Imagining an "Open" Secularism

The intersection of ideas and public life for understanding our "secular age."
Appears in Fall 2014 Issue: Cracks in the Secular
September 1st, 2014
What does it mean that we live in "a secular age?" That is the animating question of Charles Taylor's widely discussed book, A Secular Age—a 900-page tome that sometimes makes Thomas Piketty's Capital look like a beach read. To understand our present, Taylor emphasizes, we need to understand our past. How did we get to this point in the West? How did we go from a world in 1500 where it was virtually impossible not to believe in God to a world in 2014 where, in certain elite and influential enclaves, it is virtually impossible to believe in God? What changed? And what have been the implications for society?

Taylor's interest is not just antiquarian, nor does he approach such questions as mere academic puzzles. There are existential and political implications for how we organize our life together, including how (or whether!) we make room for religious expression and religious communities in "secular" societies. So Taylor, a longtime professor at McGill University in Montreal, has also been heavily involved in debates in Canada—and Quebec more specifically—about the place of religious faith in public life. Our editor, James K.A. Smith, whose book, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, was published just this year, enjoyed an opportunity to sit down with Professor Taylor and discuss the intersection of ideas and public life when it comes to understanding our "secular age."

JS: At the same time that you were probably refining this book [A Secular Age], after you delivered it as the Gifford Lectures, you received another call from the government of Quebec to be a part of the La Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d'accommodement reliées aux différences culturelles (The Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences).

CT: That happened right after A Secular Age was finished.

JS: Was that part of the reason you were asked [to co-chair the Commission]?

CT: No. I was asked because I'm sort of somebody who's been very involved in politics here [in Quebec] and the Premier was in a jam because there was a third party that was beginning to surf on this cultural unease among many Québ écois with regard to these other religions. The Premier is the Premier of the Liberal Party, which, by its very nature, is too diverse ever to take this kind of thing up, right? But it was going to maybe be undercut by this other party on this issue.

So he did the clever political thing: he said to the Opposition: "Don't discuss this in the election. We'll have a blue ribbon commission." The blue ribbon commission had to have, politically, one Independentist and one non-Independentist. So there was this very well-known sociologist/historian, Gérard Bouchard, the brother of the previous premier. Then there was myself, who had a certain prestige as a philosopher and thinker and was politically active— I'd ran for Parliament and so forth.

So, politically, it looked like a very smart move and Gérard and I saw it was a smart move. We said, "We're being used, but great!" [laughter] They're probably not going to listen to the report, but we're going to lay down a certain number of principles, which will be out there. And of course when the thing finally came around last year to be active [because of the proposed "Quebec Charter of Values"], our report helped. For one thing, we were invited all the time by the media, so we could really slam this awful Charter thing. We didn't win; they defeated themselves!

JS: So it was really quite wonderful providential timing (a Calvinist might say!) that you got the invitation to this commission, after you just finished all this theoretical work. You saw it that way too, as an opportunity?

CT: Absolutely. Yeah.

JS: Were you then surprised at how quickly after issuing your report something like the short-lived Quebec Charter was floated?

CT: No, because we sensed it already at the time. See the Parti Québécois [the separatist party in Quebec] started off under René Lévesque—whom I knew and who was a friend—with a totally different outlook. I mean people said to him, "Look, there's a lot of narrowness in Quebec nationalism; aren't you making it worse?" His argument was, "No, if we actually express it in this political project, we can get beyond all that narrowness." I never thought that was necessarily going to work, but that was what he wanted.

Under [Lucien] Bouchard, the brother of [Gerard] Bouchard, this was reaffirmed very strongly. But there always was a movement in the party that wanted to run on cultural nationalism. This is really what the payoff is! And then that third party, the ADQ, ran on this agenda, and in the subsequent election they became the Opposition, and the Parti Québécois was left in third place. Madame Marois, the leader at the time, said, "Never again! We're running on this!"

So we could see that coming. When we had Madame Marois and others before us in the Commission, it was very clear that she wasn't buying it.

JS: In the Accommodations report you advocate what you call "open secularism." What's the contrast term, then? Is it "closed" secularism?

