Smith: How (Not) to be Secular

November 25, 2015

smith-taylorHow (Not) to be Secular
Reading Charles Taylor
James K.A. Smith
(Eerdmans, 2014)
160 p.

It was the toast of many a publishing season: people were seen hunched over it on the subway each morning, others absentmindedly wandered into traffic while poring over its pages, neighbourhood book clubs spontaneously formed so that readers could share their insights, and Facebook was flooded with pithy quotations — I speak, of course, of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Alas for me. As much as I might wish to find my place within that circle of satisfied readers, I have had to take a sobering look at my circumstances and accept that a 900 page text on culture and philosophy is not a realistic ambition for me at present.

And so, instead, I have turned to this attractively slim précis, in which James K.A. Smith takes the reader by the hand and guides him through the various stages of the argument of that unattainable magnum opus.

A Secular Age is, in part, an historical analysis of how Western culture became “secular” during the past five hundred years or so, and, in part, an analysis of what that secularity consists in and feels like for those who are living through it, and, in part, a critique of the secular age and its particular pieties. I have placed “secular” in quotation marks here (but not hereafter) because, as Taylor points out, the word has multiple senses, and he intends it in a particular sense. There is an older sense of secular (which Taylor calls secular_1) which was used simply to distinguish something from the sacred, without necessarily implying any opposition: things of this world, such as politics, agriculture, and friendships could be described as secular_1. Pushing the boundaries a little, people even used to speak of “secular priests”, meaning priests not affiliated with a religious order. But a second sense of “secular” (predictably enough, secular_2) gradually developed which was conceived as the realm of neutrality and objectivity with respect to religious or metaphysical claims. Yet Taylor points to a third sense of secular — secular_3 — which he takes to describe a society in which religious belief has become actively contested, and our age is “a secular age” in this third sense.

To begin with, Taylor wants to challenge the way we think about our secular age. There is a tendency today to believe that secular society is just what remains when religion, superstition, and credulity are stripped away. Its principles are thought to be obvious and clear to any rational person; they are, in some sense, the “natural” principles governing social and intellectual life when those are unsullied by irrational traditions. (President Obama nicely illustrated this in his remarks following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which he described as “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share”. Granted, this was boilerplate liberalism, but that’s just the point: he reflexively described his own values as universal, which, in light of the obvious fact that they are not actually universal, can only make sense if they are conceived of as somehow the natural or default position.)

But Taylor sees secularity in quite a different way, and the first part of his book is dedicated to describing why. He argues that Western secularity is an achievement, a view with a positive history of its own, with its own particular assumptions and values. It is not a default position for rational people, but rather a contingent position that happens to thrive in a particular time and place. I can but sketch the basic outlines of this constructive process by which modernity emerged from the medieval world: whereas for medieval people things in the natural world were experienced as in some sense signs, grounded in a higher reality and full of meaning, the modern view is determinedly disenchanted. For modernity, meaning retreated from things into minds, any intrinsic purposes being expelled. The interior life became impermeable to the natural world or to higher realities (giving birth to what Taylor calls “the buffered self”). Society dissolved into a collection of individuals (what Taylor calls “the great disembedding”). The conception of the good life ceased to be oriented toward the transcendent. This general withdrawal from a world of intrinsic meanings and purposes Taylor, exhibiting a kind of genius for neo-logisms, dubs “excarnation”. But since people cannot actually live without meaning, modernity substituted for the realm of intrinsic meanings a cultural project to locate meaning immanently by reference to moral notions such as “benificence” or “mutual support”, all of which Taylor gathers up under the umbrella of “exclusive humanism” — exclusive of the transcendent, presumably.

The overall effect of all these changes — changes in the way the world is actually experienced — has been a shift in the plausibility conditions for religious belief. For many people it was, and is, no longer obvious that belief in God is compelling or even responsible. At the very least, religious belief and practice are contested in the modern world.

Contested, but not routed, because for Taylor it is characteristic of our age that everyone’s position is experienced as doubtful. Believers realize that their account of things is one option among others. Unbelievers, meanwhile, experience a sense of loss, a feeling that there must be “something more”. We feel the strange pressure of an absence:

“our actions, goals, achievements, and the like, have a lack of weight, gravity, thickness, substance. There is a deeper resonance which they lack, which we feel should be there.” (Taylor)

The origin of this sense of loss is ambiguous on Taylor’s account. It might be an “historical” pressure, simply a residue from old habits, or it might be a real “transcendent” pressure, caused by what Taylor calls “solicitations of the spiritual”. In any event, these “cross-pressures”, which constantly buffet against our sense of secular complacency or religious security, are, in Taylor’s view, experienced by nearly everyone, and the prevalence of such experience Taylor takes to be the defining feature of our secular age.

