Examining the Secular Age

Nicholas Wolterstorff—

Recently I dipped once again into Charles Taylor’s massive A Secular Age, and one of the themes he develops there led me to reflect on the implications of that theme for the place of religion in the university—by which I do not mean the place of the study of religion in the university but the place of religious orientations and voices in the university.

As readers of A Secular Age know, a number of major themes interweave in Taylor’s volume. One of those themes is Taylor’s opposition to the common idea that religion is an add-on to what responsible scholarship tells us about this mundane world of ours. The idea is that, to the results of such scholarship, religious people add on beliefs about the supra-mundane—God and the afterlife—whereas non-religious people refrain from making that add-on.

Of course, it’s obvious to everybody that there are many religious people to whom this description does not apply. They hold beliefs that fly in the face of responsible scholarship about the mundane: they deny evolution, deny that human activity has any effect on climate change, etc. Let’s follow John Rawls in Political Liberalism and speak of “reasonable” religious people. The idea is that the religion of reasonable religious people consists of beliefs about the supra-mundane added on to the results of responsible scholarship about the mundane.

I found no place in A Secular Age where Taylor says flat-out that he is arguing against this add-on understanding of religion. But I think there can be no doubt that his discussion is, among other things, one long, multifaceted, argument against that common view.

And what is his alternative view? Of course, he does not deny the obvious, namely, that religions do typically include beliefs about the supra-mundane. But his point is that they also invariably include interpretations of the mundane. And—here is where things get interesting – that religious interpretations of the mundane conflict at various points with non-religious secular interpretations of the mundane: conflict with humanist interpretations, with naturalist interpretations, etc.

As the title of his book suggests, Taylor’s main goal is not to offer an understanding of religion but rather to develop an understanding of secularity. The secular, non-religious person does not just drink in the facts about this mundane world of ours. She interprets our mundane world, in that way resembling the religious person, and her interpretations conflict, at various points, not only with those of religious persons but also with certain of her fellow secularists. What is especially impressive about Taylor’s book is the perceptive and richly detailed way in which he develops this understanding of secularity.

I anticipate that there are some who will contest my interpretation of Taylor. The book is, after all, not only long but extraordinarily dense and complex. But suppose I have interpreted Taylor correctly, and suppose, further, that Taylor is substantially correct in his understanding of religion and secularity. What are the implications of this way of seeing things for our understanding of the place of academically responsible religious orientations and voices in the university?

So far as I can see, the implication is that, in a democratic society such as ours, we have to allow academically responsible religious orientations and voices within the university along with academically responsible non-religious orientations and voices. And that is, in fact, already happening; Taylor’s book is itself an example of the point. His is the voice of a progressive Catholic. He doesn’t hit the reader over the head with that identity; but, clearly, that’s what it is.

Yale University, of which I am a professor emeritus, is commonly described as a secular university. When one looks carefully at what actually goes on inside Yale, I think one is forced to conclude that Yale is better described as a pluralist university than as a secular university. A number of distinct life-orientations and voices come to expression, some secular, some religious.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. He has written several books, including Lament for a Son and Justice: Rights and Wrongs.

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