CT: Well, we want that to be what is sort of suggested to people. But the other guys would call the alternative real secularism!

JS: Because open secularism affirms principles of state neutrality, separation of church and state, but it's not what, I think, you called earlier "radical" secularism. It's not a "closed" secularism because it's actually trying to be truly neutral. So it's not anti-religious.

CT: That's right.

JS: The Quebec Charter would have been "closed" secularism?

CT: Yes, though there's something sneaky about this because you can't openly present the real motivations that made the Charter popular. In fact, the real motivation was cultural discomfort. But you can't just say in our current world, "You make me uncomfortable, so please stop or go away." You need to cite an acceptable reason, and violating the conditions of modern society by rejecting secularism is an OK reason to condemn somebody, so you fasten on this.

But to do this you have to redefine secularism in an indefensible way. Instead of being the regime that defends everyone's freedom of conscience, whether religious or non-religious (what I call "open" secularism), it becomes a secularism wary of religion, and always ready to set limits to it. Non-religion becomes the common principle, although you tolerate religion if it stays in its place.

JS: And you privatize it.

CT: You privatize it, and when it doesn't raise its ugly head too much it can go on, but the common bond is that we are dedicated to something that is incompatible with religion—like "reason" or "emancipation" or what have you.

But in the other kind of laïcité or secularism [that is, "open" secularism] you really have to be even-handed between all kinds of religion, all kinds of non-religion; religion and non-religion are treated the same.

JS: Were you actually then encouraged by the response to, and the failure of, the Charter of Values? Does that tell us something about the population? Does that tell us something about a popular conception of these matters?

CT: Yeah. Well, it tells us something we knew before, but it's pushed further: that people who have real experience of these immigrants, like younger people in Montreal—like my own grandchildren who go to a French school with people from all over, and they would say to me, "Papi, what's going on? These people are crazy! I have a friend Ali ... how can you make a fuss about that?" So it's people who are a certain age or who live in parts of the country where they never meet any who are different. So there is a shelf life on this emotion, really, and it's getting shorter and shorter.

It was really providential. They defeated themselves with this crazy rushing off into a referendum. It's made that whole position radioactive for a while. When they get around to it again, I believe, I hope, we'll be ready. We've dedicated ourselves to this. I'm part of a group called Québec Inclusif and we've dedicated ourselves working on this, to go out there into the countryside and try to accelerate the development of a more "open" stance.

JS: Some folks would maybe be confused by the notion of an open secularism, because they just identify secularism with the closed, radical, aggressive sort. But open secularism actually is a respect for difference that makes room for religious communities and religious expression in the public sphere as well.

CT: See, the problem is secularism is not a totally perfect translation of laïcité, right? Laïcité has this very strong reference to the French scene. Now even in 1904- 1905 there were two very strong tendencies in the French scene. One was really the hard kind, where you want to expel all the religious orders, and so on. The other said, "The important thing is freedom of conscience. That's the really key thing."

We were really working within that [latter] tradition because this is what people here are familiar with, and so we worked, Jocelyn MacLure and myself, we worked out how to put this. And our point was: there are going to be different regimes in different situations, but what's common in their basic principles are even-handedness of the state, and maximum liberté de conscience. Let's figure out how to do that.

JS: Could one worry that the freedom of conscience model itself already plays into a kind of individualistic conception of faith?

CT: Well, only if you are still caught in a certain self-understanding—a very common one—which is that these religions are meant to be lived by whole societies and meant to be the basis of the unity of the whole society.

Now, this is very understandable. America is slightly different from this because it shifts from a particular denomination to being a Christian country for some people. But if you go to the European scene, both Catholic and Protestant, I mean you have totally different societies: totally Calvinist societies, totally Catholic societies. The whole idea of what it was to be in these faith positions was to be part of that, to belong.

JS: It was inherently communitarian in a way, right? Or at least ...

