Spiritual Exercises

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age shows why religion remains a powerful force

Photograph by Pertti Kekarainen / Image Provided by Galerie Anhava, Finland

Trudging through heavy wind-blown snow across St. Catherine Street and then down St. Urbain, heading toward the Palais des congrès de Montréal for one of the final public hearings of the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, I could not help but note the number of languages I heard: Arabic, Cantonese, Tamil, Spanish, and of course French, often spoken in accents so thick, and with grammar so butchered, that they were virtually unintelligible. Buried beneath this mid-December storm, with trees and buildings festooned with lights and church crèches ablaze, lies, for many, an uncomfortable fact: Montreal at least, if not La Belle Province, is palpably diverse. It is neither a Catholic society under the thumb of a powerful church, nor the secular society envisaged during the Quiet Revolution, but a society of immigrants, a society of Catholics, Pentecostals, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and atheists, all of whom cleave to their faiths.

Set in the spacious conference hall, congested with television cameras, MacBook-wielding journalists, and burly security guards (who searched everyone at the door), the Palais hearings were a combination of formal ceremony and circus. Dressed in suit and tie and escorted through a back door to shield him from journalists, Charles Taylor settled in beside Gérard Bouchard at the front of the rag-tag assembly of native Quebecers and recent immigrants. He looked exhausted and gaunt, every bit his seventy-six years. This distinguished pair had been on the road for ten weeks—from Quebec City to Trois-Rivières to Rimouski to Montreal—putting in twelve-hour days listening to individuals and organizations air their views about cultural difference, and it had clearly taken its toll. Speaking only rarely in his high French, with a kind of distant, patrician stoicism, Taylor listened and took notes. “You have to understand,” an elderly woman said, “that Quebec is a Christian society, that the majority of us are believers.” A Muslim man complained, “The Québécois, they do not respect the Prophet.” A young blond woman chimed in, “People with absolute values cannot be integrated into a democracy; only an interiorization of belief allows for the respect of others.” And so it went—for three hours.

It may seem surprising that an emeritus professor at McGill, 2007 winner of the $1.8-million Templeton Prize for the study of spirituality, and author of eleven books—including Hegel, the magisterial Sources of the Self, and most recently A Secular Age, an 874-page opus on secularism and religion in the West—would undertake something as gruelling as this consultation, but Taylor has always been politically engaged. He was an ndp candidate in Montreal on four occasions in the 1960s, famously losing to Pierre Trudeau in 1965. As one of the intellectual forces behind the Quiet Revolution, he wrote extensively on Quebec’s transition from the Church-dominated Duplessis era to the more secular and cosmopolitan society of today. And in a very real sense, A Secular Age is continuous with the spirit of the commission and its rowdy hearings. In this, perhaps his most controversial book, Taylor argues that the secularization of modern Western societies does not so much render religion irrelevant as lay the groundwork for the respectful coexistence of a diversity of religions and approaches to spirituality, including atheism. In fact, according to Taylor, “We are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee.” The commission, whose report is scheduled to be delivered in March, appears to have borne this out.

In contrast to pre-modern societies, where political structures were mandated by religion, in modern Western societies the principles that govern the various spheres of public life—Taylor mentions economic, political, cultural, and educational—are based on instrumental reason, the means by which they most effectively achieve their goals. But the movement toward secularism he explores in A Secular Age is different and more nuanced. “The change I want to define and trace,” he writes in the introduction, “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.”

Although Taylor is himself a practising Roman Catholic and his vast knowledge of the history of religion and theology is mostly rooted in Christianity, he is careful to define religion in the broadest possible terms. He contrasts a religious perspective with what he calls “exclusive humanism.” Whereas in exclusive humanism our ends and values are entirely oriented toward human flourishing—having a decent, comfortable life in reasonably just communities where people can fulfill their own potential, for instance—the religious point of view entails the possibility of higher ends and aspirations that transcend ordinary human life. Taylor writes:

We should see religion’s relation to a “beyond” in three dimensions. And the crucial one, that which makes its impact on our lives understandable, is the one I have just been exploring: the sense that there is some good higher than, beyond human flourishing. In the Christian case, we could think of this as agape, the love which God has for us, and which we can partake of through his power. In other words, a possibility of transformation is offered, which takes us beyond merely human perfection. But of course, this notion of a higher good as attainable by us only makes sense in the context of belief in a higher power, the transcendent God of faith which appears in most definitions of religion.

For Taylor, transcendence, and the sense of fullness and wholeness that rare experiences of transcendence provide, involves contact with a form of goodness beyond ordinary human life, and whose source is a power greater than ourselves, however that may be conceived. Indeed, there are moments in Taylor’s writings where he seems to imply that any form of higher moral end requires the possibility of transcendence.

