How (Not) to be Secular

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.