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“Breaking the Spell of the Immanent Frame: Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age”

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor poses the following question: “why was it virtually impossible

not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only

easy, but even inescapable?”1 His almost 800 page answer is an ambitious revision and retelling of the

process that we call secularization, and his intention is to demonstrate the inadequacy of mainstream

secularization theory (MST). The MST generally states that 1) in the modern period, beginning in the

17th century and increasingly in the 19th, the place of religion in public life declined and religious belief

and practice substantially decreased; 2) these changes are the result of something like industrialization,

urbanization, the differentiation of value spheres, or the progress of the natural sciences; and 3) that this

decline and decrease should be seen as a linear progression, was all but inevitable, and will almost

certainly continue. The MST is an example of what Taylor calls “subtraction stories,” the chief culprits in

Taylor’s account.

By a subtraction story, Taylor means

stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by

human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier,

confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this

process—modernity or secularity—is to be understood in terms of underlying features of

human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set

aside.2

Reason dispels Myth. Science supplants Religion. Darwin refutes the Bible. And so forth. These stories

are subtractive in two senses. First, the move to modernity is described as a skimming off of the dross of

religious belief, freeing up the underlying positum and essential kernel of human nature; fanciful

interpretations are dismissed, leaving pure, brute fact laying about for all and sundry to see. Second,

1
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 25.
2
Ibid., 22.

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these stories are to Taylor’s eye far too simple and reductive; they either unduly prioritize one factor as

the major motor of secularization—e.g., economics, science, etc.—and/or drastically distort religious

belief, practice, and institutions in order to fit the bounds of their interpretative frame.

Taylor is convinced that MST is propped up by a cluster of thoroughly modern prejudices which

he yokes under the phrase “The Immanent Frame.” The gradual emergence and eventual victory of the

immanent frame involves a great many tectonic shifts in human thought, practice, and experience, such as

the disenchantment of the world, an ethic increasingly concentrated on discipline, rules, and norms, the

vision of nature as an impersonal order, and the rise of an “exclusive humanism,” 3 to name but a few; but

the upshot of these changes is the eclipse of any reference to a transcendent reality in general, or God in

particular. Human flourishing, moral life, and nature all come to be understood in a self-sufficient, “this-

worldly,” naturalistic, immanent way.

Taylor’s alterative, the “Reform Master Narrative” (RMN), can be distilled into three claims. 4

(267-9) First, exclusive humanism and the modern moral order, the anthropocentric shift that rejects a

transcendent reality and refuses to acknowledge a good beyond natural human flourishing, arose mainly

as a result of pressures within Latin Christendom, pressures toward reform which collapses the long-

standing complementary between the higher spiritual vocations of the clergy and the more lax practices of

the laity, a social hierarchy anchored in a cosmic “great chain of being.”

Taylor’s second claim is that exclusive humanism could not have arisen on any other basis. His

conviction is that it was the new ethical options opened up by exclusive humanism--not the cogency of its

arguments or the plausibility of its theories--that led (tempted?) larger segments of the population to drift

toward unbelief. A question Taylor poses well into his narrative crystallizes his convictions about this

issue: “How could the immense force of religion in human life [in pre-modern times] be countered,

3
By “exclusive,” Taylor means a view of human flourishing not grounded in a transcendent source, such as God or
the Tao, and without any good beyond “nature” or this life and world.
4
Ibid., 267-9.

2
except by using a modality of the most powerful ethical ideas, which this religion itself had helped to

entrench?” (267)

The third claim is that the secular age bears a constitutive reference to belief in God, albeit

usually negative, as something that has been overcome. This is the reason Taylor focuses so much on

narrative and historicity in his account of secularization. He detects a “double historicity” that determines

secularization and religious belief and that is quite lost on MST:

On the one hand, unbelief and exclusive humanism defined itself in relation to earlier

modes of belief, both orthodox theism and enchanted understandings of the world; and

this definition remains inseparable from unbelief today. On the other hand, later-arising

forms of unbelief, as well as attempts to redefine and recover belief, define themselves in

relation to this first path-breaking humanism of freedom, discipline, and order. 5

Taylor thinks that our present predicament must be seen not as a black and white tug of war between

belief and unbelief, Science vs. Religion, Intelligent Design vs. Evolution, etc.—but rather as a “three-

cornered affair” involving “those who acknowledge some good beyond life,” (traditional) “secular

humanists,” (modern) and “neo-Nietzscheans,” (postmodern). Taylor’s point is to show not only just how

“schizophrenic” the secular age really is, but to suggest that it opens up new possibilities for belief and

unbelief alike. Secularization should be seen as fundamentally ambivalent with regard to religion.

Taylor’s main objective, then, is to draw the immanent frame into focus, lay bare its origin and

development, and plead that an “open spin”—i.e., a strong sense of faith in a transcendent reality and the

pursuit and vision of a good that transcends human life--is not foreclosed, and a closed spin—i.e., “this is

all there is”--is not demanded, by the frame itself; his aim is to, as it were, rattle Webers’s “iron cage” by

giving a different account of what it is made of. Taylor’s remolding of Weber’s powerful image as a

frame, rather than a cage, is surely intentional, and probably meant to cast our condition less as a fateful

5
Ibid., 269.

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fact, and more as a dominant frame of reference; as a social imaginary, not a solid reality. His main

quarrel with Weber—and others—is his characteristically modern tendency, set in motion most

powerfully by Nietzsche, to define religion as “man’s search for meaning”; this is what triggers the

closed spin on the immanent frame. There are alternatives, and merely recognizing this fact is, for Taylor,

an important and necessary step toward a rounder understanding of what it means to live in a secular age.