The spiritual predicament of modern life, Taylor tells us, is that transcendent religion, whether organized or not, and exclusive humanism are equally available and attainable. However, even believers may find the character of their own faith unstable. Speaking of his own faith in an unusually personal passage in A Secular Age, Taylor writes, “I am never, or only rarely, really sure, free of all doubt, untroubled by all objection—by some experience which won’t fit, some lives which exhibit fullness on another basis, some alternative mode of fullness which sometimes draws me, etc.” But such writers and intellectuals as Christopher Hitchens, in God Is Not Great, and Edward O. Wilson, in Consilience, take for granted that the cumulative force of scientific knowledge over the past 500 years, from Galileo to Newton to Darwin to the present, has rendered religion straightforwardly irrational. “The more scientifically disposed of the Enlightenment authors agreed that the cosmos is an orderly material existence governed by exact laws,” Wilson writes. “It can be broken down into entities that can be measured and arranged in hierarchies, such as societies, which are made up of persons, whose brains consist of nerves, which in turn are composed of atoms.” Secularism and unbelief are the inevitable result of the advance of reason and knowledge; religion, finally, is the result of ignorance and superstition.

Taylor’s response is twofold. First, he shifts the question away from whether belief in God or some higher power is reasonable to whether belief or unbelief are appropriate interpretations of one’s experience of the world, whether they provide coherent frameworks within which one understands one’s life. Second, and making up the bulk of A Secular Age, Taylor launches into an elaborate historical narrative in which he argues that secularization was by no means the inevitable result of the development of scientific knowledge, but rather gradually emerged through forces internal to the religious perspective.

The first chapter of A Secular Age, entitled “The Bulwarks of Belief,” opens with a simple and arresting question: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” Taylor points out that many features of pre-modern societies allowed people to experience the world as suffused with the divine. Such catastrophic events as floods, famines, and plagues were seen as acts of God; social life centred on parishes and churches; and people lived in an enchanted world populated by angels and the magical properties of religious relics. This had two important consequences. First, human beings lived in two dimensions of time, the secular and the sacred—the sequential flow of time in everyday life, from dawn to dawn and winter to summer, and the high time of the eternal order of God. Higher time erupted into the world at sacred events and places, such as Mass or the shrine of a saint. Second, the pre-modern self was porous, its meanings and spiritual significance not limited to individual thoughts or subjectivity, but open to things external to it, such as the influx of grace from God. The pre-modern world, according to Taylor’s broad-stroked account, was that of a hierarchical cosmos—the “great chain of being”—that shaped human life and institutions from the higher, sacred, eternal order.

Indeed, according to Taylor’s historical account, the process of secularization in the West began as part of a reform movement within the Church itself, and long before the scientific revolution became ascendant and exclusive humanism became an even remotely viable option. The “disenchantment” of the old, medieval world involved breaking down the idea that spiritual purity was the exclusive domain of monks rather than ordinary people, weeding out practices that had survived from the pagan world, like carnival and various forms of magic, and divorcing the idea of grace and redemption from human activity—one could no longer purchase absolution from sins or a place in heaven. By the time of the Reformation, and especially in the writings of John Calvin, God’s presence had largely withdrawn from the world, piety had become a matter of individual faith, and the task of human existence had become that of leading a reasoned, orderly life within time as measured by clocks. We had entered an age often associated with Protestantism and such figures as Benjamin Franklin, a world in which work and thrift and temperance were valued above all else.

This disengagement from the extra-physical world has several important implications that open the door to exclusive humanism. As the world “becomes progressively voided of its spirits and meaningful forces,” as Taylor puts it, the human subject or self ceases to be vulnerable to meanings outside itself, becomes a “buffered self” separate from nature, and lives in purely secular time. The creation of this separate, buffered self, whose development Taylor traces at length through such figures as Locke, Rousseau, and Schiller, set the stage for an interest in nature that led to the scientific revolution, typically regarded as the death blow to the possibility of religious belief. But Taylor says:

The new interest in nature was not a step outside of a religious outlook, even partially; it was a mutation within this outlook…That the autonomy of nature eventually (after a number of further transpositions, of which more anon) came to serve as grist to the mill of exclusive humanism is clearly true. That establishing it was already a step in that direction is profoundly false. This move had a quite different meaning at the time, and in other circumstances might never have come to have the meaning that it bears for unbelievers today.

In fact, the sublime autonomy of nature can provide the occasion for reverence for the works of God.

