Let’s begin with a simple premise. The secular is more than one thing, but for our purposes, in its most popular usage, it is living and managing without reference to God. We might call this self-sufficient humanism. It is this most common understanding of the secular that looms in the majority of our cultural analysis. If we have concerns about the separation of church and state, if the decline of religiosity raises our anxiety, if we struggle to find ways to meaningfully include devotion to God in our investment strategies and household chores, it all comes down to the simple truth—by and large we get along just fine with no reference to God. Secular humanism is working.
There are other definitions of the secular. One of those, popularized by Charles Taylor, refers to the conditions for belief. Secular, in this sense, describes a space in which belief is no longer axiomatic, where it is one option among others. In secularity of this type, it is not that the world becomes irreligious, but rather that the plausibility of either believing or not believing become contested. In this secular space, belief and unbelief duke it out, jockeying for position, becoming more polarized, at least potentially, as each stakes out its position.
Early indication of this polarization includes a recent Pew Forum study. They write: “Is the American public becoming less religious? Yes, at least by some key measures of what it means to be a religious person. An extensive new survey of more than 35,000 U.S. adults finds that the percentages who say they believe in God, pray daily and regularly go to church or other religious services all have declined modestly in recent years. But the Pew Research Center study also finds a great deal of stability in the U.S. religious landscape. The recent decrease in religious beliefs and behaviors is largely attributable to the “nones” – the growing minority of Americans, particularly in the Millennial generation, who say they do not belong to any organized faith. Among the roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults who do claim a religion, there has been no discernible drop in most measures of religious commitment. Indeed, by some conventional measures, religiously affiliated Americans are, on average, even more devout than they were a few years ago.” (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/)
All three changes indicated in this paragraph illustrate the rise of secularism in Taylor’s sense of the term. Belief is no longer axiomatic, so increasing numbers of people do not report being religious. Simultaneously, many report stability in their religious belief, and by some measures those who are religiously affiliated are even more devout than previously. It’s hard to see how growth in devotion is not related somehow to the decline of religiosity, and a response to it. Local faith communities across the country are noticing this shift in action. They have less total members, but many of the members who remain are more active and involved than previously, when membership was larger.
So the rise of the secular in this sense, and awareness of it, can assist faith communities in better grasping the transitions they are undergoing. Decline is not the story, and in a way not even a story at all. Instead, in a secular age, the story is the expansion and diversification of the plausible. In secularity, self-sufficient humanism is on the rise; secularity, stability and considered commitment to belief remains an option; and in secularity, increased devotion remains as yet another option in response to the increasing contestability of any particular system of belief.
With this greater diversity of plausible systems of belief, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern appropriate methods for presenting the plausibility of any given system. Charles Taylor, in his A Secular Age, makes the attempt via a lengthy exposition of the era of secularity he perceives, and then an impassioned plea for the catholic faith he holds dear. He argues “the best way to speak to one’s own era, and to read the signs of the times, is to be deeply rooted in the whole tradition of the Church, through many epochs and civilizations” (At the Limits of the Secular, viii.). However, “this doesn’t make the task easy. Indeed, those great theologians (from Vatican II) may turn out to be a hard act to follow. In fact, certain tendencies in the contemporary world may render our task even harder. For instance, Vincent Miller explores in depth a trend to fragmented, narrowly defined, and often mutually hostile identities which is encouraged by the present shape of the electronic public sphere. This does not create a propitious environment for a sacramental union, uniting people of very different cultures, who feel bound to each other and want to know each other more” (ix.)
Do we want to know each other more? One assumption of the present work is that we do, although this desire to know others more arises from a more basic impulse—to be known. Christians lamenting the loss of Christendom, in their fear and anger and confusion, just want to be understood. But so do the newly secular, the atheist, the agnostic, the neo-Pagan, the immigrant. The rise of the secular introduces the complex scenario in which a larger range of worldviews present themselves, seeking our attention, and so while we ourselves are hoping to be understood, even hoping to understand ourselves, the demands of the multiple require not only our sympathy and attention but also our own openness to greater complexity of thought.
No wonder then, an observable trend toward more fragmented, narrowly defined, and mutually hostile identities. Such fragmentation and even hostility may be the best survival strategy, attempts to bunker down in communities small enough to know, safely and sufficiently likeminded enough to decrease the challenge of contested plausibility structures. Make the community small enough and the walls high enough and one might even get the illusion that the world is all that is contained within one’s self-constructed hermetic space.
Within these fragmented, narrowly defined identities, quite a lot of complex identity formation takes place. In fact, some of the most complexly rigid theological systems reside in tiny hermetic containers. Ideas about God, especially as most churches and theologians present them (inasmuch as they inhabit such containers), are hopelessly complex hypotheses that simply aren't needed in the pursuit of a full and fulfilling life. So not only do most of these systems alienate others inhabiting a different plausibility structure because of their complexity and distance, they also fail at the level of empathy, because in their systematic presentation of the full content of their system of belief, they fail to notice the extent to which the other who they believe needs to hear their beliefs actually simply wants to be known themselves.
Pair all of this with the cynicism of our age and our quest for authenticity and more and more people will be passing on the idea that religion clarifies matters of ultimate importance. Secular humanism has a clear advantage because it begins from what so clearly already is the case, no extra layers of transcendence necessary. The world and all there is, the vast breadth of breathing humanity, these are enough, sufficient for a capacious invigorating humanism, not to mention struggling enough to make struggle itself or the escape from it sufficient cause.
Being in and speaking to any age is no simple matter, says Taylor. “We have to hold in balanced tension two stances towards our world, the two kinds of catholicity which Robert Schreiber articulates in his essay: one concerned with reading the signs of the times and reaching out to our world in solidarity and communication—with particular concern for the poor and deprived in all dimensions; the other more focused inward and concerned with maintaining the full integrity of the deposit of the faith” (At the Limits of the Secular, viii.). The rise of the secular age results in greater attention to the signs of the times than to the deposit of the faith, because the bright and shiny and new always captures more attention than the already deposited. And yet, if we are to take Taylor at his most earnest, we cannot overlook his profound insight, that to hold these two in balance is the best way not only to maintain the deposit of the faith, but honestly to read the sign of the times. The problem with this tension is simple—it isn’t.