a secular age

The title of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s new book.

I’m only two chapters in and for my money it is one of the best books I have ever read.  Within the category of (Western) philosophy it’s right up there with Being and Time, Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, and The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

The work begins very simply (but profoundly) by asking what is it to live in a secular world?

Taylor articulates three different definitions of secularity:

1)The reduction of religion from the public sphere and decisions made on non-doctrinal basis.  (e.g. No Divine Right of Kings or State Church).

2)The secularization thesis:  i.e. that religion is an early phase of human development that will be outgrown into rationality.  Auguste de Comte, Karl Marx, and now Richard Dawkins.

3)[Taylor’s view] Secularity is about a world where one’s identity, view of the world, culture, etc. is chosen.  Or at least open to multiple viable options.

Counter to #1 would arguably be India.

Counter to #2 is the United States,where contrary to (some) left/secular fear-mongering and social con/right ignorance, the United States is not a Christian nation.  It is a secular nation, but has not followed the path of Comte’s secularization thesis as opposed to Western Europe which generally has.  [Canada being somewhere midway between W. Euro and USA].

What Taylor’s outlook does is allow one to trace the history (through narrative form as Taylor does) of secularity AND allow for multiple streams within the secular world.  It gets not at what people think or believe, but how they think what they think, how they come practically and philosophically to what it is they believe.

It is an irenic text.  While he does take Foucault seriously–even in certain ways out-Foucault-ing Foucault–the text, like Habermas, is overall a defense of modernity.  But this time from a devout Catholic Christian.  Not a naive, blushing, cheer-leading defense of modernity, but not a deconstructive pomo trashing of modernity either.

By undertaking an investigation into the feeling, the thought-world of secularity (both religious within secular and non-religious within secular), Taylor is light years ahead of the dumb faith-science debates.  It’s a deeper phenomenology of the conditions for belief, secularity, and the like.

I’ll do periodic posts as I work my way through it (700 pages or so).  Personal note: Taylor is deeply influenced by Catholic Social Thought, as I am.  He comes less from the Locke-J.S. Mill libertarian/utilitarian streak of individualist and more from the Catholic social thought strain of modernity.

But even those who are from the more Lockean-strain I think will find the book (I hope) illuminating.

Published in: on December 31, 2007 at 1:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

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