varieties of secularism :: keynote address

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Series Index

Below are my notes from Charles Taylor’s presentation at the end of the conference a little more than a week ago. I’ve put a bit more effort into filling in the gaps of these notes to make them more intelligible than the notes from the previous sessions. Hopefully that effort pays off in increased understanding. [Why am I posting notes?]


Apologies for an “incomplete” book. [!] It’s unapologetically a master narrative—an attempt to tell the whole story. Master narratives are unavoidable because we all live within them. We all tell the story of our world (in however proscribed a manner) in order to “place” our lives in context. The only way to beat a bad master narrative is with a slightly better one. This book is an attempt to trace the master narrative of secularization, the book is introduced at a time when the old narratives were crumbling. Forty years ago many people expected us to have progressed beyond religion altogether. The more a society develops, so the story goes, the more secular (in the sense of atheistic) it becomes.

What was wrong with the “old” narratives of secularization is that they were subtraction stories. Once inhibitions to “secularity” (like superstition, disbelief in science, parochialism) are gotten rid of, then the secular simply comes to the surface, secularity is taken as “basic” or “natural” for humanity in a question begging way. In other words, the presumption of many people is that “rational” or “natural” human beings have no religious commitments; religious commitments are something added to humanity, an unnecessary accretion.

Against this kind of story Taylor asserts that we all “construct” a way of being in the world. What distinguishes modernity is not only what we have lost, but what we have created. Secularity is not the result of getting rid of the impediments to secularity, but rather is one way of constructing human social patterns among many.

The enchantment which was “un-done” by modernity (i.e. “disenchantment”) is not the same as the enchantment which is being reasserted in the present. Taylor is attempting to look back through history to find the “boundaries” at which we began to see things differently. We cannot go back. If by “re-enchantment” we intend to restore the possibility of naïve or unreflective belief in the transcendent comparable to what we imagine to be the case for people of the past, we will only be disappointed. Re-enchantment of that sort is a project that cannot be attained because we cannot simply change the way that we see the world; we have crossed a boundary which enables (and forces) us to see in a new way.

It is not totally clear what the boundary is between the spiritual and personal. In an enchanted world, the self is porous, and includes the possibility of things like possession by spirits. In our “self-understanding,” our “selves” are simply not porous in this way. We have buffered selves, and in that we have lost a sensibility and a sensitivity toward the transcendent in our daily operations. The difference lies not in ideas, the difference lies in (at least) two ways of experiencing the world.

The immanent frame:

What is a “social imaginary”: an attempt to describe the way in which a whole society or group understands what is acceptable, meaningful, and worthwhile. It is the understanding we share about society. It is what people have to have a grip on in order to make sense of their own actions. [This seems quite similar to what Taylor calls elsewhere the “background.”]

An example of a shift in social imaginary: 17th c. revolutions were justified by looking backwards—they were efforts at restoration. The American Revolution starts this way (the violated rights of English-folk rather than the dream of a glorious “land of the free”). But the Declaration justifies a revolution on the basis of a forward-looking stance. Revolutions today can only be justified publicly by articulating what they will accomplish; they are forward looking events. Our conception of “what justifies a revolution” has shifted. When did those shifts take place and what were the underlying logical steps that led to the shift?

Taylor’s use of the word “fullness” has been widely misinterpreted. Taylor only means to signify a quality of life that we all seek to attain. Our distinction between “higher” and “lower” points in our life (and our attendant desire to have more of the “higher” and less of the “lower”) points to what Taylor means by “fullness.” We all make these distinctions and make our life choices in these terms, regardless of what we have in mind when we think of something analogous to “fullness.” We fail to understand other people (especially Other people) when we fail to understand their particular notion of a motivating life-intensity (i.e. “fullness”).

The main thesis:
Reform Master Narrative (in Christendom): the attempt to bring the masses up to the ideal, real, best, most authentic, expression of Christianity. The first seeds of the RMN show up in the high medieval period. The RMN came to be seen as genuinely plausible. The RMN is the first seed of secularization in the N. Atlantic world. Attempting to bring everyone “up” to the higher expression of the faith changed the perception of the faith to those who were preached to. It made a distinction between “the way things are down here” and the way that they should be “up there” (in the higher, ideal sense). All of this leads to the immanent frame. What we think of as the Lower, (the way things are) is something can be understood on its own terms (and must be in order to be brought “up”). In the “old” world understanding things within our immanent frame simply would not have made sense.

Conditions of Belief:

The galloping multiplication of the “options” of belief. The presence of a multiplicity of plausible identity and belief structures makes living within any single account feel narrow, cramped, or implausible. In other words, it makes believing anything difficult.

Taylor writes as a Catholic, but he is trying to start a conversation with everyone. He is trying “explain” in a larger sense. Taylor’s kind of Catholic has a calling to understand very different perspectives, and especially the concept of fullness within those other perspectives.

We don’t understand ourselves until we drop the crutches of narratives that paint the other perspectives in negative terms. Until we cease to regard people who view the world in ways very different from our own as “irrational” or “unnatural” then we don’t authentically understand the degree to which our own views of rationality and naturalness are equally contextual. There are better and worse ways of seeing the world and we should talk about these, but our own views don’t actually grow any more plausible simply by denigrating the views of others without making at least minimal efforts to understand where they are coming from.

It is possible to build friendship across these boundaries, based on a sense of what motivates the other. Taylor is not looking for an “average” position that is somehow more foundational than distinct traditions (by means of transcending them—this is the myth of modernity). But an “agonistic” friendship across the boundaries is a worthwhile goal. “Agonistic” not because conversation ought to tend toward battle, but because we all come to the table thoroughly owning our own positions and intent on both understanding and being understood across difference (rather than around it…) A reconciliation across differences.

Is the book an apologetic? It can be read that way. And Taylor is speaking to his co-religionists along with many, many others. He’s not a big fan of “Catholicism from high places.” But the book is also bigger than an apologetic project for the faithful, it’s a book for all of us. We need enough people who have a gut sense that there is something valuable in the Other that merits an understanding across the boundaries of difference.