Of the three elements in our series—science, religion, and secularism—science has probably received the most philosophical attention, at least in the contemporary context. Indeed, the constitution of a category, “philosophy of religion,” presumes a sectioning-off of certain topics that have, historically, been integral to philosophy. It presumes, in other words, a growing distance between religion and philosophy. This in turn is a result of the broadening and deepening of secularism, which has received very little philosophical attention until quite recently. What I mean is that there did not have to be a “philosophy of religion” in a society in which religious concepts had a normative and unproblematic status. It’s only when that status gets called into question that it begins to attract intensive discussion, and there can be such a thing as “philosophy of religion.” What existed beforehand, at least in the Islamic and Christian lands (which included most of the world’s Jewish population as well), would have been theology, an activity that presumes the truth of ideas (such as the existence of God, an afterlife, and revelation), which are up for grabs in the philosophy of religion. Just as religious societies have little use for a “philosophy of religion,” so too, secular societies would seem to have little use for a philosophy of secularism. In both cases, either religion or secularism has a “taken-for-granted” status that lets it fly under the radar, so to speak. It’s not only our answers, but our questions, that define us.
In future articles, I hope to get more precise about the term “religion,” as in previous articles I tried to do with the term “science.” “Religion” is a notoriously fuzzy term, and it’s difficult to think of any one characteristic that does not instantly call to mind counterexamples. It calls for some philosophical investigation that I haven’t done yet. Often I’ve used the term “theology” in place of “religion,” because at least with “theology” we know what we’re talking about: the intellectual—as opposed to the ritual, devotional, ethical, etc.—aspects of faith. In this article, I’d like to begin a historical-philosophical explanation of our third term, secularism. We’ll be investigating some of the high points of Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age, a landmark exploration of secularism that won the Templeton Prize in 2007. Like Michael Allen Gillespie’s Theological Origins of Modernity, which we discussed in previous articles, it’s a good, rich, rewarding text, and can help us get a handle on secularism, which exercises so much influence in our time.
Taylor’s goal in A Secular Age is to historicize secularism—to show where it came from, how it’s changed over time, and what it means for us today. He wants us to see it as something that humans have built for themselves, something that has grown out of our own choices and agency, not a preexisting facet of the world or our experience. When we see secularism in this way, we cease to take it for granted. We become aware of it as something contestable, and contested, not to be equated simply with knowledge or the way things are or anything like that, but one human possibility among many. In other words, historicizing secularism is what allows there to be a philosophy of it. Taylor wants us to become aware of secularism in a way similar to how we’ve become aware of religion. This way, instead of secularism setting the agenda for scrutiny of other things, but not itself being a subject of scrutiny—an “unmoved mover,” if you will, in philosophy—it becomes available for scrutiny itself.
In order to do this, Taylor has to deflate what he calls “subtraction stories.” A subtraction story is one that presents secularism as the result of just subtracting away superstition, ignorance, authoritarianism, or something else irrelevant or pernicious. Once we clear away the fog of error, the truth becomes self-evident. Secularization is just life without the god-talk. So secularism becomes something natural, obvious, and given in experience, and therefore calling for no special consideration, explanation, or scrutiny. In this way the constructive stance involved in secularism—its history, so to speak; its status as one distinctive human posture among many—becomes obscure. Secularism involves subtraction, to be sure, but also addition. Taylor contends that subtraction stories obscure the positive, constructive elements of secularism by unduly privileging the negative, deconstructive elements.
In order to counter a subtraction story, one has to have a positive story to replace it.
Subtraction stories are very common in popularizations of science. They often sound something like this: “Once, in the old times, people worshipped the gods out of fear and ignorance. They didn’t know about physics and astronomy and biology, so they invented gods to explain things. Now, thankfully, we know better, and that’s the beauty of science.” Combined with the thesis that “science is just organized common sense,” we end up with a typical subtraction story. People start using their common sense when they stop worshipping the gods, hence getting rid of religion automatically promotes a sensible, scientifically informed society. Another subtraction blames the poverty and backwardness of the European Middle Ages on the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church knew that its power depended on inculcating fear and ignorance, so it suppressed knowledge in order to preserve itself. Once the power of the Catholic Church was broken, however, an age of reason dawned. The eighteenth-century French philosopher Denis Diderot was thinking along these lines when he quipped that "Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Subtract out priests and kings, and freedom is what you’re left with.
