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A Secular Age Hardcover – 28 Sep 2007


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 896 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (28 Sep 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674026764
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674026766
  • Product Dimensions: 23.7 x 16.9 x 5.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 64,584 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

"Charles Taylor accepts, as his book's title suggests, that we live in a secular age but
describes it in a way that is, I think, fundamentally correct. This book is the most
thorough study yet of the intellectual history of how the modern secular age has come
about. One of the interesting features of this major study is the way Taylor finds the
roots of our present humanism in the Middle Ages. This summary does not do justice
to the many sub-division and subtleties of this extensive book by an author who draws
widely on French and German sources as well as British and American ones in an
absorbing intellectual history." -- -Richard Harries, Times Higher Education Supplement, 5 October 2007

"Taylor is arguably the most interesting and important philosopher writing in English
today. Like Taylor's early work, [this book], is in part a quarrel with naturalism - in
this case naturalistic accounts of religion's place in the modern world. A Secular Age
sets out to offer a richer characterisation of secularisation and the nature of
contemporary belief, both religious and sceptical. Taylor writes brilliantly about the
new social forms -- the nation state, the market economy, the charitable enterprise --
and the ideals of altruism and public service that have emerged within them."
-- - Ben Rogers, Prospect, 1 February 2008

"Working through Mr Taylor's careful but idiosyncratic prose one finds big nuggets
of insight, useful to almost anybody with an interest in the progress of human
society."
-- -Economist, 8 Sept 2007

In a determinedly brilliant new book, Charles Taylor challenges the `subtraction theory' of secularisation
-- London Review of Books, 7 August 2008

[Taylor] offers a uniquely rich historical and philosophical overview of how we came to take a disenchanted world for granted.
-- Times Literary Supplement, 28 November 2008

Review

In a determinedly brilliant new book, Charles Taylor challenges the `subtraction theory' of secularisation

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112 of 114 people found the following review helpful By Robin Friedman TOP 500 REVIEWER on 21 Dec 2007
Format: Hardcover
Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher who has written extensively on the interplay between the religious and secular attitudes towards life. His recent book, "A Secular Age" explores this relationship in great and thoughtful detail from both a historical and a deeply personal perspective. The book is based in part on the Gifford Lectures that Taylor delivered in Edinburgh in 1997. (William James, a philosopher Taylor admires, also delivered a set of Gifford Lectures which became "The Varieties of Religious Experience".) But the book was expanded greatly from Taylor's Gifford lectures, and he aptly advises the reader "not to think of it as a continuous story-and-argument, but rather as a series of interlocking essays, which shed light on each other,, and offer a context of relevance for each other." (Preface) Taylor's book received the 2007 Templeton Prize. The Templeton Prize is awarded "for progress toward research or discovery about spiritual realities." It carries with it the largest cash award of any major prize or honor.

A good deal of Taylor's book is devoted to understanding the nature of secularism and the different contexts in which the word "secularism" is used. For the larger part of the book, Taylor describes a "secular age" as an age in which unbelief in God or in Transcendent reality has become a live option to many people. He describes our age as such a "secular age" especially among academics and other intellectuals. He wants to give an account of how secularism developed, of its strengths and weaknesses, and of its current significance.

Taylor's book is written on a personal, historical, and contemporary level. Taylor is a believing contemporary Catholic, and much of his treatment of religious belief reflects his own Catholic/Christian commitments.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Dr. H. Alison on 14 Dec 2009
Format: Hardcover
I endured this book, because it contains many insightful perspectives on an important subject. In particular, the development of a broader picture of the secularisation of Western societies than the simplistic subtractive story of religion receding in the face of rationalistic science is both convincing and thought provoking. The author is clearly not a secularist himself, but does not duck any of the important criticisms of the religious world view.

