What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age? Almost everyone would agree that we - in the West, at least - largely do. And clearly the place of religion in our societies has changed profoundly in the last few centuries. In what will be a defining book for our time, Charles Taylor takes up the question of what these changes mean - of what, precisely, happens when a society in which it is virtually impossible not to believe in God becomes one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is only one human possibility among others.
Taylor, long one of our most insightful thinkers on such questions, offers a historical perspective. He examines the development in "Western Christendom" of those aspects of modernity which we call secular. What he describes is in fact not a single, continuous transformation, but a series of new departures, in which earlier forms of religious life have been dissolved or destabilized and new ones have been created.
As we see here, today's secular world is characterized not by an absence of religion - although in some societies religious belief and practice have markedly declined - but rather by the continuing multiplication of new options, religious, spiritual, and anti-religious, which individuals and groups seize on in order to make sense of their lives and give shape to their spiritual aspirations.
What this means for the world - including the new forms of collective religious life it encourages, with their tendency to a mass mobilization that breeds violence - is what Charles Taylor grapples with, in a book as timely as it is timeless.
©2007 Charles Taylor (P)2014 Audible Inc.
This was always going to be a challenging listen, because of its length and the complexity of its theme. But the reason I had to abandon it partway through had nothing to do with the content.
The written work includes frequent long (up to a paragraph in length) quotations from key thinkers in the original language, followed by a translation. For the audible version, it needed to be edited so that only the translation was narrated. I don't know anybody who can translate mediaeval Latin or 18th century French by ear while driving a car down the motorway, so including the original texts added nothing. As the book progressed, I became increasingly frustrated at having to listen to several minutes of incomprehensible narration before getting to the translation.
As the narrative of the book moved to consider the thinkers of 17th and 18th century France, my frustration was increased by the grating, truly bad French accent of the narrator, and for the first time I had to abandon an audio book in the middle
500 years ago, almost everyone was religious. "God" was assumed to be self evident as a power in the World. So how did we get to this, our secular age, where belief is often seen as irrational, mainstream religion is in decline, and the diversity of beliefs and unbelief have gone supernova? This is the central question Taylor addresses in this fascinating, detailed and intellectually rich magnum opus.
This is not a book for the faint hearted - several chapters were so complex, I had to listen hard, with full attention, and often go back more than once to really understand them. Once "in the groove" however, I found the fullness of Taylor's analysis, and the breadth of his understanding, awesome.
This is an account of the evolution of Western thought over the past 1000 years and beyond - not just an evolution of ideas, but in what Taylor calls our "Social Imaginary". He evocatively traces how the Mediaeval "porous" self, within an "enchanted" Cosmos, where dis-ease in nature reflected disease of spirit, where witches & demons, saints and relics had power, and transcendent & imminent worlds coalesced in a mutually supporting hierarchy of the "chain of being" - God, King, Priests, Barons, Surfs etc. as a unity of community and Cosmos - how this evolved through the Reformation and Enlightenment, through attempts (ironically) to reform the laity to the highest standards of piety, and became our modern day secular "buffered" humanistic individualistic self, living in a "disenchanted" imminent mechanistic universe.
What Taylor is attempting to refute are the prevalent "subtraction" narratives: that we have "grown up" out of religion, casting off childish superstition and ignorance, to be replaced by science and rational secular humanism. These subtraction accounts are compelling, and heroic, but totally unsupported by history. We are here because, not in spite of, our cultural roots. For example modern humanist values are traceable back to Christian values of "agape" as universal concern for others and we often forget that the precursors of our hospitals, universities and all forms of social care were founded and for centuries run, by the Church.
As for the future of religion, Taylor presents an optimistic and well argued case for a resurgence of interest in diverse forms of "transcendent" spiritual expression, and argues against the subtractionist view that religion will fade out as an unnecessary historical encumbrance. Imminent pleasures alone are insufficient, we need the transcendent dimension to re-discover the vivid fullness of life.
So, in conclusion, more than most audiobooks, listen to the sample before you buy. One thing that helped me was the narration by Dennis Holland in a pleasing and relaxed Canadian accent (Taylor is Canadian). Some short passages were in Latin, French or German, but for me, this did not detract.
