Difficult Terrain Ahead, Guide Recommended

By Ruth AbbeySeptember 10, 2015

How (Not) to Be Secular by James K. A. Smith

SHORTLY AFTER the appearance of A Secular Age in 2007, I suggested to its author, Charles Taylor, that he consider publishing an abbreviated version of the book. At a hefty 874 pages, I feared that his work might not reach the wide audience it deserved. And there was a precedent for this proposal: Taylor’s large, eponymous book on Hegel, published in 1975, was followed four years later by his shorter Hegel and Modern Society. Yet my suggestion of a micro version of A Secular Age was greeted with a mixture of horror and disbelief. “Shorter?” asked Chuck incredulously. “Shorter? It needs to be longer!” Given the book’s reception at even that early stage, I did understand his point. Many commentators had identified significant omissions in Taylor’s tracing of the pathways in religious belief in the modern Western world from 1500 to now. Judaism, for example, plays a negligible role. Islam and European colonialism are likewise neglected. I could readily comprehend Taylor’s insistence that his long book needed to be even longer, but my worry about the inverse correlation between page and readership number remained: how many people would buy or borrow, let alone read, a work of that size?

James K. A. Smith has produced what I could not persuade Taylor to in this abbreviated guide to A Secular Age. Smith has, for the most part, done an excellent job of condensing the key themes and concerns of A Secular Age into fewer than 150 pages. His book is well written, clear, and accessible. Most important, it supplies a very reliable reconstruction of the essentials of Taylor’s position. Smith is particularly adept at emphasizing the existential quality of Taylor’s analysis of secularity: what does it feel like to be a believer or non-believer in the modern Western world?

Smith provides a very valuable outline of Taylor’s novel account of the “immanent frame” as the social imaginary by which modern Westerners live. The immanent frame offers moderns a way of making sense of their lives without reference to God, the divine, or the transcendent. In stark contrast to the period before 1500, the major institutions of modern life — the market economy, the public sphere, popular sovereignty, the family — can be understood as self-constituting and self-regulating, as not relying on any conception of God, religion, or transcendence for their legitimacy or smooth functioning.

However, while moderns have little or no choice about whether to live within the immanent frame, there are different ways of doing so. Part of what is distinctive about Taylor’s approach to secularity derives from his insistence that it is possible to live within the immanent frame while remaining open to religion and the transcendent; this frame can be occupied without closing the transcendent window. Anyone who denies the transcendent is putting what Taylor calls “a closed spin” on the immanent frame that cannot ultimately be defended as definitive.

Smith is a wonderful guide to Taylor’s discussion of how reform movements within Christianity, prior to the Reformation, paved the way for the secular age. But for Taylor’s account of the coming of this age, the watershed development in Western societies since the 18th century is that religious non-belief, or indifference, has become a viable option. People can now live satisfying lives without any personal connection or aspiration to religion or without any form of transcendence. Taylor calls such doctrines that remain entirely on the horizontal plane forms of “exclusive humanism.”

Although not himself a proponent of exclusive humanism, Taylor deems it a remarkable achievement. Anyone who fails to appreciate just how much creative and innovative intellectual, normative, and imaginative effort has been required to render human life meaningful while devoid of any vertical axis has been beguiled by a “subtraction story.” According to subtraction stories, exclusive humanism and the immanent frame are simply what is left behind when a culture or civilization is denuded of religion, error, and superstition.

Smith also emphasizes Taylor’s depiction of the dizzying religious pluralism of contemporary Western societies, which Taylor dubs the “nova effect.” In keeping with his accent on how moderns experience religious belief or its absence, he writes extensively about the cross-pressures that contemporaries feel. By his account, believers and non-believers alike realize that they are surrounded by a dazzling array of religious and non-religious positions, and that reasonable people adhere to these different positions. The secular age is thus marked by a wide spectrum of positions, and many of its denizens feel the attractions of some of the spiritual possibilities around them. They can envisage themselves migrating to another view, or at least appreciate its appeal. At the very least, the existence of alternative religious and non-religious positions makes it hard for people in modern Western societies to take it for granted that their own position is unquestionably correct.

From this brief overview of some of Taylor’s signature claims in A Secular Age, it is evident that he uses a lot of unfamiliar terminology — much of it his own coinage. To assist readers with this, Smith includes a very helpful glossary that identifies and briefly defines some of Taylor’s central terms.

Anyone seeking a quick but dependable overview of Taylor’s argument in A Secular Age would benefit immensely from Smith’s book. Yet his preface suggests that it is intended primarily for those who are religious. While claiming to have any and all readers in mind, Smith also says that Taylor’s argument matters “especially for those believers who are trying to not only remain faithful in a secular age but also bear witness to the divine for a secular age.” And on the next page he names his “core audience” as pastors, church planters, and religious social workers. He hopes that his book can give them a better understanding of the context in which they work. “In many ways, Taylor’s Secular Age amounts to a cultural anthropology for urban mission.” These remarks might well be true, but the bulk of the text is interesting and accessible to all comers.

Anticipating religious readers might also explain Smith’s poor choice of title. As he repeatedly notes, one of the attractions of Taylor’s exploration of what it means to live in a secular age is that it eschews any simple binary between being religious and being secular in the conventional sense. Yet the first half of Smith’s title ensconces just such a simplistic binary. The second half is misleading because the book is not about reading Charles Taylor; it is about Taylor on secularity. Smith rarely refers to anything outside A Secular Age. And nor can he be expected to, give his book’s ambition.

Finally, for a short book, Smith spends too much time in the Introduction discussing writers not obviously connected to Taylor’s work, like Julian Barnes and David Foster Wallace. Their work might be made relevant to understanding Taylor, or understanding Taylor might be made relevant to appreciating them, but readers can’t judge that for themselves in advance of Smith’s account of Taylor’s work. This material, if it warrants inclusion, would be better placed at the end of the book, after readers have completed Smith’s guided tour.

Overall, however, this book is a fine achievement and accomplishes just what it sets out to: providing its readers with a reliable road map to Charles Taylor’s account of our secular age.


Ruth Abbey is the author of Nietzsche’s Middle PeriodPhilosophy Now: Charles Taylor, and The Return of Feminist Liberalism, as well as the editor of Contemporary Philosophy in Focus: Charles Taylor and Feminist Interpretations of Rawls.

LARB Contributor

Ruth Abbey is a political theorist with research and teaching interests in the areas of Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Taylor, Feminist Political Thought, Liberal Political Thought, and Animal Ethics. She is the author of Nietzsche’s Middle PeriodPhilosophy Now: Charles Taylor, and The Return of Feminist Liberalism, as well as the editor of Contemporary Philosophy in Focus: Charles Taylor and Feminist Interpretations of Rawls.


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