A Secular Age. By Charles Taylor. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007, x-873 pp., $48/Hardcover/Amazon
Taylor’s work must be read within the framework of a question he will not pose until the very first sentence of Chapter 1:
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 is not only easy, but even inescapable (page 25)?
In answering his own question, Taylor will, before he is done, elucidate how Western culture evolved from a saturation of the belief in God and an “ultimate reality” to what he will refer to as “exclusive humanism” (page 26).
In the Introduction, Taylor gives an intriguing definition of secularism, at least as far as Western culture goes (or as Taylor refers to it “the North Atlantic world”) by characterizing it as being free of the “adherence to God . . . or some notion of ultimate reality” (page 1). He contrasts this development with our distant historical past when “religion was ‘everywhere’” and “you couldn’t engage in any kind of public activity without ‘encountering God’.”
Three Views of Secularity
Taylor offers three views of secularity before taking up the third one as his focus. First, there is the view of secularity as simple emptying public spaces of any reference to God or ultimate reality (page 2). In this sense, he is referring to public space verses private space in which God is relegated to the private spaces. He cites the United States as a place where people successfully retain their religious beliefs while keeping them private. However, in his second view, Taylor describes secularity as society in which religious fervor and belief in God has suffered a “falling off” (page 2). Taylor’s third view of secularity, the idea of believing in God is simply “one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace” (page 3).
This third view seems to be a flowering of the first two. A society in which a belief in God is the norm, particularly the Judeo-Christian God, but which allows itself to become comfortable with the relegation of that belief increasingly to the private domain will, of necessity, begin to experience a “falling off” of religious fervor and observance, and ultimately become a society in which God is not only one option among many but one which is increasingly seen as old fashioned and un-enlightened.
Taylor goes on to describe what life according to this third view might feel like.
I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith. There will be people who feel bound to give it up, even though they mourn its loss (page 3, emphasis mine).
This last phrase reminds me of Nietzsche and his “God is dead!” declaration. In The Gay Science, Book 3, No. 125, found in the Madman, Nietzsche writes:
Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market – place calling out unceasingly: “I seek God! I seek God!” — As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why! Is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden ? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea-voyage? Has he emigrated?—the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. “Where is God gone?” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him, — you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forewards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? — for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knives ,— who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we clean ourselves? What festivals, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event,— and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history before this!” — Here the madman was silent and looked again at his listeners ; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. “I come too early,” he then said, “I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is travelling, — it has not yet reached men’s ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star, — and yet they have done it!” – It is further stated that the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam dec When led out and called to account, he always gave the reply: ” What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God? “
Here we see nihilism and the result of the scientific revolution on the human spirit. Is this not the ultimate result of life in Taylor’s third category? I rather think that it is one of two paths, the other being exclusive humanism.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Madman,” in The Gay Science, as quoted in The Portable Nietzsche, edited and Tranlated by Walter Kaufmann, (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 95-96.