Impossible to Believe: The Endgame of Secularism
In his important Massey Lectures delivered in 1991, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor spoke of The Malaise of Modernity. The Modern Age, he argued, is marked by two great intellectual moves. The first intellectual move is a pervasive individualism. The second is the reduction of all public discourse to the authority of instrumental reason. The rise of modern individualism came at the cost of rejecting all other moral authorities. “Modern freedom was won by our breaking loose from older moral horizons,” Taylor explains. This required the toppling of all hierarchical authorities and their established moral orders. “People used to see themselves as part of a larger order,” he observed. “Modern freedom came about through the discrediting of such orders.”
The primacy of instrumental reason means the elimination of the old order and its specifically theological and teleological moral order. As Taylor explains:
No doubt sweeping away the old orders has immensely widened the scope of instrumental reason. Once society no longer has a sacred structure, once social arrangements and modes of action are no longer grounded in the order of things or the will of God, they are in a sense up for grabs. They can be redesigned with their consequences for the happiness or well-being of individuals as our goal.
More recently, Taylor has written the greatest work yet completed on the secular reality of our times. In A Secular Age, he describes three successive sets of intellectual conditions. In the first, associated with the Premodern Age of antiquity and the medieval synthesis, it was impossible not to believe. There was simply no intellectual alternative to theism in the West. There was no alternative set of explanations for the world and its operations, or for moral order. All that changed with the arrival of modernity. In the Modern Age it became possible not to believe. A secular alternative to Christian theism emerged as a real choice. As a matter of fact, choice now ruled the intellectual field. As Peter Berger famously observed decades ago, this is the “heretical imperative,” the imperative to choose one’s worldview. The third set of intellectual conditions is identified with late modernity and our own intellectual epoch. For most people living in the context of self-conscious late modernity, it is now impossible to believe. That means, especially in terms of the intellectual elites and the culture formative sectors of society, theism is not an available worldview—if not personally, then at least culturally.