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]