John Locke

Rethinking Secularism – Charles Taylor’s Western Secularity

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) has generated a huge amount of discussion. In the first chapter of Rethinking Secularism, entitled “Western Secularity,” Taylor revisits central themes from A Secular Age as he charts the historical trajectory that led from the “axial religion” through Latin Christendom to the contemporary conditions of modern secularity.

While noting that the term “secular” is both complex and ambiguous and subject to alterations and distortions as it travels from one context to another, Taylor nonetheless argues that Western secularity should be understood as the result of a fundamental change in sensibility marked by “disenchantment,” or the systematic repression of the “magical” elements of religion, as well as by a concomitant historical movement toward the association or personal commitment with “true” religion.

“Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.”

The broader historical context for these shifts was a “great disembedding” of social and collective life and a movement toward reform within Christianity, which, along with other historical developments, led not only to the rise of modern individualism but also to the possibility of conceiving of the world in purely immanent terms, shorn of all reference to the transcendent.

The separation of the immanent from the transcendent, worked from within Latin Christendom itself, thus laid the groundwork for the assertion of a self-sufficient secular order. And it was the development of this possibility that led, in Taylor’s account, to the existential condition he most closely associates with modern secularity, namely, the contemporary reality that belief in God, or in any transcendent reality, is considered just one option among many and therefore represents a fragile form of commitment. According to Taylor, it is this shared condition of belief and commitment that makes the current age a “secular” one.

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