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Charles Taylor’s monumental (or at least huge) A Secular Age is, I suppose, old news already, but, as usual, it has taken me a long time to figure out how to undo Taylor with his own statements, and so now of course I have to share. Finally I’ve figured out this out, and I thought you readers, swimming in the sea of a secular age, might want to know just what’s wrong with the water. Why, you ask, does Taylor’s book matter (apart from the cathartic effects for your humble servant)? For the same reason it is instructive to know, for example, just what is fundamentally wrong with the project of John Rawls’ “liberalism” (which I could also tell you about sometime, if you really wanted to know): Taylor’s fame and prestige make it very probable that the sensibility he expresses (a warm respect for religion, as long as it does not make any unseemly or backward personal or political demands) is shared by many influential minds. So if we can pinpoint the blindspot of this prevalent and prestigious sensibility, that might matter, no? Well, indulge me, in any case.

Charles Taylor’s 800-plus-page A Secular Age is rich and learned, but it is also exasperating in its prolixity and looseness of structure. No doubt Taylor is now too famous to accept the advice of any editor who might be brave enough to offer some; consequently, the book is rife with repetitions, with lengthy asides that recall or anticipate themes addressed elsewhere in the same book, with the re-introduction of concepts already introduced in early chapters, often re-labeled by yet another neologism, and with often rather breezy reformulations of arguments already presented. But these formal flaws in Taylor’s argument are not the main difficulty of the book. The fatal weakness of Taylor’s approach is that he fails to deal with the central problem of political philosophy — the necessity of harmonizing or at least coordinating city and soul — and ends up surrendering to secularism by simply wishing the essential political problem would go away.

Taylor’s failure or disinclination directly to address the political significance of the public/private distinction is closely connected with what we might call his “post-metaphysical” account of religion. By focusing on the “pre-ontology” or “conditions” of belief, Taylor from the outset downplays the cognitive dimension of religion. He is interested in “different kinds of lived experience involved in understanding your life in one way or the other” (5), not in belief and unbelief as “rival theories” of existence or of morality. (4) But politics cannot be detached from a shared understanding of the way things are. And so, by preemptively relegating “religion” to the non-cognitive realm of “pre-ontological” experience, Taylor concedes the game to secularism from the first pages of his book.

Nevertheless, as little inclined as he is to connect the pre-ontological with the metaphysical, the religious “experience” with cognitive assertions, Taylor cannot avoid make certain claims about the way things are, or at least the way human things are. [To be continued . . . ]

More on: Books, Culture, Religion

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