The term ‘secular’ has become almost synonymous with progress, Westernization, and democracy. It often stands in contrast to the religious, the traditional, or the authoritarian. It is a beacon of hope in a world tied down by its past superstitions and stains of ignorance. Secularity, it seems, is a very good thing indeed. But what does ‘the secular’ really represent, and how religious–or more properly, irreligious–has the West really become? And most importantly, is this secularity a good thing for society?
Despite the prevalence of the myth of secularity that says science has disproved religion, religious faith is no less logical today than it was 500 years ago. In order to illustrate this bold claim without engaging in too much of an apologetic (for those interested in a thoughtful and articulate defense of the Christian faith, see C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity), I must note that religion, most of all Christianity, claims to tell us as humans about a reality that goes beyond the material order, beyond what science has any authority to claim. Put differently, science represents a brilliant and beautiful process and body of knowledge that attempts to explain and understand the material world better. But it does not, in fact it cannot, tell us anything about the existence of things outside of the material world. It cannot do this because its tools and its methods are inherent to the material world and its scope of knowledge is limited by the subject and object of its analysis, both of which are material. To say that science informs anything beyond the material world would be like saying one could infer the complexities of air traffic control, flight plans, and the thoughts of pilots by knowing everything about an airplane, from its aerodynamics to its dimensions. Even sociology has long debunked the myth that science disproves religion and thus ought to be considered the primary cause of secularity1. Therefore, since we can’t expect science to be able to explain a transcendent reality (like religious claims), much less can we expect the same of any specific scientific theory, whether it be evolution or the Big Bang or the Higgs boson particle (as I readily believe in all three). To refocus our discussion, it is perfectly alright to be an atheistic materialist. It is not alright to be an atheistic materialist because of science.
We must then seek to understand secularity differently. Here, the philosopher Charles Taylor has done a tremendous amount of work and thinking to help get us to a different explanation. His book, A Secular Age, is a weighty (both figurative and literal weightiness, as the book measures in at over 800 pages) discussion about what secularity is and why we should care about it. Taylor opens his book by asking the question, “why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”2. As a definitive historical statement, we are not in a position to evaluate the validity of such a claim. Since it seems reasonable, that very few people did not believe in God (since this paper focuses on the West, we’re focusing on the Christian God) in 1500, I am going to proceed assuming that it is true, as without that assumption any discussion about history and secularity is fairly fruitless. Similarly, it is not necessary to consult the Pew Surveys on Religion to generally endorse the latter claim. Such generalizations are helpful in focusing a very broad and sometimes difficult discussion.
Secularity in A Secular Age is talked about in three different senses. The first describes the removal of references to religion in the public space and a general decline in its cultural influence (sense 1). The second sense describes the decline in practice and belief (read intellectual assent) of individuals. In other words, it means simply that fewer people are Christians and more are atheists and agnostics and ‘nones’ (sense 2). The third sense of secularity, which is most interesting and accurate for Taylor, is that society has developed a widening array of viable options of things to believe in. As Taylor puts it, “Naïveté is now unavailable to anyone, believer or unbeliever alike”3. For Taylor, the chief fact of society that has changed is not simply a decline or a ‘subtraction’ of beliefs and a status quo that once were, but it is that some new ‘social imaginary’ has been constructed that undergirds the framework by which people believe certain things. It is this new ‘social imaginary’ that has created more choices than simply orthodox belief or atheistic unbelief. This isn’t to say that the first two senses are not correct, because any plain observation of society would say that they certainly are correct. But for Taylor, and for me, more important than any decline or reduction is that the background against which people believe has dramatically changed. So while fewer people may subscribe to the Nicene Creed (an historic Christian creed of belief, which falls under sense 2), many more explore varieties of spirituality that never before existed. Likewise, though on the surface much public space in the West has been ‘de-Christianized’, it is very much still animated by a religious past, and even modern sensibilities have a root in the changes in social imaginaries that have also changed the choices for belief.
To better flesh out what this third sense of secularization really looks like, we must go beyond looking at mere data that tracks how many people belong to a church. That would belittle the scope of trying to fully understand secularity. Rather than simply being a behavior or activity in which people participate on occasion, religion and religious faith are in their highest forms draws to transcendence, pulls beyond the purely material world. But these draws to transcendence must not be confined to traditional religion. The ‘transcendent’ manifests itself in different ways. Surely it can be the historical institutional church, but in modern times it can also be a draw to ‘higher’ moments of unity, celebration, and intimacy (like the World Cup or the love experienced between spouses). There is a sense that these moments and cultural practices have meaning beyond purely physical processes. In fact, it is the human condition to pine after such meaning and to find it there, whether it truly is or not4. And so we must conclude that these draws to transcendence have had an indelible impact on society throughout history, and because of their ingrained nature in society and how they have developed, they cannot simply be erased, even slowly, from public consciousness. That these draws to the transcendent merely look different is not evidence that the draw ceases to exist altogether.
