Faith in a Secular Age

I’m pleased today to share a guest post from friend of the blog, Samuel Morris Brown. A related symposium on “Faith in a Secular Age” will be held March 1 & 2 at Brigham Young University. Sam Brown, myself, and T&S emeriti Nate Oman and Jim Faulconer, together with other fine scholars, will speak. The symposium is free and open to the public. 


We live in an odd time. Most of us feel that something big is happening, something that matters. What we identify as the oddity may be as variable as our interpretations of a Rorschach inkblot. Culturally we think something that started a half-century again has sped up in the last quarter century. After the Great Recession and the fitful return to social prominence of certain nativist strands—coupled with increasing radicalization on the Left—many of us sense that we are in a desperate muddle politically as well. More to the point, many of us find that the language we might use to describe both the situation and possible paths out of current logjams seems to have shifted out from under us as well. There appears now to be mist where once there was solid ground.

For religious peoplethose who bear the weight of an adjective whose meaning is also in the midst of great changethese times may seem especially rough. Assumptions of many generations in the US about the nature of religion and religious community seem to be shifting.

When I listen to the rhetoric on both prominent sides, it seems to me that they are missing something crucial. What, exactly, was missing wasn’t clear to me until I got around to reading the writings of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. After slogging through his massive A Secular Age and the related works (most accessible, I believe, in his published lecture A Catholic Modernity? or in Jamie Smith’s SparkNotes-style How (Not) to Be Secular), I saw the problems anew. It’s rare that one’s mind is changed, not just about some specific topic, but about a broader framework for understanding the world. Mine was.

Taylor introduced a genealogy of sorts for the sensibilities that command the greatest allegiance for those of us prone to want to belong within the Western intelligentsia. He distinguished the theological disputes from the empirical questions that sociologists and political scientists debate—how many people go to church, and how should “church” and “state” interact? Instead of sticking with the sociological perspectives, he brought the theological debates into rare clarity. Both religious and anti-religious are secular; secularism is, fundamentally, a diffused, Protestant sectarian movement; and modern scientism is neither scientifically nor historically necessary. Also, centrally, secularity as we experience it now has a great deal to do with identity, community, and new ideas about what it is to be our selves.

Taylor’s work generated more questions than answers, as a good thinker usually does. He provided an infrastructure for asking productive questions with some hope of resulting clarity. I’ve spent the last five years thinking through my own experiences and faith tradition from within his conceptual system.

I started to realize that the large majority of contemporary bones of contention made much more sense when mapped onto Taylor’s concepts of secularity and selfhood. Taylor’s thought gave me language for making sense of the conflicts and cross-pressures that so many of us experience these days. I decided it might be useful to get that conversation going in a more sustained and serious way. Current debates about religion feel in some respects quite blind on both sides, and I’ve come to worry that these failures of clear-seeing are having a negative effect on our faith communities and ourselves.

I spoke with Miranda Wilcox and Jim Faulconer, two heroes of mine in the LDS intellectual community, and we agreed to stage a conference that brought together thinkers from within faith traditions. We wanted to consider the various elements relevant to understanding ourselves in this late-modern world. We worked together with the Wheatley Institution with assistance from the Maxwell Institute to find the right venue for this work. The conference, “Faith in a Secular Age,” will be held March 1-2 on BYU campus. The speakers are among the bright lights of their respective intellectual and faith traditions. They include medievalists, lawyers, philosophers, religious historians, and theologians. I’m the token quantitative scientist, although I’m presenting from the perspective of religious history and theology. We represent a politically diverse group of academics from across the spectrum usually weighed down by the “left” and “right” labels on the tails.

In this conference we wanted to have both Catholic and LDS thinkers engage weighty questions that matter. We hope that the talks will be thought-provoking, even, occasionally, scandalous in the happy and healthful sense of the word. We did not ask the speakers to focus on immediate practical applications for our faith community. We thought we should clarify what the key questions are at a more foundational level. We are planning to do this in public view and are mindful of a broad audience as we prepare our talks. We’re hopeful that the ideas presented at Faith in a Secular Age will over time find their way into practical strategies to expand goodness and light, but we thought understanding should come before action.

There’s much that’s good and much that’s bad in late-modern secularity. What’s most concerning is the unquestioned status of key aspects of that secularity, among religious, non-religious, and anti-religious folk. We’re hopeful that this conference (most but not all of the talks will be video-recorded and later released onto the internet, and versions of the talks, revised for print with a more academic audience in mind, will be ultimately published in a conference proceedings) will help shift the conversations toward greater clarity. We’re hopeful that we can thus contribute our intellectual widows mite to the treasures of heaven.

10 comments for “Faith in a Secular Age

  1. Whenever I hear talk of faith vs. secularism, it almost always seems to refer to the West. I have been studying East Asia as of recent and took a trip to China last year. It is one of the most atheistic countries on the planet. Yet there faith and secularism seem to mean something completely different than they do in the West. In spite of the spread of secularism and atheism in China, Chinese cultural traditions crafted from centuries of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, appear to still persist. I would be interested to hear some perspectives on this, especially since the LDS Church has a presence and is growing in East Asia.

    A second question: what exactly is scientism? What separates it from simple skepticism over claims to the supernatural? Why is it not insulting to be skeptical over claims about crystallomancy (the idea that a medium or clairvoyant can predict future events by gazing into a crystal) but insulting to question say the ability of LDS patriarchs to be able to tell someone their Israelite lineage and foretell their future? I ask this sincerely as well.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out to A Catholic Modernity?, Sam. It was in that essay that I first ran across Taylor’s outline of the tripartite divide in modernity: the secular humanists, the neo-Nietzscheans, and the acknowledgers of transcendence (including both those who see modernity as a terrible mistake, and those who consider it providential). That framework has been helpful to me in thinking about my own religious and political positioning ever since. I look forward to hearing you unpack some of this more in a couple of weeks!

