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How (Not) To Be Secular (2) – Secularism is Messy

We are prone to think in terms of belief versus disbelief, religion versus secularism, faith versus reason, and so on. But these maps are much neater and tidier than the spaces in which we live. On the one hand, faith endures in our secular age, on the other, believing doesn’t come easy. Our faith is confronted and confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. According to Taylor, we don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting.

Taylor writes that if we listened only to the new atheists, we would think that faith is dead; if we listened only to religious fundamentalists, we would think that nothing in belief has changed. Reality is much more complex and Taylor seeks to give words to the things that we feel, living in the world in which we live.

Taylor points out that we see not only belief contested, but also unbelief. The doubter doubts his lack of faith. The doubter’s temptation is to believe and it is a temptation that has not been entirely quelled. For we live in an age of contested belief. There are a number of rival stories always at the door, each offering a very different account of the world.

This is very different from the story that anti-religious bigots tell. According to them, once upon a time people believed in fairies and gods and demons and sprites. But we became rational and eventually gave naturalistic explanations for what we used to attribute to spirits and forces . As we did so the world became disenchanted. Religion and belief withered as science exorcised superstition. According to Taylor, this is over-simplistic. Secularism is not a “subtraction story”, it is not what we are left with when we rid ourselves of religious belief. Rather, it is a positive construction; secularism is something that was built by human beings over time (this is something that I’ll write more about later). We don’t recognize this because we love to dramatize things. And the “subtraction story” is dramatic!—there are heroes and martyrs, people like Galileo, and (religious) villains that stand in the way of scientific progress. Taylor affirms that we do need stories to help us understand who we are and where we fit in, but ultimately this “subtraction story” wherein belief and science triumph over superstition and repressive religion, this story that we have been telling ourselves for generations, is inadequate.

Instead, Taylor believes that secularity produces a lack of clarity, a messy confusion where everything is doubted. As one modern author put it “we are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many. Believer and unbeliever are in the same predicament, thrown back onto themselves in complex circumstances, looking for a sign.” This is a different environment than the one our ancestors inhabited. Moreover, whereas our society used to accept God and the burden was on the one who doubted, now society doubts and the burden is on the believer to justify himself. Ours is a secular age not because religious participation is waning, but because all meaning is contested. Religion is still popular. For every follower of Bertrand Russell there is a follower of Oprah or Elizabeth Gilbert and Tolkien still captivates wide audiences. The difference between our modern secular age and past ages is not necessarily the catalog of available beliefs but rather the default assumptions about what is believable.

Consider naturalism (i.e. the belief that only natural/material things exist).  I will write more about this later on, but according to Taylor naturalism isn’t a conclusion that we arrive at after long and scientific thought, it is an uncontested, hidden premise on which we base a number of our thoughts and which, in turn, influences a number of our conclusions. In regards to how this works, consider the following example. Imagine I went to France as a child and a Frenchman traumatized me by publicly humiliating and ridiculing my parents. (Note: I have never had a bad experience with a French person and I love French culture.) This event would change how I perceived French people moving forward. Every kind act would be received with suspicion—what are they really after? Every insult or perceived slight would be readily accepted as further proof that French people are rude to Americans. If the truth is that French people are kind and hospitable (as I believe they are), my hidden, unproven assumptions are going to make it very difficult for me to believe this. This is how naturalism, a key tenant of secularism, operates. Naturalism is not the conclusion we came to after deliberate and dispassionate thought, it is a (somewhat emotional) premise that influences our thought. Naturalism is not the object we see clearly through the lens of science, it is the tinted lens that colors how we view science. And this unproven premise, this lens, while not disproving faith, makes faith less immediately plausible.

In the same way, the underlying assumptions in the pre-modern West made faith easy to accept. They didn’t compel it, but most things assumed the truth of the Bible and the Gospel. The converse is true now: our underlying assumptions make it difficult to believe in the truth of the Bible and the Gospel. This seems like it would undermine faith, and it does, but that is not the complete story. These same doubts cut both ways—they not only undermine the belief of a believer, they undermine the lack of belief of a doubter. We don’t find ourselves in a world where belief is undermined and unbelief stands strong; secularism has created a world where all belief and unbelief is contested. Secularism is not a clear drama about the progress of science and the death of superstitious belief. Secularism is messy.