On the disenchantment of the world

Charles Taylor explores the implications, for the religious and the non-religious, of living in a secular age.



Charles Taylor explores the implications, for the religious and the non-religious, of living in a secular age.


Interviewer: Can you explain that term, disenchantment?

Charles Taylor: Yeah, unfortunately, it has many senses and in Max Weber himself, he didn’t really always stick to a single sense. So one … it’s a narrow sense and a broader sense. The narrow sense is the way in which the element of, if you like, magic disappears from religion. Because that’s what the word means in German, Entzauberung, it means de-magification, literally. That’s something which happened, of course, within Christianity; within Judaism in a certain sense. Undercutting of various cults of spirits of the forest, of spirits of the world, and so on.

There’s another sense in which he uses it, which is just the decline of religion in general. And it’s very, very confusing to mix these two senses, precisely because the engine of disenchantment in a narrow sense has been the series of revelations that come to us from Abraham, be they lived out in Judaism or Christianity or Islam. So we have to distinguish these two, and people are regularly using them in a way that runs over the distinction.

If you go back to the earlier medieval period and when the first kind of disenchantment hadn’t happened, I mean people experienced themselves as being in a world with powerful forces, some of them evil, some of them not very good. And the proposition of God in that world is very different. As a matter of fact, for a lot of people, how else are you going to protect yourself against the spirits of the forest and so on? So you send the priest around with the sacrament to fend them off.

But if you get the modern, what I call, immanent frame where our shared understanding of our universe is of a big impersonal set of causal laws moving in the cosmos and so on, and a set of rules on how to live which we know were set up by such and such people at such and such a time, then the problem of transcendence becomes different. It becomes, am I … I feel that this is really all there is, do I feel that there’s something important missing here, do I feel the call to go in a direction which involves faith in, or some kind of belief in, something that goes beyond?

That’s … the issue of transcendence is not “it’s always there but I have to choose between different variants that I’ve been told to accept”, but with a question mark. See, it’s a big question mark. The error of certain people who believe in a certain kind of secularisation of the first or second … you know, just the decline of religion, is that they think the question mark goes away when the certainty goes away. But on the contrary, it gets even more intense.

The world as lived in a totally disenchanted form – in the broader sense, right – the world can be missing something essential for the meaning in your life. And because there’s so many different reactions here, you can’t just say, oh, [unintelligible] … No. The possibility of feeling something missing is always there. And as we share this space and people see that, well they’re living without it, but some people are not, and there’s something striking about them – so then you get worried that maybe I’m wrong about there being no transcendence. And on the other hand, people who are living a certain kind of transcendence wonder why these people manage to live without it. 

So we’re always unsettling each other’s stance on that. But that means that the issue never goes away. And it won’t, it’s clear that it’s not going to go away.