The problem with subtraction stories, Taylor argues, is that they treat secularism as a given, as the starting point of legitimate discussion, rather than seeing it as one human possibility among many. But it’s not enough for Taylor to simply point this out. In order to counter a subtraction story, one has to have a positive story to replace it. Historicizing secularism means giving it a history, and that’s what Taylor set out to do. Put differently, Taylor begins with the observation that, c. 1500, it was very difficult for a European to not believe in God, or to conceive of the scope of their life as circumscribed entirely by their bodily experience. God and other religious concepts were a felt, unproblematic reality in the daily life of tens of millions of people. Today, it is not at all difficult to not believe in God. There are plenty of atheists, and even the staunchest believer is aware of their faith as one possibility among many. The taken-for-granted quality of faith is no longer there. Probably more numerous than either staunch believers or committed atheists, are people for whom religion is just irrelevant. It’s not that they’re actively opposed to it, per se, but it’s just not a very big part of their lives. So, something important has changed between the years, c. 1500 and c. 2000. What was it? When we understand this change, we’ll understand the history of secularism.
Before beginning our historical investigation, let’s define the object of our inquiry. What is secularism? Taylor gives four senses of the term that are relevant. The first is the oldest, derived from the Latin saeculum: the age, or, in other words, ordinary time. Taylor will have a lot to say about premodern conceptions of time, but for now the important thing is that the original sense of the secular is just the mundane, ordinary experience of time. Most, for some people perhaps all, of our lives are spent in secular time. This sense of the word “secular” survives in the Catholic Church’s designation of some clergy as “regular” and others as “secular.” The regular clergy live under a regula, or rule. They are the monks and nuns who take vows of total commitment to their church and order, and who are absorbed completely in their religious vocation. To use somewhat archaic terminology, they are set apart from “the world,” or from ordinary life. Secular clergy, on the other hand, are in “the world.” They are the priests who attend to the day-to-day operations of the church, without taking vows of total commitment or living under a monastic rule.
Another sense, what Taylor calls Secularity 1, refers to the emptying of public spaces of references to God and other religious concepts. (I realize that “God” and “religion” are not entirely synonymous, but “religion” is such a fuzzy term, and most “religions” do indeed involve God or gods, so it seems reasonably accurate. Hopefully I’ll be able to offer a more precise formulation in the future!) Religion is still a part of people’s lives and of society, perhaps even a very important part, but it’s seen as more appropriate for one’s private life. We all agree to set aside our personal religious views when we enter into a public space or undertake matters of public concern. Hence, while the prescriptions that go along with religion can still be authoritative for the individual, they no longer are for society as a whole, or within institutions that are not explicitly concerned with such references. Religion becomes a matter of personal choice, rather than public obligation, unlike in the ancient and medieval times.
Secularity 2 refers to the decline in religious involvement that follows upon its retreat from the public sphere. The reasons to be religious just aren’t as compelling to many people when religion is put into the same category as recreation, hobbies, charity work, and other voluntary societies or private practices. There seems to be something ineluctably social about religion, which its privatization erodes. There are still plenty of religious people, of course, but it’s a more embattled option under conditions of Secularity 2.
Secularity 3 refers to the emergence of exclusive humanism as a genuine option for many people. What Taylor means by exclusive humanism is a conception of the good that makes no reference to the transcendent, supernatural, supra-mundane, or other religious concepts. Human flourishing becomes not just an ethical goal (it was always that) but the exclusive and self-sufficient ethical goal. The idea that there is an ethical goal beyond or superior to this becomes regarded with some hostility. It seems to denigrate our this-worldly condition, or to distract attention away from its improvement. It was this sense of secularity that Karl Marx alluded to when he complained that “religion is the opium of the masses.” If they could “wake up” by no longer being religious, they would become aware of the ways in which their flourishing is being thwarted. This kind of secularism is more intransigently anti-religious than the first two. There is a transition from the pluralism of Secularism 1 and 2 to the monism of Secularism 3.
Taylor sees these secularisms as stages along a continuous chain of development. Secularism 3 is already implicit in 2, and 2 in 1, so once the process gets started it acquires its own momentum, which can be difficult to reverse. This transition changes the conditions of belief. Whereas before it was difficult to enter a public space without encountering religion, one only rare does under conditions of Secularity 3. In consequence, belief becomes an embattled option just as unbelief had been previously. To believe then means to make a conscious decision, to cut against the grain, so to speak, of a society in which comprehension of and participation in transcendent realities becomes obscure, problematic, extraneous. There is a general falling away of commitment.
With the general aims of Taylor’s book, and some different senses of the term “secularism,” under our belt, we can begin the historical narrative. In the next article, we’ll explore Taylor’s description of the premodern mentality, which provides the backdrop for the narrative he wants to lay out, of the emergence of modern secularity.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
If you’re just beginning to follow this series, or would like a handy reference, here are links to the previous articles: