Friday, May 08, 2020

Charles Taylor's, A Secular Age.

One of the main contentions of this blog is that politics is downstream from culture. Culture, itself is largely formed by values, which are in turn strongly influenced by religion.  It's also this blogs contention that the decline in religion is the main cause for the decline in the West and that any hope of its restoration is also contingent upon the return of religion.  I know it would be easier to propose some political program that advocate this approach but my own analysis of the situation, over many years, has led me to the conclusion that there is no other way.

That's why for a while now I've taken an interest in the process of secularisation. I've been away for the blog for the past few weeks because, firstly, for professional reasons I've been busy with matters concerning the virus. Secondly, because I've been working through Charles Taylor's, A Secular Age.

Dear God, what a slog!

I've read some quite awful medical textbooks which have made the eyes glaze over but Taylor's book, in my opinion, is in a league of its own. I found it an incredibly difficult book. Not because the concepts that Taylor is trying to get across are difficult to understand, rather, they are drowned in a series of digressions, back-tracks, changes in perspectives and verbosity that obscures more than clarify. And that's a shame because Taylor does have a few interesting things to say, it's only that they are drowned in an ocean of verbiage.  Given the high praise the book has received, I thought that it must be me who has the problem, but after reading up on several other reviews of the book I realised  I was not the only one. Apparently, Taylor was asked to write a condensed version of the book, but bristled at the idea since he felt that the book should have been longer!

To those interested in sparing themselves the pain, someone else has done a highly recommended "summary" of it and I referred to it as well to see if I wasn't misreading him. I also compared my thoughts with those of several other commentators as well. I feel I have a measure of the man and his ideas.

Part of the reason why the book is so long is because Taylor approaches the subject as a romantic Hegelian phenomenologist. He writes about the subject of belief from the experiential perspective. i.e how does religious belief, or lack of it, feel with respect to the individual. This is not a book about cognition and more about the experience of religion.  Overlaid is a Hegelian historical approach in analysing the cultural forces which impacted upon the systems of belief, and the individual's response to them.  Taylor examines these in depth and with a degree of thoroughness. But this approach opens itself up to endless digressions, backtracking and conceptual obscurity and  hence the book's length. (I can see why Taylor wanted a longer book).  I also  got the impression that there were many times that the English language failed to give Taylor a term for the concept he was trying to express. Terms such as " Fullness", "Enchantment", "frames"  and " Buffered-self", etc. were imperfect expressions of the ideas he was trying to get across.  It's about the historical gestalt of belief.  In some instances the German language has a better terminology for what Taylor is trying to express.

I would say that the central thesis of this book is that modern unbelief is prevalent  because of the change in what Taylor calls  European man's "frame" i.e. weltanshauung, that occurred as a result of the social and cultural developments that followed the Reformation. Western man started off inhabiting an "enchanted" frame where spirits and magic were understood as being entangled in the material world and ended up viewing the world through a cold instrumental rationalism which was hostile to anything outside it. i.e. the Immanent frame.

Taylor does not say that these frames preclude the faith, simply that  the earlier perspectives or "frames" made the faith easy, modern ones make it difficult. The drift towards secularism is as a result of a change in our worldview. Taylor's insight is that modern secular age is not really strictly secular but is inhabited by beings who find their own grey zone of belief as the result of the unique equilibrium achieved in each particular individual by balance of cultural, personal, psychological and social forces which can vary over time to find a new stable point. These forces work on the individual resulting in them being "cross pressured." It's not the secular age is an age of unbelief, it's an age of a variety of different kinds of belief.

I got the impression that Taylor thought this a better state of affairs than a world of militant secularism  i.e some religion is better than  none, but from my perspective this is a mistaken evaluation. For what matters to me as a Christian, and someone who hopes for restoration of the West, is the re-establishment of the Christian faith and the fact that people choose a false god over militant secularism is of no comfort at all.