The central claim of A Secular Age is that the historical forces behind modern secularism are complex and multi-layered, and that, while they open up the possibility of different interpretations of the world, they in no way predetermine them: religion, in its multifarious forms, remains an intellectually and emotionally viable point of view. But however much Taylor insists upon shifting the question from belief or unbelief to interpretations of one’s experience, the question of the truth of a particular religious outlook—whether that involves the existence of a loving God, or the primacy of a particular Middle Eastern prophet, or some less easily definable higher power—still matters. We need to know whether our readings are true or not, whether our ecstatic experiences of transcendence actually refer to something beyond us. In the end, it makes little difference whether the secularization of Western societies is rooted in earlier religious movements or in the ascendancy of the natural sciences. So long as one is not a relativist—and Taylor is no relativist—the truth of a particular world view becomes urgent. And that is the question Taylor has remarkably little to say about, indeed seems to avoid at all cost, throughout A Secular Age.

Toward the end of the book, Taylor meditates on the role of religion and spirituality in the twenty-first century:

Now if we don’t accept the view that the human aspiration to religion will flag, and I do not then where will the access lie to [the] practice of and deeper engagement with religion? The answer is the various forms of spiritual practice to which each is drawn in his/her own spiritual life. These may involve meditation, or some charitable work, or a study group, or some special form of prayer, or a host of such things.

We are the product of a long historical arc in which religion has withdrawn from both the cosmos and society, and in which greater and greater weight has been placed on the individual, on his or her subjectivity and inner depths, yet the longing for a source of meaning that transcends ordinary human life remains as powerful and necessary today as it was in 1500. The difference is that now this longing can be fulfilled in any number of ways, depending upon the individual: he or she might turn to Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or some less traditional path. We may be “just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching,” but this searching will take place in a pluralistic context in which different approaches to spirituality should, Taylor believes, both respect and inform one another.

Taylor’s ecumenical attitude is admirable, but he skirts what may be one of the most important aspects of the modern spiritual predicament. Given what most of us already believe—i.e., that all life forms on earth evolved over the course of hundreds of millions of years by natural selection—not only is it difficult to understand what it means to come into contact with a transcendent order, but different understandings of that order seem to entail radically conflicting claims of what the good is, and radically different understandings of how we should live. How are we to incorporate this dynamic, those fundamental conflicts, into a pluralistic society? “People with absolute values cannot be integrated into a democracy,” the young woman at the hearing in Montreal said, and the very idea of a transcendent order of the good seems to require some form of absolute values. After all, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and even atheism don’t just instruct individuals on what is important and how to live; they instruct all human beings. What is something “incomparably higher,” to use Taylor’s phrase, if it is relative and merely personal? He seems to have no answer to this question, though the sometimes convoluted prose of A Secular Society—and its sprawling length—suggests that he is frantically struggling with it.

Religion was very much in the air that December night at the Palais des congrès, as was the diversity of contemporary Quebec. An Algerian woman took the microphone and, ripping off her hijab, decried the ways in which women are infantilized in Muslim societies; another woman proclaimed that Christianity is the fundamental form of Occidental civilization; and a tva journalist muttered, “This has to be the weirdest hearing yet.” Taylor continued to takes notes, if a little morosely, and at the end of the hearing, rising to his considerable height, he made very general and not especially illuminating remarks on the place of religion in a multicultural society. Given the wild diversity of viewpoints aired with varying degrees of coherence and passion during the previous three hours, and presumably during the previous weeks, it is hard to imagine what sort of useful recommendations he and Bouchard will be able to come up with.

As I walked out of the Palais and back into the bitter snow and wind, I chatted with a young woman who is finishing her last year at the Université de Montréal. “When I hear someone speaking bad French, I feel offended,” she told me, echoing a sentiment expressed over and over during the course of the hearing—that immigrants need to learn French properly, that they need to appreciate the richness of Québécois culture, that they need to integrate. At first, this seemed to me wholly inconsistent with a diverse, multicultural, multi-religious society, and perhaps even racist, but then it struck me that in a secular society it is precisely these kinds of cultural baselines that make genuine diversity possible. Differences in cuisine and colour are neither deep nor interesting and are less and less relevant in our global society; differences in spiritual outlook are. The sweeping strength of A Secular Age rests in its great openness to human possibility, its often moving insistence that there is something more to human life than mundane happiness, a decent job, and a nice house, that we hunger for a source of meaning and goodness that transcends our individual lives. That each of us needs to search for a higher calling. As at the Palais, in A Secular Age Taylor appears caught between his own transcendent higher calling and the messy exigencies of everyday human life.

Daniel Baird
Daniel Baird is a regular contributor to The Walrus, Canadian Art, and Border-Crossings.