In the 1960s, it was suggested that the world was in the grip of an irreversible process of secularisation and that modernisation led inevitably to the decline of religion. Then a number of factors were identified that contradicted this thesis: religion in the US, for example. This was followed by a much more critical attitude to the idea of the secular and how it might be defined. Charles Taylor accepts, as his book's title suggests, that we live in a secular age but describes it in a way that is, I think, fundamentally correct.
In 1500, people unproblematically - almost instinctively - experienced life as related to God. Modern atheistic belief was literally unthinkable. The concept of God was the basic assumption behind public and private life. Now the opposite is true. The basic assumption - the social and cosmic imaginary - to use Taylor's description, is that society can be organised and life can be lived without reference to God. There are, of course, religious believers today, but the point is that this is one option among others and believers have to justify their stance against an alternative that assumes that the basis of religious belief simply cannot be true. The default position, the controlling narrative, is that religion is no longer a serious option in deciding how society or our lives should be run.
This book is the most thorough study yet of the intellectual history of how the modern secular age has come about. It has a good number of sub-themes, but two major ones. The first, to show the inadequacy of what Taylor terms the subtraction theory of secularisation, which assumes that you simply take religion out of the picture to get modern humanism. On the contrary, secular humanism is a truly remarkable achievement and it has come about as a result of a particular history.
One of the interesting features of this major study is the way Taylor finds the roots of our present humanism in the Middle Ages. He points, for example, to the nominalism of John Duns Scotus and others. This, in contrast to Aquinas - who saw God and the world interpenetrating one another and grace not destroying but fulfilling nature - indicates a God in Himself, apart from the world. This paved the way for seeing the world in itself apart from God. More significant for Taylor, however, are the early reform movements associated with the Franciscans and Dominicans, who encouraged a much more intense interior life and took this teaching into the world to lay people. This, taken with other pre-reformation attempts to raise the standard of Christian living, leads Taylor to suggest that Reform, with a capital "R", is a major factor behind modern humanism. It took off in the actual Reformation, which abolished the idea that there were first and second-class Christians and gained a hold on societies when states began to legislate for a high standard of behaviour for whole populations. Other key concepts from this early period are the disenchantment of the world, suggested by Max Weber, which opened the way to recognising impersonal forces for what they are, and the growth of the buffered self - aware of itself as a solitary individual - as opposed to the porous self, which is conscious of being intimately related to nature and society.
Then, from later centuries, the idea of the world as an independent system of knowable causes and effects grows in influence, first in conjunction with deism and then, encouraged by science, on its own. At the same time, the Christian conviction that we have, through grace, the power within us to change things for the better, loses its need for grace but leaves us with a sense of our own dignity and power. The result is a belief in a society of mutual beneficence that can be improved for the better. Further, what began among the elites spread to the whole population in the age of mobilisation through the media and widening ideas of identity. Finally, after the counter Enlightenment, expressed for example in the Romantic movement, there is the modern stress on authenticity, with its overriding imperative to be true to ourselves. In short, modern secular humanism is a great river into which a number of major tributaries have flowed, and we cannot grasp the nature of our age without grasping something of this history.
Taylor's second major thesis is that the present default position - that religion has been ruled out by science - is a human construct driven not primarily by science but rather by a feeling, originating in the 18th century, that religion is a weakness that belongs to an earlier, less civilised age, and that now we need the moral courage to assert our dignity as human beings in the face of a meaningless universe. This is a view of ourselves that has great moral strength, as for example put by Albert Camus, and it is this that attracts us. The rational position, however, according to Taylor, is that our consciousness of living in a world of cause and effect, where it is all down to us, lends itself to being interpreted as a closed system or one that is still open to the transcendent. The fact that so many think religion is simply ruled out from the outset is due to the powerful moral appeal of the humanist view of ourselves. The paradox here, referring to the 18th century, is: "How could the immense force of religion in human life in that age be countered, except by using a modality of the most powerful ethical ideas, which this religion itself had helped to entrench?"
This summary does not do justice to the many sub-divisions and subtleties of this extensive book by an author who draws widely on French and German sources as well as British and American ones in an absorbing intellectual history. Taylor is a philosopher widely read in theology, sociology, literature and history who is well aware of the relation between material and intellectual factors; he discusses a number of the latter when they are relevant, such as industrialisation, urbanisation and the differentiation of occupations. But it would be good to see a debate between Taylor, who has written what is primarily an intellectual history, and someone whose concern is primarily social and economic history. Apart from that, there will be a number of different readings of the intellectual layers that he identifies as building up modern humanism. For example, I think he overemphasises the role of evangelicalism in England in the last half of the 19th and early 20th century, when the dominant ethos of the Church of England was in fact Catholic, either liberal or traditional. This is relevant to Taylor's thesis that the Church can adapt in a creative way to new intellectual currents because Catholic Anglicanism appealed, for example, to the aesthetic and motivated priests to work in the poor areas of our large cities; and in its liberal form accepted biblical criticism and the findings of science.
Because of this possibility of creative response, the future of religion for Taylor is still open: "We are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee."
Lord Harries of Pentregarth is an honorary professor of theology at King's College London.
A Secular Age
Author - Charles Taylor
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 896
Price - £25.95
ISBN - 9780674026766