Let’s Get Secular Straight

[Secular1, or Secular as Temporal]

  1. In classical or medieval accounts, the “secular” amounted to something like “the temporal” — the realm of “earthly” politics or of “mundane” vocations. This is the “secular” of the purported sacred/ secular divide. The priest, for instance, pursues a “sacred” vocation, while the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker are engaged in “secular” pursuits.

Following Taylor, let’s call this secular1.

[Secular2, or Secular as Areligious]

  1. In modernity, particularly in the wake of the Enlightenment, “secular” begins to refer to a nonsectarian, neutral, and areligious space or standpoint.

The public square is “secular” insofar as it is (allegedly) nonreligious; schools are “secular” when they are no longer “parochial” — hence “public” schools are thought to be “secular” schools. Similarly, in the late twentieth century people will describe themselves as “secular,” meaning they have no religious affiliation and hold no “religious” beliefs.

We’ll refer to this as secular2.

It is this notion of the secular that is assumed both by the secularization thesis and by normative secularism.

According to secularization theory, as cultures experienced modernization and technological advancement, the (divisive) forces of religious belief and participation wither in the face of modernity’s disenchantment of the world.

According to secularism, political spaces (and the constitutions that create them) should carve out a realm purified of the contingency, particularity, and irrationality of religious belief and instead be governed by universal, neutral rationality.

Secularism is always secularism2.

And secularization theory is usually a confident expectation that societies will be become secular2 — that is, characterized by decreasing religious belief and participation. People who self-identify as “secular” are usually identifying as areligious.

[Secular3, or Secular as an Age of Contested Belief]

  1. But Taylor helpfully articulates a third sense of the secular (secular3) — and it is this notion that should be heard in his title: A Secular Age. A society is secular3 insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested).

At issue here is a shift in “the conditions of belief.” As Taylor notes, the shift to secularity “in this sense” indicates “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”

It is in this sense that we live in a “secular age” even if religious participation might be visible and fervent.

And it is in this sense that we could still entertain a certain “secularization3 thesis.” But this would be an account not of how religion will wither in late modern societies, but rather of how and why the plausibility structures of such societies will make religion contestable (and contested).

It is the emergence of “the secular” in this sense that makes possible the emergence of an “exclusive humanism” — a radically new option in the marketplace of beliefs, a vision of life in which anything beyond the immanent is eclipsed.

“For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.”

J. Taylor

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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