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Book Title: A Secular Age|
The author of the book: Charles Taylor
The size of the: 13.28 MB
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Date of issue: 2007
ISBN 13: 9780674026766
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Charles Taylor's long investigation into the history and causes of what we now call 'secularism' is a big thick book on a wandering and internecine subject as the history of religion. It is an earnest investigation into how religion and secularism became what they are now. It defies easy summary, as Taylor's excavation of the sediments of history is multibranched. Each digression brings with it further references, stories, ideas, even poetry used to make a point clear, or sometimes more beautiful.
Taylor is a philosopher of religion and politics, but also a practitioner of that philosophy. He has been involved in Quebecois politics for some decades, and has the coveted post of a political philosopher - the chance to implement his ideas on the interactions and collisions of different ethnicities, languages, religions, cultures, of minority surviving against majority. He is also a Catholic, which pits him against the majority Anglo-Canadian Proestantism, and contemporary non-belief. It's a woolly abstract subject, but one with some practical implications.
The book is long and complex, but he makes his point on the first page. That is, how is it that five hundred years ago in Western Europe, religion occupied a predominant position in individual life, in society, without equal? And how is it that all of these positions - at least in what we might call 'the West' (whatever that is) are now long gone? It was inconceivable that any person could see themselves 'without religion' in these societies for very long without being cast out of that society, whereas now it is possible, perhaps even expected. Even with the continued fervor of belief in the United States, for example, separation of church and state is now one of our most valued laws. How did this all come about?
Taylor's narrative borrows from Max Weber's idea of 'disenchantment', where scientific decision-making supplants the ideas of faith. This happens in multiple ways - through economics gaining traction as an understanding of human affairs, through the development of individual 'flourishing' as a means of practicing spiritual growth. Thus he claims that the development of secularism had not only material roots, but idealistic ones, even roots from Christianity itself. What Taylor calls 'social imaginaries', or how people conceived their relation to all of existence was first a hierarchy, or a 'Great Chain of Being', with God at the top and nobility slightly underneath, and peasants near the bottom. However, the purpose of individuals began to shift from simply admiring the established order as to expressing a 'religious humanism', or demonstrating a human capacity to self-improvement as an appreciation of God's creation.
This continuing development of the idea of a society composed of individuals continued in the 18th century, partially through the development of deism, which narrowed and defined the role of God in relation to his creation, and further redefines the role of human beings to individual 'flourishing' in addition to simple love for God. This represented a major shift in contemporary understanding of the universe, but also a further decline in the idea of hell - that conformity to God's law was now solely a matter of individual benefit, and not the result of coercion with the threat of eternal torture. Even though Deism and these enlightenment ideas were largely confined to an intellectual elite, their disenchantment with past theology began to create the ideal foundations for modern 'secularism'.
Taylor does not cast the religious doctrinal disputes from the 18th century on as a dualist struggle between 'religion' and 'science', with Galileo and Darwin on the one side and superstition on the other. That he views as a recasting of present conflicts onto past ones, an attempt to recast Darwin as Scopes. Darwin was still a major player, but he was not the definitive moment which shifted all of Europe and North America into unbelief, as there was already a long-boiling conflict over the role of God. The appeal of scientific materialism was not in its explanation of natural phenomenon, but in its new moral understanding which represented an alternative to the Church and an escape from the cognitive dissonance of enforced belief.
This centuries old conflict leads to what Taylor sums up as the 'nova effect', or the outgrowth of secularism as a viable alternative to religion which began in the 18th century and intensified through the 19th. Of course these alternatives to religion were not at all the same. There are atavistic returns to nature, psychological reductivism like Freud, Schopenhauer's malaise that the universe might have no plan at all, or Nietzsche's recognition of the violent forces within humans, which recognize their role in human creation and emotion, and which calls for a destruction of the Enlightenment story.
It is at this point, four hundred pages of exposition into the book, that Taylor finally acknowledges the differences in national history which lead to different interpretations of religion in history. The American story differs from the Canadian, which differs from the British or the German, which are far different from the Russian or the Japanese. He at least acknowledges these divergences are the subject of another book, and are beyond his present ability to describe. After all, we only have another five hundred pages left.
By the later half of the 20th century (I'm skipping around here) a main characteristic of religion and belief in society was that of individual authenticity, and the validity of different perspectives. This is the current state of secularism - it is not an absence of belief so much as it is the pluralistic coexistence of multiple beliefs. Individual pursuit can take multiple forms - hippies in the 1960s, Randian greed in the 1980s.
This leads to what Taylor characterizes as the 'immanent frame' - the separation from physical and material life from the religious and supernatural. It's partly the reason why so many people say they are spiritual, but not religious - spiritual in the sense of having their own beliefs, but not religious in the sense that they are part of an organized church or creed.
Taylor then introduces the idea of the 'closed world structure', which are systems of belief which restrict our perspective of outside beliefs. The secular CWS makes it impossible to empathize with the true believer, and vice versa. It is this inability to understand that Taylor explicitly challenges here. Furthermore, it is the teleological view of 'subtraction stories', which casts the history of Western religion as a history of disintegration and disenchantment, or the postmodern grand narrative that there are no more grand narratives. This separation from the past can produce at times feelings of malaise, or even feelings of exultation (again, see Nietzsche). But in this sense, secularism is not a first and final step, but it is achieved by climbing a 'ladder' of religious belief, which is then discarded.
Even so, modern secularism still has its own 'cross-pressures' - the disenchantment of losing belief in transcendent phenomena, or in the malaise in believing the natural world is all there is. As such, he launches into an apologia and constructive criticism of his own Catholic belief. His calls for reform include a separation from bourgeois timidity on sexual or familial norms, but also a withdrawal from an obsession over sin and the possibility of eternal damnation. (As history shows, what good thing has ever arisen from torture?) Unbelief is no monolith, but split between multiple camps - of naturalism, hedonism, the Nietzschean will to power, the individual search for authenticity and communal meaning. In addressing the differences within these beliefs and their own shortcomings, he hopes that religion can adapt in understanding. For his own Catholicism, he hopes to break away from the past ideas of enforced uniformity, which have stifled intellectual development within it and made it fall far short of what he describes as its long-past ideals.
A Secular Age is a book deeply influenced by Taylor's own Catholicism, but with an abiding interest to anyone with an interest in the history of religion of philosophy. My crude summary will distort by simplifying many of Taylor's main ideas, but his approach is a major shift in thinking, with waves extending into the distant future.
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Charles Taylor, Journalist, Film critic
Charles Margrave Taylor CC GOQ FBA FRSC is a Canadian philosopher, and professor emeritus at McGill University. He is best known for his contributions to political philosophy, the philosophy of social science, history of philosophy and intellectual history. This work has earned him the prestigious Kyoto Prize, the Templeton Prize, the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy, and the John W. Kluge Prize, in addition to widespread esteem among philosophers. (Source: Wikipedia)
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