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How (Not) to be Secular Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 09 June 2014

Secularism is a bit like the weather: everyone complains, but no one ever does anything about it. Even though secularism walks among us as never before in human history.

The reality, however, is more complicated than you’d guess just looking around. There is a growing number of “nones” in developed societies – people with no formal religious affiliation. Not at all the same thing, though, as people with no religious (or “spiritual”) sense. The media collapse them into an anti-religious bloc hoping that, together with the government and courts, they could help push faith out of public life.

At the same time, however, a worldwide “desecularization” is underway, because, throughout history the mass of people have shown they don’t like living in stony unbelief. Desecularization includes New Age practices, “fundamentalism” (in all the great world religions), and everything in between.

Christianity remains the largest and fastest growing faith on earth, though you’d never know it from the MSM (the growth is mostly outside the developed world). Still, “secularism” remains very much with us and we must understand its precise nature.

The Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor published A Secular Age in 2007, which remains the most profound treatment. At 874 pages, that doorstop tome was difficult to get a grip on – and hard to recommend to anyone. But James K.A. Smith has just brought out a much more user-friendly (148-page) summary: How (Not) to be Secular, which is worth spending some time with – before moving on to Taylor himself.

The ambiguity of that title – to be or not to be secular? – reflects one side of Taylor: he both values and criticizes the modern secular order. I was at a conference in Paris on A Secular Age with Taylor shortly after it appeared and was impressed, if not always convinced, by his appraisal of any number of things about our situation.

One key distinction is between the porous self and the buffered self. Taylor earlier wrote another large volume, Sources of the Self, a grand tour of philosophy since the Greeks, but, more creatively, also describing what philosophies successively did to the idea of the “self,” itself a modern construct.

The porous self is the human self in most ages and places. That self is open to nature and spirit at its very core. It recognizes that, at any moment, it may be touched – even overwhelmed – by realities larger than ourselves, which give us meaning.

By contrast (and somewhat simplistically), the buffered self is a modern contrivance, the person insulated from God and nature alike, and thus forced to created its own meaning via science, technology, and humanistic projects. Even those of us who reject that view as deeply mistaken are now, inescapably, influenced by it.

But these distinctions are not as neat or as settled as they might seem, argues Taylor. The buffered self feels cross-pressures from the older views. So it’s conflicted and its secularism is also different than once thought.

In Taylor’s telling, there are three secularisms. A classical secularism, secularism1, existed in periods like the middle ages, and was roughly equivalent to “the temporal” (and thus not necessarily opposed to religion). Secularism2 – which is what we usually mean by secularism – arose in the Enlightenment and was a conscious rival to religion.

But, Taylor contends, things didn’t stop there. He posits a secularism3 as more accurately where we are today: the buffered self exists in a universe largely defined by secularism2, but it also feels a tug and maybe the presence of the old spirit-haunted, meaning-offering nature – and God.

Taylor spends a lot of time excavating how it became possible to believe secularism2 and secularism3. Many today think that the mechanistic picture of the universe is the only rational one – simple common sense. It isn’t, of course. He shows how that “take” on things actually had to be constructed so that it could become an assumed background, something much more difficult to challenge than the rather weak rationalist arguments against God’s existence.

We have a false historical narrative, “subtraction stories,” that claim our modern worldview emerges when you drop out the superstitious and nonsensical. Historically, that’s not how things happened. The modern world was constructed and therefore part of Taylor’s aim is to tell a very different story, which is the only way to counteract the false story.

A problem for the secularist today is that he/she knows unbelief is only one of many possible choices. It’s not only traditional believers whose confidence has been “fragilized” by pluralism. The real crux here – and the greatest contribution Taylor makes – is to see that secularism3 is an assumption, not a conscious project like secularism2.

It’s difficult to argue people out of unbelief, because they haven’t argued themselves into their position. Instead, they've assumed a great deal that they don’t realize is an assumption. Further, they assume their view is liberating, humanizing, when it’s in fact a brutal materialistic picture and a “Closed World Structure.”

The seemingly inescapably pluralist view of secularism3 has cashed out in our time as practical atheism. But Taylor is not convinced that’s how things will continue. He seems to believe that the continued pressures on the buffered self from different quarters will tend to push it in non-materialist directions and not just to any old spirituality, but something much more robust, like Catholicism.

You may look up from this deep analysis and feel like you’re listening to a lecture on the causes of juvenile delinquency while your family is undergoing a home invasion. But even if Taylor doesn’t display much sense of alarm or even urgency over our situation – he’s Canadian after all – the seriousness of this project offers some long-term hope when our short-term political options look hopeless.

