By Chet Yarbrough
A Secular Age
By: Charles Taylor
Narrated by: Dennis Holland
Charles Taylor (Author, philosopher)
Charles Taylor is in his 90s. This 42-hour exploration of the Western hemisphere’s transition from religious to secularist belief is daunting and enlightening. One is reminded of the evolving framework of belief in the death of God initiated by Nietzsche and sustained by Camus. Nietzsche, and Camus suggest humanity is on its own. There is no heaven. There is no hell. These two philosophers imply there is only a life one chooses to live. Taylor circles and circles this argument but never agrees. Taylor argues the western world has arrived at “A Secular Age”, not meaning God is dead but that western society’s view of God has evolved and is evolving.
Taylor writes the history of how the western world became the exemplar of “A Secular Age”. Taylor does not suggest western philosophy is ahead or behind eastern philosophies like Buddhism with its Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, and reincarnation. Secularism and Buddhism are similar in their emphasis on societal self-worth. What Taylor illustrates is the wide gulf between eastern fundamentalist religious belief and the secular evolution of western religions.
To some, God is not dead in the west, but He/She seems to some to be on life support. Taylor suggests that is a premature conclusion.
Taylor notes eastern nations did not follow the humanist history of the west and is not a significant part of his research for this book. However, he acknowledges a humanist’ perspective in eastern Buddhism. The Buddhist’ objective is to find the path of enlightenment with reincarnated lives, seeking Nirvana (a transcendent state where suffering, desire, and self are embodied within one’s peaceful existence). Buddhism’s focus on ethical behavior might be considered analogous to living a secular life. However, Taylor notes a significant difference, i.e., Buddhist’ belief includes supernatural figures that either help or hinder Buddhist followers from finding the path of enlightenment. In Taylor’s parlance, a Buddhist remains a believer in enchantment whereas a western secularist abandons enchantment.
Buddhism departs from secularism because of its belief in supernatural influences.
The struggle of “A Secular Age” is in medical diagnosis and therapeutic treatment rather than singular dependence on God’s wrath or grace. In the western world, transcendence becomes more a human rather than Godly resolution of human crises.
In Taylor’s history of the “…Secular Age”, religion and belief in God remain a force in the 21st century. God is not dead in the west to those who believe.
However, Taylor’s response to a question about the existence of God is alleged to be: “There’s probably no God: now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Taylor acknowledges stories like Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” in the “Brothers Karamazov”, a poem by Wordsworth like “Dover Beach”, and philosophical treatises by Nietzsche and Camus that literarily address the existence and diminishment of enchantment in the western world. The breadth of Taylor’s knowledge and research for “A Secular Age” is remarkable.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (Author, Russian novelist, 1821-1881 Died at age 59)
Taylor gives us a credible history of change from the age of enchantment to “A Secular Age”. However, there remains no definitive answer to what the world is about, what life means, or where “understanding of life” is heading.
Douglas Adams (Author, humorist, satirist.)
So, what is the world about, and what is the meaning of life? At the end of Taylor’s tome, one comes to the same conclusion as Douglas Adam’s comically suggested number, “42”.
In broad terms, Taylor suggests human evolution and history are origins of Western civilization’s secularization. His supporting arguments are many with the advance of science playing a smaller role than one might expect. His reasoning reaches back to the stone age, advancing through to the 21st century. The range of his reasoning, and the length of his book, raises the scholarly value of his book but diminishes its appeal to a lay audience.