CT: I don't mind "communitarian" because the life of a church is by itself a communitarian one. But in these European contexts that was linked to the political society. This is the whole problem with hard secularism: hard secularists like the Jacobins couldn't envision any other structure. So they had to swap one total society for another. Throw out religion and put les droits de l'homme in its place! That's what makes hard secularism: How can we run a society if we don't agree on these fundamental things?

JS: Do you mean hard secularism is usually bound up with failure to appreciate the robustness of civil society outside the state?

CT: That may be unfair. Instead, it's a matter of thinking that the state itself can't run in the proper way unless it has this ethic underlying it. I got a lot of this from Jean Baubérot, one of the great French historians of laïcité. He's actually himself a Protestant, he's from the Eglise Reformée, and he's written brilliant stuff on the different tendencies. He makes this point that the people think of it as a kind civil religion. So some kind of Jacobin philosophy is the civil religion: that's what binds us together, that's what underlies the political ethic.

The point is—this is not easy, particularly in the Western context—we understand that we need a common ethic, we need a common set of principles, but they must not be coloured by either a believing position or an unbelieving position. We have to leave room for that. That's the move from a closed secularism to open secularism. In some sense, closed secularism is still in the mindset of confessional states, only we change the confession

JS: What are the limits of open secularism? In the Accommodations report, for example, you say, "gender equality is a principle that's non-negotiable." Can we try thinking about an American context, for a moment?

CT: Sure.

JS: Could an open secularism make room for religious communities, for example, to still demur on same-sex marriage?

CT: It ought to, provided it doesn't mean that same-sex people get denied. But the thing is, there's another very important principle—which I guess we didn't emphasize in the report but since then it's become much more important to say, and I'd set it as an argument against the Charter—that there shouldn't be a delit d'opinion. (Sorry, I'm using French examples again!) That means your opinion shouldn't ever be a felony, which it was in the time of the French Revolution. That is something we have to avoid.

Now this produces dilemmas at the fringe. So you get these cases in the United States where people refuse to do a certain kind of business. These are very hard to adjudicate. I mean I don't have a general key to adjudicate these, but you have to allow both of these. If the doctor says "I can't perform an abortion," I mean it ought to be possible to say, "Okay, you stand out. You recuse yourself at that time." Another very important thing—and I guess we didn't say this enough in the report—but that I believe very strongly, is that political life, moral life, is more or less full of dilemmas and you don't stop having dilemmas just because you have the best formula for uniformity. There are going to be dilemmas where this boundary between this freedom of conscience and allowing these people to have rights.

JS: One of our more recent issues of Comment magazine was devoted to the theme of "faithful compromise," which is almost an incomprehensible concept, but when I hear you say that, "Look, political life is filled with dilemmas," it also means political life together is constantly coming to a compromise. It's trying to discern: What does it look like for each community to be free to be faithful in the midst of those compromises? I think what is worrying some people—and I'm just now more familiar with the U.S. context—it seems like the hard secularists are less and less willing to tolerate difference, ironically. There's actually less respect for difference, and less room to have a wrong opinion, and in that sense open secularism would actually be calling them back to a more generous take on things

Do you think there's something about hard secularism, a kind of aggressive secularism, becoming more militant precisely when it feels less viable?

CT: Yeah, I think that's a very important insight. I mean, I say that people like [Richard] Dawkins remind me a little bit of certain Anglican bishops in the 19th century facing Darwin. Why? Because people carry around in their whole sensibility some idea where we're going. So in that nineteenth-century context, there was an idea that Christianity was spreading across the whole world, it's also becoming more reason- able because more Protestant, and it's connected to democracy and we're floating up to the higher plateaus.

Then along comes this torpedo. Darwin was a big torpedo because I think that kind of Christian faith got attached to the idea of design. It's a providential design of things that God has made for us, and what's happening now is obviously falling to providential design. Then this whole idea of providential design is very much called into question by "nature red in tooth and claw" and so on. The kind of people who think everything's going this way, and then suddenly it doesn't, get terribly upset.

And that I think is true of a lot of secularists today, people like Dawkins. "We thought religion was disappearing, and that's fine. It's exactly what was needed!" So when it "comes back" they're like, "This is totally barbaric! What are you guys doing?!"

