varieties of secularism :: comments (2) Taylor as apologist

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Series Index

There is a tension latent in Taylor’s work that becomes apparent when one attempts to situate his thought relative to secularization. Is A Secular Age advocating or critiquing secularity? Is reading A Secular Age likely to make a person more or less “secular?” No matter one’s inclination in reply to these questions, plainly the meticulous restraint of Taylor’s argument and his attentive and generous reading of every text mentioned will bear no facile, partisan answer. Taylor’s narratival argument cannot be flattened to platitude nor transformed into the endorsement of one simple trajectory. Secularization is the complex expression of a host of diverse forces before it is either “progress” or “disaster.” No one can inhabit faith naïvely in a secular age, nor can anyone credibly reduce religious belief to the persistence of delusion.

To be sure, the greatest part of Taylor’s project is to describe secularization with richly convincing detail; nevertheless, he is no disinterested party in the matter. Locating the poles of the tension in his argument will be instructive in expressing the value that I find in Taylor’s latest work.

In his paper, John Milbank argued that A Secular Age is a profoundly anti-sociological book that adds plausibility to faith by means of a profound historical and cultural apologetic. In his concluding comments, Taylor did not disagree with Milbank’s assessment, though he enumerated several ways in which his text is much more than simply an apologetic—for reasons I will discuss momentarily. Taylor’s text is only indirectly apologetic.

Taylor reserves his sharpest polemic comments for advocates of what he calls the “subtraction account.” He has little patience for those who see secularization as the stripping away of all the metaphysical dross that taints and obscures what is essentially human, some rational or natural core that underlies the confused visage of even religious people. And rightly so—positing secularization as the outcome of some inexorable progress (be it scientific, political, social, or economic) ignores the extent to which secularization is the expression of a whole network of contingent historical events and thought patterns, played out across large segments of society. When that context is left out of the picture, secularization conceals its own genealogy and purports an intimidating inevitability (by which its strongest proponents are especially seduced) that recasts religious allegiance as something parochial and antique.

Insofar as Taylor’s work exposes the clandestine sources of the secularizing impulses that reside within each of our minds, he tells a story that empowers believers to “see through” the forces that undermine faith. Secularization is the expression of cultural impulses—not the will of the Weltgeist. Genuine Christian faith (or any other form of religion) is no less inherently plausible than other culturally-bound expressions of the meaning and purpose of human life, including the convoluted and parasitic value system of reductive materialism. And insofar as many reductive modes of thinking remain—in one way or another—parasitic on religiously grounded worldviews for their ethical motivation, Taylor stands opposed to ideological secularism because it undermines the self-understandings that provide moral orientation and social coherence. On this level, Taylor’s project is a critique of secularization that deflates its pretensions of inevitability and thus, functions apologetically on behalf of believers. 

[This post outgrew its own britches, and thus, is continued in another installment]