  3. Are the speaks all Catholics and Latter-day Saints because “secularism is, fundamentally, a diffused, Protestant sectarian movement”?

  4. John W—yes, there’s some great work on the various modernities and the fact that secularity as we describe it is a phenomenon within Latin Christianity. As culture spins about, some do wonder what the East will look like (as well as the West). It’s an interesting set of questions. On the scientism question, I use it to mean the use of some concept of “science” as the foundation for a worldview. Scientism is often deeply unskeptical, as are religious folk who may use “scientism” to mean any criticism of some specific belief. Being skeptical about chiromancy needn’t be a manifestation of scientism although it certainly could be.

    RAF—you’re a star. Looking forward to seeing you.

    CC—some Protestants have great and important things to say here. Jamie Smith is Protestant for example. That said, I do find in general that the Catholic and LDS thinkers have the most interesting things to say on this point in part because they have more of an Archimedean vantage on these questions.

  5. “What’s most concerning is the unquestioned status of key aspects of that secularity, among religious, non-religious, and anti-religious folk.”

    What does this mean? Is there a short list of key aspects, statuses that haven’t been questioned?

  6. MJ: great questions. Thanks for asking them. The field is pretty vast and very interesting. Ideas about the nature of language, human identity, selfhood, community, authenticity, autonomy. The list goes on and on. Admittedly the nature of the begged questions are often somewhat complex. We are hoping to lay out some of those questions at the conference.

  7. The question of secularism as essentially a western notion is an important one. You do get a much more complicated situation in eastern Asia for instance. So China as secular is an odd mix of uniquely Chinese features with Marx/Lenin and so forth. But it’s a very unique trajectory when you’re speaking China or Singapore from say Germany or New York City.

    Don’t have much to say about that distinction beyond appreciating the problem. The question might become in any cosmopolitan location how much secularism could be just this western secularism. After all go to New York and there’s such a diversity, it’s hard not to imagine diversity in their secularism. So the danger of approaching secularism in the west from a Taylor perspective is perhaps how successful Taylor’s explanation is, allowing a kind of reductionism that obscures as well as illuminates.

  8. Sam,
    Thanks for listing some of those. As for the language, secularity seems to be defining relative to some concept of religion or spirituality, rather than as a positive thing. People don’t tend to say “i’ve found a secular and it weighs 65 kilograms and has a half life of 32,000 seconds” or anything life that.
    What confused me is referring to them as “unquestioned statuses”. I think most of the things on your list (and mine) have been questioned for a long time. In fact, one of the things that Taylor points out is that the conceptual or ideational aspects of secularism have been around for as long as humans with the mystery being why the lifeways of secularism took off precisely when they did.
    First order, I would say that most secular people still believe that they are Gods and supernatural in the sense of having free will and a spiritual existence, something apparently inconsistent or at least unexplained by our current non-supernatural explanations of the world. Our science isn’t yet reflexive enough to explain itself.
    I think Taylor does a decent job laying out some of the language aspects in his book The Language Animal. I don’t think anyone has come close to a good theory of consciousness. Not for lack of questioning, just for lack of success in connecting it to the rest of what we believe. For me, the most fundamental evidence that I am a thing is that substances get me high. No one can tell me precisely why. I hope someday we know how it works.

  9. Thanks for encouraging better thinking, all. CG–there’s a cottage industry in calling out Taylor’s thought as too specific to the West, but I’m inclined to think that many of these problematizations are themselves a part of the impulses we have toward breaking cosmoi that do feel like they are late-modern in the relevant sense. MJ, I confess that I don’t entirely follow. I have in mind the sense that many people have absorbed into their sense of what is “given” (Taylor reuses the sociological term “social imaginary” for this purpose) a variety of assumptions about knowing and being that need to be pulled back out of the given background. Admittedly I have in mind a kind of consensus elite mode of thinking and talking that has made its way into consumerist culture and the cult of authenticity. There are of course a variety of intellectuals and other critics who have made interesting arguments. I agree with you that consciousness is not well worked out. I like Language Animal as well. I confess I don’t follow you on the drugs thing–all sorts of encounters, experiences, and objects shape our thinking. We are not independent of the world or of other people. The notion that we are and/or should be entirely detached in our mental activity is an example of one of those unquestioned notions that I’m interested in questioning.

  10. Sam,
    Here is a little bit more of how I got from the idea of secular to the issue of drugs effects on brains. It basically flows like this. If we are going to contrast secular and religious we need a way to distinguish the two. One way to distinguish them is through the belief in the supernatural from the natural. But, there is quickly a problem because we don’t have a very good way to distinguish natural from supernatural when it comes to things like language, morality and human choice. Our usual scientific theories don’t have a variable for human choice or for morality. We don’t have any equations or measuring devices for sin or wrong or grace.
    This could lead us in two directions: one would be to equate the secular and the religious from a secular point of view, where both are just different evolutions of aggregated chemical behavior. The other would be to unite the two from a religious point of view where any belief in free will or morality is “supernatural” because it can’t be measured or explained scientifically.
    So, I was claiming very few people are really secular in believing and explaining their behavior purely from natural causes. Effectively agents with free will are supernatural.
    I count myself as being hypocritical in that I don’t believe that I am supernatural because the effect of drugs on my psyche( and fatigue and hunger and arousal, etc.) is evidence to me that I am naturalistic and don’t have free will, but it is extremely hard to rid oneself of the illusion that one has free will. We are puppets who think we pull the strings.

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