However, and this is the unfortunate reason why I felt moved to write this review, the prose of this 700 page volume is amongst the most impenetrable and abstruse I have ever read. I found myself frequently reaching for the thesaurus, which on no fewer than 11 occasions was unable to assist me, and I am not talking about the technical philosophical terms. This in addition to the various neologisms scattered through the text, and the authors habit of using the same word in several different contexts, which had me re-reading whole passages to clarify their sense.

Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that I am not a professional philosopher, but I think that any book providing a history and overview of a subject such as this for the conventionally educated lay person, ought to do so in as clear and consise a manner as possible, and this has definitely not been attempted here. In many places the same argument is re-stated multiple times, and I often found myself having to go back several pages or even chapters to remind myself what 'sense 3' of a previously discussed topic was.

I would not even attempt this book if you are not at least passingly familiar with most of the works of the western philosophical tradition.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
essential reading for my masters in philosophy of religion, but the leisurely erudition of this book makes it accessible to the general reader
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25 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Neutral VINE VOICE on 22 May 2009
Format: Hardcover
Charles Taylor is often regarded as one the most under-rated philosophers of the twentieth century and this book explains why. He is the intellectuals' intellectual, forever dealing in the abstract with occasional forays into facts to buttress an argument that could be made in a single sentence but takes an age to proclaim. Part of this is down to Taylor's individual style of writing and the fact that the book was based on a series of lectures which he failed to transfer from intimate discussion into coherent written argument. Those present at the Gifford Lectures in 1999 must have had great difficulty staying awake.

Taylor claims that public spaces have been emptied of God in a relatively brief period of time, to the extent that belief in God is no longer axiomatic for social existence while, for some, faith "never seems an eligible possibility". His book seeks to explain why and how that occurred and in doing so re-interprets the shift from the sacred to the profane. "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". History is essential to our understanding as, "our past is sedimented in our present, and we are doomed to misidentify ourselves as long as we can't do justice to where we come from."

He points out that in 1500, the moral order was anchored in religious beliefs and practice. The idea of a morality without God would have been difficult for most people to understand, especially since God (via the Church) was the guarantee of protection against evil spirits at a time when eternal damnation was a cause for concern.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 38 reviews
220 of 228 people found the following review helpful
Charles Taylor's Secular Age 6 Dec 2007
By Robin Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher who has written extensively on the interplay between the religious and secular attitudes towards life. His recent book, "A Secular Age" explores this relationship in great and thoughtful detail from both a historical and a deeply personal perspective. The book is based in part on the Gifford Lectures that Taylor delivered in Edinburgh in 1997. (William James, a philosopher Taylor admires, also delivered a set of Gifford Lectures which became "The Varieties of Religious Experience".) But the book was expanded greatly from Taylor's Gifford lectures, and he aptly advises the reader "not to think of it as a continuous story-and-argument, but rather as a series of interlocking essays, which shed light on each other,, and offer a context of relevance for each other." (Preface) Taylor's book received the 2007 Templeton Prize. The Templeton Prize is awarded "for progress toward research or discovery about spiritual realities." It carries with it the largest cash award of any major prize or honor.

A good deal of Taylor's book is devoted to understanding the nature of secularism and the different contexts in which the word "secularism" is used. For the larger part of the book, Taylor describes a "secular age" as an age in which unbelief in God or in Transcendent reality has become a live option to many people. He describes our age as such a "secular age" especially among academics and other intellectuals. He wants to give an account of how secularism developed, of its strengths and weaknesses, and of its current significance.

Taylor's book is written on a personal, historical, and contemporary level. Taylor is a believing contemporary Catholic, and much of his treatment of religious belief reflects his own Catholic/Christian commitments. At times, I thought that Taylor's description of the religious life (necessary to his consideration of secularism) was focused too much in the nature of specifically Christian beliefs, such as the Incarnation and the Atonement, which would be of little significance to non-Christian practitioners of religion, such as Jews, Buddhists, or Zoroastrians. Taylor is, in fact, fully aware of the diversity among religious traditions, but his discussion of the religious outlook still at times tilts greatly towards Christianity. The advantage of Taylor's approach (in emphasizing his own religious commitment)is that it gives the book a sense of immediacy and lived experience. The key difference between secularism and religion for Taylor is that the former tends to see human good and human flourishing as focused solely in this world, in, for example, a happy family, a rewarding career, and service to others, while the religious outlook insists that these goods, while precious are not enough. The religious outlook is Transcendent and sees the primary good in life as beyond all individualized, this-worldly human goods.

From a historical perspective, Taylor tries to reject what he calls the "subtraction story". This story sees secularism as resulting purely from the discoveries of science -- such as Darwin's evolution -- taking away assumptions basic to religion leaving a secular, nonreligious world view by default. He offers learned discussions of the medieval period, the reformation and the Enlightenment, of Romanticism and Victorianism as leading to the development of secularism but to new forms of religious awareness as well. The "subtraction story" for Taylor is a gross oversimplification. Secularism, and the religious responses to it, has a complex, convoluted history with many twists and turns. The impetus for both views, Taylor argues is predominantly ethical -- developing views on what is important for human life -- rather than merely epistemological.

Taylor's approach seems to me greatly influenced by Hegel. He offers a type of dialectic in which one type of religious belief leads to a resulting series of secularist or religious responses which in turn result in other further variants and responses. In spite of his own religious commitments, he acknoledges, and celebrates, the diversity of options people have today towards both secularism and religion. The book is also deeply influenced by Heidegger (and Wittgenstein) in its emphasis on the unstated and unexamined views towards being in the world that, Taylor finds, underlie both religion and secularism.

I found the best portions of the book were those that specifically adressed modern life, as Taylor asseses the importance of an "expressivist" culture, which emphasizes personal fulfillment especially as it involves sexuality, of gender issues and feminism, of this-worldy service to others, and of fanaticism and violence upon issues of secularism and religion. Taylor emphasizes that people today tend to be fluid in their beliefs and to move more frequently than did people in other times between religions, between alternative spiritualities, and, indeed between secularism and religion. He attributes this to the plethora of options in a fragmented age and to a search for meaning among many people that did not seem as pressing in earlier times. Peggy Lee's song "Is that all there is?" is a theme that runs through a great deal of Taylor's book.

Taylor has written a difficult, challenging work that is unlikely to change many people's opinions about their own secularism or religion but that may lead to an increased understanding of individuals for their own views and for those of others. This book is not for the casual reader. It will appeal to those who have wrestled for themeselves with questions of spirituality and secularism.

Robin Friedman
205 of 214 people found the following review helpful
A Catholic Defends the Secular 5 Oct 2007
By Robert E. Livingston - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
If you have no previous experience of Charles Taylor, this is not the place to start: 872 pages are a heavy commitment, and Taylor is far from being a great writer. If you want your thinking challenged, try his short essay A Catholic Modernity?: Charles Taylor's Marianist Award Lecture, with responses by William M. Shea, Rosemary Luling Haughton, George Marsden, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, where he previews the argument that secularism actually makes for a fuller realization of Christ's teachings than Christianity allowed. Or, from a different perspective, try William Connolly's Why I Am Not a Secularist, which argues that secular principles are better realized by relaxing secularism.

That said, A Secular Age is vintage Taylor, tracing the roots of secularism deep into the furthest reaches of theology and tracing a series of complicated genealogies of modern thought. It's tough going, and Taylor does have a tendency to loop and qualify in the course of elaborating his claims. But if you have the patience for this kind of Hegel-inspired intellectual-philosophical history, you can count on having your thinking nuanced and complicated as well as encountering all sorts of nearly forgotten thinkers from across the Western tradition. It extends and completes some of the arguments advanced in his earlier Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity
77 of 83 people found the following review helpful
Kindle edition a disaster 24 Mar 2013
By Kay Richardson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Kindle edition is useless for serious readers. The "Kindle editors" who prepared this edition clearly have no knowledge of why scholarly apparatus (notes, bibliograpny, index) is important. These research tools were given little or no consideration. The index is in impossibly small type that cannot be enlarged. Kindle's X-ray feature is apparently not available for this title, so the page numbers in the index are useless anyway. This also means that quoting from this Kindle edition is impossible. Looking up page references to this work from other authors is also impossible. The notes are gathered at the end, and the text callouts do not take you there. You must pick your way through via "locations" -- and this book is 896 pages long! (It makes me wonder if the Kindle digitizers have ever even read a "real" book.)

