If you’re reading this blog, chances are you know someone who has de-converted from Christianity or lost their faith in some way. It’s also pretty likely that this person has cited science as a catalyst for that rejection: they finally had a serious encounter with Darwin in college, started reading Richard Dawkins, or some such experience that forced them to accept that what we know about the natural world makes Christian belief impossible.
If you do know such a person or if that person happens to be you, I hope what follows—some fragments from my reading of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, illustrated with my own religio-biography—will urge you to pick up the doorstop of a book that we’ve referenced several times on this blog, and which will only by superhuman effort be surpassed as the most significant contribution to philosophy of religion in the 21st century. I will be cutting and pasting and crudely lopping off corners to serve my purposes, but hopefully it can still provide a taste.
Toward the end of the book, Taylor attempts a textured, multidimensional account of why so many Westerners increasingly see “closed-world structures”—worldviews that posit nothing beyond the natural world—as unquestionable, established matters of fact, as “the way things are.” His argument in the preceding pages has been that there is nothing in our modern scientific understanding of the world that gives us definitive answers about whether there is anything “out there.” Both belief and unbelief are “construals” of how and why we are on this planet. Taylor wants to understand how the closed-world “spin” on the facts has, particularly among the Western educated and élite, become virtually unrecognizable as one explanation among others as opposed to the supreme, unquestioned one.
Taylor argues that our “immanent frame”—our “disenchanted” modern understanding of ourselves in a world operating by natural processes without magic or divinity—does push us toward denying any “beyond” to our universe. Absorbed in the narrative of materialist progress from birth, many Westerners consider themselves rational agents who know, thanks to the “facts” discovered by natural science, that myths and religion are obsolete:
…the central idea seems to be that the whole thrust of modern science has been to establish materialism. For the people who cling to this idea, the second order of conditions, the contemporary moral predicament, is unnecessary or merely secondary. Science alone can explain why belief is no longer possible … This is a view can be held by people on all levels; from the most sophisticated: “We exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of physical relations among material entities,” to the most direct and simple: Madonna’s “material girl, living in a material world.” … Religion or spirituality involves substituting wrong and mythical explanations, explaining by “demons.” At bottom it’s just a matter of facing the obvious truth. (8893/561) 
This view, according to Taylor, does not follow from the evidence provided by natural science, which is inconclusive on questions like “Does God exist?” or “What is good?” Nevertheless, many people who live in a materialist worldview believe that science has, for example, “disproven” that God exists. And around this construal of the situation has grown up a powerful story about why other people continue to believe in gods despite the overwhelming “evidence,” and why even some hardened materialists are prone to have moments of doubt: we want to make up myths about reality to give ourselves the illusion of meaning and purpose in human life. But on this view, which goes back as far as the Victorian era, it is our duty to “put away the childish things” of religion and face the pitiless reality that “God is dead.” Mature adults have the courage to live without the illusions of religion, and to “affirm human worth, and the human good, without false illusion or consolation” (8905). This story is so dominant in some parts of society that no one who believes it sees it as a story about reality that is, as Taylor puts it, “shot through with values” and “leaps of faith.” Even former religious believers tend to take it up as the reality that’s left when the illusions of religion are subtracted; countless loss-of-faith stories follow the familiar path of an earnest believer agonizing with the realities of science and concluding he must grow up and give up his childish religious illusions.
This is the story I would have told about myself at a certain point: I grew up in an environment where not believing in God was unimaginable; plenty of people weren’t “right with God,” but they still knew he was judging them. I had a primary education most people would consider fundamentalist (Darwinism was a hoax, Columbus was a God-ordained missionary to the savages, the American founders were Biblical literalists, liberal elites were trying to set up a “one-world government,” etc.) though, thanks to Francis Schaeffer, it fatefully included Greek philosophy and existentialist literature. At some point during and after college, I became aware the extent to which conservative evangelicals made up facts to support their predetermined beliefs, many of which had little basis in scripture or church tradition. I became aware of the difficult theological questions that never got satisfying answers, like why a loving, omniscient God would set humankind up to plunge itself into unimaginable tragedy. I experienced the power of alternative answers to the deepest questions in films and novels; books on history, anthropology and natural science convinced me that the only religious belief possible was a weak, theologically empty one whose pointlessness was almost immediately obvious. I was an accidental materialist, a believer overwhelmed by the facts.
