Confronting Secularism

Charles Taylor is undoubtedly one of Canada’s outstanding philosophers and a committed Christian. He recognizes not only the growth of secularism in our society but its underlying historical and philosophical roots in Western culture. In 2007, he won the Templeton Prize. His book, A Secular Age, is an attempt to confront what it means to maintain a faith in God while living in a secular age. From September 2010 through June 2011 I, together with nine others, met once a month at Lakehead University in Orillia, Ont., to study and discuss Charles Taylor’s rather monumental study.

Taylor’s task is put by him at the beginning of his book: “The change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others … Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives … There will be many who feel bound to give it up, even though they mourn its loss … There will be many others to whom faith never even seems an eligible possibility.” Taylor then painstakingly takes the reader from what it meant to live in a pre-modern society, which he defines as an enchanted age, to our modern age which began somewhere around the 16th century.

Our modern age began with the early scientific discoveries of people like Galileo and Newton and philosophers like Descartes who began to seriously question our knowledge of the world we lived in. A whole change in culture that increasingly challenged the status quo raised questions that would not have been even remotely possible in that pre-modern, enchanted world. Taylor examines what it meant to live in that enchanted world of Western Europe with its high dependence for meaning on the Christian church. He then takes the reader through page after page of discoveries made by philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, writers and artists whose work challenged what it meant to believe in God.

For some of the people he discusses, the idea of God moved through reconstructions that seriously challenged accepted doctrines and positions held by the church. The church itself went through the upheavals and travails of the Protestant Reformation which in itself challenged previously held foundations of the faith. Deists, who found evidence of God in nature, moved profoundly away from the concept of a revealed God that can be fully known only through the church and its doctrines concerning the person of Jesus. Philosophical probing in the field of epistemology, the study of how we know anything, questioned for some whether it was even possible to actually know anything about an entity called “God.” All of this then called into question what it meant to be moral or ethical.

Philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that God was dead and that we were the ones who had killed him. This left a huge gap for humans in how one was to confront life. Since for Nietzsche life and reality were chaotic, not ordered, what was one to do in facing such a life? He, along with other deniers of God like Marx and Freud, maintained that religion was a force that crushed the will to live; it was an opiate of the people that held them down; a grand delusion that kept them from facing reality. How were people of faith to deal with all of this?

Taylor’s march through the ages—from the 16th century in Western European and North American culture and society—examines at great length all of the philosophical, theological and artistic progress that tried to define reality in relation to God and faith, and tries to understand the rise in secularity that has accompanied those efforts. Is adopting a secular outlook an inevitable outcome for humans living in a modern world? Are the arguments of secularists cogent enough to turn all of us away from any understanding of God that has any similarity to the Christian religion? These are questions that are of paramount importance for the church and for people of faith. Are we dealing with them seriously? Instead are we panicking at the sight of churches being closed, pews becoming vacant? Instead of examining our culture and society seriously, are we arguing about the kind of hymns we should be singing and making changes in liturgy as though that would motivate people to come back to church? If that is all we are doing then we are merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic as it sinks.

Is it possible to be Christian in a world of nuclear physics? Does the Christian gospel have anything to say to those who are convinced that this “God business” is the force behind all of the horrendous wars that our culture has endured for centuries and centuries?

If we have no answers for questions like these, we are in serious trouble. We have to learn to comprehend the reasons why much of our world has become secularist and confront those reasons with cogent responses that make sense to people.

Charles Taylor has tried to do just that and he has tried to do it from the stance of a committed Christian. Seven hundred and seventy-five pages are crammed with an inspection of Western society’s passage from a pre-16th century enchanted world to today in terms of how we know about the world we live in and how important a life of faith is within it.

This is the kind of book more Christians need to be reading if we are ever going to enable more people to recognize in the Christian faith a viable alternative to life in a secular world.


About By James Thomson

Rev. Dr. James A. Thomson is minister emeritus of Knox, Bracebridge, Ont., and a former lecturer at Knox College, Toronto.