And he does describe the emotion some modern converts have experienced: “one feels oneself to be breaking out of a narrower frame into a broader field, which makes sense of the world in a different way, corresponds to reality.”
 

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
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written by Bruno, June 08, 2014
Good article Mr. Royal. It makes one thing clear to me: New Evangelization may have to rely more on Socrates than it currently does. If we are battling false assumptions instead of ignorance, then perhaps the Catholic intellectual's role is to question, shatter and demolish false assumptions. Then The Gospel may be proclaimed.
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written by Myshkin, June 09, 2014
I really got a lot out of Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age" but cannot imagine that James K A Smith, who teaches at Calvin College, home of the last of die hard Calvinist formalism, would have much to say of any interest. Beyond his institutional commitment to Calvinist heresy (faculty at Calvin sign an oath pledging that they are good Calvinists) Smith has been a regular supporter of deconstructionism in theology, following Derrida, Foucault and Caputo. Unless he has repented of his heretical theology, I can't see why any Roman Catholic who values doctrine could treat Smith as anything but an enemy of the Gospel.

First Longenecker and now James KA Smith. Has TCT given up the good fight to run with rabble?
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written by Nick Palmer, June 09, 2014
An interesting reflection on religious and secular. Frankly, I bit heavy for my philosophical weight class, but well worth my pondering.

It evokes in me an ongoing frustration -- those around me who loudly and proudly claim to be "spiritual but not religious." In my own life, addressing those folks, many of whom I care for deeply, is deeply challenging.
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written by Jack,CT, June 09, 2014
Dr Royal, Fantastic Monday Am Read-
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written by Robert Royal, June 09, 2014
Myshkin: I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt - which you have not extended to me or Smith - and not assume that you're just trying to be the smartest and most Catholic guy in the room. If you're really interested in making a comment, it might be wise to slow down and figure out, for example, how it is that James A. K. Smith is both a strict Calvinist and a deconstructionist at the same time. If true - and I'm not sure it is - it might actually raise some interesting questions. What I've written about here, however, is a book that's a simple and reliable guide to a Catholic philosopher who may be a little too heady for most readers to tackle. It's worth knowing what one of the most powerful living Catholic minds has said about the difficult problem of secularism. Smith gives a fair and accurate account of that. He may beat his wife and never speak civilly to his mother, but he knows how to present the work of Charles Taylor.
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written by ron a., June 09, 2014
Thank you Robert! Any help in understanding that difficult tome is greatly appreciated.
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written by George Sim Johnston, June 09, 2014
I am currently reading Taylor's "A Secular Age" in a reading group, which is a good way to go about it. The 800-page tome is worth the effort, although a savvy editor might have pruned it somewhat. The book does make you think differently. Taylor himself strikes this reader as on the liberal wing of the Church, but that is only an inference.
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written by Myshkin, June 09, 2014
@Dr. Royal

I'm sorry you have taken my comment in such a negative way. As someone who has read James K.A. Smith's work extensively, I can only assure you that what I have written in my comment is the sad truth. Among Smith's works are "Who's Afraid of Relativism?" which deliberately takes aim at the teachings of Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II before him, proposing a naive, but militant pragmatism which maintains that the very concept of truth is contingent an context-dependent. Another of his works is "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church" which strives to use the work of these French philosophers as ways for deconstructing the texts of Scripture, Patristic authors, Medieval Doctors and Reformation Biggies. His approach is slippery deconstruction, robbing the texts of any historical authority while nodding to their "fecundity" and "flavor." I could go on and on, but I will only mention these two. Of course, his thinking is the usual academic cant so popular in the last twenty years. Shoddy and ridden with error, yet shot through with the author's pride that he has finally unlocked the best way (deconstruction) to approach Christianity.

As to how he can be both a Calvinist and a deconstructionist, it's easy: once you let truth become a pragmatic technique, you can be anything and no one can contradict you. As Benedict XVI said at the Mass prior to the conclave that elected him Pope: "relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching,’ looks like the only attitude [acceptable] to today’s standards." He warned: "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires." This is precisely to goal of Smith's work.

Alas, I don't think you were fair to me in your assessment of my earlier comment, assuming that it was not based on scholarly knowledge of Smith's writings. In contradistinction to your speculation on his character, I observe that he may be a saintly individual, but he is spreading a pernicious doctrine and must be opposed by Roman Catholic thinkers. Pelagius was reputed to have been personally very holy, but he and Smith seek to corrupt Christianity at the root.

My hope is that more people will read Charles Taylor as his work undermines the method of deconstruction as a historical misunderstanding. He is truly worth reading!

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