This brings us back to Taylor, who now forces us to look beyond a superficial or statistical understanding of secularity. Part of Taylor’s brilliance is that he simultaneously acknowledges the existence, prevalence, and power of secularity while also problematizing any simple, straight-line theory as to how it has developed or how it is defined. Crucial to properly understanding secularity, says Taylor, is a right understanding of religion. It seems simple enough, that we must define and contextualize religion before we could ever understand the nuances of secularity. But much of the mainstream scholarship on secularity fails to do that. From statistically-oriented arguments to political projects to anthropological lineages, these approaches focus so much on the ‘secularity’ that they neglect to actually define what ‘religion’ is. Fundamentally, any attempt to put forth a hegemonic story of secularity (such as a story of simple decline) itself presupposes a hegemonic view of religion. And so if we cannot agree on the definition of religion, can we even call anything ‘religious’ or ‘secular’?
What, then, are the true definitions of religion and secularity?
My argument, and Taylor’s to some extent, is that these definitions must be made on an individual level. As a result, any macro-story of secularization will be incredibly nuanced, complex, and changing. In other words, church attendance statistics are no match for what is actually going on in individual hearts. The closest thing we can call ‘religion’ that is as universally true as possible, is that draw to transcendence that I talked about earlier. This draw can be as present in the Italian Catholic attending Mass daily as it is in the agnostic artist in London. No, it doesn’t come close to describing what is conventionally understood as ‘religion’, but that restrictive definition of religion cannot be used in a world with as many diverse beliefs as ours. For even the orthodox, historically-minded churches of the West often have widely differing understandings of what true religion constitutes (see the battle between the Vatican and American evangelicals on a whole host of issues, for instance). But this extreme abstraction of religion, that it is at root a draw to transcendence, can tell us much more about secularity and the modern religious landscape than you might anticipate.
Taylor talks about what he calls ‘unthoughts’, which are present in any human being. We might understand them as biases, presuppositions, or unconscious dispositions that inherently influence anyone’s approach to religious faith. These unthoughts are inescapable since they represent the scorecard by which we evaluate religion. For instance, to the academic sociologist who resides purely within an imminent (as opposed to transcendent) and materialist worldview, any study of religion using statistics and associations with traditional religious bodies will be perfectly adequate in explaining religion. But to the center-left American millennial who is ‘spiritual but not religious’, such an understanding as put forth by the sociologist will surely be inadequate.
As I said, on a macro-scale, defining religion in terms of transcendence seems to be the most accurate characterization. Individually, however, religion becomes much more robust and varying, and more specific when we examine its history in the West. It must also be defined on a micro-level. Taylor tends to disagree here. It is well and good for Taylor to maintain his ‘sense’ of the religious as being exclusively defined by a transcendence/immanence divide5, but he cannot escape the need to define religion in particular terms for particular people. Yes, there is no way to generalize religion over the globe today or throughout history in its various manifestations. At the same time, it is not simply an abstract transcendence that has defined the history of Europe for the past 1000 (or 500) years. Painting such a broad picture, so as to accommodate the more current-day variations of belief, makes the specifics of how secularization happened problematic, since the phenomenon of secularization that we’re describing was limited to Christianity in the West. For this reason, A Secular Age never quite escapes Taylor’s idealism (and perhaps romanticism?). Thankfully, it needn’t.
In a contradiction of sorts to his vague typology, Taylor is helpful in giving us a much more helpful individual definition of religion. He says that it must believe in some higher power (1), it must believe in a life that extends beyond the natural world (2), and it must believe in a higher good that eclipses (but does not necessarily negate) human flourishing (3). This is a much more adequate micro-definition of religion. But importantly, Taylor argues that our definition of religion does not matter as much as the understanding of its effects6. In some sense I agree with this. True, to explicitly define religion is unnecessary to tracing secularity, since as I’ve said the micro-variations are huge while the macro-characterization (transcendence) is fairly consistent. To deny, however, that the definition of religion matters is to say something different. Definitions of religion surely matter, since they determine what secularity is, both on an individual (micro) and societal (macro) level.
What then do we do with these observations about religion and its varying forms?