The problem with this, in Taylor’s account, is that it’s only one side of the story, the side that gets privileged in our “theory-oriented” enlightened culture, where we “live in our heads, trusting disengaged understandings of experience” (8792). People who have given up Christianity because of science often feel they have simply surrendered to obvious facts, which in a sense means they have. But only in a sense, because our construals of how and why the world is meaningful are “anticipatory,” meaning they run ahead of our rational explanations. The background world of what makes sense to us shifts ahead of us having theoretical reasons for why we changed our mind. So the poor Christian victims of Darwin are not in fact forced to abandon their faith because “science disproved the Bible”—it didn’t. Natural science is, in Taylor’s view, neutral on the God question. We feel a change in our pre- or sub-theoretical understanding of the world (which may have at least something to do with intellectual engagement), and the story about why that happened comes afterward .
Several years and some graduate school after my “deconversion,” I began to realize the story I had told myself of a systematic changing of my beliefs through argument was about as accurate as most movies that claim to be “based on true events.” In one sense, that theoretical story was true: intellectual advances I made during high school and college and after continually forced me to rethink my faith, and factual information and rational arguments played a significant role in undermining it. But my experience of the world also dramatically expanded during that time (through moves and travel), and my milieu changed significantly several times on the path from a tiny, homogenous conservative Christian town to an enormous, multicultural secular-progressive city. I experienced more places, people, art and information in a period of a few years than in my previous life combined, which shattered many of the stereotypes, prejudices and preconceived notions that made up the environment where my faith had once made sense. My “world”—in the Heideggerian sense of our “lived experience,” the non-theoretical background way things make sense to us—shifted to the extent that things I previously believed would eventually come to seem unimaginable.
But this did not happen primarily on an explicit, theoretically-engaged level; it happened “in the background,” in routines of daily life. Religious critics suggested as much—that I was sliding away from “the truth” only because of my environment, because I wanted to be “cool.” I strenuously objected that all this was, on the contrary, the product of Serious Reading and Good, Solid Intellectual Arguments. Most of us like to believe we have well-grounded, dispassionate reasons for our behavior and beliefs. But Taylor, following Heidegger, says this doesn’t really get at why we slide around the belief scale; rational explanations “give too much place to changes in belief, as against those in experience and sensibility” (9092). My critics were correct that something else besides just theories and arguments was driving the shift . The intellectual dimension was a real, but it was pulled along by massive changes in experience, and my changing sense of what kind of person I wanted to become.
Another of Taylor’s observations is that people like me don’t just convert out of Christianity, we convert into something else, usually an “exclusive humanist” worldview. It’s not a matter of coming out of the cave into the daylight, it’s a matter of a new, more or less equally faith-based story eclipsing the old one’s explanatory power:
What happened here was not that a moral outlook bowed to brute facts. Rather we might say that one moral outlook gave way to another. Another model of what was higher triumphed. And much was going for this model: images of power, of untrammelled agency, of spiritual self-possession. On the other side, one’s childhood faith had perhaps in many respects remained childish; it was all too easy to come to see it as essentially and constitutionally so.
What I converted to was not, as I understood it at the time, some sort of objective “view from nowhere” outlook that only had beliefs to the extent their truth could be demonstrated empirically. It was rather, as Taylor puts it, “a certain package uniting materialism with a moral outlook, the package we could call ‘atheist humanism,’ or exclusive humanism” (9034), or, as we could perhaps even better call it, “dull, platitudinous liberalism.” It’s amusing now how little this new philosophy intrinsically had to do with the materialism I’d become convinced of. Nothing about individual liberty, human rights, or civilizational progress follow automatically from the fact that “God is dead.” The new picture is “shot through with values” (8869), however insistently it takes itself to “emerge out of careful, objective, presuppositionless scrutiny” (8890). There are as many value judgements in liberal humanism as there are in its parent religion, and many people who come to the point of unbelief are happy to accept them despite objecting to the similar ungroundedness of Christianity. It has a certain noble appeal: we’re good Westerners who can no longer believe in God, but are still heirs of a great civilization who can press on, being as reasonable and dispassionate as possible, for the sake of humanity. It explains why we used to believe the myths and shrouds our disenchantment in courage and moral duty; it’s no surprise a great number of homeless ex-believers end up there.
