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What Does it mean to Live in a Secular Age

 By Duncan Roper


Asking the question ‘What does it mean to live in a secular Age?’ opens up a huge subject.  We will consider the matter here by introducing the subject as it has been tackled in the book A Secular Age (published in 2004) by the Canadian author, Charles Taylor. One important thing about Taylor’s book is that, in spite of its length and scholarly breadth, its contents are actually very relevant to all of us. To illustrate this we will begin with some down to earth comments that have an important bearing upon the question at issue.  


It may surprise you, for example, to realise that the almost axiomatic meaning of the word ‘secular’ as ‘non-religious’ is unique to the modern world. As such, because of the way in which the rest of the world has been so dominated by the colonialism of the West, it has contributed to the current climate of Islamist terrorism. These people believe that the West, by its promotion of secularism, has threatened their religion and way of life. They further believe that they have a divine mandate to retaliate. For their part, such atheistic secularists like Richard Dawkins [The God Delusion] and Sam Harris [The End of Faith] consider that this kind of Fundamentalism allied with the Creationist Fundamentalism prominent in the United States is of the very essence of religion and, as such, constitutes a threat to civilization.  Hence they, in their turn have embarked upon their own crusade ‘to get rid of religion.’

However, we need to begin by recognising that when the word ‘secular’ was used of the ‘secular clergy’ in mediaeval times, it had a different meaning. It referred to bishops, priests and other officers of the church who lived and worked amongst people, in towns and cities, whose main pre-occupations were with the secular pursuits of farming, milling, tinkering, tailoring, shoe-making and exploring the ideas of Aristotle and the Bible.  The word ‘religious’ referred to those persons who lived their lives in a religious/monastic setting.  But even their lives were generally not all prayer.  Much of their waking life was concerned with both work in the field and the garden as well as in the reading and writing of manuscripts in the context of a monastic community. 

In the course of his timely investigation of the subject in his book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor gives three slightly different takes on the word ‘secular.’ The first of these, ‘secular1’, relates to ‘the classical’ background illustrated by the ‘secular clergy’ and the ‘religious orders’ just discussed.  In this conception ‘the secular’ is distinguished from ‘the sacred’ in the sense of ‘the communal expression of worship’.  We might say that ‘Priests’ attend to the sacred, while ‘butchers, bakers, politicians, farmers and scientists’ carry out secular work. From this point it is only a short step to describe ‘the sacred’ as religious and the secular as ‘non-religious.’  Although Taylor himself doesn’t make the point, we might seriously ask ourselves the question ‘Is it not the case that these secular callings of the baker, the banker, the garbage collector, the scientist, the businessperson etc are all callings to serve and worship God in the six days of the week we don’t usually go to church?

By ‘secular2’ Taylor seeks to identify a more modern definition of the secular as a-religious (as opposed to both religious and anti-religious) that carries with it the connotations of a ‘neutral’, ‘unbiased’ and ‘objective’ perspective upon such secular spheres as politics, education, welfare, science, the arts, commerce, farming, philosophy and technology as they are pursued by all citizens, regardless of religiousness. This kind of ‘secular2’ meaning has, in its wake, spawned the idea of what Taylor describes as an ‘exclusive humanism’ as a world view that seeks to account for all of the meaning and significance of human life in a way that dispenses with ‘the divine’ or ‘the transcendent’.

He very helpfully emphasises the point that religiousness, in the last three or four centuries in the Western world, has been virtually reduced to beliefs functioning, for all  intents and purposes, at an intellectual level that does not actually involve the actual living of the fullness of life.  This, in turn, gives rise to Taylor’s ‘secular3’ meaning, as it speaks of our age as one that involves the mutual interaction (and contest) between ‘religious’ and ‘secular2’ life perspectives in which ‘secular3’ connotes the reality that large numbers of people (especially in the Western world) are more than happy to live out the fullness of their lives in ways that dispense with any ‘openness to the divine or the transcendent.’ Furthermore, a significant feature of Taylor’s project is that of trying to trace the historical unfolding of this kind of ‘secular3’ meaning. 

