During the lesson, this passage was on my mind:

Something is lost when we take the way of living together that the Gospel points us to and make of it a code of rules enforced by organizations erected for this purpose… [Illich argues that] he actual development of the Christian churches and of Christian civilization (what we used to call “Christendom”) [was] a “corruption” of Christianity…

[This] corruption is a kind of falling forward, in which the church develops into something unprecedented. The network of agape involves a kind of fidelity to the new relations; and because we can all too easily fall away from this (which falling away we call “sin”), we are led to shore up these relations; we institutionalize them, introduce rules, divide responsibilities. In this way, we keep the hungry fed, the homeless housed, the naked clothed; but we are now living caricatures of the network life. We have lost some of the communion, the “conspiratio”, which is at the heart of the Eucharist. The spirit is strangled,… [a] bureaucratic hardening of the Church.

First, I was surprised that this guy he quotes, Illich, is pretty much arguing that the Catholic Church suffered a sort of apostasy when they ramped up the systematization process. Fascinating. Denver Snuffer actually gives a similar critique of Mormonism in his book Preserving the Restoration:

Oddly, many of us can look at the government’s present abuses and detect something amiss, but religious structures with the same failings go unnoticed. Governmental paternalism is deeply offensive, yet church paternalism is called good, right, righteous, holy, and wonderful. We accept vacuous and insipid sermons, measure the dross with a micrometer seeking to praise almost anything…

Institutions cannot control God.[1129] As faith in God is institutionalized, it becomes part of this world and necessarily influenced by cultural, social, legal and economic pressure. These forces erode faith. Religious institutions are where the ideal comes into conflict with the less-than-ideal.

Probably a rare argument coming from a Catholic, but I also feel like Illich and Taylor weren’t about to leave the Church either. I believe it is fully doable to maintain a deep commitment to an institutional Church while being able to recognize the flaws that can be traced to the institutional components of religion.

I have mostly stuck to the religious side of things throughout the book here, as they are the ones I find most relevant. But he spends equal, if not more time, with Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers, engaging with materialist/naturalist assumptions. This isn’t a devotional work. But I do think it can be a very productive mirror or wall to bounce your own beliefs/ideas off of. I gave the book a 5/5 stars because it asked a lot of me as a reader. It’s not just interesting material: it easily becomes more of a conversation, modifies you beliefs or asks you to rearrange them a bit. This is one of those books.

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