In his view, cross-pressures arise from three principal sources: the experience of personal agency (“the sense that we aren’t just determined, that we are active, building, creating, shaping agents”); from ethics (the sense that our ethical motives are more than just disguised biological instincts); and from aesthetics (the sense that art has meaning and significance for us). Now, it seems to me that these cross-pressures, so enumerated, pertain especially, or even exclusively, to the secular side, for it is precisely there that determinism, relativism, and meaninglessness are most likely to find a footing, and so it precisely there that the experience of freedom, goodness, and beauty can trouble one’s complacency.

Indeed, if I have understood Taylor’s argument correctly there is an interesting asymmetry between believers and unbelievers when it comes to cross-pressures. For the believer they arise largely because of social factors — roughly speaking, there are atheists and agnostics to contest belief, and a political order has been erected without reference to religion, which unsettles the confidence believers have in the necessity and reliability of their religious traditions and experiences — while for unbelievers the cross-pressures arise directly from the intrinsic features of human experience. It would seem to imply that a religious society untroubled by cross-pressures is a theoretical possibility, but that a parallel unruffled secular society is not. But perhaps this is too simple, for the many transitions that drew the modern world out of the medieval did indeed affect the way that religious believers conceive of and relate to God and to the traditions to which they belong, and the overall tendency of those changes has unmistakably been to undermine or occlude the religious ethos. Religious faith today is more of an achievement, more subject to struggle and trials, than it was for our ancestors, and this is so not just because my neighbour is an atheist. But I am not convinced that the sources of cross-pressure which I listed in the previous paragraph are relevant to the believer’s discomfort.

The next stage of Taylor’s account features another memorable phrase: “the nova effect”. The idea is this: in a secular age, as both faith and doubt become contested, there arises a cultural “explosion of options for finding (or creating) significance”, or what he describes also as “a galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane”. The dynamics of the cultural cross-pressures drive the creation of a host of alternatives to both orthodoxy and unbelief. For the most part, these alternatives seek a remedy for the sense of loss, but do so within the immanent frame (that is, without reference to the transcendent), as in the Romantic notion of “the sublime”. Indeed, the Romantic movement in the nineteenth-century can, I think, be fairly understood as an instance, and a particularly impressive and important one, of this attempt to recover meaning apart from transcendence by investing the arts and human feelings with the highest ideals and significance.

In contemporary society, “spiritual but not religious” can reasonably be understood as a rubric under which the nova effect continues to generate tailor-made substitutes for religion. In a world sundered from transcendent sources of meaning and authority, the spiritual quest is left without referents, and people feel justified in finding their own path to whatever meaning and significance they discern. Hence arises the topsy-turvy notion that one can pick and choose to adhere to those elements of a religious tradition that make a personal appeal, and disregard the rest. “Authenticity” is in the ascendent, and the religious impulse is turned inward to serve the individual, his interests, and desires, adorning them with blossoms plucked from the vineyard of the Lord.

It is also possible, of course, that one of the options produced by the nova effect is a return to traditional religion, as cross-pressures propel one back toward the transcendent. This could be seen, and even intended, as a rejection of the nova effect and all its empty promises. But, as Taylor stresses, things are not so simple, for even those who want to reject this view of things are nonetheless embedded within it, and must contend with it. Given that expressive individualism is an option, it can be rejected only by choosing to reject the priority of choice, which, at the very least, puts one in a paradoxical position. Which is a rather sad thought, but it highlights the difficulty: we cannot escape the disenchanted world; we live in it.


Part of the value of Taylor’s book, it seems to me, is that it introduces a set of terms that can be used to talk about the world we’re in, and among the most useful is a distinction he makes between a “take” and a “spin”. A take is “an over-all sense of things” that “anticipates or leaps ahead of the reasons we can muster for it” (Taylor); I think it would be fair to describe it as an “interpretation” of evidence, somewhat tentative in nature but careful and honest. A spin, on the other hand, is characterized by overconfidence and brusqueness, a dismissal of the complexities of the situation. 

Taylor deploys this distinction to good effect when considering attitudes toward transcendence in our secular age. We can be either open to transcendence, or we can be closed, but in either case we can adopt a take or a spin. Taylor himself has a take on an open frame: he is a practicing Catholic, but he is aware of and interested in the cross-pressures that he feels. But there are others who have a spin on an open construal of the world: they are dismissive of the real difficulties that a religious sensibility faces in our culture; they are perhaps combative with respect to the surrounding culture and uncomfortable with doubt. Similarly for those with a closed construal of things: there are those, as I said earlier, for whom the secular view is “just the way things are”; this is a spin on closure. Taylor argues that it is “hegemonic in the Academy”, and not uncommon beyond. But the fourth quadrant of this little chart is occupied by those who have a take on a closed frame. They are oriented toward the immanent, but are aware of “dispatches from fullness” that hint at deficiencies in their own position. (An honest question: who fits that description?)

