Secularism and Disenchantment

Brtaylorimage.img_assist_customBruce Robbins on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age in n+1:

With Martin Amis championing secularism from what seems to be the right and Terry Eagleton making the case for faith from what must surely be the left, it is anything but obvious where enlightened common sense is now to be found…

In this context, the version of common sense offered by Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is worth taking a second look at. A world-class philosopher, a practicing Catholic, and a very good citizen—he recently headed Canada’s portentously-named Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences—Taylor came to the attention of the larger world in 2007 when he won the £1,000,000 Templeton Prize, which rewards “progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the divine” (previous winners include Billy Graham, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Nixon Special Counsel Charles Colson). A decade earlier he had argued that secularism is indispensable to a healthy liberal democracy. This position was criticized by anthropologist Talal Asad as a deeply misguided glorification of the modern state. Now Taylor has joined Asad as a central figure in a wave of so-called “post-secular” thinking that is highly skeptical, to say the least, of democracy, liberalism, and the state, as well as of secularism. In A Secular Age, Taylor looks at secularism with the freshness and amazement that the New Atheists bring to God. What is this thing? What makes it work? How could anything so strange ever have come into existence in the first place? How could it have gotten so many people to take it seriously?

Taylor’s answers take some time to develop, and not everyone will make it through all eight hundred-plus pages, but the outline is clear enough. Secularism’s rise is generally presented as what Taylor calls a “subtraction” story. Religion is said to shrink as science, technology, and rationality expand. Thus superstition is little by little expelled from the world. In Taylor’s counter-story, secularism is not the widening zone of clarity that remains as myth and error are dissipated, but rather the product of shifts in thinking within religion, and in particular within Christianity.