Overall, whatever your views on religion, this audiobook is an erudite and ultimately highly enriching listen - but it does require some intellectual heavy lifting!
"Needs Guest Narrators for French and German"
It's great to have such a serious academic title available on audio, but the publisher, Audible Studios, need to seriously reconsider using English language narrators for the many long passages in French or German. Audible Studios produces French and German audiobooks for their foreign .fr and .de sites, so this is hardly beyond their resources or competence. Holland makes so many errors with his French, and his German is simply growling, guttural English (not remotely like anything that sounds like German and utterly unintelligible), that the foreign language passages, which frequently come in the space of every couple minutes, make the book an unnecessarily painful experience for the many multilingual listeners who are likely to be among its audience. Passages shouldn't be unintelligible just because they're in a foreign language, especially for listeners fluent in those languages.
Prospective listeners not fluent in French or German needn't be put off from the book in that all such passages are translated after the initial (horrific) reading.
I still give the book 4 stars overall, as any audio production of a 900-page tome from Harvard Press is a considerable service. Holland well captures Taylor's meditative yet embattled tone, though the book lacks structure and I think promises more than it delivers in terms of its thesis.
"The Path to Exclusive Humanism"
One can see the development of the western societies as a road to progressive secularization, a way that leads to a social organization in with religious beliefs are no more necessary to explain the human life. This narrative, Charles Taylor convincingly argues, is questionable and has alternatives. The development of science and the reinvention of the individual aren't incompatible with the desire of transcendency. Modern societies show the revival of religious beliefs - the author refers the examples of the United States and Latin American countries - and entertain ideas and institutions based in a conception of the human that is not exclusively naturalistic. This is a most read book by whom wants to understand postmodern human society.
"Covers a lot of territory"
Very thorough discussion of the secular age. Often seems to argue that Christianity is not in anyway affected by the arguments of the naturalist and materialist. One of the best books someone has ever read to me.
"Long, winding, but worthwhile"
I will have to listen to it again. This book is quite expansive, so some background in history and philosophy would be helpful.
"The Hermeneutics of Divine Reason"
Unlike most people, I enjoy it when Jehovah Witnesses come to my door. The first thing I do is take them out of their "closed world system" (a term used by this author) and try to figure out why they believe the book they have in their hand is the "inerrant word of God". I want to know how they justify their original premises before I give their selective scripture reading any merit. Similarly, Freudian Psychology (Psychoanalysis) can never be argued against effectively if you grant their major premises, such as "we our all repressed, because after all you even deny that your repressed". In the end Psychoanalysis was refuted when data was brought in from outside the paradigm and started showing how much more effective CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) was (for a marvelous book on that topic I would recommend "Shrink").
The fault I have with this book is the author always presents the secular arguments in terms of his belief systems. He just assumes that Objective Morality is a real thing, that "why are we here", "what's our purpose", and how do we practice 'agape' are valid questions. For people who think those kind of questions are meaningful and for people who think faith ('pretending to know things you don't really know without sufficient reason or evidence") is what makes us special and gives us goodness this book would be a definite recommended read.
As for me, I think Objective Morality is an oxymoron ('objective' means taking man and his opinions based on feelings out of the definition, and morality is the act of doing good and not harm within humanity, and when you combine the two concepts you get a contradiction since morality is subjective and can't be understood without humans). People of faith belong at the children's table, because they think like children and haven't yet learned to embrace rational narratives based on reason, empirical data, and models that predict (and retrodict). I think that Steinback is right when the preacher says to Tom Joad, "there ain't no virtue, there ain't no sin, there's just people doing things. "That's a very Epicurean way of seeing the universe. The author sees the world from a stoic perspective. He would believe that sin and virtue are part of the universe and exist independent of man. The author will step the listener though on how Christianity (or using his Transcendent Transformational belief system as a generic stand in for Christianity) comes about through Stoic thought and the immanent (once again using the author's nomenculture) flows from Titus Lucretius Epicurean thought.
