The bad faith of the secular age

Mark Vernon
15 November 2007

Recently, I spent an afternoon talking with someone about homosexuality. We had been brought together because of our opposing views. I am pro-gay, pro-civil partnerships, and pro-inclusion on gay adoption. He believes homosexuals are in danger of burning forever in hell. The odd thing about our difference of views was that we were otherwise pretty indistinguishable. My interlocutor was white, middle-aged, male and British - as I am myself. That we happened to be sitting in a teashop in Windsor, as he conjured up images of the flames of damnation, only increased my cognitive dissonance. He was a fundamentalist and yet, otherwise, almost entirely like myself.

This encounter illustrates what Charles Taylor, in his brilliant new study A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), believes to be the dominant feature of the contemporary west. The secular age is one of radical pluralism. We live in a world in which every day we rub up against people with very different worldviews to our own - theistic, atheistic, agnostic; Christian, Muslim, Hindu - and of every conceivable variety in between.

This ease of confrontation in itself would mark our age as challenging. It becomes threatening, and violent, since in the secular age it is also quite possible to imagine ourselves changing worldview. Before modern times, a Christian might have met, say, an atheist, but they could no more have thought of becoming one than changing their sex. Today, such radical changes are entirely viable. These cross-pressures are a defining characteristic of our sense of self. They are the pressures that are tearing the Anglican church apart. They are the pressures that have led the United Kingdom to breed its own suicide-bombers. They are the pressures that lead some to believe we are on course for a clash of civilisations.

A missing dimension

How has this come about? After all, with the Enlightenment, reason and prosperity were supposed to initiate a virtuous spiral of cooperation and progress. Taylor believes that what is at fault with such a vision is the theory of secularisation that lies behind it. It is a "subtraction" theory of secularisation - the idea that what science has achieved in the modern world is a stripping away of needless, primitive superstitions revealing the essential, rational core of humankind. This is wrong. Rather, says Taylor, secularisation is a paradigm shift. Its origins lie within religion itself, particularly in the Reformation drive to collapse the difference between the "higher flourishing", implicit in the religious lives of monks and priests, and the ‘lower flourishing' of lay people engaged in everyday life.

Mark Vernon is a writer. His most recent book is After Atheism: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life (Palgrave, 2007). His website is here Also by Mark Vernon in openDemocracy:

"The politics of friendship" (29 December 2006)

"The life of the child: being friends, being good" (8 March 2007)

"Social networks: after privacy, beyond friendship" (24 October 2007)

To put it another way, the reformers were anthropocentric. During the 18th century this immanent dimension to life came to dominate, not least with the rise of deism that conceived of human beings living in a benign moral order designed by God. The central ethic of contemporary secular atheism, that rational individuals should constructively engage in a society of mutual benefit, is the direct successor of this optimism. The distant God of deism is easy to drop when the window onto transcendence has been closed.

However, religion lives on because people's desire for the transcendent is irrepressible. Consider the contemporary crisis of meaning, the modern malaise and arguably unique in history. (After all, in the pre-modern enchanted world, the problem, if anything, was an over-determination of meaning, what with spirits abounding and salvation to be won.) Now though, although much is compulsory in terms of our behaviour, little is genuinely compelling in terms of being experienced as an infinite inner demand, as the philosopher Simon Critchley has put it (see Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance [Verso, 2007]. Alternatively, in spite of being able to embark upon projects that are fulfilling in themselves - work, family, leisure - many people still feel something fundamental is missing. The crisis of meaning is at root a crisis of transcendence.

The various anti-humanist movements are as indicative of this as is the rise of conservative religion. They share, with atheistic humanism, the conviction that life and meaning must be found within an immanent frame of reference. But believe that the disciplining nature of Enlightenment life, and the demands of cooperation, are deadening of the human spirit. Hence, for example, Nietzsche celebrated the Dionysian. "Anti-humanism is not just a black hole, an absence of values, but also a new valorization of death, and sometimes violence", Taylor writes. "And some of the fascination it re-articulates for death and violence reminds us forcefully of many of the phenomena of traditional religion."In a fascinating and rich discussion, this analysis enables Taylor to account for many things. For example, how time has changed in the modern world. Before, time was hierarchical and gathered at special moments like holy days; time could also burst open with chaos at carnivals and festivals - feasts of social reversal. Now, time is linear and instrumental, and therefore readily experienced as flat and meaningless. Again as with transcendence, there is a nascent desire to regain a sense of shape and meaning in time. Hence the popularity, say, of history and autobiography, and the extraordinary outpouring of feeling in moments like at the death of Princess Diana when normal time appeared to be swept away.

Out of the tunnel

Charles Taylor writes as a Catholic philosopher, if one that Pope Benedict XVI would respect rather than embrace. For example, he thinks that sexual ethics have become such a point of contestation and resistance in contemporary religious life because in the secular age, religious authorities no longer exercise political power; they must focus instead on the personal.

But if his is a Catholic point of view, his aim is consolatory. At one level he can answer the questions of those who are either bemused by religious faith or find it abhorrent. To be religious may be one or more of many things, Taylor explains. But if atheistic conviction is less a set of doctrines about the world (such as that God is dead) than a set of powerful beliefs about the way the world is best viewed, so in the same way religious conviction is a sense that the world is best viewed from a transcendent, visionary perspective that requires the transformation of the individual.

What of the present confrontation between atheistic humanism and religious belief? Here again, Charles Taylor's book is refreshing in its radicalism. In short, the militant atheists, as much as the conservative evangelicals, have misconstrued the present situation. Many of the faults that one side finds in the other - such as that atheism is empty, or that theism is primitive - actually conceal the same flaws in the side being defended too.

To put it another way, the secular age is a context with which all people are still trying to grapple. The persistent pluralism of our times is evidence enough that no one worldview is universally satisfactory. But if we are together to make progress, avoid that clash of civilisations, and resist the destructive power of those cross-pressures, there is one thing to do first. Give up the bad faith implicit in taking pot-shots at opponents, that, after all, only disguise the inadequacies of our own analysis of the modern human condition.

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