#15 – A Secular Age by Charles Taylor (My 100 Favorite Books)

Taylor’s enormous book begins with a question: Why was belief in God taken for granted in the West in 1500 but highly questioned, if not even non-belief taken for granted, in 2000?  What changed?

In answering this question, Taylor argues that the common story does not provide a sufficient explanation.  Usually, so it goes, as science grows religion fades.  This is a “subtraction story” and Taylor dismisses it.  Instead, Taylor finds the roots of our move into a secular age beginning in the Protestant Reformation.  The medieval world was enchanted; there was power out there in things whether spirits in the forest of Jesus in communion bread.  Protestantism began the move to make religion more focused on internal things, from belief to experience.  Either way, once the only thing happening in the Eucharist, for example, is happening in your head, then it is a short step to dismissing God altogether.

That is just once facet of the story Taylor tells.  By the end, we find ourselves living in an imminent frame, a closed-universe with no supernatural beyond us.  Ever wonder why politics is so primary, with the huge motivation being to fix this world here and now.  Because in an imminent frame, we have no other world  beyond the here and now.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Taylor’s work is the recognition that we are all secular now.  To be secular is to live in a world with many options for belief or non-belief.  Even if you believe in Jesus, the way you believe is different than your predecessors centuries ago.  You believe in the midst or recognizing other, real options.  Further, even most believers are skeptical or miracles or the supernatural.

This book has been hugely influential in philosophical circles.  There have even been a number of books written for Christian pastors that seek to summarize what Taylor said in a more digestible reading.  If you can’t stomach reading an 800 page tome, it is worth trying Jamie Smith’s book that is essentially a summary of Taylor, How (Not) To Be Secular. That said, if you can take the time to work through Taylor,  it is worth it.  I have a yearning to read it again because I am sure there is so much I missed, or at least do not recall.

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