Does secularism have a future?

A Secular Age
By Charles Taylor. Belknap Press. 2007. 874 pages

The Unintended Reformation
By Brad Gregory. Belknap Press. 2012. 574 pages

We have two rather different books from very different thinkers: Charles Taylor, Canadian philosopher, sociologist, and historian of ideas; Brad Gregory, American historian with a philosophical background. Taylor, discussing the origin of our secular age, rather as he discussed the Sources of the [modern] Self in his groundbreaking 1989 masterpiece; Gregory, discussing the origins and unintended reverberations of the Reformation.

Taylor’s 800-page work is a much-expanded version of his Gifford Lectures in 1999, Living in a Secular Age. It tells the story of secularisation in the modern West, wending its way through the “drive to Reform” which characterises second-millennium Christianity, and which he sees as the ultimate cause of the development of secularism, to the emergence of an impersonal Deism, the age of Romanticism and the co-existence of unbelief with spiritual awareness, the co-existence of great horrors with humanitarian concerns on a previously unheard-of scale.

Every aspect of modernity is treated in a fascinating, thorough and very personal conversation. He concludes that the perceived flatness of modernity is calling for a spiritual inspiration, and his final prognosis is that secularist ideology has not been able, and will not be able, to cure the malaises it blamed on religion.

Gregory’s Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society deals with the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation in chapters about religion, Church and state, morality, consumerism, and the universities. But he begins (and the present review focuses on this) with a chapter on an unintended fore-runner of the Reformation, in the philosophical and theological theories of Blessed Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, who both unwittingly laid the foundations of a worldview in which God is just another being, albeit almighty and infinite, subject to the same canons of proof as other objects of our knowledge.

Secularism's religious origins

Taylor and Gregory both take issue with the “substitution” theory, the “obvious idea,” espoused by New Atheists, etc., that “superstitious religion waned, lost its inspiration, and was ‘found out’ by something better – science, rationalism, and technological progress – leading to secularism. But for both writers, there wasn’t anything else waiting in the wings. In common with other recent narratives, they maintain rather that it was religious thinking and religious concerns that gave rise to secularity, much as Tom Holland, author of Dominion, has claimed that humanism is simply a Christian heresy, cashing in on some particular aspects of the Christian message such as freedom, human dignity, or equality.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains that “the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” Secularity in this sense is not an opinion or an ideology: it is a matter of the whole context of understanding (“social imaginary” as he also calls it) in which our moral, spiritual, and religious experience and search take place.

For Taylor, we transitioned from living within a “cosmos”, a hierarchically graded universe full of symbolic meaning and order, to inhabiting an “infinite universe” that is vast, infinite and seemingly devoid of divine meaning. The pre-modern self was a “porous” self, open to the divine, perceiving it in the cosmos, the calendar, full of special times and seasons; in the sacraments and sacramentals of the Church; in the presence of relics and other material witnesses or even generators of the numinous presence of God. This is contrasted with the advent in modern times of what Taylor calls the “buffered self”, which is able to take a detached and self-contained distance from everything outside the mind.

At the heart of all this, he finds, within Christianity itself, a drive for reform, personal and ecclesial, running right through the second millennium – from the medieval reforms of Hildebrand to the devotio moderna of Erasmus, Thomas à Kempis, and Thomas More, to the Reformation, to Trent, to Vatican II, which led to a more inward devotional life, a suspicion of the external and popular piety so popular in pre-modern times. The whole centre of gravity of religious life changes: the power of God doesn’t operate through various “sacramentals” or locations vested with sacred power. Sacraments become occasions rather than causes of grace, and religion becomes the individual’s private responsibility, permitting the emergence of a “buffered”, self-contained self.


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He claims that if one carries this drive to reform to its ultimate endpoint, one falls into a kind of deism, God-at-a-distance, in which the Incarnation loses its significance, and Jesus becomes a great teacher expounding an ethic that allows us to live here below in peace and harmony, a version of the modern moral order.

This is a loss, for Taylor, for a greater transformation was held out to us by Christianity – God became man that man may become God (theosis, “engoddenment”). Christianity instead becomes a moralism which can save nobody. We interpret the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, as simply teaching a new way of behaving when in fact it is another kind of being.

Just when one might think that all is lost, Taylor concludes that secularisation (blaming religion for the woes of the past) will become less and less plausible, as these woes won’t go away even without God. He also believes that the sense of living in a “wasteland” will pall for subsequent generations, and many young people will begin again to explore beyond the boundaries.


Brad Gregory’s narrative in The Unintended Reformation starts elsewhere. He points to the commonly held present-day assertion that science and religion are incompatible, and that the findings of science prescribe atheism as a matter of intellectual integrity. These claims are seen as “neutral truths” rather than what they are – ideologically loaded, contestable truth claims based on unverifiable beliefs. Gregory’s book traces them back to their late medieval origins.

He looks at this in the first chapter, “Excluding God”, by pointing out that for Christianity, God is not the highest, noblest or most powerful entity within the universe. Rather, God is radically distinct from the universe, which he created ex nihilo. No empirical investigation is going to disprove (or prove) God’s existence.

And the claim that God, if he exists, must be part of the natural world, mappable on the same coordinates, is not a scientific finding at all. It emerges from a little-known but influential metaphysical theory, which finds its way back to the Oxford philosopher and theologian Blessed Duns Scotus (1266–1308), and states that God is just another being, albeit bigger and better than created beings.