Having laid out these distinctions, Taylor devotes a considerable number of pages to interrogating the secular confidence that a closed construal is “obvious” or “natural”. In our culture tendencies toward a closed construal are reinforced by what he calls “closed world structures”, which place constraints or pressures on our construals. These “closed world structures” pretend to be discoveries, but are actually creations, and they are typically value-laden. For example, most of the “closed world structures” of modernity rely on associating modernity with “adulthood” and alternatives to modernity with “infantile” notions like authority and comfort. Such associations coax one toward a modernist affiliation, for who wants to be childish?

Other, deeper, “closed world structures” include a false dichotomy between religion and humanism, philosophical materialism, which denies the existence of the transcendent and claims for itself the authority of science, and modern epistemology, which structures knowledge in such a way that inferences to the transcendent stand at the most remote and tenuous position relative to what can be known with certainty. “The inclination to believe…is no longer the impetus in us towards truth, but has become rather the most dangerous temptation to sin against the austere principles of belief-formation” (Taylor). I won’t go into detail, but I think the idea is clear. We stand at the far end of an immense cultural project to make a closed construal seem natural, and it is little wonder that it succeeds to a great extent.

What is perhaps surprising is that a closed construal still has chinks in its armour. Taylor devotes the final sections of the book to a critique of our secular age, drawing attention to its weaknesses and highlighting those spaces where it is susceptible to “fullness”, which is his term for a kind of rumour of glory, an echo or image within our immanent frame of the transcendent realm beyond it. It is here that Taylor’s Catholicism is most evident, for, as Smith helpfully points out, his critique typically begins with him “levelling the playing field” by describing how both secularism and Christianity face similar problems, and then arguing that Christianity deals more effectively with them.

For example, both Christianity and secular modernity acknowledge that not all is well with the world, but one of the principal transitions in modernity has been from seeing evil as sin to seeing it as sickness. This was supposed to be a liberation from feelings of guilt, but its practical consequence has been that therapy has been translated from the moral plane to the technical plane; instead of submitting to a priest one now submits to a therapist, and personal responsibility has been replaced by a sense of victimization. Which is better?

Or, to take another example: a standard modernist critique of religion is that it suppresses or mutilates human desires in pursuit of some transcendent good. But Taylor points out that the same charge can be made of secularism, which also has moral aspirations which require the discipline and denial of desires. The problem, in fact, is more acute for secularism because all of the pressure is “on us” to succeed; if we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Having surveyed a number of such cases, Taylor comes around again to the possibility, and desirability, of religious conversion. He considers several notable examples of “those who broke out of the immanent frame”, or at least moved from a closed take to an open one, including Illich, Maritain, Peguy, Havel, and Hopkins — which is a pretty good list. Despite the hazards of this turn to the transcendent, outlined earlier, he finally endorses it not just as a possible course, but as the most fully reasonable one:

“In our religious lives we are responding to a transcendent reality. We all have some sense of this, which emerges in our identifying and recognizing some mode of what I have called fullness, and seeking to attain it. Modes of fullness recognized by exclusive humanisms, and others that remain within the immanent frame, are therefore respondent to transcendent reality, but misrecognizing it. They are shutting out crucial features of it. So the structural characteristic of the religious (re)conversions that I described above, that one feels oneself to be breaking out of a narrower frame into a broader field, which makes sense of things in a different way, corresponds to reality.” (Taylor)

And that, it seems to me, is a good place to stop.


Or nearly so. As I said at the beginning, I didn’t actually read Taylor’s book; I read Smith’s summary, and so everything I’ve said here has been filtered through him. I found his book, which would ideally be read alongside Taylor’s book, to be clear and well-structured. He has an accessible style, and seems to know what he’s talking about. I am grateful for his book, which has allowed me to learn about, and learn from, a rather important contribution to the ongoing conversation about our secular age, and all without breaking a sweat.

4 Responses to “Smith: How (Not) to be Secular”

  1. Jim Says:

    Broadly speaking, this seems a fair summary of Taylor (its been awhile since I’ve read a Secular Age and, like you, circumstances militate against my going back through it). What I’d add is that the last third of the book, which is really an odd but genuine Catholic apologic, is probably the weakest part. The historical analysis is brilliant, albeit hard to pin down with precision, but as it moves out of social analysis into theology I felt the argument really trailed off.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I remember you saying as much last year when the topic came up over drinks, lake-side. Perhaps the book would have been stronger if the apologetics had been left out — but it’s not a magnum opus until one gets everything in.

  3. Sweden Doug Says:

    Thanks for this review, Craig, There is a lot being written over here these days about the secular, with a guiding thesis that we may not be as secular as we think. I might try to take on Taylor. Recently, I read T.S. Eliot’s “The Idea of a Christian Society.” Have you read that? An interesting read in light of the times. Merry Chris…uh I mean …Happy Holidays! Doug

  4. cburrell Says:

    Doug, I’ve got a volume of Eliot’s essays that has been languishing in neglect for years now. Maybe I’ll get to it in 2016.

    It’s good to hear from you. I wish you and yours all the best in this non-specifically festive season.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: