My good friend Tripp recently approached me with a project. He knows that I’ve been wanting to express some thoughts in an arena other than the academic, and I know that he’s been wanting to do some stuff for his readers on secularization. With the promise that I will eventually get to help write some posts entitled “Liberals Gone Wild,” I’ve put my nose to the grindstone in order to bring you, Tripps coveted readers, some brief reflections and summaries of Charles Taylor’s recent book, A Secular Age. With this in mind, the first and probably most important question to be asked of Taylor’s book is just what he means by secularity and his strategy for understanding its development. These are the questions I will try to address today.
As to the first question, Taylor names three possible definitions of secularity based on current sociological literature and debates. Without needing to get into the nitty-gritty of the differences, the only definition that most concerns Taylor (and by proxy me) is the following: “The shift to secularity consists…of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among other, and frequently not the easiest to embrace (3).” What is Taylor saying?
As the story goes, once upon a time, everyone in Europe believed in God (even the French). This was, of course, what we think of as the Middle-Ages, and what some Christians romantically refer to as the Golden age of Faith. All the Lords and Ladies, peasants and tradesman, found a common bond with one another through the Church…God’s divine hand on earth. But this changed to what it is now our contemporary age: an age of seething and angry atheists, gloating over the triumph of the sciences and reason…or so the aforementioned romantics believe. What is true, and what Taylor traces is out in his book, is that the social conditions for believing in God changed from having to believe to belief being one possible option for how one orients one’s life.
Social conditions are those tricky, pre-conscious values that help to define not only one’s individual identity, but the possibilities through which persons in a whole society can view themselves. They are societal habits. Accordingly, it is the social conditions that are being referred to when a hippie promises to elucidate the real crime; or, more seriously, it is the social conditions that activists try to change through laws like affirmative action. Force a society which has a long history of hiring the majority ethnic group into the habit of hiring minorities and, over time (which usually means the death of a few generations and their social habits), the society will simply hire as many minorities as major ethnicities. The social habits are recreated, which means the conditions for getting minorities more work are themselves changed.
Taylor’s question pertains to similar social conditions, but at a religious level. As already said, the social conditions were once set so that one had to believe in God. And I’m not talking about enforced laws for believing (albeit laws were certainly and eventually set against heretics and unbelievers). No, it was part of the fabric of society to believe; there was no unbelief because it was not consciously possible to reject belief in God. God’s reality formed the pre-conscious social condition for living in that society. On the other hand, we can now believe, really, whatever the hell we want, from nothing at all to celebrity induced religious fads. Taylor tells us the story of how and why this happens, and tells us this based on his understanding of secularity as a change in the social conditions that once required us to believe in God.