Given the importance of defining religion, and the difficulty of finding consensus on a definition of individual religion, some would say the answer to this very question is secularism, a political ideology that favors a public stripped of any partiality toward religion and a private space that allows the individual relative autonomy in pursuing religion. This model basically describes much of Western Europe and to a lesser extent the United States. In principle, this is the perfect embodiment and accommodation of secularization, as it prevents partiality or even the acknowledgement of religion on a public level while permitting its ‘nova’ of options of belief on a personal level. But under the surface, it denies a reality of belief that influences individuals and society in a significant yet nuanced way. Like we discussed earlier about the drive for meaning and its ubiquity, draws to transcendence are powerful motivators of human behavior and psychology. To say that something motivates human actions but to deny that thing efficacy on a societal or public level is to lie about reality. That reality is that religion is woven into the fabric of society and that it is not going away. For that reason, it is foolish for any government or society to try to blot out religion or to refuse to let it influence public thought.
Now, this is not to say that it is a government’s responsibility to choose which religion is right. In fact, it shouldn’t. The celebration of religious faith in general means that every person is free to acknowledge and live out the way that their own religion, whatever it may be, does actually affect how they interact with the world. The philosopher James K.A. Smith has written about what he calls the “spiritual power of habit”. To Smith, every person, whether ‘religious’ or ‘secular’, has in their lives ultimate loves7. That could be a drive to be the best in a chosen career, pride in treating everyone equally, or seeking pleasure above all else. Building on the thought of the fourth century theologian St. Augustine of Hippo, Smith argues that whatever loves a person has, those loves control who that person is and what they do. In his book, You Are What You Love, he builds on other psychological and sociological scholarship to show how the things we value most end up becoming our habits and practices, the things we think about and do most. And importantly, those ultimate loves are found everywhere in society and end up affecting us in ways we can easily miss. Just like the person who strives after career success will define their value and many of their decisions by what will cause them to succeed most in their career, the same person could be affected and formed by practices and habits they create by regularly sacrificing dinners with family or choosing to not value time to rest.
These habits are everywhere, even in the mundane, and these habits collectively make up religion. This religion is more broad than it was 500 years ago and looks very different in different people, but it has not gone away or become less powerful. In the end, secularity is a broadening of people’s experiences with where they locate meaning. From this lens, secularity doesn’t look so much like a good or bad thing, but more as an opportunity. Specifically, an opportunity for dialogue and mutual understanding and for an acknowledgement of ideas and practices that influence us most, whether they are traditionally ‘religious’ or not.
This sort of robust pluralism that I’m describing means that people need not agree on where they locate meaning. Even more, it means that because there will never be a set consensus, there is a continual process whereby ideas are refined, better supported, and where respect can be fostered between people of different positions. Religious difference could then lead to flourishing, not division. When religion is relegated to only a certain segment of private society, tribal inclinations kick in and ‘culture wars’, shouting matches, and suspicion start to take effect. The wide-open acknowledgement of religion prevents this type of festering in the dark to ever occur.
We must get to the point where we start to see the division between sacred and secular as not such a neat division after all. Yes, this approach means that every belief position becomes more fragile, since there is so much more ‘competition’. But instead of throwing religion away, the ‘fragilization’ of different belief options means that each one has an opportunity for it to make its case, so to speak.
Is this a good thing? I think it is. It allows for a marketplace of ideas. It forces us to critically examine what we believe and why we believe it. For me, the Christian faith represents the perfect combination of the acknowledgement of doubt combined with reasons for hope and certainty. The same book that talks of skepticism and doubt about God and his character also gives hundreds of eyewitnesses and prophecies pointing to the hope that is found in a died, resurrected and alive Jesus Christ who has reconciled the World to God. That book is the Bible. It is filled with people who wrestle with the same difficulties, both intellectual and otherwise, that the modern human wrestles with and it testifies that the world can often be a confusing and conflicting place. Most importantly, it does not brush this disharmony away as if it is an illusion. In the turning tides of modernity and in the widening array of options that we call secularity, Christianity provides for me more solace than any other system could. By it I believe the counter-intuitive, I hope in what I do not see, and I cry out “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, English Standard Version). There are others than me who have even more doubt and uncertainty about whatever it is they believe, Christianity or not. Such skepticism is a symptom of the age we live in, but we must not mistake it for anything close to the end of religion, much less the end of Christianity.
1. Bruce, Steve. Secularization. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2011.
2. Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
4. Tyler VanderWeele, “Religion may be a miracle drug”, USA Today, 28 October 2016.
5. Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
7. Smith, James K.A. You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016.