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Keeping a safe distance from religion


Secular Age Much of the contemporary debate about the place of religion in the West revolves around levels of belief and practice. Church leaders, academics and the media ask: What do people believe today compared with five years ago? And how is this change expressed in current religious practice? Various theories are offered in response, predominantly theories of decline — for example, that the rise of science has refuted faith.

In A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues that in the long run, this focus on trends in belief and practice does not adequately account for the secularity of the West. What has changed is far broader — the whole context of understanding in which our moral and religious lives take place; what he calls 'the conditions of belief'.

Several times he asks the reader how it is that in less than 500 years we have moved 'from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others'. His argument is that the framework of human self-understanding has changed during that time and both believers and non-believers now understand themselves differently than their ancestors did.

Taylor devotes a large part of A Secular Age to telling the story of the journey to the present. He covers the path from the 'enchanted' medieval age through the Enlightenment and on to the expressivist culture that emerged in the West in the 1960s.

A critical transition in this journey is the emergence of an 'exclusive humanism' in the 18th century, whereby it was possible for the first time for masses of people to conceive of a flourishing human life without reference to the divine. But this is a complex story: the emergence of exclusive humanism has Christian roots, and today exclusive humanism is simply one alternative among others.

So, where does Taylor's story end? What are the conditions of belief today? He sees us as 'cross-pressured' between extreme positions — orthodox religious belief (Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism etc.) on the one hand and hard-line materialist atheism on the other.

Not that everyone in our culture feels torn between these positions. Rather, we define ourselves in relation to these poles. They come to bear on a range of common human dilemmas, for example the tension between the aspiration to transcendence on the one hand and the cherishing of ordinary human desires on the other. In this tension, one side sees a relationship with the divine as the way to a flourishing human life whereas the other regards the divine as robbing humanity of fulfilment, which can only come through attention to ordinary desires.

I can only state this tension here: a full account of an argument that extends over almost 900 pages is beyond me! Perhaps Taylor's own words can sum up the broader tension: 'Our age is very far from settling in to a comfortable unbelief. Although many individuals do so, and more still seem to on the outside, the unrest continues to surface ... The secular age is schizophrenic, or better, deeply cross-pressured. People seem at a safe distance from religion; and yet they are moved to know that there are dedicated believers, like Mother Teresa.'

Taylor's analysis has profound implications for the churches. When some church leaders broadly reject our age for having abandoned faith, they not only misperceive reality, they ensure that their words will not lead questing hearers to faith.

And from almost the opposite perspective, a too-easy embrace of contemporary culture fails to appreciate the difficulty of the Christian call to transformation through the love of God. What's needed is a dialogical stance whereby the churches remain attentive to the action of the Spirit in our secular age while being ready to give voice to the gospel, so that it might light the path of those who search.

A Secular Age makes a major breakthrough. North American sociologist of religion Robert Bellah regards it as one of the most important books written in his lifetime because Taylor 'succeeds in recasting the whole debate about secularism'. That's high praise from someone who has spent his entire career studying the question. It's certainly worth a read.

James McEvoyJames McEvoy teaches at Catholic Theological College, Adelaide. He is convening a conference in Adelaide, 12–14 December, with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor on Religion in a Secular Age.




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Existing comments

Migration and global movement of people from less secular regions will undoubtedly affect the levels of western secularism in the future. Engleheart and Norris have some interesting stats in Sacred and Secular.

When considering secularism in western society we automatically think of the doom and gloom of less marriages, lower birthrates, same sex marriage etc. However, we forget that in the animal kingdom each of these lead to lower population counts = extinction.
So in the long run it will only be the religious people that are populating the earth!

Got to find a bright side to it all!

Christine McCullagh | 01 November 2007  

It's not necessarily science that drives people away from religion. Some people just look at religions, see that they are mutually incompatible, and even if they see some values in religion, do not find that sufficient reason to believe in something they see no evidence for.

Martin, York | 02 November 2007  

A great article and I will certainly read the book. The use of the word "schizophrenic" with dualistic connotations always bothers me. I know this is a popular understanding of the word, however, it is not what the psychiatric illness is and such popular usage of this term perpetuates misunderstandings in the general community. Schizophrenia is not split personality - such a being does not exist! People who suffer this illness struggle with many misconceptions of what their illness is and such popular usages of this term perpetuate the pain and misunderstanding that this group in the community has to bear. Schizophrenia affects the way that sufferers receive information through the senses. It is totally different from a rarer illness known as multiple personality. Does anyone else share my concern at the misuse of this term?

Philip Fitzgerald | 02 November 2007  

I have the same thoughts as Philip Fitzgerald about the use of the term schizophrenic in this article. The popular use of this term does perpetuate a meaning and a myth that people with a schizophrenic illness have split personalities. The stigma of having a mental illness is made more difficult by the amount of mis-information and perceptions of the community. Schizophrenia needs to be understood without having to filter the mixed messages that society fosters about it. In questioning people on the use of the term schizophrenia when describing a dualistic concept I have been told that they didn't mean it in a technical way. It is always a technical term and is always about schizophrenia and made worse because of the misdirected association with 'split personality' and fears of mental illness. Our community needs to develop awareness of mental illness and be educated to seek help if needed. To do this it is more helpful to know what mental health issues look like, what symptoms are and where to go for help. Whether it be depression, anxiety disorders, stress, a psychotic illness or another form of illness to break down some of the barriers that misinform would be a great step.
Thank you James for the enthusiastic article and Charles Taylor for the book, I'm sure it is a fine read of very complex and real faith challenges that we face in the secular world. Perhaps the questions about faith and the secular are what is needed to open the heart to what is meaningful and for what is hungered for in peoples lives..

Sue McGovern | 06 November 2007  

Well said James; Congratulations!
Am recently back from Japan. Had a fascinating pilgrimage and reflective few days in Nagasaki.

Anonymous | 06 November 2007  

One of the developments that has taken place in recent years in main line churches is the growth of spirituality in contrast to rational explanations about the existence of God. The ABC production of "The Abbey" well demonstrates the revival of Benedictine monasticism in Australia and the experiences of five women who spent five weeks in such an institution. At the parish level there has to be a balance between the charismatic and mystical aspects of "Faith" as well as the intellectual aspects of belief starting in infancy.

john ozanne | 09 November 2007  

"one side sees a relationship with the divine as the way to a flourishing human life whereas the other regards the divine as robbing humanity of fulfilment, which can only come through attention to ordinary desires. "

This is a clear example of the disconnect of the discussion between religion and atheism/agnosticism.

The use of the word 'desires' portrays non-believers as only rejecting a higher being in order to fulfil their own selfish wants. A more accurate portrayal would be to replace the word 'desires' with 'needs'.

Most atheists/agnostics do not believe in religion for the simple reason that they see no evidence to believe in the first place, not because they want to be free of moral constraints.

The root of the conflict between atheists and believers is generally caused when scientific facts are rejected solely on the basis of religious doctrine or when activities are deemed immoral simply on the basis of some interpretations of religious scripture.

This prevents real problems from being solved that can reduce human suffering (e.g. stem cell research), and perpetuates social stigmas against minorities (e.g. same-sex marriage).

All based on the authority of an unproven (and unprovable) higher power.

David McMillan | 14 November 2008