Are We Living In A Secular Age?

Sacred and secularAn interesting piece by David Brooks in the New York Times highlights the 2007 book by Charles Taylor, A Secular Age:

I might as well tell you upfront that this column is a book report. Since 2007, when it was published, academics have been raving to me about Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age.” Courses, conferences and symposia have been organized around it, but it is almost invisible outside the academic world because the text is nearly 800 pages of dense, jargon-filled prose.

As someone who tries to report on the world of ideas, I’m going to try to summarize Taylor’s description of what it feels like to live in an age like ours, without, I hope, totally butchering it.

Taylor’s investigation begins with this question: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say 1500, in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?” That is, how did we move from the all encompassing sacred cosmos, to our current world in which faith is a choice, in which some people believe, others don’t and a lot are in the middle?

This story is usually told as a subtraction story. Science came into the picture, exposed the world for the way it really is and people started shedding the illusions of faith. Religious spirit gave way to scientific fact.

Taylor rejects this story. He sees secularization as, by and large, a mottled accomplishment, for both science and faith.

Advances in human understanding — not only in science but also in art, literature, manners, philosophy and, yes, theology and religious practice — give us a richer understanding of our natures. Shakespeare helped us see character in more intricate ways. An improvement in mores means we take less pleasure from bear-baiting, hanging and other forms of public cruelty. We have a greater understanding of how nature works…

[continues in the New York Times]

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  • doodahman

    “Advances in human understanding — not only in science but also in art, literature, manners, philosophy and, yes, theology and religious practice — give us a richer understanding of our natures.”
    Yes, exactly. Religious thought and doctrine advances and evolves from simple to complex like just about every other thing on earth, which is why it’s so sad to see some anti-religious and religious people dwell endlessly on religious concepts or interpretations that are outdated by centuries. 90% of the stuff these people harp on is completely foreign to the thoughts and practices of most contemporary religious practitioners with the exception of the fundamentalists, who are themselves an aberration from mainstream religious thought. The other 10%– parity of gays and gay relationships, gender equality in terms of authority positions, we’re working on, laboring under the same generational divides that keep those issues alive in the secular world as well.

  • Cyprus Mulch

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

    Vocal atheists, young ones in particular, face potential ostracization and persecution in many a milieu even in the “progressive” West.

    Outspoken atheist youths may find themselves bullied or otherwise rejected in school or even at home — particularly if they are unfortunate enough to be born into a fundamentalist family. Their lack of faith may be perceived as misguided and delusional, at best, or blasphemous and evil, at worst — a potential threat to the reality-tunnel of the family or community.

    For many, the experience is far from “easy.”

    • hucksawyer

      Is that even true?

      I mean, “Outspoken atheist youths may find themselves bullied or otherwise rejected in school or even at home.” Ok. You’ll find the exact same statement on Christian-oriented forums, with the word “Christian” inserted instead of “atheist.”

      If a person wears his opinions on his sleeve – be he Christian or atheist – he can not reasonably expect those who disagree to sing with joy at hearing arguments insulting to their own beliefs.

      Nor can one expect parents not to try to pass their values to their children.

      Bullies and overbearing parents are nasty no matter what creed they profess.

      And modern society is manifestly secular. Europe and East Asia are massively secularized. America does sport a large swath of religious-minded persons in between the two coasts – but it stands to note that in the last 50 years they have suffered decisive defeats on issues such as abortion, the normalization of homosexuality, and the inculcation of secularism at public schools. In light of these developments it is absurd to claim that secularism is anything but dominant in our particular age. Sure, perhaps there are a few sects of hardcore Lutherans, Calvinists and Papists dreaming of glorious theocracy, but they are few and impotent enough to be ignored.

      There’s nothing more PC than atheism in the posh (and influential) circles of modern society. Theistic belief has become a heresy.

    • hucksawyer

      Is that even true?

      I mean, “Outspoken atheist youths may find themselves bullied or otherwise rejected in school or even at home.” Ok. You’ll find the exact same statement on Christian-oriented forums, with the word “Christian” inserted instead of “atheist.”

      If a person wears his opinions on his sleeve – be he Christian or atheist – he can not reasonably expect those who disagree to sing with joy at hearing arguments insulting to their own beliefs.