I will proceed as follows. First, I lay out Taylor’s methodology because it is it integral to his

account. His method is not just analytical but phenomenological and genealogical/historical. By

“historical,” he mean that as moderns, we understand ourselves as historical beings, as having

transcended a prior condition and undergone some process of development or maturation; he calls this our

“stadial consciousness.” Taylor’s methodology, in other words, reflects his third claim. Second, I sketch

some of the basic contours, pivotal concepts, and key constructions in Taylor’s story. Since his retelling

of the last five hundred years is far too rich and contains too many moving parts even to summarize in

such a short space, my aim here is to zero in on and connect a handful of the major themes in order to

illuminate the basic arc of the story, and suggest that his notion of “Reform” is the driving force of his

narrative. Finally, I break down his critique of MST and probe some of his conclusions about the place of

religion and the meaning of secularity in our own day.

I. Taylor’s Methodology

Sociologist Jose Casanova usefully describes Taylor’s account of secularization as analytical,

phenomenological, and genealogical.6 Let us examine the second and third parts of this three-pronged

methodology in order to set the stage for Taylor’s account and thesis. The first is straightforward, is

obviously found in any secularization theory, and consists of a dissection of the salient factors

constituting and responsible for the emergence and process of secularization. The second and third,

however, are unique, and shed light on the novelty of Taylor’s approach.

6
Jose Casanova, “A Secular Age: Dawn or Twilight?” Varieties of Secularism in A Secular Age, Yale University, April 3-
5, 2008, 1.

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A. Phenomenology

There are at least two reasons Taylor’s account can be classified as phenomenological: his unique

sense of “secularity,” and his notion of “fullness.” First, to see why Taylor makes recourse to

phenomenology, we must look at how he defines secularity. Taylor is not just concerned to offer another

“secularization theory,” or a modification or synthesis of extant theories. His Ur-question is designed to

make us think about what we mean when we claim to live in a secular world. As such, he tries to reframe

the debate by starting out from a different sense of secularity. The MST operates with two basic

definitions of secularity, which Taylor identifies as the decline of religion in public spaces (secularity 1)

and the waning of religious belief and practice in modern populations (secularity 2). Yet Taylor thinks

this leaves out something essential. He introduces a third category, which he calls “conditions of belief”

(secularity 3):

I want to talk about belief and unbelief, not as rival theories, that is, ways that people

account for existence…. Rather I what I want to do is focus attention on the different

kinds of lived experience involved in understanding your life in one way or the other, on

what it’s like to live as a believer or an unbeliever. 7

Taylor wants to focus, in other words, on what in phenomenology is commonly called “the lifeworld,” the

pre-reflective, pre-theoretical, everyday sense of the world that most people share yet rarely, if ever,

explicitly formulate. This is why he thinks we treat belief in God analytically--understood as a mere

theory or proposition about reality--at our peril; belief in God means different things in 1500 and 2000

because “all beliefs are held within a context or framework of the taken-for-granted, which usually

remains tacit, and may even be as yet unacknowledged by the agent, because never formulated.” 8 And it

is inattention to the “background” of the secular age—that is, the immanent frame—that Taylor sees as

the blind spot of MST. It results in an overly intellectualized reading of secularization that distorts the

7
Ibid., 4-5.
8
Ibid., 13.

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experience of pre-modern societies by viewing them through the immanent frame, and misidentifies its

own position by failing to acknowledge its status as a narrative, as an interpretation, as a framework of

belief.

A second reason his account is phenomenological is his reliance on a general notion of human

“fullness.” At the outset, Taylor presents a “pencil sketch of a phenomenology of moral/spiritual

experience,” which serves as the backbone for his analyses of the conditions of belief of people at various

points in history from 1500 to the present. One of Taylor’s crucial premises is that, whether we are

believers or unbelievers, nihilists, secular humanists, or Franciscans, we all have some general

understanding of human flourishing: “I am taking it as axiomatic that everyone, and hence all

philosophical positions, accepts some definition of greatness and fullness in human life.” 9 The way we

interpret this will differ—the monk may view fullness as the grace of God, the scientific materialist may

see it as a brain-bath of oxytocin, etc.—but, from an experiential standpoint, Taylor claims, we all see our

lives as having a “certain a moral/spiritual shape,” even if we are materialists.

This basic understanding involves three points, which we can call fullness, emptiness, and

averageness. Fullness can be seen as the over-arching goal organizing our activities and primary good for

which we strive; it need not be something we explicitly formulate. It is something that can break through

in “limit experiences,” or can simply be the sense that “somewhere, in some activity, or condition, lies a

fullness, a richness; that is, in that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worth

while, more admirable, more what it should be.”10 Emptiness or desolation is obviously the opposite,

while the third amounts to “some stable, even routine order in life, in which we are doing things which

have some meaning for us; for instance, which contribute to our ordinary happiness, or which are

fulfilling in various ways, or which contribute to what we conceive of as the good.” 11

9
Ibid., 597.
10
Ibid., 5.
11
Ibid., 7.

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Now, what is distinctive about the immanent frame—as a theory—is that it has no place for a

robust sense of fullness, in the sense of flourishing grounded in a transcendent source; it eschews the

“transformation perspective.” As such, “par for the course,” succeeding on one or all of the above

middle-brow endeavors, becomes fullness itself; and indeed, questing after enlightenment, sanctity, or

salvation can distract from, and be destructive to, the sober pursuit of a human, all too human happiness. 12

In other words, the difference in the content and interpretations of the believer and the unbeliever may be

so great as to render Taylor’s scheme too narrow. Indeed, this is actually one of Taylor’s own critiques of

the modern approach to religion, namely, that it is watered down into a general search for “meaning”; he

considers this is a wet blanket prejudice, a non-starter that forecloses any serious, substantive discussion

of religion. Taylor insists, however, that even for the secular humanist who denies the existence of God

and an afterlife, “there is something he aspires to beyond where he’s at.” 13 Put differently, his ethical

aspirations are not congruent with his worldview. Taylor holds that the failure to appreciate the enduring

tension between a “transformation perspective” and the more modest view of flourishing--a tension

whose roots are, Taylor thinks, quite Christian—is a great problem with MST.

