On Being Worldly in a Secular Age (Part One)

In his huge, prize-winning book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor distinguishes three forms of secularization. (1) The state and its governing apparatus deny religion an official or formal role in its functions. (2) Religion is removed from such social institutions as science and technology, business, civic and charitable associations, education, and recreation, while explicitly religious institutions lose influence. (3) Individuals in greater and greater numbers cease to practice religion and, more importantly, cease to feel religious feelings and ask religious questions. No country has ever become completely secular in all three senses. It is a matter of debate just how secular Western Europe and the United States have become; and it’s not my purpose to enter that debate.

Although these three forms of secularization differ and we can imagine one existing in a particular place without the other two, they seem to be related. It’s hard to imagine social institutions becoming secular unless the state had already moved some distance down that road. And it’s almost unthinkable that individuals would lose all religious awareness if they lived where the state and all social institutions reminded them constantly of the religious dimension. On the other hand, one can speculate that it might be harder for an individual living in a secular state and among secular social institutions to maintain a lively religious consciousness and robust religious practice.

Much debate among sociologists and historians of secularization focuses on the first two forms of secularization. My concern is with the third form, individual consciousness, and I am interested in the other two only insofar as they condition the third. As I have described it so far, we might get the impression that secular individuals possess no religious impulses but are otherwise the same as they would have been had they been religious; that is to say, the secular person has discovered not only that they don’t need religion but that they don’t even need a religion substitute. The function itself is superfluous. Taylor (The Secular Age) rejects this interpretation, and I agree.

Taylor criticizes what he calls the “subtraction” theory of secularization. Adherents of this theory understand secularization merely as the removal of all things religious from the state, society or individual consciousness. Everything remains the same apart from the presence of religion. Taylor argues against the subtraction theory that as religion is removed something else takes its place and plays the role it had played. The process of secularization includes not only subtraction but also addition and transformation.

Whereas in centuries past God, divine law, nature, and natural law provided a matrix of meaning outside and beyond the human sphere, the process of secularization transfers these functions to human beings. Human beings become the creators, lawgivers and controllers of the world. God’s creation becomes raw material to be shaped according to the creative will of human beings. Human nature becomes plastic to be molding according to individual and collective desires. In other words, the flip side of secularization in state, society and individual consciousness is deification of humanity collectively in the state or individually. To be continued…

In Part Two, we will examine the theological the concept of “worldliness” in its similarity and difference from secularity.

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