      Nor can one expect parents not to try to pass their values to their children.

      Bullies and overbearing parents are nasty no matter what creed they profess.

      And modern society is manifestly secular. Europe and East Asia are massively secularized. America does sport a large swath of religious-minded persons in between the two coasts – but it stands to note that in the last 50 years they have suffered decisive defeats on issues such as abortion, the normalization of homosexuality, and the inculcation of secularism at public schools. In light of these developments it is absurd to claim that secularism is anything but dominant in our particular age. Sure, perhaps there are a few sects of hardcore Lutherans, Calvinists and Papists dreaming of glorious theocracy, but they are few and impotent enough to be ignored.

      There’s nothing more PC than atheism in the posh (and influential) circles of modern society. Theistic belief has become a heresy.

  • btwforever

    This is the classic “everything in the past is great” story that actually defines the conservative mind. No, not everyone was a fervent Christian in 1500 but most people really had no choice but to mouth the “party line” that underpinned the thesis that God chose the King/Queen that you were taught at birth. If you didn’t you might get a nasty visit from the elite thugs of the time. And people acted as if God/Jesus/Bible simply didn’t exist! (I would regale you with hundreds of stories of Christian on Christian violence but I’m sure everybody knows them…) The popes from 1300 to 1500 were a nasty lot that ordered murder, theft and vandalism straight from the Church of St. Peters. And the Popes and Cardinals were some of the most venal skeptics that ever existed! (I would talk about the the sale of indulgences here but I don’t really want to start a Catholic – Protestant flame war because I.just.don’t.care.)

    Likewise, Kings had popes jailed as if they were some mere subject not God’s chosen representative on earth. Huh, I wonder if that King was a believer?

    And the kicker is that most people didn’t attend church! They simply didn’t have the time to do so – you know, with forced servitude and all. They might show up occasionally but we don’t really have good historical records beyond the writings of the religious and those trained at religious institutions. *And they don’t mention it outside of the royal elites.*

    So, yeah, big whoop, D. Brooks of the NYT sucks at history and reading Charles Taylor. What’s new?

    • emperorreagan

      In the colonial era, people were legally mandated to attend church in many areas.

      In Puritan areas, weekly church attendance was required and you might be pilloried for skipping without permission.

      In early Virginia, monthly attendance was required…though that had less to do with “religion” and more to do with the fact that the Anglican church served a dual role – in addition to being a religious body, the monarchy used it to make other announcements.

      Point being: church attendance, such as it was, was frequently coercive.

      • hucksawyer

        It is worth noting that nowadays school attendance is compulsory. And the curricula certainly are as ideologically loaded as anything else.

        Now, one may say that compulsory schooling is for the good of the pupils. The Puritans might have felt the same way about compulsory church attendance.

        Let us leave the relative faults and merits of Puritan churches and modern schools aside. And let us also caution against sinking into moral relativism. My main point is along the lines of “the more things change”…

        • btwforever

          Well, that’s a bit outside the scope here. Compulsory church attendance began because of the fear of creeping secularism in the wake of enlightenment. Humanism would start about the same time which indicated that the rule “God gives power to monarchs” was no longer was respected and new more streamlined, secular reasoning was used (See Hobbes, Leviathan.)

          Compulsory school attendance was a hallmark of economic and technical prowess that marked the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though schools and churches both share the word “compulsory” they are wildly different. No equivalency.

      • btwforever

        Colonial times are a bit past the 1500 year mark that Brooks uses (and Taylor carefully analyses) but your point is taken. But church attendance was still pretty sparse even if compulsory! Our vision of all encompassing religious power as a hallmark of that era was a later romantic fiction nursed by Cooper, Hawthorne, etc., most of whom were writing from the early or mid-19th century. Even back then religious dogma made a nice villain!

  • emperorreagan

    I think the mistake people frequently make with history is that they forget that you’re basically looking back at a black box. There’s archaeological evidence; there’s written evidence… but the danger is to infer too much about things from that limited evidence. Never read the book in question, but the article makes it seem like it makes pretty big assumptions about individual belief throughout history. You can create a good narrative that way, but a good narrative doesn’t necessarily reflect what was going on in that black box.