On what “secular” means

Charles Taylor unpacks what’s different about being religious (or not) in today’s world.



Charles Taylor unpacks what’s different about being religious (or not) in today’s world.


“Secular” means many things. The word generally is interpreted as meaning one of two things: a society becomes secular when religion plays less of a role, there’s no established church, it’s not the religion of the government etc; and also, secular, it means people have less interest in religion, lose their religion, so that the level of faith and practice declines. Those are two senses of secular which fit into the verb secularisation and these two processes of becoming more like that.

When I wrote the book A Secular Age, it seemed to me that there’s a very important third sense missing. These senses are not rival, they’re different facets, right, of the same phenomenon. But the sense that the facet which was missed out by those other two was what I call the conditions of belief. I mean, that is, many people struggle with the issue of whether they’re going to, you know, take up a certain faith position or not – and that goes way back, even in days when everybody was Christian, there was, shall I be a Catholic or a Protestant? 

But what that means, the whole condition thing which this question is … you ask this question of yourself, can be totally different. We now live in a world in which there is such a degree of religious and spiritual pluralism that the issue means something very different from the issue “shall I conform to what’s the going dominant Catholic or Protestant or whatever denomination”, which is a quite different kind of proposition.

In one case, I’m either being invited or not into a broadly shared structure, culture, ethic, way of being, etc. In the other situation, I’m being called upon to choose some kind of spiritual path – or refuse them all, right. So the secular age is – as I use it in the book – is really the third sense, it’s an age of wide-ranging pluralism, of the invention of new spiritual positions that didn’t exist before. And this is the context in which people decide or move one way or the other, find themselves drawn … I mean you don’t decide sitting back, you find yourself drawn in one or other direction. So it’s a completely different proposition. Now, that’s what the secular age of the title really refers to.