The BEST: A Secular Age

Chaim Strauchler Tradition Online | March 11, 2021

Summary: In A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues that secularism is not simply the absence of religion, but rather an intellectual category that is itself a historical construct. Taylor examines the change in Western society from a condition in which it was almost impossible not to believe in God, to one in which belief is a choice among options. He connects this to changes in how people experience their surroundings – a move between what he calls “the porous self,” which was vulnerable to external forces like spirits and demons, to “the buffered self,” a disciplined and independent agent living in a progressively disenchanted world. 

He argues against the view that secularity in society is caused by the rise of science and reason (what he calls a subtraction narrative). Rather, the successes of religious reform efforts in the late Middle Ages encouraged an anthropocentrism that opened the gates for a godless humanism (130). Up until a few hundred years ago, people could not even consider a viewpoint absent of God. Culture has now changed so that multiple viewpoints are conceivable to most people. Taylor refers to this new way of thinking as the modern social imaginary.

Why this is The Best?

In his book The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, R. Jonathan Sacks writes, “We live, in the deep sense given by Charles Taylor in his masterwork of that title, in ‘a secular age’” (193). Taylor’s work vividly portrays the spiritual and intellectual environment in which we moderns reside. Taylor explains how our presumed “enlightened” existence in fact impoverishes society. 

Taylor’s insights provide a framework through which a person of faith can challenge the immanent assumptions of this secular age. He takes us out of this frame, allowing us to look back at it critically and identify its weaknesses. We come to grasp how secularism leads us to believe that everything important is this-worldly, explicable on its own terms. Everything fits within the time-space-energy-matter dimensions. Social and political orders are constructed by humans for mutual benefit. Society is made up of individuals, each charged with finding her or his own way of being human. 

Taylor lists several Closed World Structures (i.e., closed to transcendence) that assume the prevalent worldview. One is the idea of the rational agent of modern epistemology. Another is the idea that religion is childish, so “An unbeliever has the courage to take up an adult stance and face reality” (562). Taylor argues that such Closed World Structures do not really argue their worldviews, they “function as unchallenged axioms” (590) rendering belief in the transcendent not just implausible but inexplicable. 

Separated if only for an instant from the immanent frame, we come to realize that this perspective is neither ethically neutral nor strictly objective. It includes some things (values such as secular time) and excludes others—it renders “vertical” or “transcendent” worlds as inaccessible or unthinkable. R. Sacks touched on these themes in a 2007 essay: “What we disagree with is not science but scientism, the belief that what we can see and measure is all there is.” 

Yet, even upon appreciating our secular age’s buffered selves and its immanent frame, we cannot restore a porous existence. To be aware of the choice that is faith does not remove the fact that we must choose.

Taylor does not see the secular status quo as stable. He writes toward the end of the book, “Our age is very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief. . . The secular age is schizophrenic, or better, deeply cross-pressured” (727). R. Sacks touched on these cross-pressures when he and Taylor shared a stage in Toronto in November 2011, discussing “The Future of Religion in a Secular Age.” Rabbi Sacks said in response to a question regarding religion’s ongoing viability and vitality, “Human beings are meaning-seeking animals, and the search for meaning is constitutive of our humanity, and religion is the greatest heritage of our meanings.”

Chaim Strauchler is the Rabbi of Shaarei Shomayim in Toronto and an associate editor of TRADITION.

Read more about The BEST or about the R. Sacks Bookshelves ProjectSign up here to receive an automated notice when each essay in this series posts. The R. Sacks Bookshelves Project is presented in cooperation with the London School of Jewish Studies.

Leave a Reply