Charles Taylor is one of Canada’s great living philosophers, who has spent a career thinking about western thought and the transition from a pre-modern naive age of belief, when human ideas of the good life and flourishing (what he calls fullness) were linked to a transcendent reality, to modernity, when belief has become problematic for many. The story of how we got from the first stance to the second is long and fascinating, and I’m just starting to grapple with Taylor’s telling of to in his book The Secular Age (Belknap/Harvard UP, 2007).
In this passage from his introduction, Taylor sets out some of the consequences for living in an age when belief in a higher power cannot be taken for granted (what he calls “naive belief”, and where instead we believe according to whatever “construals” we deem best.
“… there is a condition of lived experience, where what we might call a construal of the moral/spiritual is lived … as an immediate reality, like stones, rivers, and mountains. And this plainly also goes for the positive side of things: e.g. , people in earlier ages of our culture, for whom moving to fullness just meant getting closer to God. The alternatives they lived in life were: living a fuller devotion, or going on living for lesser goods, at a continuing distance from fullness; being “devot” or “mondain”, in the terms of seventeenth-century France; not taking off after a different construal of what fullness might mean.
Now part of what has happened to our civilization is that we have largely eroded these terms of immediate certainty. That is, it seems clear that they can never be as fully (to us) “naive” as they were at the time of Hieronymus Bosch. But we still have something analogous to that, though weaker. I’m talking about the way the moral/spiritual life tends to show up in certain milieux. That is, although everybody has now to be aware that there is more than one option, it may be that in our milieu one construal, believing or unbelieving, tends to show up as the overwhelmingly more plausible one. You know that there are other ones, and if you get interested, then drawn to another one, you can perhaps think/struggle your way through to it. You break with yur believing community and become an atheist; or you go in the reverse direction. But one option is, as it were, the default option.
Now in this regard there has been a titanic change in our western civilization. We have changed not just from a condition where most people lived “naively” in a construal (par Christian, part related to “spirits” of pagan origin) as simple reality, to one in which almost no one is capable of this, but all see their option as one among many. We all learn to navigate between two standpoints: an “engaged” one in which we live as best we can the reality our standpoint opens us to; and a “disengaged” one in which we are able to see ourselves as occupying one standpoint among a range of possible ones, with which we have in various ways to coexist.
But we have also changed from a condition in which belief was the default option, not just for the naive but also for those who knew, considered, talked about atheism; to a condition in which for more and more people unbelieving construals seem at first blush the only plausible ones. They can only approach, without ever gaining the condition of “naive” atheists, in the way that their ancestors were naive, semi-pagan believers; but this seems to them the overwhelmingly plausible construal, and it is difficult to understand people adopting another. So much so that they easily reach for rather gross theories to explain religious belief: people are afraid of uncertainty, the unknown, they’re weak in the head, crippled by guilt, etc.
This is not to say that everyone is in this condition. Our modern civilization is made up of a host of societies, sub-societies and milieux, all rather different from each other. But the presumption of unbelief has become dominant in more and more of these milieux; and has achieved hegemony in certain crucial ones, in the academic and intellectual life, for instance; whence it can more easily extend itself to others” (pp. 12-13).
As a philosppher, Taylor’s project is to describe what happened to belief in the last five centuries than he is in offering prescriptions, though he has does have much to say that might be helpful to our society, where we have mostly and uneasily consigned belief to the private dimension of our lives and thus find it difficult to speak about it in the public sphere. It’s a big book, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it in future Friday Theology posts.