It is important for Taylor to validate this phenomenology of “fullness” and shore up this premise

in his argument because it is the wedge he will use later on in claiming that MST and the closed spin on

the immanent frame simply do not canvass the conditions of belief of the secular age; despite the iron grip

of the immanent frame of the present age, an aspiration for a higher-order fullness, Taylor thinks, still

flickers in even the staunchest materialist, and this is the clue to rattling the frame. This shows why

Taylor places such a premium on the phenomenological perspective.

B. Genealogy

Turning to the genealogical aspect, Taylor unabashedly presents his account as a “master

narrative,” which he defines as a “broad framework [picture] of how history unfolds.” 14 He considers the
12
Ibid., 7.
13
Ibid., 7.
14
Ibid., 573.

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post-modern dismissal of the latter as self-deceptive and disingenuous; we all need and use them,

“including those who claim to repudiate them,” he thinks, and the answer to a bad master narrative is not

a pox on any master narrative, but a better one. Taylor’s genealogy differs from others in that it is not

meant to “debunk.” The subtraction stories of secularization and MST tend to treat pre-modern peoples

as naïve and benighted, blind to the real motives for their beliefs in the transcendent; only the genealogist

can tell them what is actually going on “behind the back” of their consciousness, e.g., economic forces,

biological drives, political ideologies, etc. Once the cumbersome yokes of belief are fried by the sun of

Enlightenment—i.e., subtracted—then we have attained the normal, natural state. Taylor’s tack, however,

is different, because it is also phenomenological, in the sense that he brackets the truth and ontological

status of the world of, e.g., the 16th century Catholic worshipper, and simply tries to describe her world

“from the inside.” This interpretive charity enables Taylor to address the dizzying constellation of factors

driving the process of secularization, without settling for the soft sell of a subtraction story that privileges

one factor and marginalizes others.

The genealogical perspective is intimately tied to the third claim in Taylor’s thesis: namely, that

the secular age is “marked” by an “inescapable (though often negative) God reference,” in much the way

that a tattoo cleverly and carefully hidden by an adult is the unwanted sign of a wild youth he wishes he

could divorce, but cannot quite erase. Taylor is adamant that “it is a crucial fact of our present spiritual

predicament that it is historical; that is, our understanding of ourselves and where we stand is partly

defined by our sense of having come to where we are, of having overcome a previous condition.” 15 This

is why a purely analytical account will not do; the narrative is not an “optional extra for history buffs”

that can be cleanly separated from the mechanism of secularization. 16 We are studying not just factual

changes in the shape of Western societies—secularity 1 and 2—but we are also the heirs of and

participants in a conflict of interpretations, and that is why analysis and narrative must reflect one another.

15
Ibid., 29.
16
Ibid., 269.

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So long as we fail to do justice to the variety of and connections between the narratives composing our

past and guiding our present, we will continue to misinterpret our own position.

Taylor also describes the modern historical self-understanding as a “stadial consciousness,” and

he never tires of stressing just how remarkable and unprecedented it is:

In virtually all pre-modern outlooks, the meaning of the repeated cycles of time was

found outside of time, or in higher time or eternity. What is peculiar to the modern world

is the rise of an outlook where the single reality giving meaning to the repeatable cycles

is a narrative of human self-realization, variously understood as the story of Progress, or

Reason and Freedom, or Civilization or Decency or Human Rights; or as the coming to

maturity of a nation or culture.17

What is peculiar, that is, is the level of confidence and certainty that the pillars of the immanent frame are

obvious, self-evident, natural, etc., the sense that we have dispersed the childish clouds of myth-making

and come to take our stand on the sure ground of mature rationality. Once the immanent frame is set in

place, it comes to be seen as natural, as given, as the way things are. Taylor’s stresses that

the narrative dimension is extremely important, because the force of [the immanent

frame] comes less from the supposed detail of the argument (that science refutes religion,

or that Christianity is incompatible with human rights), an much more from the general

form of the narratives, to the effect that there was once a time when religion could

flourish, but that this time is past.18

But the narrative dimension is either disavowed or whitewashed; this recalls Nietzsche’s observation that

democratic societies harbor a prejudice against origins. The birth certificate is burned; the mythos

masked; the origin obscured. Taylor’s twist is not to escape from the stadial consciousness—indeed, this

17
Ibid., 716.
18
Ibid., 590.

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would be a very stadial thing to do!—but to tell a more adequate story and expand our frame of reference

so that we can see just how close the secular age remains to its late medieval roots in Latin Christendom,

to enrich the thin-soup conception of religion underwriting the MST and subtraction stories, and to

undermine the assumption that modernity entails secularity 2; this is how the shift to studying the

conditions of belief—secularity 3—meshes with his genealogical perspective.