I've got to say that I found this book really disappointing and don't understand what the hype is all about. I think it obscures more than it clarifies the loss of faith in the West. There are many reasons why I didn't like this book. Some of which are;

Firstly, the book approaches the subject of faith through a purely immanent frame. As I understood Taylor, faith is ultimately the product of personal choice conditioned by cultural circumstances. The theological element of religion is ignored. I want to delve into this in the next post but I feel that this approach fatally cripples the book in its understanding of the mechanics of secularisation.

Secondly,  I think he gives Catholicism a relatively free pass with regard to setting the conditions for secularisation. Second rate Thomism was as a profound solvent of belief as hyper-Augustinian Protestantism. I feel that in a book of this length Taylor should have given it some consideration.

Thirdly,  I think Taylor's interpretation of the Reformation is open to some serious challenge. Some of his understandings of Protestant motivations I found highly unconvincing.

Fourthly, Taylor's definition of secularisation means a religious freedom rather  than dechristianisation. For a Christian, getting people to believe in the Buddha may not be secular but it does nothing for the Christian cause. The book really should of been called, Belief in a Post Christian Age.

Still, as much as I really didn't like this book I have to commend it for several reasons:

Firstly, most people are not strict logicians, and the experience of religion is more a feeling that a logical demonstration. Taylor's approach therefore is more akin to how the average person experiences religion as opposed to how the convert or true believer does, and is therefore useful in understanding the basis religion or secularisation as a mass phenomenon.  Taylor does not take the approach of the zealot.

Secondly, there are nuggets of wisdom in this book but finding them is like panning for gold. You've got to sift a lot of waste--and verbiage-- to find them.

Thirdly, the Hegelian approach is probably a better way of approaching the gestalt of cultural phenomenon rather than a simple reductionist one.  Western secularisation is the product of multiple factors and simple reductions that explain everything i.e. race, The Enlightement, nominalism, etc. sometimes obscure more than clarify the issue. A lot of the critiques of modernity especially in the non-official Right are reductionist and are therefore blind to important factors that are outside their thrust. Their popularity most probably rests on the fact that most people can't juggle more than one variable in their head at any time. With stuff like this you have to do multifactoral analysis to do them justice.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, Taylor introduces the concept of excarnation. This is a hugely important topic that deserves a lot more thought since in my opinion it is one of the main drivers of secularisation.  This blog introduced this concept several years ago [Preen] calling it decarnalisation. It was a pleasant surprise to see something thinking along the same lines! I think it is an important concept with regard to the weakening of the Christian faith and while this blog only touched on the subject Taylor pushes the idea further.

As said before,  this book is an increadible difficult read. And despite its incredible verbiage, what haunts this book is what is not is only indirectly mentioned, i.e. the spirit of Augustine or at least a fanatical interpretation of his teachings. I honestly don't actually think that this is good book about secularisation but what I do think that this book is a good book on how unchecked asceticism can deform and undermine Christianity.  While reading this book, I formed the opinion that an excellent companion book to this one is G.K. Chesterton's, St Thomas Aquinas. Chesterton, with both brevity and clarity, explains what was stake when Aquinas provided an antidote to the platonic tendencies in Augustine. The Reformation was in many ways justified but in providing a corrective to many of the abuses of the time in some way reversed this victory.

Bonus: A good review of the book.


Chent said...

I think the "good review of the book" is only "good" in the fact that it faithfully describes the content of a long and difficult book. I have learned some important things of this review, which I will include in my worldview.

But then there is a second part, where the author struggles to unlearn what he had learned from Taylor (which was Catholic) and Weber (which was not religious): that modernity is only a specific worldview and not the default and evident position. The article finishes with stating the modernity view of philosophy (which is self-refuting) and then concluding "This is not secular. It is human" (which negates all the human experience before the "Enlightenment" and outside Western culture).

