There’s been a flurry of non-academic attention to Charles Taylor’s work on secularism in the recent past, not just on this blog but also in the mainstream media. The latest iteration of is this post by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, and this follow-up by Damon Linker, both of which deal with Taylor’s concept of the “buffered self” and question Taylor on whether or not the modern experience is really secular in the way he argues.

In A Secular Age, Taylor argues that there has been a major shift in the “background” of what it’s like to experience the world; we no longer experience the world as “enchanted” or as a cosmic whole with a deep explanation of what our lives within it mean. Pre-modern humans had “porous selves”; they didn’t see themselves as closed-off individual units separated from God, nature, and invisible forces. Now, following in the legacy of Descartes, we have developed “buffered selves”; we are self-contained atoms, enclosed minds who are not in any deep way connected to other individuals or to a grand cosmic order (what Taylor would call “the sacred”). We can still be religious, but the character of our sacred experience is different than it was 500 or 1,000 years ago. Now, no matter how religiously convinced we may be, we know that there are other options—other religions, no religion—that explain our existence. Even believers are “secular” in the sense that we live in an age of fractured explanations about why we’re here and what it means.

Douthat is skeptical that modernity has actually changed “the lived, felt substance of religious experience itself”; he wonders whether the detached, reflexive modern experience that Taylor takes to be definitive is actually “an ideological superstructure that imposes an interpretation after the fact.” (In other words, maybe we have “real” sacred experiences and then our modern, rational minds force them into a skeptical narrative afterward.) Linker is even more strongly critical of Taylor, suggesting that the characterization of modernity as “essentially secular” (Linker’s words) is “obviously wrong”; since historical epochs don’t have essences, there’s no reason they can’t be both enchanted and disenchanted at the same time—which is how you get atheists in Cambridge and Pentecostals in Alabama during the same supposedly-secular age.

Though they have located some points on which Taylor should be interrogated, I’m not sure these skeptical comments account for the full complexity of the argument. Taylor does think that modern experience, including modern religious experience, is “subtly but importantly different” than, say, life in the Middle Ages. He does think there is a sense in which secularism affects everyone, even those who remain religious. But “secularism” here is deliberately not rigidly defined; in fact, Taylor has three definitions of it that he uses in different parts of A Secular Age (outlined on p. 20). That secularism in some form or another is pervasive—a more precise description of Taylor’s view than Linker’s “essential”—does not mean that genuine sacred experience is no longer possible at all. (In fact, the larger argument of A Secular Age is that it is still possible.)

Taylor addresses the plethora of modern orientations toward divinity in two concepts he calls the “nova effect” and the “immanent frame.” The nova effect is the splintering of worldviews brought about by modern skepticism; against modern theorists who think modernity is on a progressive march to a secular finale, Taylor argues that modernity is fractured—no single view dominates everywhere. All of us who grow up in the modern Western world live in an “immanent frame,” a society where a general secular orientation and a diversity of views is an inescapable, lived-and-breathed reality. But the immanent frame is not the iron cage that Linker seems to accuse Taylor of thinking; it can be either “open” or “closed” to sacred experience. So for people like Douthat and Linker, the frame is “open”; they presumably still have religious experience, are still able to encounter the divine in some way similar to how our pre-modern ancestors did. But while this experience may be both completely genuine and similar to religious experience of the past, Taylor would argue that it is “subtly but importantly different.”

Douthat and Linker both seem to interpret Taylor saying that the modern sacred experience is “different” as meaning that it is basically impossible. But Taylor’s contention that secularity is pervasive does not mean religious experience cannot still be fully felt and thoroughly real; it means that it cannot avoid entirely the sense that something is different than the way it “used to be.” Maybe Pentecostals in Alabama live in an “enchanted world” in every sense of the phrase, with a real God and real demons that provoke within them real spiritual love and real, bone-chilling fear. But though this enchantment still exists, it is now experienced alongside feelings of change or loss or complication, the “malaise of modernity,” as Taylor titled a 1991 lecture. That malaise can be anything from worry about individualism or narcissism or permissive sexual mores to “the sense that lives have been flattened and narrowed” (The Malaise of Modernity, 4).

To say that these are pervasive concerns in the modern West is an understatement, and they filter all the way down—and are perhaps felt most acutely—in religious communities that still live in enchanted worlds. Even in the most isolated corners of religious experience, people know that lots of other people belong to other religions or to no religion, and that people see religious experience as impossible, outdated, crazy, etc. No matter how real the experience is, it’s “subtly but importantly different” in that it is no longer absolute and unquestionable, even for the most convinced.

Douthat and Linker are not the first to argue that Taylor overestimates the extent to which modern individuals are really as “buffered” or “disengaged” from larger conceptions of meaning. For instance, Peter Gordon’s critique of A Secular Age went along these lines, arguing that Taylor treats Cartesian disengagement “as if it were the actual experience of modern selfhood when it is arguably only a prejudicial and inaccurate model common to a certain class of philosophers” (Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 69 No. 4, 668).

Perhaps this is indeed an ambiguity or contradiction in Taylor’s argument, but I would argue again that Taylor’s account of the rise of the detached self does not have to mean that modern experience is a universal, uncomplicated, mind-centered Cartesianism. The claim is more modest; it describes a shift from a time when virtually no one saw themselves as a brain in a head to a time when almost everyone in the Western world does, including the most orthodox believer. For example, Taylor highlights how we “accuse each other of ‘magical thinking,’ of indulging in ‘myth,’ of giving way to ‘fantasy’” (A Secular Age, 29). This suggests we all understand that secularity is a new way of thinking and that we are perhaps “naturally” more inclined toward thinking of another sort. Analytic philosophers may have the most extreme commitment to what Gordon calls the “disengagement model,” but they’re far from the only ones who feel the change.

Now, the real question here is how much of a difference the change makes. Douthat thinks that secularism would be a considerably weaker phenomenon if it turned out to be, contra Taylor, just an ideological interpretation imposed on experience after the fact: “no matter how much the intellectual assumptions of the day tilt in its favor, it’s still just one possible interpretation among many.” I think this may be true regardless of whether or not secularism actually changes our perception; perhaps it shifts our experience and still fails to eradicate our religious impulses, and thus is not the unstoppable force that many scholars, academics, and cultural elites have assumed it is. I’m inclined to think that the rise and fall of social religiosity is related to fluctuating political and economic factors, and that we can never assume secularity/religiosity is moving unstoppably in one direction or the other.

I think everyone I’ve mentioned, including Taylor, would agree that there is no one determined epochal experience for the modern individual. Taylor would say that the basic conditions of modern secularity apply to everyone (at least everyone in the West), but that can be experienced to countless different degrees and directions. He doesn’t then, contra Linker, think that “absence of faith” is the “inevitable condition of Life in Our Time.” But he might say that your personal faith or lack thereof arises from whatever your experience is, not your “individual skepticism or pride or refusal to open [yourself] up to God.” This overstates the degree to which beliefs can be chosen or arrived at through rational reflection. We have a lot less say in them than we’d like to imagine, which might be one reason the experience of doubt and skepticism make secularism feel more broadly inevitable than perhaps it is.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

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