Secularity Was Not Built in a Day

Last month, I led a Book Club through James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, itself a summary of the much larger book, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. There were so many lessons culled from those pages–most of which I am still processing and will be in the months and years to come. And yet, the biggest takeaway for me was how Taylor described the “feel” and cause of our current secular existence.

Taylor challenges the story of our cultural and philosophical moment, affirming that we did not stumble or trip into our secular age. Secularity is not the “neutral” space of human existence once all forms of power, influence, control, and superstition are done away with. Rather, secularity is a cultural and philosophical achievement. The gravity of human progress does not necessitate secularity. We’ve had to build it.

Secularity: A Fall or Climb?

We first need to remember that when we talk about “secularity”, we’re not talking about some sort un-religious, “neutral” public space. A society is “secular” (in our sense) when disbelief in God becomes a viable option. We take for granted that the vast majority of humans in history (and even in the non-Western world today!) have no comprehension of such a world.

But this isn’t due to ignorance. As Charles Taylor tells us (by way of James Smith), “secularity” isn’t just a lack of belief, but rather an emergence of other alternative ways of being human in the world. As Smith puts it,

So it wasn’t enough for us to stop believing in the gods; we also had to imagine significance within an imminent frame, to imagine modes of meaning that did not depend on transcendance…. The secular is not simply a remainder [after belief is subtracted]; it is a sum, created by addition, a product of intellectual multiplication.

If this is true, then to tell the story of how we went “from a time (in, say, 1500) in which atheism was virtually unthinkable to a time (in 2000) when theism is almost unbelievable”, we shouldn’t focus on when certain beliefs fell out of style, but rather when certain things were added to human experience that made disbelief a realistic option.

In other words, instead of trying to see how the world “fell” into secularity, we need to start seeing it as an accomplishment; something into which humanity had to climb.

So what changed? We can’t see how we got to our world today simply be recounting theoretical movements. We have to talk about how it felt to be human and how that changed as time went on. Taylor gives us five “elements” that, when added to the cultural air we breathed, started to create a world of disenchantment and disbelief.

The Climb of the “Buffered Self”

1. A Meaningful Mind. Premodern humans believed the world was “infused” with meaning, significance, and power. If you wanted to experience fullness and meaning, you had to have an openness to the world around to connect with it.  With modernity, “meaning” moved from the world around us to being within our own minds. Things were only “meaningful” in so much as we ascribed it to them. We became very interior and rather than being “porous” to the world around us, we become closed-off and “buffered”. Our existence and pursuit of fullness moved from the world around us, to the world within us.

2. The Social Fabric Tears. The premodern self was not just connected and open to the world, but also towards their human relationships. You had to be vulnerable to the people, institutions, and communities around you, because that is where you exercised your humanity–not in your own head and private interior life. This is why being labeled a heretic was such a big deal. Atheism was not just a rejection of God, but a rejection of the society in which you were embedded. But if we all just live in our own heads, then what I believe should have no bearing on your life, right? Live and let live!

3. The Good Life is Now. There was “a tension between what ‘eternity’ required and what the mundane vagaries of domestic life demanded.” We experienced the responsibilities of daily life as having some implication for eternity. The Church calendar and weekly worship were not just things to shape our individual private experiences, but connected us to eternity in some mysterious way.  In modernity, this tension is broken. When the tension breaks, you have religious puritans and fundamentalists rise who cast off the mundane for eternity; and you have others who cast off eternity and to find ultimate significance in the here and now.

4. Back to the Future. This new modern self also dramatically affects how we experience Time. While we experience it in linear, chronological tick-tock fashion, our ancestors believed it had some higher dimension that was almost “thematic”. Taylor summarizes the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997.” There was a kinship across time and space that people shared with one another. But now, in our buffered existence, “nothing higher impinges upon our calendars–only the tick-tock of chronos, and the self-imposed burdens of our ‘projects’.”

5. From “Creation” to “Nature”. The last key ingredient in the mixing bowl of our secular age was how we viewed the natural world. We went from living in a cosmos where the whole of reality was bigger than the sum of its natural parts, to a “universe” where it was all sustained and created by way of mechanisms within itself. Taylor concludes that this shift “makes it possible to now imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself, an autonomous, independent ‘meaning’ that is unhooked from any sort of transcendent dependence.”

Tomorrow we will look at these and other lessons to see what it might look like for us to live faithful in our secular age.


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