JS: They become more shrill, almost as a sort of last gasp. What is your take? Do you feel like that kind of, almost—I don't know if this is a fair term— "fundamentalist" secularism or something like that—do you think that is increasingly a minority report?

CT: Well, it depends, because, see, the thing is that one of the terrible possible developments that we always face is a polarization in which each side behaves in that way. So a lot of the Christian Right in the United States are in that kind of polarized relationship, just like a lot of Islamist Muslims are in a polarized relationship with other kinds of Muslims. When you get that kind of polarization where people really do terrible things to each other, it's very hard to get people to climb out of that. Things could get worse.

On the other hand, there's another scenario—and I don't think that one is more probable than the other. The other scenario is a kind of mutation in our understanding of the place of the spiritual in human life (which is what I was really talking about in this book), where we get totally beyond what I call "Christendom," which is the idea that it's got to be a whole society, and we see the Christian faith as moving in a world in which there are great differences, but there's also something to respect in them, there's something to learn from them. But above all we have to be ourselves. We have to live our own faith.

The focus shouldn't be on belief because, while belief is important, it's secondary. I mean the reason why I or anybody else is a Christian is because I see a way here moving us toward God. That's what counts.

I also think that we have to rehabilitate an earlier understanding of faith as a journey. You have this in Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine and so on. So we don't really know God! We don't really know, so why are we taking these formulas and bashing people over the head? No, live your faith! Try to make it fructify in your life and the lives of those around you.

JS: There are just such different, almost journalistic, takes on our present moment, right? It almost depends on the frame that people are bringing, but could you imagine a Christianity that has given up that axiomatic Christendom kind of project nonetheless having new attraction in our contemporary age?

CT: Definitely. I mean I'm seeing it around me.

JS: You're seeing that?

CT: Oh, yeah! Absolutely! I mean I belong to this movement, Christian Meditation, that goes back to John Main and I get their newsletters. It's spreading like wildfire all over the world in all sorts of countries. But here in Quebec ... see, you had this very, very authoritarian church until the '60s that then breaks up. The generation of what we call "the Quiet Revolution" that did that break ... well, some of them, you just can't talk to them. "La religion c'est la tyrannie!" they'll grumble.

But then you go below it ...

JS: ... to the next generation?

CT: Yeah, and they're not liberating themselves from the Curé (laughs). There's no Curé in their case, so they can't liberate themselves. But they're looking for something.

JS: And their liberation might actually look like finding something that guides them.

CT: Yeah, exactly!

JS: That channels them.

CT: That's right, it's against pushing it all away. So you have very interesting ... I mean I'm invited by various groups of young Catholics and so on to talk about these kind of things, and they're very much on that wavelength. Modern society is a very diverse society in which there are a lot of people seeking some spiritual direction, and they're different, but let's not start fighting about that, let's start talking about and even helping and encouraging one another.

JS: This is why you find the Taizé com- munity so intriguing as well.

CT: Yes, Taizé was already that.

JS: In the heart of "secularized" Europe, right?

CT: Yeah. See, I had a couple of kids who went to Taizé and worked there for a while. In one case I visited my daughter in 1988 and I was just bowled over. I mean, I already had great admiration for Frere Roger and so on, but in actually going there I was really bowled over by that. I thought, "This is the model."

JS: In A Secular Age you say, "Look, there's no going back." The world is disenchanted. Even if we re-enchant the world, we can't undo having come through that disenchantment. I'm thinking that, on the other hand, you, last of all, would want to have just a kind of straight arrow decline narrative about that. So could you imagine that ... could it be that one could even expect exclusive humanism will prove wanting?

CT: Oh, it does, all the time! I mean there's a lot of people who don't find that it speaks to them, and the people who do, who find it speaks to them, if they're going to have any kind of depth, find they have to work at it.

JS: We don't want to prognosticate, but nothing precludes what could be remarkable renewal in a culture that has felt the claustrophobia of a closed spin on our immanent frame, right?

CT: Yeah, absolutely. But it's so hard to predict also because—well, I've learned a lot from Jose Casanova here—they're so different! You have East Germany where there's a majority of people who declare themselves atheists; but then you've got the United States or Brazil! I've visited a lot of these places and talked to people, and you can see that very different things are happening.

Or consider Ukraine. Now, of course on one hand you get this terrible, what I think is a bad reaction from a lot of official Orthodox patriarchates like the Moscow one, which we know have clamped down: "This is our tradition, this is what it means to be Russian and if you aren't this kind of thing, you're not really Russian!" and so forth.

JS: They could actually use a little secularization!

CT: [Laughs] That's right.

Then you get Ukraine. There are three possible successors to the image of "Kievan Rus'," Vladimir baptizing everybody in the Dnieper. There are three possible: One is the Moscow patriarchate; the other is a kind of Kievan patriarchate—it would be Ukrainian. And the third is the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Now, a lot of people in all three of these have decided the creative thing to do about this is, "Let's live together." So you get the very extraordinary phenomenon that all three communities are growing, and they're growing everywhere! I mean this is something that will surprise people in view of recent develop- ments: Even the Catholic Church is making parishes in the East. Now, I don't know what's happening to these people as the guns are shooting, but there is this real rise, and this applies to non-Christian faiths as well. The hunger for some kind of spirituality is unimpeded. I think it's impeded by society that has had a very powerful Christendom consensus under one confession, and that's been broken, but it's totally discredited as a possible option, so that the options look like they've got to be all non-religious because you haven't got any other way to have faith than this, and this is wrong.

But the Ukrainian Church could, in the longer run, be the future. It happened in Czechoslovakia.

JS: You would need that generational space like you have now in Quebec, so that the animosity toward that prior regime is forgotten.

CT: Maybe a couple of generational spaces! To get over the idea that Christian faith, or any kind of faith ... but let's say Christian faith, is somehow intrinsically linked with that particular, and very powerful top-down regime.

JS: Is this part of the winsome witness of Pope Francis, speaking into that kind of hunger?

CT: Yeah, that seems to be what is going on.

JS: Maybe one of the reasons why people— I mean, I expect that there's much less discontinuity between Benedict and Francis than the mainstream media sometimes suggest, but I suppose the one difference is maybe less fixation on, as you said earlier, belief—beliefs—and sort of dotting our I's and crossing our T's, and more on this sort of experience of Christ, of that journey, of that pilgrimage.

CT: Yes, but also, I mean Matthew 25: more emphasis on doing it, even if you don't have the faith, you're doing it and so let's work with that. That, I think, is the great thing.

But to put it in other terms ... I mean, I have great admiration for Benedict as a theologian, I have to say it. But he didn't really understand the world in which he was, so he had this completely reactive view. He sees this kind of splitting up into different spiritual paths as relativism and it isn't relativism. There's something very, potentially, fertile that the Christian Church has to speak to. But he was so caught up by the idea that there are enemies at the gates, climbing over, and we need to defend ourselves.

JS: Whereas maybe Francis gets at something that you mentioned earlier, which is a certain honesty about the provisionality. Which sounds like a gift, if you've experienced the faith as a very narrow, clamped-down kind of experience.

CT: We in the Catholic Church have to get over our centuries-long power trip surrounding the magisterium in general, but the papacy in particular, and maybe Francis is going to help us with that.

JS: It strikes me that, despite being the one who has sort of chronicled what got us to our secular age, you seem hopeful.

CT: Oh, yeah!

JS: What's the source for that? What are the resources for that hope? What's the shape of it?

CT: Well, I don't know. I mean I'm hopeful ... I have the same doubts and despairs as everybody else, but I also have this kind of wellspring of hope. Maybe it's this ... I don't know if it is this, but I was very lucky in that I was born in '31, so I was 20 in 1951, and at that time the theologians who were preparing Vatican II—who were mainly French, and I'm thinking particularly [Yves] Congar and [Henri] de Lubac—their word was spreading out, and it was spreading out in the French-speaking world in particular, and spreading out through the Orders—in one case Jesuit (de Lubac) and in another case Dominican (Congar). So they got to Quebec, I mean they were small groups. You know Pierre Trudeau belonged to Cité Libre, and in those days Cité Libre was originally the Quebec branch of Esprit. See, I don't know if this is known?