Lastly, Taylor relies on a construct he calls the “social imaginary.” This idea is a variation of the

notion of “background” mentioned above. For one, it is not a social theory, such as we might find in

sociology, i.e., an explanation of human motivation and behavior formulated in terms of laws. Second, it

is not equivalent to the idea of the “social construction of reality”; it is always based on and constrained

by an actual state of affairs and inflected through a cultural inheritance. Third, it mostly concerns “the

way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, it is

carried in images, stories, legends, etc.”19 Fourth, its edges are intrinsically “ragged” and hazy; it cannot

be defined with analytical clarity and precision. Finally, it is a shared understanding that underwrites and

legitimizes common practices.20 As examples of social imaginaries, Taylor points to “the economy,” “the

public sphere” and “the sovereign people” as mainsprings of what he calls the “modern moral order” that,

he insists, must be seen as partly a social imaginary—an invention and construction—and not just as a

self-evident, factual, given state of affairs. With Taylor’s premises and methodology laid bare, we can

now turn to some of the finer points of his story of secularization.

II. Taylor’s Story: Inventing the “Modern Moral Order”

Taylor sets out to trace how the “bulwarks of belief” were gradually worn down, how a vision of

the world as enchanted, in which nature bore the mark of divine intention and agency, and in which God

was omnipresent in society and practically unavoidable—in which, moreover, there was no such

distinction between cosmos, nature, and society--how such an outlook came undone. 21 He posits that five
19
Ibid., 171-2.
20
Ibid., 172.
21
Ibid., 25.

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major moves had to be made in order for this bubble to be burst. First, the cosmos had to be

disenchanted: the world must be drained of moral and spiritual forces, of demons, witches, sacred places,

etc., and reduced to brute facts, physical forces, mere matter and organisms. Second, society had to be re-

imagined as capable of being founded and existing independently of divine agency and oversight.

Taylor’s favorite example here is the doctrine of the King’s two bodies and the saying, “The King is dead.

Long live the King!” To modern ears, this either makes no logical sense, or has purely symbolic

meaning: let us keep the king alive in our collective memory and public rituals. For the pre-modern,

however, it is understood literally: the temporal, flesh and blood king is dead, but the eternal, spirit body

of the king will live on and inhabit another “vessel.” Third, the equilibrium or “hierarchical

complementarity” between “pre-Axial” forms of religion and “post-Axial” forms had to be disrupted.

Here, Taylor draws deeply on Karl Jaspers’ construct of the Axial Age, the period beginning around 500

B.C., in which numerous visionaries—e.g., Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates--proposed novel forms of

human flourishing beyond the natural, the this-worldly, the immanent, that broke with the morally

ambivalent “divine-in-nature” vision of magical and animistic worldviews and recognized a transcendent

and unambiguous good “beyond nature.” One of the constituent features of Latin Christendom, according

to Taylor, was its synthesis of magic and myth, a laity prone to a spirituality of enchantment—what we

today would call “superstition”—and a clergy bound by stricter codes of devotion and celibacy. This

equilibrium had to be punctuated in order for exclusive humanism to emerge on a collectively significant

scale. Fourth, time had to be homogenized and “flattened”; the social timeframe had to be modeled on a

“horizontal”, linear, unidirectional model unimpeded and uninterrupted by a vertical dimension of eternity

or cosmic cycles, by what Taylor terms “higher times.” What happens in time and history not only

matters—that is, in addition to and only on account of its grounding in, eternity—it is all that matters.

Fifth, the notion of the cosmos as a graduated “great chain of being,” as a hierarchy of meanings in which

all beings have their proper place, had to be collapsed into the “modern neutral universe.” 22

22
Ibid., 25.

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I want to focus these vectors through the prism of Reform. The purpose of examining this facet

of Taylor’s story is twofold. First, the collapse of the bulwarks of belief, hastened by the spread of

Reform, is for him a necessary condition for the eventual rise of exclusive humanism. Second, this story

of Reform is where we find the basis for Taylor’s claim that the disenchantment of the world, the

disembedding of self from society and society cosmos, the rise of the disciplinary society, and the process

that he calls “excarnation”--the withdrawal of both spiritual and everyday life from the body and into the

mind--are, ironically, powered mainly by unresolved tensions within Latin Christendom. Though Taylor

gallantly resists the attempt to seize upon one factor as the Ur-cause of secularization—indeed, this is his

pet peeve about MST—I contend that Taylor’s reconstruction of Reform—the “rage for order” 23--is the

skeleton key to his story.

Reform: “Circe’s Rod”

Since disenchantment is already a familiar trope in secularization theory, and since Taylor follows

others closely here,24 I will only refer to it as it relates to Taylor’s presentation of reform. As he sees it,

there are two long-term effects of disenchantment, one negative and one positive. The first is the crusade

to banish idolatry. All magic is branded black, all spirits are concentrated into the figure of the Devil, and

“Salem becomes possible.”25 The second effect pivots off the first. No longer assailed by invasive and

unpredictable spiritual forces, humans began to wield a new-found freedom to chart their own course and

determine their own destiny: “we can rationalize the world, expel the mystery from it (because it is all

now concentrated in the will of God). A great energy is released to re-order affairs in secular time.” 26

Disenchantment makes Reform not only possible, but plausible; recall that Taylor is trying to account for

how modern modes of belief and practice became available, acceptable, and sensible to society as a

whole.
23
Ibid., 63.
24
Taylor adverts to Gauchet’s work on the disenchantment of the world, noting how he too “gives a crucial
important to this long drive to Reform,” and adds that “I’m not sure if we don’t conceive it slightly differently,” but
does not explain his divergence in detail.
25
Ibid., 80.
26
Ibid., 80.

