In our last article, we began to explore the philosophy of secularism, through Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age. We saw how Taylor’s three senses of the word describe a progressive development: first, a retreat of religion (itself a problematic term) from the public to the private sphere; then, a decline of religiosity in the private sphere; and finally, the emergence of exclusive humanism as a viable option for many people. By exclusive humanism, Taylor means the belief that human flourishing—prosperity, security, convenience, and, in general, the pleasant and convenient things in life—is an all-sufficient ethical goal, that there is nothing beyond or outside or extraneous to this pursuit, often accompanied by the suspicion that the pursuit of other ethical goals might be detrimental to the pursuit of this one. So, for instance, when it is claimed that belief in an afterlife is a bad thing because the pursuit of imaginary, other-worldly goals distracts people from the pursuit of attainable, this-worldly ones, that is an example of this idea that human flourishing is the all-sufficient goal. Exclusive humanism can tolerate beliefs and communities that do not share its ethical vision, but it can’t really embrace or affirm them for this reason. There is always going to be some tension there.
What Taylor sets out to do in his book is chart the rise of secularism as a positive historical construction; not what’s left over when we get rid of all the god-talk, but a creation of thinking, choosing, willing human beings, like any other mental map that people and societies use to navigate their lives. Put differently, he wants to give secularism a history, instead of treating it as the natural and obvious starting point for serious discussion. In order to understand the history of secularism, we need to first understand what the worldview of an educated European would have looked like around 1500. I stress “European” here because, pursuant to Taylor’s thesis, secularism isn’t simply the natural state of affairs. It comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is Europe. So, why was it so easy for educated Europeans to believe in 1500? What were “the bulwarks of belief”?
Taylor defines three factors in particular that supported belief in transcendent, spiritual realities. The first is that the natural world “testified to divine purpose and action.” Now, there is an obvious sense in which design arguments are relevant to these discussions today—certain features of the world around us give the appearance of purposive, deliberate fabrication for a specific purpose. For example, my eye gives every appearance of having been designed for the purpose of sight, my kidneys for that of purifying blood, my hands for grasping, and so on. We’ve already seen how design arguments in biology were intuitive, natural, and widespread prior to the advent of Darwinian biology. There is still material for these arguments in cosmology today, e.g., when we observe that, had the values for certain physical constants been different by the most minute portion, stars, organic molecules, and living things as we know them could not have formed. This observation can be made the basis for a design argument at the level of cosmology, even if such arguments have been shown to be invalid at the level of biology.
We’ll explore some of this territory later in the series. For now, it’s enough to observe that there’s still material lying around for these kinds of arguments. But there was a deeper level at which design and purpose were self-evident to early modern Europeans in a way that it no longer is today—not only or even primarily as a matter of argument, but just of everyday experience. It was not simply that the universe or the world of life had been designed, but that particular events were manifestations of supernatural purpose as well. As Taylor explains, “storms, droughts, floods, plagues, as well as years of exceptional fertility and flourishing, were seen as acts of God, as the now dead metaphor of our legal language still bears witness.” So design and purpose were literally everywhere, as early modern Europeans experienced the world. It was a world saturated with meaning.
The second factor Taylor identifies is that God was implicated in the existence of society. Most states at the time were monarchies, and the monarch was understood as wielding their just authority on God’s behalf. It wasn’t that they just happened to be born into a certain family, it was that God had raised that family up and set them in a position of power. That was what made the “contract theory” of society subversive in its time. Theorists like Locke, Hobbes, and Rosseau argued that society had come about through the agreement of its original members for their protection and prosperity. In other words, it had been instituted by human beings for human purposes. This was quite a departure from the prevailing theory, which held that so-and-so was king or queen, not by the consent of the people they governed, but by the grace of God. From this it followed that their principal responsibility was not to the people they governed, but to God, since it was God who had put them in power in the first place, and God alone who could remove them. But contract theory hadn’t happened yet in 1500. It was just taken for granted, pretty much all around, that God made (and unmade) monarchs. So you couldn’t have a proper society at all without God being involved in it. The political was always already (as Heidegger would say) embedded within the religious.
