What Is Secularization?

A few days ago, Paul introduced us to secularization theory, and in particular to Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age. (Taylor’s other book, Sources of the Self, was the subject of an earlier post.) Taylor’s book is notable for going against the grain: at a time when most scholars are again recognizing the importance of religion, Taylor has undertaken to explain the old question of why societies become more secular. Why?

The phenomenon in need of explaining is this: religion can expand and secularization can occur at the same time in the same society. As Leigh Eric Schmidt observes in a review of Taylor’s book, “We must pair our narratives of modern secularization with narratives of modern sanctification.” Religion and secularization are “America’s uncanny twins.” (Do read at least the last paragraph of Schmidt’s review.)

Whatever the faults of Taylor’s history of secularization, Taylor offers a definition of secularization that is powerful enough to account for simultaneous religion and secularization. Taylor first offers two unsatisfactory definitions of secularization:

What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age? Almost everyone would agree that in some sense we do. . . .

But it’s not so clear in what this secularity consists. There are two big candidates for its characterization. . . . The first concentrates on the common institutions and practices—most obviously, but not only, the state. The difference would then consist in this, that whereas the political organizations of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection. Churches are now separate from political structures. . . .

[Taylor observes that some societies, notably the U.S., have a strong separation of church and state, yet are vigorously religious.]

In this second meaning, secularity consists in the falling off of religious belief and practice, in people turning away from God, and no longer going to Church. In this sense, the countries of western Europe have mainly become secular–even those who retain the vestigial public reference to God in public space. (1–2)

These definitions are useful as far as they go. Both are advantageous in that they can be turned into empirical questions. Both describe actual conditions, and can account for differences between, say, Europe and the United States. But Taylor offers a better, because more useful, definition of secularization:

Now I believe that an examination of this age as secular is worth taking up in a third sense, closely related to the second, and not without connection to the first. This would focus on the conditions of belief. The shift to secularity in this sense consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace. In this meaning, as against sense 2, at least many milieux in the United States are secularized, and I would argue that the United States as a whole is. Clear contrast cases today would be the majority of Muslim societies, or the milieux in which the vast majority of Indians live. It wouldn’t matter if one showed that the statistics for church/synagogue attendance in the U.S., or some regions of it, approached those for Friday mosque attendance in, say, Pakistan or Jordan (or this, plus daily prayer). That would be evidence towards classing these societies as the same in sense 2. Nevertheless it seems to me evident that there are big differences between these societies in what it is to believe, stemming in part from the fact that belief is an option, and in some sense an embattled option in the Christian (or “post-Christian”) society, and not (or not yet) in the Muslim ones. (2–3)

This is an elegant definition, even if the prose is not. The change that matters is that Christianity is no longer the only possible option in Western society. One might be a Christian, one might become a Buddhist, one might become an atheist, or might remain uncommitted. But everyone must choose, and that choice will be contested. As William James put it in“The Will to Believe,” the choice is genuine because it is “forced, living, and momentous.”

Taylor’s definition is elegant in that it can account historically for how secularization changes even fervent religious belief. There is, for example, an extraordinarily long continuity in Christian belief as expressed in creeds such as the Nicene Creed. If one grants that the words of the creed and the content of the belief are the same across time, yet one must observe that the meaning of that belief is different in fourth-century Constantinople, twelfth-century Rome, and twenty-first-century America, because the other options in which the believer might believe have changed.

To sum up: Taylor’s definition of secularization as having to do with “the conditions of belief” is useful because it can be historicized. This definition, which you can see in the above excerpts from Taylor’s first three pages, can be used apart from any particular historical narrative of secularization. But if you want to see how Taylor puts his definition to work, you’ll have to read the other 800 pages for yourself.