12
When Taylor discusses “Reform,” he is not merely referring to “The Reformation,” but to the

period roughly 1400-1650. Taylor clarifies his broad understanding of Reform thus:

Briefly summed up, Reform demanded that everyone be a real, 100 percent Christian.

Reform not only disenchants, but disciplines and re-orders life and society. Along with

civility, this makes for a notion of moral order which gives a new sense to Christianity,

and the demands of the faith. This collapses the distance of faith from Christendom. It

induces an anthropocentric shift, and hence a break-out from the monopoly of Christian

faith.27

By the “distance of faith,” Taylor is referring to the equilibrium or complementarity between spiritual

comportments of varying devotion, intensity, and stricture. Taylor recounts an old formula to illustrate

this form of life: “the clergy pray for all, the lords defend all, the peasants labor for all….” The key,

Taylor notes, is that these social functions—worshippers, warriors, and workers--are of “unequal

dignity.”28 Reform levels the playing field.

Taylor interjects an important point here about a common feature of pre-Axial societies: “rituals

of reversal,” the notion that “order binds a primitive chaos, which is both its enemy but also the source of

all energy, including that of order,” and that the order or structure of society must be periodically

suspended and overturned in a kind of cyclical purging. In other words, “all structure needs anti-

structure.”29 As an example of “anti-structure” in medieval Christendom, Taylor points to Carnival; the

key is that such a ritual of reversal is carried out on a public scale: the personal, public, and cosmic are

all intertwined in “the body which connects us to everyone and everything.” 30

The hierarchical structure entails that some are closer to God and are, in a sense, “more”

Christian. This stands in tension, however, with the “pull of ‘communitas’” associated with the Axial

27
Ibid., 774.
28
Ibid., 45.
29
Ibid., 47.
30
Ibid., 47.

13
aspect of Christianity, namely, its recognition of a good beyond this life, beyond normal human

flourishing and the social order: “the pull of communitas is potentially multi-valenced. It can not only

bring to the fore our community, but that of humankind.” 31 While the late medieval balance of pre-axial

and post-Axial spiritualities repeated the rituals of reversal and the cyclical play of structure/anti-

structure, it was nevertheless shot through with a universalist, egalitarian twist, a top-, or, depending on

how one sees it, bottom-heavy tilt that would enable it to tumble, first, into an “inclusive” humanism, in

which the sources of universal benevolence were located within human nature, with the latter created by

divine design and progressively carrying out the divine plan in history, and later, into a full-blown

“exclusive” humanism, in which the universalism is retained but the God-reference and super-human

good—the transcendent ontology and transformational morality--are jettisoned.

What happens as a result of Reform is the almost total triumph of structure. Reform, Taylor says,

was originally meant to make the spirit of communitas—“which breaks out in moment of reversal or

transgression, and which gives legitimacy to the power of the weak”—a concrete social reality.

Communitas—the vision of the church as the body of Christ on earth—was supposed to replace the

parochial and exclusive social identities of pre-Axial societies, which were based on bloodlines, kinship,

tribal affiliations, etc.—with a universal and inclusive one; Taylor calls this the “Great Disembedding” of

self, society, and cosmos. The goal was to maintain the carnality of the relations, but expand their scope.

But the project misfired. The order that emerged from the spirit of reform was “not a network of agape,

but rather a disciplined society in which categorial relations have primacy, and therefore norms.” 32 That

is, the new social identity that takes hold is based on abstract categories drained of content and meaning;

more and more layers are padded on to the “buffered self,” 33 to the point that the original motivations for

disenchantment, disengagement, and discipline are lost.

31
Ibid., 50.
32
Ibid., 158.
33
The buffered self is Taylor’s construct of the modern subject that is self-reflective, uses instrumental reason to
order about itself and the world, and is disengaged from society and nature; this he opposes to the “porous self” of
the enchanted world, which is subject to the slings and arrows of magical forces, and cannot attain to full
“possession” of itself.

14
One of Taylor’s signature observations is his astonishment that the project of Reform got off the

ground at all. The creation of Weber’s “protestant work ethic,” suffused with an “inner-worldly

asceticism,” was to happen “very much through the active, reconstructive efforts of political authority.” 34

The goals were audacious: the eradication of violence and social anomie and the universal inculcation of

at least a modicum of the new “civility,” a project of social engineering simply unprecedented in human

history. Indeed, Taylor is convinced that the modern lack of astonishment at this fact is perhaps the

greatest testament of its near total success. But the basic shift in the social imaginary was the belief that,

as Raeff notes, “’human nature was essentially malleable, that it could be fashioned by will and external

circumstances.’”35 Locke’s epistemology of the tabula rasa is the perfect image of the new ethic; for

Taylor, its primary significance derives from its attraction as an ethical stance, not its plausibility as a

theory of knowledge.

The other key belief that made Reform possible, or that convinced people it was plausible—and

that would set the stage for exclusive humanism--was that “we don’t need to compromise, that we don’t

need complementarity, that the erecting of order doesn’t need to acknowledge limits in any opposing

principle of chaos.”36 The exhilaration of the new freedom and zeal for order, which was originally

intended to bring the Kingdom down to earth, would inadvertently power not just the decline of Hell, the

watering down of sin, the taming of violence—and its replacement by economic production as the highest

human activity--and so on, but eventually the exclusion of God. The irony is that the same forces that

drove the “sanctification of ordinary life” would produce the view that ordinary life was all there is.

