Secularism: How We Got Here.

Secularism is marked by the fragility of belief in transcendence. Its central impulse is the naturalization of all things, the leveling out of reality into a single plane. How secularism arose is a tricky question, but Charles Taylor attempts to explain how we got here. To do so he describes four parallel worlds. He admits they are ideal worlds and, in reality, relate to one another in significant ways. But to describe them well, he suggests, they must be described separately.


World #1: An Epistemological World

This picture is of a world in which knowledge begins with individuals who build up knowledge of the world in comprehensive theories. Facts about the world are accumulated and related to one another theoretically. From such facts are inferred values. This world is found in an assumption of neutral knowledge of the world, that the world is knowable and comprehensible through natural means available to all human beings.

This simple picture of knowledge, one posited by Descartes, Locke and Hume, is combined with its critics. Those, like Heidegger, who pointed out that such a vision of the subject assumes values and an idealized self-identity, one of cold, detached, independent, rational agent. But the criticism seems to lack alternatives apart from skepticism.

World #2: A Mature World

If the world is knowable through natural means then what the world tells us forces us to "face the facts." The process of facing facts is equivalent to growing up, maturing into an adult. This "death of God" movement denigrated belief in the transcendent by suggesting that belief of this kind was childish, immature and resistant to facing the facts before us.

World #3: A Nice World

This world, Taylor argues, is the world in which Christians develop a new order in the wake of the reformation. In it Christians begin to see the world as ordered, compassionate and "polite." These perspectives are rooted in Christian thought: God orders the world, loves the world and creates all human beings with intrinsic worth. This world is highly successful and produces civilizations with sustaining power. Later, the concept of God's ordering power becomes the controlling thought behind deism and then behind the establishment of America.

Two evolutions are important to this world. First, the emphasis of immanence in terms of God's relations with human beings. And, second, the emphasis of polite relations among people. The first came as a result of a rejection of Rome and the overly authoritarian nature of the visible church. The second replaced the warlike motif that had dominated Christendom until that time.

All three of the preceding worlds see religion receding and even ceasing to exist in certain forms. Taylor notes the consensus that occurs. Religion, at the very least, should not be fanatical, superstitious or enthusiastic.

World #4: A Fragmented World

In many ways, Taylor suggests, worlds 1-3 are simplistic. Consequently they are countered all along by opposite pulls. This counter-Enlightenment leads to the flowering of alternative spiritual and non-spiritual worlds. There is continued polytheism, pantheism and deism, a deepening skepticism towards modern science and the reinterpretation of modernity itself as a kind of pagan religion. All of which espouse, it should be noted, a demise of the transcendent (even deism removes the transcendent by disconnecting it from the world).

Taylor's descriptions help to delineate the various strands of history and thought that give rise to secularism in all its guises. Obviously, there are many "worlds" he leaves out. For example, not all Christians changed in the way Taylor describes. The reformation produced a strong evangelical movement that retained its warlike posture against sin and unbelief and retained a strong emphasis on the transcendence of God.

Taylor's conclusion is that while there may be defeating arguments against secularism's immanence doctrine, the project would entail defeating multiple discourses found in multiple "worlds." Taylor's contribution, it seems to me, is that he lays out the project before us, showing each piece of the puzzle. Our secular age carries many assumptions, people just find themselves within it, not stopping to ask how it, and they, got there.

Charles Taylor, "What is Secularity?" in Transcending Boundaries in Philosophy and Theology (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 57-76. 

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