We Have Never Been Secular

by Bill McCormick

“Secularism” is an academic word that somehow slipped into everyday conversation, but what in the world does it mean?

The eminent Canadian political and moral thinker Charles Taylor recently offered a three-fold understanding of the concept, and it’s a worthy beginning to unraveling this complicated term. The two obvious senses of secularism are (1) the autonomy of public spheres from God or religious concerns and (2) the decline in religious practice among individuals. Yet secularity also involves, Taylor writes, (3) a shift from a society in which belief in God is axiomatic to one in which such belief is simply one among many options.

This shift affects everyone, and not only because any and all would-be truths are questionable, including those of science, but because now no one can ignore the question it raises: if belief in God is no longer the unquestionable foundation for goodness and truth, for what makes us human, has man any such foundation?  And can human community survive with such uncertainty as we grapple with this question?

I write that “everyone” must feel this shift, but that is not quite true, as Taylor makes clear. This is a story about the West, a confluence of Greek, Jewish and Christian traditions that were in different ways very ambiguous about the relation between politics and the divine. We not only ignore this history when we act as though the modern “separation” of religion and politics were simply self-evident, but risk hypocrisy when we embrace notions of rights, the person, conscience, liberty, universality and even the “secular” that are distinctly Judeo-Christian legacies. When one hears modern Westerners discussing whether Islam distinguishes between politics and religion, one must wonder: can a Westerner really know what such a statement even means?

Such amnesia is not our only problem. For what seems to characterize our age is not merely a fuller sensation of man’s autonomy, but also a deep and lingering dissatisfaction with it. We claim to have emancipated politics from questions of transcendence, yet we have little trust in human reason. We claim to have developed a post-religious society, but we take a poor view of other people and are far from any consensus on the common goods of our society. The resultant desolation, alienation and plain anger are amply reflected in our art, our literature, our friendships and our politics.

It might then seem surprising that, for many political theorists interested in religion, the first question is not “Where is God?” but “Where is reason?” Yet even if one disagrees with Taylor’s definitions of secularism, he is surely right that the doubtful status of secularism reopens not only the relation between religion and politics, but also the connection between faith and reason, or our time’s images of faith and reason, anyway. Thus the great thinkers of recent times, whether religious, atheist or somewhere in between, have recognized that faith and reason must be re-evaluated together.

Are humans capable of forming rational communities that seek their good? Does man even have a purpose, a good that he must seek? If he does, how would he uncover it? Could it bind him in peace to other people? These are urgent questions, and there can be no “neutral” answer to them. Yet the fear of observers like Taylor is that we will stop asking them, either because we think they are no longer genuine questions, or in despair of finding answers to them. Whether we take up their challenge is at present another unanswered question.

Bill McCormick is a Ph.D candidate. He studies medieval political thought and anything related to theology and politics. A native Texan, McCormick graduated from the University of Chicago in 2007 and has recently returned from a year studying Thomas Aquinas at the University of Cambridge. When not doing all of that, he enjoys horses, whiskey and collecting flags.