restricted access A Secular Age (review)
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A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. Pp. x + 874. $39.95, cloth.

It is almost a philosophical truism that the phenomenologist who is able to see more in the phenomenon will be wise to do so. While Charles Taylor may not explicitly advocate such a truism in The Secular Age, he is adamantly opposed to "subtraction stories" regarding the secularization process in modern Western societies. His alternative narrative involves "seeing" a meaning to secularity that is deeper and truer to the past and present lived experience of both believers and nonbelievers. The length of that narrative (800+ pages) is obviously demanding but also arguably rewarding—even to the philosophical or social theoretical temperament initially inclined to see less in the process.

A "subtraction story" of secularization describes the transition to modernity in terms of discarding or outgrowing a framework of beliefs that typically is viewed as an impediment. Such a story is normally situated within the context of one of the two most recognized meanings of "secularity." The first of these meanings involves freeing modern political organizations and other forms of public life from explicit connections to religious beliefs and institutions. The second meaning refers to a decline in religious belief and practice as measured, for example, in falling church attendance. Particularly with respect to the second meaning, a subtraction story is likely to attribute secularity to progress in scientific and normative inquiry that supplants and even replaces earlier religious thinking, action, and politics. [End Page 302]

The third and deeper meaning of secularity involves what Taylor terms the "conditions of belief." The whole context of understanding what it is to believe has changed in the past five hundred years "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" (3). For Taylor this momentous transition is misunderstood as a subtraction process in contrast to a richer historical tracing of the sources of meaningful belief and unbelief. According to this rival account, religious belief continues and alters, even as a strong alternative to faith emerges ("exclusive humanism") but also, and equally, a plenitude (or "nova") of intermediate views or human possibilities.

The dramatic change in the conditions of belief is accompanied by an equally marked historical shift in the situation of the self that is experiencing this transition. After the change a clear distinction is made between the mind and the body and between the self and the world. The strong distinctions between the "mental" and the "physical" and the "subjective" and the "objective" serve to mark firm boundaries in our experience. These boundaries function as "buffers" so that things that go beyond our mental states and subjective feelings do not need to cross over and upset or disorient us.

For Taylor the premodern situation of the self was not characterized by firm boundaries but rather by "porous" ones. The difference is that the inside of earlier lived experience was neither just inside nor cordoned off from the outside of experience. Thus a powerful emotion was not limited to mind or self but was porous to the influence of outside powers that boded well or ill. Indeed the force of such outside things could be experienced as so strong and the vulnerability of the self so great as to make urgent the need for propitiation of or defense against a friendly or evil spiritual power.

The transition from enchantment to disenchantment is not simply a change in beliefs, but in sensibilities within lived experience that affect what it is to believe. We find enchantment so difficult to comprehend because we are "buffered selves" who are open to kinds of meanings with clearly delineated boundaries. Earlier "porous selves" were open, by contrast, to the possibility of being dominated by a spirit or being taken over by a medium. Disbelief is difficult to imagine for porous selves, since "God figures in this world as the dominant spirit, and moreover, as the only thing that guarantees that in this awe-inspiring and frightening field of forces, good will triumph" (41). [End Page 303...