Taylor yokes these various developments under the phrase “The Modern Moral Order” (MMO), which he

sums up thus:

the order of mutual benefit holds (1) between individuals…; the benefits (2) crucially

include life and the means of life, however securing these relates to the practice of virtue;

34
Ibid., 119.
35
Ibid., 121.
36
Ibid., 125.

15
it is meant (3) to secure freedom, and easily finds expressions in terms of rights…. (4)

these rights, this freedom, this mutual benefit is to be secured to all participants equally. 37

But how was this MMO shorn of its constitutive reference to God? How did the shift to

exclusive humanism occur? Recall Taylor’s first claim: the MMO was built on the back of Latin

Christendom, which we see in its “activist, interventionist stance, both towards nature and to human

society,” and in its appropriation of “universalism from its Christian sources.” 38 This latter is crucial: the

increasing and eventually all but universal recognition of “inner sources of benevolence,” whether “the

powers of disengaged reason” (neo-Stoicism), “a pure, universal will” (Kant), or “a sense of universal

sympathy” (Rousseau).39 Taylor urges that the paradox of these new views of human nature, fruits of an

“inward turn,” is that, on the one hand, “this inward turn is also evident in religious life; indeed, the whole

turn was largely driven by religious motives”40; on the other, these immanent sources of human goodness

are “the charter of modern unbelief.”41 So how did humanism become exclusive? How was the God

reference of the MMO dispatched? What triggers the anthropocentric shift?

Taylor summarizes the movement:

Because the very attempt to express what the Christian life means in terms of a code of

action in the saeculum opens the possibility of devising a code whose main aim is to

encompass the basic goods of life in the saeculum: life, prosperity, peace, mutual benefit.

In other words, it makes possible the anthropocentric shift. Once this happens then the

break-out is ready to occur. It just needs the step to holding that these ‘secular’ goods are

the point of the whole code. Pushed by annoyance at the ascetic demands of ultra-

conformity, many will be willing to take this step. 42

37
Ibid., 171.
38
Ibid., 246.
39
Ibid., 150-1.
40
Ibid., 258.
41
Ibid., 257.
42
Ibid., 267.

16
Taylor’s second claim, recall, is that this step must be seen not as a giant, boot-strapping leap of mankind

out of myth and superstition, a heroic casting off of the yokes of belief, but as part of a “stairway” partly

composed of Christian materials. It is as though we climbed so high on the stairway that we can no

longer see what the lower steps were made of.

Taylor is at pains to convince us that this new order, the immanent frame, must be seen as an

invention, not a discovery; as a social imaginary, not just a social theory, or naturalistic reality. If not—in

other words, if we ignore the conditions of belief and our stadial consciousness—then we are apt to take it

as natural, given, obvious, self-evident, and will fail to appreciate just how much its erection was a “hard

slog.” It seems obvious and undeniable that the MMO is the “way things are” once the bogeymen of

belief have been banished. Taylor insists, however, that

the reverse is the case. Humans have lived for most of their history in modes of

complementarity, mixed with a greater or lesser degree of hierarchy…. What is rather

surprising is that it was possible to win through to modern individualism; not just on the

level of theory, but also transforming and penetrating the social imaginary. Now that this

imagination has become linked with societies of unprecedented power in human history,

it seems impossible to try to resist.43

This is why he finds it simply inconceivable that exclusive humanism could have arisen on a non-

religious base. The modern attachment to the immanent frame is based on just such an inability—or

unwillingness—to divine the origins of its own historical, stadial consciousness. This modern mis-

identification of itself, its history, and of religion is of a piece with the MST and reductive construal of

secularity in terms of belief—in terms of the theoretical and the cognitive—rather than conditions of

belief—which also gives gravity to the ethical and the affective.

43
Ibid., 169.

17
Taylor’s main points in expanding the sense of Reform and retelling the story of secularization

thus, are to show, first, that disenchantment, the dis-equilibrium of the hierarchical society/cosmos, the

disembedding of society, cosmos, and human good, and the project of Reform—in short, the invention of

the Modern Moral Order--are induced by Latin Christendom through its post-Axial sense of flourishing,

the pull of communitas, and the ardor to enact God’s plan in the world. And second, by casting the

Modern Moral Order as a social imaginary, he means to subvert the subtraction story of secularization

which holds that the truths we moderns hold to be self-evident are not, in fact, a-historical facts covered

for centuries by superstition and metaphysics and simply “discovered” by natural science and clear-eyed,

unbiased reason, but are in part social constructions based on—and unimaginable apart from--prior,

religious social imaginaries. Or, as Taylor puts it, “What happened here was not that one moral outlook

bowed to brute facts. Rather we might say that one moral outlook gave way to another.” 44 Viewed in this

broader context, first, religion is—or can be--a catalyst for the blossoming of reform and rationalization,

not always an impediment, as MST holds, and second, the latter holds moral stances that its naturalistic

ontology cannot ground.

III. Taylor’s Critique of Mainstream Secularization Theory

With the broad beams of Taylor’s narrative in place, let us look more closely at his analysis and

critique of the MST, or “strong” secularization thesis. I want to address three questions here: First, what

does Taylor see as MST? Second, on what points does he agree with it? Third, what does he think is

missing from it?


As to the first question, Taylor notes that MST is mainly concerned with the first and second

senses of secularity: religion retreats from public spaces, and religious belief and practice dramatically

decline. Taylor sees the MST as a structure with three stories. The first floor can be seen as the fact—

which he does not dispute—of secularity 2. Almost everyone seems to agree that something like the

process we call secularity 2 has indeed happened; the differences have to do with how and why it

happened, and this corresponds to the “basement” of the MST, which comprises the various explanations
44
Ibid., 563.

18
proposed to account for the first floor, such as disenchantment, differentiation of social functions,

rationalization, and so forth. This is usually understood as a linear and all but inevitable process. The

third, upper floor consists of the state of belief and unbelief today; in other words, Taylor’s third sense of

secularity, the conditions of belief. In his view, the MST’s view of this upper floor is constrained by two

assumptions: the “disappearance thesis” and the “epiphenomenal thesis.” (433) The first holds that “the

independent motivation to religious belief and action (if, indeed, it hasn’t always been epiphenomenal)

tends to disappear in conditions of modernity.”45 The second maintains that “in conditions of modernity

(if not always), religious belief and action can only be epiphenomenal, that is, functional to some distinct

goals or purposes.”46
Taylor agrees with MST on the fact of secularity 2 (the ground floor). He allows that MST “is

right to this extent, that most of the changes [it identifies] (e.g., urbanization, industrialization, migration,

the fracturing of earlier communities) had a negative effect on the previously existing religious forms.

They often made some of their earlier practices impossible, while others lost their meaning or their

force.”47 Taylor concedes that these factors—the “basement--all played an important role in bringing

about secularity 1 and 2.


So what does Taylor quibble with? For starters, he refuses to see secularity 2 as linear, “the

decline of one unchanging thing, over centuries, under the steady operation of a single set of causes.” 48

This is precisely why Taylor spends the first third of his book painstakingly retelling the history of pre-

Reformation Latin Christendom, namely, to show how complex and variegated it actually was.

Second, his third central claim about secularity leads him to reject the disappearance thesis. He

thinks that our modern consciousness is stadial, in that it defines itself as having overcome belief, and that

to move to a condition in which religious questions and motivations disappeared completely would be to

trade a fractured identity for no identity at all. He also feels this thesis has been dealt a serious blow by

the cultural revolution of the ‘60s, which saw the rise of new forms of spirituality and innovations of

45
Ibid., 443.
46
Ibid., 443.
47
Ibid., 436.
48
Ibid., 436.

19
religious traditions; indeed, this period plays an important role in Taylor’s reconstruction of our recent

history. The schizophrenia of the social imaginary--modernity’s reflexive mis-identification of itself--is a

crucial part of the current conditions of belief. The bulk of Taylor’s account of the process of

secularization, which I sketched above, is concerned with tracing the roots, emergence, and dissemination

of exclusive humanism. But the latter really only forms the first of what he sees as a three-stage process.

The second two stages, the “Nova Effect” and the “Super-Nova” are really just different degrees of the

same trend, and bear more upon the conditions of belief today. The Nova Effect—or what Taylor calls the

“Age of Mobilization”--comprises “the multiple critiques leveled at orthodox religion, Deism, and the

new humanism, and their cross-polemics.” These, he says, “end up generating a number of new

positions, including modes of unbelief which have broken out of the humanism of freedom and mutual

benefit (e.g., Nietzsche and his followers)—and lots else besides.” 49 The Nova picks up speed in the 19th

century and is still in full swing. The third stage, The Super-Nova—which Taylor also dubs “The Age of

Authenticity”, is merely the spread of the Nova to Western popular culture, which accelerates after the

second world war, and is powered by the “ethic of authenticity” or “expressive individualism,” “in which

people are encouraged to find their own way, discover their own fulfillment, “do their own thing.” 50

While there is not room to sufficiently sketch Taylor’s portrait of the contemporary scene, his intention in

narrating these two latter stages in the process of secularization, roughly from the middle of the 19 th

century to the present, is to underwrite his third central claim, namely, that the secular age bears a

constitutive reference to God. His conviction is that our age is deeply “cross-pressured”: “The salient

feature of Western societies is not so much a decline of religious faith and practice, though there has been

lots of that, more in some societies than in others, but rather a mutual fragilization of different religious

positiosn, as well as the outlooks of both belief and unbelief.” 51 This is what he means when he says that

belief in God does not mean the same thing in 2000 as it did in 1500, and why he questions “whether

49
Ibid., 299.
50
Ibid., 299.
51
Ibid., 595.

20
there could be unbelief without any sense of some religious view which is being negated.” 52 The MST

tends to answer this question in the affirmative, but Taylor thinks that such a response is predicated on a

profound misunderstanding of its own condition.

Another of Taylor’s other main misgivings with MST—as well as modern theories of religion of,

e.g., Nietzsche, Weber, and Gauchet-- is its generalized view of religion. He believes this elides a tension

fundamental to our modern self-understanding. As noted above, MST tends to focus on belief, and

frames religion as mainly about belief in supernatural entities. But Taylor wants to both broaden and

specify the sense of religion, all while avoiding a universally applicable definition: “I want to focus not

only on beliefs and actions ‘predicated on the existence of supernatural entities,’ but also on the

perspective of transformation of human beings which takes them beyond…whatever is normally

understood as human flourishing….”53 He thinks that as far as secularization theory goes, we fudge the

facts when we talk about “religion in general,” rather than the specificity of belief as Christian, since the

ethical forms handed down to us by the latter have such a hand in shaping the very modern posture that

tries to analyze it! As he puts it, “In the Christian case, this means our participating in the love (agape) of

God for human beings, which is by definition a love which goes way beyond any possible mutuality, a

self-giving not bounded by some measure of fairness.” 54


Taylor’s attachment to a more specific, substantive, content-based view of religion is the key to 1)

his lament at the over-reach of Reform—the “corruption of Christianity”—2) his conviction about

modernity’s self-misunderstanding; and 3) his claim that it is the ethical attraction of “debunking,” not the

theoretical plausibility or historical adequacy of the modern alternatives, that fuels the immanent frame

and MST. In an important passage discussing Nietzsche, Taylor writes,

I have reservations about the idea that there is a demand for meaning as such, as it were,

any meaning, against something more specific. This…is rather endemic to our modern

humanist consciousness of religion and gives a particular (and I think dubious) twist to

52
Ibid., 269.
53
Ibid., 430.
54
Ibid., 430.

21
the hunger for religion in human beings. Nietzsche is followed in this, among others, by

Weber, and also Gauchet.55

Taylor also links this to what he sees as Weber’s and Gauchet’s occasional conflation of enchantment and

religion56; this is not consistent with their recognition, elsewhere, that “both Judaism and Christianity

have themselves at different times fostered various kinds of disenchantment.” 57 Taylor seems to think

that this inconsistency may derive from the ethical reaction in the face of the “loss of meaning,” the

defiant attitude of digging in one’s heels and facing the void pervasive in modernity. He dubs Weber “one

of the most influential proponents” of the view that we must “accept that this sense of loss is inevitable; it

is the price we pay for modernity and rationality, but we must courageously accept the bargain….” 58 The

debunker believes this because he is convinced that his position does not run ahead of reasons, that it is

yielding to his intellectual conscience. But Taylor holds that “both open and closed stances [on the

immanent frame] involve a step beyond available reasons into the realm of anticipatory confidence.” 59

His point is that there is belief involved here, aspiration to meet a high water mark, embody a set of

virtues—courage, intellectual honesty, living in touch with reality, etc.—not a mere recognition of and

capitulation to “the facts.” Here, Taylor turns the tables on the debunkers, who accuse all believers of

intellectual dishonesty--the “sacrifice of the intellect,” in Weber’s words-- and charges that the “closed

spin” “implies that one’s thinking is clouded or cramped by a powerful picture which prevents one seeing

important aspects of reality. I want to argue that those who think the closed reading of immanence is

‘natural’ and obvious are suffering from this kind of disability.” 60 The disabling prejudice is the watered-

down, hollowed out view of religion as an expression of man’s natural hunger for meaning as such. 61
55
Ibid., 318.
56
Ibid., 553: “Enchantment, [i.e., “the world of spirits and meaningful causal forces, of wood sprites and relics”], is
essential to some forms of religion; but other forms…have been built on its partial or total denial. We cannot just
equate the two.” He adds that “Even Weber seems to have fallen into this at times.”
57
Ibid., 426.
58
Ibid., 307.
59
Ibid., 551.
60
Ibid., 551.
61
Ibid., 717-18: “[Many modern] have seen the essence of religion in the answers it offers to the question of
meaning. I believe, as I argue above, that these theories are in an important way off the track. They imply that the
main point of religion is solving the human need for meaning. In taking this stance, they absolutize the modern
predicament….” This is one of the most important passages in the book.

22
This premise underwrites the disappearance and epiphenomenal theses, and suppresses the extant

tension between the two rival view of the human good. It is this essential tension between rival versions

of human flourishing—between the vertical, transformative perspective and the horizontal, MMO of

mutual benefit—that produces the preponderance of positions crowding the secular age, i.e., the current

conditions of belief. The MST is a subtraction story in this sense: by assuming that religion plays a

purely functional role, and ignoring the content of the specific religion that forms the backbone of the

story of secularization, it underestimates the persistence and power of the transformative perspective in

our own day. Contrary to MST, Taylor holds that “religious longing, the longing and response to a more-

than-immanent transformation perspective…remains a strong independent source of motivation in

modernity.”62

IV. Opening Up the Immanent Frame

A Secular Age is not a Christian apologetic. Taylor is not making the case for faith per se.

Instead, he is using a careful re-reading of the late medieval and modern history of Christianity in order to

show the power that its (perhaps essential) tension between “this-worldly” and “other-worldly” ethical

commitments shapes our contemporary consciousness as a whole, traditionalists, moderns, and

postmoderns, the religious, the secular, and the “spiritual but not religious.” The constitutive God-

reference that “haunts” the secular age should to seen not as an empty vestige, but a sign that religion—

religion in Taylor’s strong sense, adherence to the transformation perspective (ethically), and openness to

a transcendent reality (ontological)—is not just here to stay, but destined to evolve; indeed, Taylor

assiduously avoids positing some “religious faculty” of the soul, some universal constant in human nature

that yearns for God but has been tamped down by modernity; as we saw, this is in fact the form of the

subtraction story he sets out to criticize. He appears committed to the hermeneutical principle that we

cannot speak of a bare human nature existing “in itself” apart from a network of historical prejudices and

social imaginaries. Taylor is equally suspicious of some “golden age” of religion marked by universal

62
Ibid., 531.

23
devotion. Taylor’s own spin on the “return of the religious” and “re-enchantment of the world” is an

argument for “re-incarnation,” which involves a more integral approach to religion that re-instates the

transformative perspective and recovers a richer relationship to tradition and a renewal of the constitutive

power of language [language quote]

Taylor’s story is not meant to be a prediction, or even a prescription; it is intended to hold up a

more accurate mirror to our present, bring the regnant narrative—the immanent frame—to light, and

show that the way we spin it—whether closed or open—is dictated not by the frame itself, but by the

sundry sources of our secular selves. The gates of the immanent frame are locked from the inside.

24