Taylor doesn’t say this exactly, but I think there’s an important analogy to be drawn here with the family. The monarch is conceived as the parent (usually the father, though not always) of the people. So monarchy is, in a sense, a very natural and intuitive kind of government because it works on a principle that is already familiar. We know what it’s like to grow up in a family (most of us do, at any rate), and that experience prepares us to live in a monarchy. Just as children are not, and really cannot be, in a position to challenge the authority of their parents in a really serious way, so subjects are not in a position to challenge the authority of their sovereigns. And so, too, no human being is in a position to challenge the authority of the divine monarch, God. So the premodern political view is like a family within a family within a family: the cosmic family, constituted by all the believers under God’s authority; the political family, constituted by all of the subjects under the monarch’s authority; and the natural family, constituted by all of the children under their parents' authority. The whole universe becomes an imaginative projection outward from our experience as children, and later as parents. So, living in this kind of society predisposes people to believe both in God and in a personal order to the cosmos. Things don’t just happen for no reason, they’re manifestations of divine purpose (as above.)
I think a similar analogy holds for living in the kind of depersonalized, bureaucratic, law-governed society that we’re familiar with today. We’re predisposed by our everyday experience to accept impersonal explanations for events—it was just statistics, just chemicals, just a scientific law, just cause and effect, etc. The notion that a personal agent, God, is behind events becomes difficult to grasp. After all, our lives are governed by rules in the social setting—the law, the employee handbook, the terms of service agreement, and so on—so why shouldn’t that be the case on the cosmic scale as well? Our lives are defined by personal relationships to a much lesser extent than they were for our ancestors, when the state was weak and corporations as we have them didn’t exist. It’s not so much any particular argument as the subtle force of constant implication that creates this effect. Intellectual history isn’t just about why ideas get proposed, but why they get listened to.
But, this is just my speculation. To return to Taylor, he gives a third reason for the extreme prevalence of belief, about 1500, as well. This is the concept of an “enchanted world.” It’s not just that God, as a personal agent, is responsible for certain events, but there is a whole host of lesser spirits—angels and demons—who act either in accordance or defiance with God’s will, and whose activity has definite implications for your well-being, and that of people you know. God is important to the enchanted world not as the being who primarily enchants it, but rather as the kind of orchestrator or governor of all these other spirits. When it’s just obvious that the forest over there is haunted, that this day of the calendar is sacred, that the convulsive fits of your child or sibling is a result of demonic possession, etc., then one needs patrons and protectors in order to navigate one’s experience of the world. Those patrons and protectors, in turn, have to get their power from somewhere. There must be an overarching spirit, it seems. So the enchanted world argues for the existence of God in a way that is very different from philosophy. People just do have this experience of the world as filled with personal agents, or at any rate they did in Europe in about the year 1500. It’s not a matter of establishing their reality through discursive reason; their reality is already given (or at any rate, was) in immediate experience.
It has to be said that just on the face of it, none of this is very compelling, philosophically. There are philosophical arguments about purpose and design to be found in the first of these “bulwarks of belief,” but they’re hardly slam dunks, and the second two don’t seem very philosophical at all. But then, our task is only to describe the mental space characteristic of educated Europeans c. 1500, not to assess its truth, though I suppose most of us think it had more falsehood than truth in it. At any rate, what Taylor wants to establish here is that with these three factors working together, atheism would have been a very difficult proposition. The question was what kind of God exists; that God did exist would have been taken for granted by virtually everyone, and if there were doubters they probably wouldn’t have felt very confident in expressing those doubts.
And here, too, we have another approach to the answer to our question: what changed between the years 1500 and 2000 that made atheism such a difficult choice for someone in the earlier time, and such a widespread choice for people now. The answer is that the bulwarks of belief aren’t there anymore. People still believe in God, people still have spiritual experiences, but for educated Westerners, today, belief in God is much more of a conscious choice than an unconscious given. It’s something that has to be argued for, rather than a given: because we don’t experience natural events as instances of personal, supernatural agency; because we no longer live under divine right monarchies; and because we no longer encounter spirits as an immediate and given experience. People can and do believe all of these things as a matter of argument, but the experience isn’t given or obvious. For many, perhaps most, educated Westerners, it’s absent altogether.
As yet, we’ve only sketched a solution to our problem. In the next article, we’ll delve in deeper to the third of Taylor’s “bulwarks of belief,” the one that perhaps seems the most distant to our modern sensibilities. I mean we’ll discuss the enchanted world, and with it, further distinctions between the premodern and the modern experience of the world.
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: