What’s wrong with a secular world?

A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor, is 874 pages long.  A critic says “its size is preposterous.  No work of philosophy needs to be anywhere this long.” (Larmore).  A Rumor Angels, by Peter Berger, is 104 pages long.  It makes much the same argument as Taylor, and makes it more clearly.  Clarity is almost always a virtue; in this case, because it allows us to see where each goes wrong.  Berger appears more obviously wrong than Taylor, but that is mostly because we can see his argument more clearly.      

Both seek an experience of transcendence that lifts us out of a strictly secular world.  Both use human needs as the basis of transcendence, indeed as the basis of belief in God.  And both have it backward.  Founding the experience of transcendence in human needs makes the experience of God a strictly human affair.  Perhaps this is not such a terrible thing, but it is not what they are aiming at.   


Pluralism of beliefs

For both, the problem of our secular age (both limit their comments to North America and Western Europe) is not disbelief in God.  The problem is the pluralism of beliefs.  Anyone believing in God knows that lots of other people don’t.  That’s unsettling.

Inevitably, this leads to a situation in which most plausibility structures are partial and therefore tenuous. They organize only a part of the individual’s world and lack the compelling character of structures taken to be “natural,” inevitable, self-evident. . . . . It is this pluralization, rather than some mysterious intellectual fall from grace, that I see as the most important cause of the diminishing plausibility of religious traditions.  (Berger, p 44)

I may believe in God, my friends and family believe in God, but I know of lots of people who don’t.  The result is that I cannot take my beliefs for granted. 

For Taylor too, the secular world is not simply one of disbelief in God.  The secular world is one of many beliefs.  It’s the difference between 1500 CE, when virtually all believed, and today, when belief is an option, a lifestyle. 

Beyond human flourishing

For Taylor, transcendence means transcending the limited goal of human flourishing. 

I would like to claim that the coming of modern secularity in my sense has been coterminous with the rise of a society in which for the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true. (p 16)  

A secular age is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable; or better, it falls within the range of an imaginable life for masses of people. (Taylor, p 19)

Taylor omits a notable exception: the stoics, particularly Epictetus, for whom human flourishing was the highest goal, the only goal. Of course they were not a society, but they influenced Greek and Roman culture.  Epictetus’ view of flourishing is different from ours, coming closer to emotional autarky.  But for Epictetus this is what it takes to flourish in a hostile world (White, p 30).  Since flourishing is such a rare and remarkable achievement, it is a worthy goal in itself.

The problem with both Taylor and Berger is that they use the human desire for transcendence as evidence of a transcendent reality.  But desire isn’t evidence for anything except desire.  Interpreting Taylor, Charles Larmore says

Each of us has moments of “fullness” when we feel at one with the world, as though some higher force were flowing through all things and carrying a hidden meaning about how we should live . . . . The very values that shape the human self-affirmation we prize point to a larger horizon beyond the purely human.  

Taylor quotes Bede Griffiths to make this point.

One day during my last term at school I walked out alone in the evening . . . .  As I walked I came upon some hawthorn trees in full bloom and again. I thought that I had never seen such a sight or experienced such sweetness before. . . . I remember now the feeling of awe which came over me. . . . I hardly dared to look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it was but a veil before the face of God. (Griffiths, p 9; Taylor, p 5)

            Signals of transcendence

Berger calls experiences such as these “signals of transcendence.”  They represent an anthropological starting point for theology.  What could this mean? 

By signals of transcendence I mean phenomena that are to be found within the domain of our “natural” reality but that appear to point beyond that reality. In other words, I am not using transcendence here in a technical philosophical sense but literally, as the transcending of the normal, everyday world that I earlier identified with the notion of the “supernatural.” By prototypical human gestures, I mean certain reiterated acts and experiences that appear to express essential aspects of man’s being, of the human animal as such. (p 53, my emphasis)

Berger is making the same claim as Taylor, even if Berger seems to confine his observations to the world of everyday reality.  One sees this in Larmore’s use of the same term as Berger to capture the significance of these experiences for Taylor: they “point” to a reality “beyond the purely human.” (Taylor, p 5). 

But they don’t.  They point to themselves.  They taunt us with the promise of more (or rather, we taunt ourselves), but that is all they can ever  do.  They tell us what we want, not what we can have.  Berger calls them an “anthropological starting point for theology.” (p 52)  But they’re an anthropological ending point as well.  We can stand on the shoulders of others, making a human tower as high as we can climb before we all fall over.  At its highest, it will remain a human tower.

Finally, isn’t there something deeply cynical (is arrogant a better word?) in the view that “certain reiterated acts and experiences that appear to express essential aspects of man’s being, of the human animal as such” point us toward God?  Is man the model of God?  Is God made in the image of man?  Perhaps, but once we admit this the search for transcendence is a dead end.  We transcend ourselves only to find ourselves.  How boring. 

Where does mother love point?

Berger’s lack of subtlety is good for the critic, but at a certain point he goes too far even for a sociologist who longs to believe.  Consider a mother who, upon hearing her child crying after having awakened from a bad dream, goes to reassure him.  Holding or cuddling the child, she will speak to him or her in a universal language.  “Don’t be afraid—everything is in order, everything is all right.” (Berger, p 54)

Behind these words is a profound religious question.  Is the mother lying to the child? The answer, in the most profound sense, can be “no” only if there is some truth in the religious interpretation of human existence. (Berger, p 55, his emphasis)

This, of course, makes no sense.  Mother isn’t saying everything will be all right for eternity.  She’s saying I’m your mommy, and I’m here to protect and care for you now and in any future you can imagine. Context counts.  Beyond Berger’s enthusiasm for mother love, one sees the problem with an anthropological foundation for God (or religion, as he calls it): it’s so deeply rooted in human needs that God is but an expression of these needs. 

For many who have thought deeply about God, God is otherness.  Or as Isaiah has God put it, “for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” (55:8)  Perhaps God is not the Great Comforter, but something completely different.      

Taylor: Closer to Camus than God?

Taylor admires the “Stoic courage” of Albert Camus (p 703).  The brave man accepts that the universe does not and will not respond to our deepest needs.  But isn’t Taylor closer to Camus than God?  If human longing points to God, isn’t that because it’s pointing to a mirror made of human desire?  What human hubris imagines that our desires must have their complement in the world? Or in God?


Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural.  Open Road, 2011.

Bede Griffiths, The Golden String. Fount, 1979.

Charles Larmore, “How much can we stand?”   The New Republic, April 9, 2008.  https://newrepublic.com/article/63415/how-much-can-we-stand

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.  Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2007. 

Nicholas White, translator.  Epictetus, The Handbook.  Hackett, 1983. 


4 thoughts on “What’s wrong with a secular world?”

  1. As you yourself wrote, Fred, in ‘Why I Pray’ (June 2016):

    “as the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it about the God of Job, the speeches of God have brought home the fact that human beings are not the center of the universe and that not everything has been made for their service (p. 74)”

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