How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor
James K.A. Smith
Reviewed by Brad Fruhauff
James Smith sets out to accomplish two main things in his short book. First: to paraphrase and condense Charles Taylor’s magisterial 2007 A Secular Age as “an homage and a portal” to the larger book. Second: to translate some of Taylor’s philosophical musings into practical questions for reflection for Christians in ministry or leadership contexts. It’s important to keep in mind that, unlike some accounts of secularism, this isn’t primarily about disarming the logic of secularity or explaining why the New Atheists are wrong. Nor is Smith about to use to Taylor to sound an altar call back to some foundational truth of Christianity as an antidote to secularity. It is neither polemic nor didactic in that way. It is, however, always intriguing and often illuminating. Thus it succeeds as an “homage.”
As a “portal,” frankly, I expect a lot of hurried and harried people could read this book and feel like they had some tools to reflect on secularity in their contexts—and they’d probably be right. But if you are at all interested in sophisticated accounts of why it feels like it does to be a believer (or nonbeliever) in the West in the 21st century, then Smith’s summary will inspire you to dare Taylor’s tome.
As the title suggests, Smith ultimately wants to steer his remarks to the practical questions regarding how (not) to be secular. What becomes apparent within a chapter or two, however, is that Smith (following Taylor) doesn’t mean “how to be spiritual as opposed to secular” in the way we might expect. It has to do with those somewhat precious postmodern parentheses which, though they may make you roll your eyes, do meaningful work. It is a book about both how to be and how not to be secular, but inasmuch as Taylor argues we are all (yes, all, Christians and people of other faiths included) secular, the “not” must be understood as somewhat hesitant, an interjection of a minority position within a dominating discourse, or a modest modification that does not seek to entirely negate.
Let me unpack this by describing a couple key moves in Taylor’s argument (as Smith describes it).
The secular, for Taylor, is not about the difference between monks and moneychangers, nor about a supposedly nonsectarian, rational public space or stance discovered by enlightened thought and signaling the death knell of religion (as in the “secularization hypothesis”). Secularity for Taylor describes a condition that affects us all even if we don’t think we subscribe to the philosophy underwriting it. In our secular age, we understand religious belief to be but one option among many, meaning religious belief is always a choice, never assumed, and can be contested. This is how even Christians are secular; we do not assume our beliefs are general and we think of ourselves as having chosen one stance among a host of possibilities that variously attempt to compete or coexist. Fundamentalism, under these conditions, means a stance that asserts itself absolutely without recognition of itself as a stance. Even an atheist can be a fundamentalist in these terms (you can supply your own examples, here).