The point is not to insult liberal humanism; after all, there are far worse things. The point is to remind us that it is a construal in a culture where it tends to assert itself as natural and uncontroversial, to all sorts of cultural and political detriment that I can’t get into here. I hope, if possible, people who have had the privilege of going between, of actually feeling the persuasive power of different kinds of construals that co-exist in our culture, can elevate the conversation above the crude Doug Wilson vs. Christopher Hitchens-type spectacle that is so clickable. I think reading Taylor is an excellent tonic; even a few chapters of A Secular Age will do those hovering between belief and unbelief far more good than the collected works of “Ditchkins.” Ending up in a “cross-pressured” no-man’s land—torn between immanence and transcendence—may feel inconclusive, but it’s creatively productive, and is certainly better than exchanging one half-baked ideology for another . One needn’t remain religious to admit potential harm in the lack of self-awareness in certain secular construals of the world, and to be able to see religious belief, with a kind humility and respect, as a construal that can be equally as plausible as our own. And one that is to be studied carefully, especially by philosophy and politics, for its crucial insights about human be-ing.
For those who inhabit a religious construal, and are perhaps working to deepen, enrich, and preserve it, there are also important lessons to be found in Taylor (who is, after all, on your side). I’ll address one to evangelical Protestantism, since I know it best: the unqualified disaster of apologetics that have focused on rational-empirical argumentation as a means of persuasion, intensifying the already-problematic tendency of Protestantism to be in one’s head than in the practices of one’s body. The thrust of “resurgent” evangelical activity in my lifetime has been mostly to embrace and even radicalize the most harmful features of the modern obsession with rational control. If you can begin to pull your religion out of that abyss, there’s no telling what a powerful countercurrent it might become.
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1. Citations are from the digital edition, which unfortunately doesn’t include original page numbers.
2. Where Taylor might be critiqued is in his account of contemporary natural science; I think many people working in the rapidly-progressing and mind-bending scientific disciplines would very much dispute his insistence that they do no particular damage to a religious construal of the world. Of course they do, and I say that as someone prepared to keep a pretty tight rein on what science is allowed to be said to “explain.” Contemporary science is so mind-boggling that it’s driving even Continental philosophers, so recently (in)famous for being the deconstructors of scientific hubris, to bow to it. It may not tell us anything in particular about how to leave meaningfully or ethically, but it can make it virtually impossible to believe we can know anything in particular about some real divine being, much less communicate with it. But Taylor’s probably got me again here: I’m not doing those experiments myself, I’m taking scientists’ word for them, I’m taking massive leaps of faith, believing a story I’ve chosen to believe. Science may make it virtually impossible to believe for a person like me living the kind of life I live, but that’s not the same for everyone in my own country or even my own family.
3. This parallels somewhat Jonathan Haidt’s argument in The Righteous Mind that we make moral decisions based on intuition, and work out reasons for those judgements afterward.
4. A version of this same dynamic played out in the recent dust-up over the pastor Tim Keller’s reported comment that a major hindrance to Christian revival was the fact that a majority of young believers are having premarital sex, and his reference to a pastor friend who said there was usually a connection between young evangelicals’ “sexual sin” and the emergence of religious doubt. It’s always struck me that evangelical leaders are so eager to attribute questioning to “sin” or “worldliness” or desire to fit in, perhaps to avoid having to give serious answers. But on the Taylorian view I’m presenting here, something like having premarital sex against the teachings of your religion could in fact lead to a “shift in experience and sensibility,” and thus spark new intellectual activity.
- Elma Sherry on New Sincerity Sighting: Normcore Fashion
- Christopher Hazell on Conservative Intellectuals and the Politics of Literature
- AC700 on Rod Dreher, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, and Me
- Matthew Loftus on Rod Dreher, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, and Me
- AC700 on Rod Dreher, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, and Me
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