JS: No! [laughs] Not to me!

CT: So I read Congar when I was 20, I read de Lubac when I was 21. Now, I've never been for the kind of authoritarianism that existed in the church here. I was kind of turned off by that, but suddenly

I saw a completely different picture of what the faith could be like.

JS: And you didn't have to go through the prodigal phase to get there?

CT: Yeah. But I also didn't have anything invested in that structure, which was then crumbled.

JS: It's been very encouraging to me to see the nouvelle théologie theologians getting renewed attention across the spectrum, from Protestants, too.

CT: Yeah, that's right!

JS: I think there's an expansive vision there for renewal, for ressourcement, that speaks to what a robust, incarnate, active faith would look like for a secular age.

CT: Part of the big secret of the nouvelle théologie was they went back. See, the particular context was this awful word "modernism" [laughs], that everyone's supposed to be against. But they saw that anti-modernism was itself a kind of modernism.

JS: Yeah, just like Protestant fundamentalism is its own modernism, right?

CT: That's right. They said let's go back to the Fathers, then ressourcée, and then we'd come back and look at our agency. It cultivated a standpoint in which you're kind of contemporary to the whole Christian story. Of course you

don't know it all, so you're a contemporary only of the bits that you know. Now there's a mystical side to this that we don't fully understand, but those lives having been lived somewhere there, impacting us. But in terms of what we're influenced to believe, we're contemporary to the whole Christian story. So Gregory of Nyssa is just as important as the local bishop, or whatever.

Now, if you really can get yourself to feel that, you don't have the same sense that it all lives and dies here. But that requires—and I'm working on that and I'm very confused by that—it requires another understanding of the kingdom building in history. See, I think we had an understanding in the Christendom era, as it turns out at its end, which got a little bit fused with the secular progress story. That's what I was saying earlier: the notion that the world's becoming more and more Christian, more democratic and it's all going to ... That's what building the kingdom came to, right?

Whereas if you take the mustard seed parable, it's quite different. I mean the mustard seed is planted and it grows and there are different mustard seeds moving all over and they don't fit together in a single movement, and they don't impart a linear direction to things.

So in a sense, living by all these periods is living by all these growing mustard seeds that you are aware of in history.

So you're a little bit liberated from the idea that, right here, now, we're making all the difference, and the worry that, "Oh, if we let those guys go, then it all crumbles!" [Laughs]

JS: So it's probably the difference between what is a truly authentic Christian hope versus just a Christianized version of a triumphalist progress narrative, right? Those are not the same thing. If you think you're participating in the triumphalist progress narrative, then everything hinges on the now and on us defending the gates at this moment.

CT: That's right.

JS: Whereas in the other model that you're suggesting, you step back and you realize God is faithful in all these different places, in all these different ways.

I've spent a lot of time in investing in Augustine's City of God lately and he cultivates this remarkable kind of sanctified ambivalence about the empire. On the one hand he's looking and he sees the places where Spirit is at work. On the other hand he doesn't think the kingdom stands or falls with Rome. There's a certain aloofness that's actually liberating in that sense.

CT: So you hook onto all these. ... I mean the mustard seeds are kind of moments where someone does something: "I was naked and you clothed me" and so on. I think what Francis is talking about is planting mustard seeds, so you live off these ones you know about and somehow you bring them into your life. That is the hope. How is it all gonna work out? How the hell could I know! [Laughs]

JS: Right. All we know is there's more to it than this: there's kingdom come! That's beautiful, and a beautiful place to end. Thank you so much for a rich conversation.

CT: Well, thank you!


Charles Taylor is a Roman Catholic philosopher who is particularly admired for his work on Hegel, modernity, and secularism. Taylor's 2007 masterpiece, A Secular Age, was the focus of James K.A. Smith's recent book, How (Not) to Be Secular.


James K.A. Smith is editor-in-chief of Comment and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. His latest book is, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos).


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