The academics may be strangling reflection on the secular. Secular, secularism, secularities, these are words captured by the academy and by implication not available for common or popular conversation. At the level of practical discourse, the secular is lived out in concrete implications. Examples include decline in religious affiliation and commitment, and increasing numbers of people who identify as secular, as Nones or as Dones. We know secularity is at hand because so many of us, even those of us who identify as religious or even work for religious institutions, still share with other human beings an historically unique perspective: we have learned to live and manage our affairs without any reference to God.
In this newly secular context, the word God still appears. It is printed on our currency and spoken in our pledges, named in some of our prayers and referred to in time of need. Even so, with all the ways God is still named, life itself, the daily practice of life, even for many religious folks, is lived and managed “as if” God were unnecessary. We do not need to refer to God. Just sometimes we do, or expect others to. In fact, often the shrill nature with which some demand the continual naming of God illustrates, ironically, the extent to which we have learned to live and manage our affairs without God. Hyperbolic rhetoric and apocalyptic anxiety replace God qua God.
It remains remarkable, for all of that, how little and how infrequently we directly reflect on the secular. Perhaps it goes by other names, so the secular is encompassed in many other discourses we engage more regularly. By secularity, we may mean things like pluralism, globalization, public, networks, democracy, capitalism, etc. It is remarkable, though, how little descriptive language is available to us to describe all of those many people who are secularizing.
Notice that secularization is described primarily by what it isn’t. People who are secular are “nones”—they do not have a religious affiliation. They are “dones”—they have left a religion. They are non or irreligious. They are a-theist, or a-gnostic. All of these are negations, descriptive only by absence or opposition. Yet the vast majority of those classified as “Nones” are in fact living full and vital lives, weaving together a pastiche of spiritual and human practices in many ways similar to the lives of those who identify as religious.
Most remarkable of all, in spite of the difference in labels, the daily lives of those who identify as religious and those who identify as secular are, in most respects, the same. Follow a Roman Catholic around Manhattan for a day, then follow an atheist around town the next day, and by and large you will see similar habits and cultural commitments. Or, if differences do appear, they will likely be the result of other factors, like race or class or aesthetic preferences. However one looks at it, it seems increasingly arbitrary to even distinguish statistically between a large group, the “unaffiliated,” and those who affiliate with specific religious traditions, without gaining facility with a larger repertoire of terms to describe the nuances of “unaffiliated.” We have language to describe the many kinds of Roman Catholics. Isn’t it about time we describe with greater accuracy the fastest growing group in our nation?Can you imagine if we lumped all Christians into one sociological category: “Not Buddhist”?
Continuing the comparison between those who are religious and those who are unaffiliated, the actual shared dynamic is a paucity of language on either side of the aisle. Sociologists of religion like Christian Smith have long observed widespread inarticulacy regarding religion among the religious. Unaffiliated folk also lack the verbal equipment to describe their own a-religiosity. It is as if, regardless of religious commitment, or non-commitment, the shared dynamic is failure of words.
But the absence of words is not the absence of that for which the words serve notice. A feeling often arrives that is in search of a word to describe it. What is frustrated in the absence of language is the opportunity to articulate the feeling. What is frustrated in the shift to secularity is the opportunity to adequately articulate the complex culture that makes up our new milieu. It’s like we have found ourselves in a brand new place, and have a phone available to call our friends, but then can’t describe where we are in language anyone can fathom. As a result, not only do our friends have trouble imagining where we are, or visiting us, the reality is that we cannot yet see as clearly as we would like the very place in which we find ourselves. This secularity in which we find ourselves, it appears to us fuzzy, vague, evasive and receding even while it intrudes. We can’t make it out and we can’t look away.
Those of us attempting to focus our gaze may be readying our fight-or-flight response. If the secular is dangerous (and it may be) then many of the various responses to the rise of secularity are in order. Run away, retreat to another moment in history dredged up from the annals of the everlasting nostalgia, and hope the secular will not make an appearance. Or hide, exercising an athletic ability to act as if the secular never arrived in the first place, or can be held at bey by contrarian conservation. Alternatively, some few brave souls among us make out the arriving secular and run to it with open arms, embracing it like a long lost love that never was.
“The faithful are baffled by the problems that have come with the loss of the conceptual vocabulary of religion, and, more generally, of the language that can speak of and for the radical, solitary, time-bound self. The authority of a model of reality that excludes the former on principle and the latter out of a simplistic confidence in the adequacy of its own terms, its own small sphere of reference,has distracted and demoralized the faithful, as it would not have done if they were inclined to reflect. They are not alone in being talked out of the meaningfulness of their own experience, but they are perhaps more at fault for it than others, having had their souls as a conscious and in theory a cherished and cultivated part of their inwardness. If they have displaced the Holy Ghost with the zeitgeist, the choice is entirely their own” (Marilynne Robinson, Givenness, 88).
Returning to our failure of words, it is notable that in the English speaking world, the great exploration of the secular age arrived as a massive tome, a doorstop more widely mentioned than read, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. There is plenty to be said about this book, plenty to be repeated from it, but first of all it is a book that offers language for that which we have struggled to describe. It is a guide to the secular age that makes sense “of our situation not by didactically explaining it, and certainly not by explaining it away, but by giving us words to name what we’ve felt” (Smith, 4). Taylor is unique in that he both offers us language for what we are already feeling, and he also explores the possibility of real secularism.
It is not that secularism has been tried and been found wanting. Secularism has not yet been tried. Even in the secular age, most seculars are still mythical at some level or another. We have not yet been non-religious. Any account of secularization needs take account of the multiple secularities, many of which are transitional secularities on the way to the fully secular. Some of the secularization secular theorists theorized has not come to pass—in particular, the complete decline of religiosity. What has happened, as Taylor makes clear, is a shift in the conditions of belief. Full secularity is now plausible. We can begin to imagine it. “For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true” (Secular Age, p. 18).
For those of us retaining religious commitments but interested by the rise of secularism in this sense, the opportunities lie in at least two directions. First, how might our kind of religiosity partner with secularism in its goals of human flourishing? Second, to what degree does (in my case Christian) religiosity retain some advantages for human flourishing over secularity? And does it matter? Our response to the first question likely rests in gaining greater facility with the lexicon, keywords, geography, textures of the secular itself. We cannot know our shared goals for a robust humanism until we know each other better. For the second question (which is really two), we do need to answer the most fundamental question: Does it matter whether Christianity offers anything different or other than secular humanism? My own suspicion is the answer hovers around issues of sin and forgiveness, true weakness and God in Christ, resources in Christianity not as clearly present in many kinds of humanism. That being said, given that real secularity still emerges from the Christian context even as it transcends it, separating the two in order to compare them functions more like the examination of a weave in a rug than gazing at two separate and disparate objects.
Finally, the answer to these questions will of necessity relate to one other issue, the issue of diverse publics and complicated subjectivity. Faith is both more private and more public than ever. Secularity has greater access to the public inasmuch as religion has been privatized and divorced from shared forms of democratic rationality. But we are not used to considering the secular at the level of subjective experience, which illustrates how much, although humanism is considered in secular spaces, the effect of the secular on the human, and who the human is becoming, is an embranglement of a curious sort.