At a price of $36.80 for this Kindle edition, I expected the digital formatting to be properly done. Shame on both Amazon and The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press for selling this shoddy and useless edition for such an outrageous price.

Charles Taylor is a brilliant thinker. His work deserves far better editions than this Kindle one.
87 of 96 people found the following review helpful
Magisterial, if flawed 6 Jan 2008
By Wes Howard-Brook - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
As someone who spends much of my time as an undergraduate teacher of theology and church-based adult educator, I regularly run up against what Taylor calls the "subtraction theory" of why secularism has largely replaced Christian faith in the Western world as the default starting point for educated people. Taylor's painstaking, detailed journey through the past five hundred years shows the constructed nature of this implicit "common sense" and then thoroughly demolishes it. Anyone who has sought to engage "atheists" or "agnostics" on why they presume (rather than express a reasoned basis for their view) that religion is for "fools" or children owes a deep debt of gratitude to Taylor's work.

Other reviewers have noted several of the stylistic flaws, such as the tendency toward repetition, the assumption that readers speak French, and so forth. I'd simply like to add a brief note of two substantive limitations.

First, Taylor's definition of "religion" is narrow, and thus misses the "religious" aspects of other forms of social/cultural bonding that function as "religions" in our world, from the relatively trivial (such as sports partisanship) to the more serious (such as patriotism and scientism). His argument is thus directed between "belief" and "unbelief," rather than between various forms of belief systems. As he notes (but does not discuss in detail), scientism functions religiously for many, including such popular authors as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, famous for their supposed "debunking" of "religion." This diminishes the power of his argument to refute some of the more powerful forms of "belief" in our world today.

Second, he gives short shrift to two forms of inner-Christian distortion that have enormous power to generate "unbelief": fundamentalism and reactionary Catholicism. I see every day young adults who describe themselves as "atheists" when what they are rejecting is the experience of one of these distortions. I realize that Taylor has striven wherever possible to establish a non-polemical stance and perhaps wanted to avoid "attacking" these positions. However, the result again is a loss of potential power in the face of very prevalent and vocal positions in our culture.

Having said this, I am very glad for having invested the time and effort in engaging Taylor's long argument. Whether or not one agrees with him on every point is not nearly as important as the exercise in clarification of thought which the effort generates.
52 of 56 people found the following review helpful
indecipherable genius 5 Nov 2011
By Ken Bartsch - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Charles Taylor's A Secular Age has many excellent insights into the development of secularity today. I recommend it to anyone who seeks enlightenment on the subject. However - be warned! -- his writing style is deplorable. I suppose he dictated the book to a stenographer who faithfully recorded every errant word that fell from his lips.
His sentences are long and tedious with innumerable asides. He repeats himself endlessly; refers to items 1, 2, and 3 as if the reader can remember the subtle differences between each point; and often interrupts himself mid-sentence with irrelevant asides. After all the work of reading a dozen pages I am not sure if I've learned anything at all.
After reading 70% of the book I decided he probably has nothing more to say; and, if there is more, it's not worth the effort. If the book is ever republished, I hope an iron-butted editor will rewrite every sentence and make it palatable to readers.

SIX MONTHS Later
I finished the book and have decided to read it again. I have often thought about the place of Christians in our post-modern, post-Christian society. Mr Taylor provides invaluable insight, but he sure makes me work for them.
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