secular_age.jpgNormally, when one sits down to read a book hailed by a figure such as Robert Bellah as “one of the most important books to be written in [his] lifetime,” one expects a methodical survey of an intellectual terrain. One of the most striking things about Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is thus its colloquial, almost chatty character. Instead of being forced to sit through a dry lecture, it’s as if one had the good fortune to share drinks at a bar with an exceptionally erudite friend who took the opportunity to tell you what he’s been thinking about lately. We should be so lucky as to have such drinking buddies.

Having now read the book, I’m inclined to think that, in this case, form follows substance: contrary to much sociological writing on religion stemming from Weber, A Secular Age focuses on the nature and background of contemporary religious experience – on the kind of experience of the transcendent one can have in our world (that is, the world of Latin Christendom). Leaving practically no area of humanistic scholarship or human experience untouched, Taylor argues that we have arrived, during the last 500 years or so, at an unprecedented juncture in human affairs. We have exchanged a world in which the transcendent was a taken-for-granted aspect of experience, and unbelief a problematic option, for a world in which belief and unbelief are at least equally plausible, and the option of a purely immanent, “exclusive humanism” entirely possible – even, perhaps, preferable for most people. Spiritually speaking, the very water in which we swim has changed profoundly and ineluctably.

In demonstrating that this is the case, Taylor has transformed the contemporary debate – now much warmed as compared to, say, the period before 1989 – over the meaning of “secularization.” He has shifted the focus of our attention from questions about the supposedly waning “public role” of religion and the possible decline of religious belief to a question concerning our experience of the world. For my money, he deftly captures the sense that, for wide segments of the Western world, it is perfectly acceptable to hold an outlook that seeks no further, in spiritual terms, than the enhancement of human flourishing. Indeed, the destination Taylor describes seems a good deal like the world that Durkheim adumbrated when he wrote, in the context of the Dreyfus affair, that “man has become a god for man and… he can no longer create other gods without lying to himself.”

Despite all the nuance and detail in Taylor’s presentation of his case, however, I wonder whether A Secular Age won’t have one baneful unintended consequence. Its characterization of a world “of” and a world “after” the transcendent suspiciously recalls similar developmental dichotomies in the history of social thought – from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, from traditional to modern, from mechanical to organic (solidarity), etc. Taylor’s invocation of a world that is without any necessary commitment to the transcendent is fair enough. But I fear that it is likely to entrench those who encounter its argument (and at 776 pages of text, I suspect A Secular Age is going to be a book most people have heard about rather than read themselves) in the view that the old days were straightforwardly god-fearing and the “modern” world godless – for better or worse.

This would be an unfortunate outcome, since the present reconsideration of the concept of secularization offers potentially enormous prospects for new research. One can perhaps predict two general directions this new research will take. First, and already very much underway, is the question of the extent to which the contemporary period is, in fact, marked by a decline among Westerners in attachment to worldviews that transcend this world. Here the contrast between “spirituality” and “faith” takes center stage. While we may be talking about a re-orientation of the transcendent, the drift toward “believing without belonging” offers striking parallels to the weakened attachment to established social institutions more generally. The other tack that researchers are likely to take is to explore more fully the period before, say, 1500 in order to discern the extent to which unbelief really was a novel development.

In short, the historical trajectory of religious belief will come in for intensified scrutiny in order to assess the degree to which we’ve really moved from a world “of” to a world “after” the transcendent. Sociologists will not be well-equipped to undertake the historicization of (un)belief, yet it will be essential for them to assimilate the fruits of this research if they are not to persist in untenable generalizations about social change. Accordingly, we should all be looking forward to the results of Robert Bellah’s explorations of religious evolution. Even if they ultimately support Taylor’s perspective, they will form a crucial counterpoint that will help us make sense of secularization – a notion which, despite much need for qualification, ain’t dead yet.