A Secular Age
Harvard University Press, $75 hb, 874 pp
That scourge of religion, Richard Dawkins, declared recently that the past year had been a bad one for God. He was probably referring to the success of his polemics against religion and to the tidal wave of kindred writings by other public intellectuals, such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. We do not know whether God would agree; and whether we should agree depends partly on how we read ‘success’. The books certainly sold and are widely acclaimed, and may even have garnered apostates. But for all their élan and entertainment, they are essentially concoctions and elaborations of arguments and observations made by earlier, more penetrating thinkers. If advancing understanding is at issue, as opposed to securing the public’s mobile attention, then we should judge that the tree of knowledge hasn’t burgeoned much lately, not on the theological branches, anyway.
The foundational work is less flashy and more demanding. A Secular Age is an excellent example of it. The book may become an enduring contribution to understanding religious belief, the evolution of the secular order, and the defining characteristics of modern secularism and contemporary spirituality. Like Charles Taylor’s earlier books, it is a product of prodigious erudition. Its 874 dense pages brim with original observation, cogent argument constructed from sources in a wide array of disciplines, and generous ecumenical gestures, even towards humanists. His story is complex, somewhat repetitious and yet unflaggingly interesting: it is loaded with so much novel detail and insight that the reader will be grateful for each scrap of familiar ground.