Scotus broke from the “unanimous and traditional view” espoused by Aquinas and almost all medieval thinkers that the world and its creator were linked by analogy – the qualities of creation reflected God’s own being. For Duns Scotus and for William of Ockham, this was an intolerable limitation on divine freedom and omnipotence.

God is not bound even by his own creation, and he might even command the opposite of the commandments, which rest not on a supposed participation in God’s truth and faithfulness and life by human beings, but simply on God’s command and will. The one thing God and the world have in common is existing.

This shared idea of being permits us to reason about God. This, eventually (and quite unintentionally, given Duns Scotus’ desire to underline the freedom, transcendence, and power of God), came to mean, in the modern age of reason, that God was just another “thing,” “a being,” more powerful and infinite than the rest, linked to the world through his free will, by which he decides to create it.

For Gregory, this explains the common category mistake among the theologically ill-informed that God, if real, must be some sort of entity “out there” in the universe, discoverable through the empirical methods of scientific investigation.

The English theologian John Milbank recently summed this up in a judgement with which both writers would agree:

[I]t was just not the case that secular autonomy arose because secular forces rebelled against sacred ones, leaving the secular behind as a “natural” residue, once a whole lot of weird stuff had been at last “subtracted”. Philosophy had become autonomous, not because pipe-smoking men in tweed had rebelled against men in clerical gowns, but because the men in clerical gowns had opened up that space for their own peculiar religious reasons.

There is much more to be said about both books, but this brief review simply points to their authors’ shared conviction that we must look within Christianity itself for the ultimate causes of contemporary secularisation, and also for the potential to discover the values of the secular world in the light of Christ, who makes all things new in every generation. 

Rev. Patrick Gorevan is a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature. He lectures in philosophy at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth and is an academic tutor at Maryvale Institute. He has written on the early phenomenological movement, virtue ethics and the role of emotion in moral action.

Image: Pixabay


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  • Rob McKilliam
    commented 2024-01-29 20:14:10 +1100
    Steven: Yes, I think humans have always believed in an inexplicable power over ‘material stuff’ and ’spiritual stuff’. Today we call that “God”. You might enjoy “Being a Human” by Charles Foster, described as "a work of shaggy genius”. Among other things he explores human spirituality from 40,000 years ago.

    Since humans first existed, evidence shows they believed in gods, witchdoctors, voodoo, demons, ghosts, and dreamtime, etc.

    With great respect I think you may be making the same mistake I did, which is to confuse God and Religion.

    My personal current understanding is that ‘Religion’ is a human idea to try and explain ’spiritual stuff’. In the same way, “Science’ is a human idea to try and explain ‘material stuff’. Until relatively recently humans understood spiritual stuff much better than material stuff.

    There have probably been thousands of different ‘Religions’ over time. I liken them to fast food franchises. Each develops its own brand of spiritual ideas and tries to market them to customers. Sometimes, as you quite correctly point out, the marketing and application is very unethical.

    I do actually think it is quite simple. You either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you should probably try and find out more with an open mind as I am trying to do. Then it can get very sophisticated and interesting. Personally, I find the teachings of a fellow called Jesus 2000 years ago very enlightening.

    I am trying to figure out what the author means by ’secularism’ and where it fits into my understanding of things.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-01-29 11:59:49 +1100
    Rob, have humans “always believed in God”? Or, at least in gods. Most early religions were polytheistic.

    Was Constantine a believing Christian or did he just see Christianity as something he could use to unite the empire?

    Similar comments apply to Justinian.

    The real history of Islam – not the fake history Muslims tell themselves – suggests it was an invented religion designed to help govern the new Arab Empire.

    And once a religion, with all the apparatus of priests who could execute you got established, did people just go along to get along.

    If I was running a business in a small American town would I proclaim myself an atheist? Or would I attend church every Sunday, make generous donations and keep my thoughts to myself?

    How many people supress their doubts because they want to belong?

    Did all the incredibly corrupt popes – eg Urban VIII – truly believe they would face divine retribution?

    If America’s Christians truly believed the teachings of Jesus would they opt for Donald Trump? Would they flock to megachurches preaching the prosperity gospel?

    I don’t think it’s as simple as you seem to think.
  • Rob McKilliam
    commented 2024-01-27 19:52:15 +1100
    Steven – I am also confused by what the author means by ‘secularism’. I don’t think he means ’separation of church and state’.

    I used to be confused between God, Religion. Christianity and the Church until I realised they are very different things and I defined them for myself. I’m not sure where ’secularism’ fits in.

    Humans have always believed in God. What is extraordinary is that only in the last 50 years many (most?) of us in the West have decided God does not exist. I think this is a result of the Enlightenment and a failure of mainstream Religious leaders to keep up. Perhaps this explains why our populations aren’t replacing themselves.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-01-25 14:04:40 +1100
    What do you mean by “secularism”?

    Originally it meant separation of religion and the state. Individuals are free to practice any religion or no religion.

    In that very limited sense I hope it has a future. However abortion prohibitions do not augur well.

    In the wider sense of humanity abandoning religion, I know I, as an atheist, am on the losing side. It’s a matter of demography. Religios make more babies.

    If a propensity to be religious and a propensity to have children are intertwined, which seems to be the case, the religios win. They’re making the gene pool of the future.
  • Fr Patrick Gorevan
    published this page in The Latest 2024-01-25 08:32:02 +1100