One of the most important books to be published in these opening years of the 21stcentury in philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. It is the story of a cultural journey, tracing the steps involved in moving from a world in which belief was considered normative to the world in which we live today where that is no longer the case. The downside is that the book consists of 776 pages of densely argued prose. So we can be glad for James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular, weighing in at 139 pages, that admirably extracts and summarizes the heart of Taylor’s arguments and conclusions.
One fascinating point that Taylor makes is that the movement to secularism in society has an intense effect on how believers believe. Even if we are careful to remain orthodox in our religious convictions and practice, living in an age of unbelief means that our relationship to our faith will be markedly different from that of believers who lived, say, in Europe in 1500.
One way things is different, Taylor argues, is in what he terms the fragilization of belief. Smith defines it this way in his helpful Glossary:
Fragilization In the face of different options, where people who lead “normal” lives do not share my faith (and perhaps believe something very different), my own faith commitment becomes fragile—put into question, dubitable. (p. 141)
This fragilization is then increased by the fact that great numbers of people are not firmly embedded in any such context, but are puzzled, cross-pressured, or have constituted by bricolage a sort of median position. The existence of these people raises sometimes even more acute doubts within the more assured milieux. The polar opposites can be written off as just mad or bad, as we see with the present American culture wars between “liberals” and “fundamentalists”; but the intermediate positions can sometimes not be so easily dismissed. (p. 556-557)
The irony of all this, of course, is that Taylor may be correct in this—I am convinced he is—while we remain more or less unaware of the situation. We weren’t around 500 years ago, have grown up in our secular age, and so whatever it consists of is simply part of our normal. As I have read Taylor, on the other hand, my experience has been less learning something utterly alien so much as seeing what’s been in front of me all along but that I haven’t been able to name.