At a later stage in the development of this website, we hope to include an extended review of Taylor’s book as one of several substantial contributions to understanding our Secular Age.   For now we simply refer you to the various offerings included here, mentioning that a very  important feature of our understanding of the gospel is its appreciation that ‘secular concerns’ need to be considered as ‘spiritual’ if not religious. By this we mean that, normatively, the human heart should be open to the transcendent work of the Holy Spirit directing the regeneration of human hearts, as the centre of what makes us human, opening them up to a whole-hearted vision for serving God in all of life.  If our hearts remain closed in this sense, then this means that we are then open to spiritual or religious forces of an idolatrous character. It is in this way that the ‘secular’ concerns of daily life are infused with some kind of all-pervading religiousness. This is very helpfully exemplified in Taylor’s discussion of the way in which both ‘secular3’ and reformational (generally speaking what Taylor refers to as transformational) are related to mainstream secularization theories. Thus, he writes:

So we could zero in on the following proposition as the heart of 'secularization': modernity has led to a decline in the transformation perspective. So far orthodox secularization theorists would agree with me, even if they have no interest in singling out transformation as a central issue. So what beef do I have with (orthodox) secularization theory?

A difficulty in this whole discussion is that there is some unclarity as to what exactly the 'secularization' thesis amounts to. There are in fact, thinner and wider versions. What I'm ca1ling the mainstream secularization thesis might be likened to a three-story dwelling. The ground floor represents the factual claim that religious belief and practice have declined, and that 'the scope and influence of religious institutions' is now less than in the past. The basement contains some claims about how to explain these changes. In Bruce's case, [Bruce is one of the mainline secularization theorists] the account is in terms of social fragmentation (including what is often called 'differentiation'), the disappearance of community (and the growth of bureaucracy), and increasing rationalization.

Bu this does not exhaust the richest versions. These add a storey above the ground floor, about the place of religion today. Where has the whole movement left us? What is the predicament, what are the vulnerabilities and strengths of religion and unbelief today? Here we are in the domain that I have designated secularity3, and of course, it is the answers in this domain, the upper storey, that interest most people, non-scholars, but not only them. [Taylor, A Secular Age, pp431-432]

Suffice it to say Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age provides a very valuable overall assessment of the advent of the dominant secularity of our age.  As such it provides a very good platform from which to seriously consider a response to the climate of our age that is reformational or transformative – in the sense that its spiritual roots are genuinely transcendent, arising from the work of the grace of God through the Holy Spirit’s working in our hearts and lives in the day-to-day circumcising of our proud and stony hearts to bring forth the fruit of the gospel in all areas of life. The vision of the Dawkins’s and the Harris’s of our time is sharply two-edged. On the one hand it clearly exposes the shallowness of much of ‘religious fundamentalism’.  On the other hand, this vision is thoroughly mistaken in its claim that this kind of fundamentalism is symptomatic of what all religion is really all about.  In this respect, they also fail to see the extent to which their own outlook is the most rabid example of ‘religious secularism’ on the market of ‘religious’ options today. Although he has not come to the point of exposing it in this way, Charles Taylor’s conception of secular3 does connote the idea that ‘exclusive humanism’ in its radical denial of the reality of any transcendent dimension to human existence does entail a religious claim to the origins and meaning of human life. Whether we view this as non-belief or a version of belief  (one that believes that we can dispense with the human dimension of life transcending ‘the secular’ ) is a secondary question. 

The standpoint of this website is one that proposes a response to the secularism of our age by suggesting that ‘the new atheism’ of people like Dawkins and Harris should be appreciated as a another version of fundamentalism. Indeed it may be construed as ‘a religious’ form of secular fundamentalism that has all too much in common with those who have incurred their wrath. Taylor’s analysis is a lot more incisive in its implicit exposure of the though inadequacy of all of this.  By our actions rather than our words, we need to make clear that the religious character of the ancien regime of Western Europe was not Biblical, and that the alternative vision offered by both their secularism, as well as the Islamic and Christian fundamentalism they criticise, all fall a long way short of the kind of vision that is capable of dealing with the sin and complexity of the modern world.  

More importantly, in developing a transformational (reformational) alternative response, we should demonstrate that, by the actual living out of such a stance, we recognise that actions speak louder than words.  This may be tall order, but it is nonetheless one that comes from Our Master himself: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:43-48].


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