To try to jusfify modernity as the default position, he uses the concepts developed by modernity to justify itself without proving them. You find hyper-rationalism, Cartesian reductionism, a very naive understanding of ethics, a confusion between is and ought, etc. The article ends up being a kind of implicit circular reasoning. Something like "modernity is true because modernity says it so". Something like a naive Muslim could say "Islam is true because the Koran says it so". But this is the product of a University professor.

MK said...

Welcome back. Good review. Makes me want to read Hegel again.

But I do find all this pother about philosophy to be overwrought. I'm reminded of a zman story where a fag protests: "I'll have you know I'm a homosexual!" with zman replying: "Great! And how's that working out for you?" and seeing him melt under the reality. Why chase the stick? IOW, the best philosophy is simply living well; the fruits will grow in the right conditions. Why argue with sin? Just ignore it and keep one's distance.

Anonymous said...

I would highly recommend Brad S. Gregory's "The Unintended Reformation", which has a similar goal as Taylor's book does but was a very entertaining read, despite its length. His thesis is basically that secularism resulted from the Reformation breaking down the consensus over the "Life Questions" (what's good, true, beautiful, moral? what's the common good?) that existed in every European society pre-Reformation. Luther didn't expect his movement to stall and fail to create a global "catholic" Lutheran church, and he really didn't expect that other competing protestant sects would emerge. The Enlightenment was an effort to recreate a "catholic" European consensus over the life issues without recourse to controversial religious debates that failed.

Unlike some of the arguments I've seen on this blog, Gregory puts technological change second to the breakdown in religious/philosophical consensus in creating secularism. The earliest religiously pluralistic states (Cromwellian England, the Dutch Republic) valued commerce because economic growth provided a answer to the "common good" that differing religious rects could all agree to. Eventually, as every state adopted the pluralism, this became the model everywhere, until now when the two most cherished American beliefs are "make GDP bigger" and "you can be an anime girl if you want to, lol nothing matters".

The Social Pathologist said...


I'm still not finished with reviewing the book. I plan to put more critiques of Taylor in the next few posts. I think he is guilty of a lot of the stuff you accuse Laramore of.

I think philosophy is important but I also agree that you have to recgonise its limits.

@ Anon.

I'll have a look at it but I've just started The Secularisation of the European Mind in the the 19th Century by Owen Chadwick. Looks like a very good book initially. So it'll be a bit of a while till I have a proper look.

I think secularisation is a multifaceted process with too much emphasis being on the "philosophical" elements of unbelief as opposed to the mundane causes. I do think religious "toleration" lead to a notion among weaker minds of religious equivalence which I do think is a driver towards secularisation. When relgion ceases to matter other things do.

My own reading of Protestantism is that its effect on European culture was very complex and am of the opinion that its relationship to secularisation is not that simple. In some instances, or aspects of it, I feel it may have been more Catholic than the Catholic Church. I think that Protestantisation of bits of Europe may have shored up the Catholic Church in reaction. Trent, for instance, couldn't have happened without the Reformation, and the Church before Trent was not in good shape.

David Foster said...

How truly *secular* is the secularization that now exists?...I see an awful lot of people who believe in magical crystals, homeopathy, astrology, etc. These are *not* scientific materialists of the type that an HG Wells or Bernard Russell would have expected to eventually dominate society.

The Social Pathologist said...


Hello David, nice to have you chime in!

Well it really depends on how you define secular. Taylor would think that the whole phenomenon of crystals, homoeopathy, etc. as proof that the world is not strictly secular and that's one of the conclusions of his book. The "subtraction" story of Positivism, i.e that religion will disappear when men become more rational hasn't strictly eventuated. But in defence of the positivists, a lot of men aren't capable of any critical rationality. They could quite convincingly argue that what you're capturing in this group are the knuckleheads.

From the Christian perspective, the fact that people believe in Astrology or Crystals is no salve. Paganism, whatever its forms, has always been seen as a loss of the faith. So Taylor's redefinition of secular i.e any belief is no real help with regard to restoring the Christian faith, or understanding its loss.

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