The author really did not seem to like Evolutionary Psychology (he calls it Socio-biology which is fine) and i's power to explain. He thought that God designed it or made it so were better explanations for altruism and groups working together or even difference between the genders. That's fine. The book was published in 2007 and obviously written over a long period of time before it was published and Evolutionary Psychology has just only recently come into it's own. I was irritated by his trivializing the Western Allies in WW I and implying that both sides were to blame for the war and how it wasn't worth the sacrifice. He did that multiple parts throughout the book. I really would recommend he read Max Hastings book, "Catastrophe: 1914". Germany started the war with it's "blank check" to Austria, Germany wanted complete hegemony through out Europe, they really did kill Belgium babies, and systemically were hierarchically ordered to put Belgian civilians on bridges as shields against attack, and made the war about total conquest. As for me, I believe the sacrifice the allies made in WW I were noble, and necessary as a bulwark against German Hegemony and to state differently goes against well respected historians such as Max Hastings.
The author really doesn't seem to like "The Age of Enlightenment" (1700s France, Germany and Britain). Most of the book is reaction against enlightenment thought. He'll quote Edmund Burke and always seems to fall back on respecting authority over science, and question the importance of the scientific process in the dismantling of the "Enchanted World". The author definitely downplays the role that science, diversity, and questioning knowledge based on authority alone has in the development of secular thought. Also, he keeps asking why during the 16th and 17th century there were so few self confessed secular believers. I suspect it had something to do with being put to death or ostracized or imprisoned if you stated you were a non-believer. It would be equivalent to asking today "why are there so few atheist in Saudi Arabia". It's obvious, if you say you are or talk about why secularism might be reasonable you can get 1000 lashes (yes, that is the current penalty in Saudi Arabia for thinking outside of the norm).
Even though, the author argues his points completely within the context of his major premises, I can still strongly recommend this book. He never talks down to the listener and is constantly teaching the listener. He doesn't miss a major thought from the Masters of Suspicion (Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche) or the users of Hermeneutics (Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Sartre, and Camus). The best way to really learn a subject is not to study it in the original form but to see it applied in another form. I didn't really understand algebra until I took calculus, and I didn't understand calculus until I took real analysis. This book is full of complex applications within the context of the author's major premises. I definitely don't agree with his premises, but I love putting my previous understandings into application in order to further understand. I fully understand more about Nietzsche than I learned from listening to an 8 hour lecture series from the Great Courses after having listened to this book.
The author also appeals to the 'lived' time that Bergson creates as a reaction to Einstein taking time out of the universe by doing away with simultaneity and making the universe as a whole part of 'block time' instead. That leads to Heidegger's (who this author definitely likes and quotes throughout the book) "Being and Time" which I've been currently reading and this book has given insights into what I had been reading.
I can recommend this book for those who have faith and believe that is a good thing, or for those who think faith is a silly thing. The only warning I would give is the author is going to use words like Hermeneutics and just expect the listener knows what is meant by that. I don't think I would have been able to read this book in book form since the author appeals to his Hermeneutics of Divine Reason as a given through out the book, but while listening to it I found it easy to zone out and wait for the story to edify me about so many different schools of modern philosophy.
"secularism as conscious, deliberate choice"
Taylor's book, long, often wordy and perhaps needlessly complex, nonetheless is a must read for people of faith living in the the North Atlantic nations. A Secular Age explains why believers are so often like the man in the gospels who cried out to Christ, "Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief. It also explains the difference between Christianity as practiced and explained south of the equator from the same faith north of the equator, a matter Phillip Jenkins has described so well. I am certainly the richer for the hours spent listening and pondering this most important work.
"Very wordy, rambling and pointless discourse"
I was listening to this for several hours and felt more and more like this book was a word salad. I rambles back and forth over thousands of years of history without any clear point. It is like reading Proust, if you ever lost your place you would never be able to find where you left off. You can summarize the whole book by saying "The author vaguely argues that society would be better of if the people had a religion." I had to quit and give it up as a waste of time.
The Phenomenology of Being, Hegel.
It was adequate. I did turn the speed up to 1.5 of 2x to make the material more listenable but it still droned at that speed.
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