A Secular Age is a huge and hugely interesting work by Charles Taylor, a Canadian who has been called ” the most interesting and important philosopher writing in English today”.  It deals with some of the most
important issues of our time. What place is there for the contribution of religious ideas, notably
belief in God and God’s word, to our public discourse about social policy? It is
a feature of contemporary existence that arguments based on biblical sources
or pronouncements from the Vatican tend to be treated today as more or less
inadmissible in serious academic discussion. They may be used for adornment, but
not as proper authority standing alone; serious work has to be couched in
secular language.

I have certainly found in a lifetime spent in academic philosophy that
professional manners require that while faith can serve as inspiration, whatever
it inspires has to pass through a secularising filter before it can be
acceptable as a contribution to philosophy. So, for example, arguments about
ethics and social policies relating to abortion cannot, in serious discussion,
rest on religious authority.

But is it right that this should be so?

Charles Taylor’s book does not, as far as I can tell, give a direct negative
answer to this question, but in a magisterial tracing of the many currents of
thought that have led to our “secular age” he does retrieve the sense that this
might be an open question. The central aim of his book, as he himself expresses
it, is “to study the fate in the modern West of religious faith in the strong
sense… the belief in transcendent reality, on the one hand, and the connected
aspiration to a transformation which goes beyond ordinary human flourishing on
the other.”

Books attacking belief in God are best-sellers, and religious belief and
practice have been on the defensive for many decades. What Taylor argues well is
that the current impulses toward the marginalising of religion stem from a
distorted idea of the respective roles of religion and science in the
development of our current mind-set, or more particularly, our “social
imaginary”, which he defines as the set of shared ideas that tell us how to
relate to others and what things are possible to be accomplished.

According to the simplistic narrative he attacks, science has been
responsible for all that is good and progressive in the modern world, while
religion has offered a series of superstitions and roadblocks in the way of
science. Opposition to Copernicus and Darwin are only two of the more
conspicuous examples.

This narrative obscures many vital pieces of a more complicated, but more
accurate, story of the roles of religion and science in the path from an age of
faith to that of secularised reason. The fuller narrative, Taylor argues, needs
to take account of the way in which religious belief inspired the search for
scientific truth, and the way in which both religious and atheistic thinking produced internal struggles, strands of which impacted on the other
group.

Fundamentalist Christianity has its counterpart in fundamentalist atheism,
each side convinced of its own truth and closed off from admitting any
possibility of truth on the part of the other view. Yet when their truth claims are put under the microscope neither
side is entitled to the certainty it professes.

Taylor gives many examples of atheistic dogmatism from French and
Russian revolutionaries, but I’ll add to his collection the brouhaha over the
famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial (to which Taylor alludes, though without
developing the example) in which a biology teacher in Tennessee was prosecuted
(successfully) for violating a statute against the teaching of evolution. Secular thinkers cheered the defeat accorded fundamentalist Christianity in the court
of public opinion. But few of the cheerers know that the book at the centre of the debate, A Civic
Biology
was gravely defective in treating as scientific fact the superiority of
the Caucasian race and promoting eugenic views based on bad science.

Among the especially valuable concepts Taylor employs, I would highlight his expression “exclusive humanism”. All too
often, we accept the term “humanism” to mean ethics without God, and since one
can have a highly laudable ethical set of views while not including belief in
God, this acceptance seems reasonable.

But Taylor rightly notes that for the most part what is laudable in humanism
is also compatible with belief in God. Moreover, belief in God gives a special
incentive to love and make sacrifices for our neighbour. So we need to
distinguish a humanism that includes belief in God from one that doesn’t,
instead of freighting theism with all the bad things that have come out of it,
while according it none of the good.Once we focus on the question: “What is it
that disbelief in God makes possible that belief will not allow?” we may find
that the humanism in question becomes less appealing. Using the word “humanism”
to describe beliefs that more accurately warrant the term “exclusive humanism,”
gives an unwarranted advantage to the unbeliever.

Throughout the book, Taylor produces arguments to show that ethical advances
have been generated by religious believers and are not simply the result of atheistic materialism.

We moderns are able to think about our individuality and our autonomy differently from the world before Rene Descartes and the rise of rationalism. Hence God is often viewed as subject to laws perceived as
necessary by the rational self. The God of Abraham yields to scientific
necessity, and Deism results. The world is created like clockwork. It’s not a
great step from there to wondering why God is needed at all, if science can tell us all
we need to know.

Taylor traces many strands of thinking that result in our contemporary
outlook. He is particularly interested in how it came to be that debatable matters came to be one-sidedly settled, not only in the minds of the
intellectual elite, but also in the thinking of the masses. Those with a
Christian training will recognise the old phenomenon of believing what one wants
to believe, captured in Luther’s notorious saying, “reason is a whore.” Popular culture extols the
kinds of things and way of life that Christianity treats as turning us away from
God.

Atheism leaves us with a bleak world when we contemplate our death.
Scientific materialism gives us a disenchanted world, along with the benefits of
removing superstitions. Some poets sought refuge in nature and beauty. The
French writer Albert Camus gives us one outlook in the stubborn refusal to
accept the comforts that belief in transcendence provides. Taylor looks at many
of the different responses to both theism and atheism in a sympathetic way, but
always with sufficient appreciation for the attendant difficulties so that no
final answer to the meaning of life emerges.

A recent visit to St Petersburg and the wealth of inspired art in the basilicas, particularly the Church of the Saviour of Spilt Blood, has reinforced my impression that Taylor has his finger on the pulse of our times. Russia has lived through an atheistic Communist phase and has rediscovered its inspirational roots with a new reverence for the treasures of its Orthodox past. Reverting to the name St Petersburg is one indication of this. But the Russian Museum also emphasises religious themes. It acknowledges the oppression of the serfs, but avoids any sense that the Revolution brought a new lasting vision. The invasion of capitalism has not succeeded any better, and one senses a search for a new vision, combined with an openness not seen for a long time.

This is a magnificent, very important study. It has its drawbacks, such as
untranslated words, repetition, presumptions about the reader’s background
knowledge, etc. The length is daunting but there is an excellent index, and
Google can help a lot with the rest. There are so many sources enriching this
work that it may be idiosyncratic to suggest some absences, but I did feel the
book would have profited from a glance or two at Kierkegaard, Levinas and
Jacques Ellul. There’s also a letter by Nietzsche in which he confesses to
admiration of Christianity but finds it too difficult. These other sources
would reinforce Taylor’s history of our social imaginary. The upshot is that this social
imaginary needs to be examined and re-examined in the light of how it came to be
what it is and where it is.

Randal Marlin teaches philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa.