Charles Taylor and the Myth of the Secular

The CBC Ideas Series “The Myth of the Secular” uses Charles Taylor as a basis for some very intriguing discourse with a variety of scholars. David Cayley is the host.

Charles Taylor, The Myth of the Secular and the Immanent Frame


Now a full book available on Amazon The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity. 

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner~

Charles Taylor is a key thinker assisting us in our exploration through late modernity. He is one of the top twelve living philosophers according to many of his peers, the preeminent Canadian philosopher in the political, cultural and moral realm. We might well call him the premiere philosopher of Western modernity. Together we will attempt to discern our location within Western culture, with its various views on secularity, and to rethink our identity. We will claim that Nihilism does not have the last word. Although we are located here amidst a confusing plurality of ideas and convictions, we are not intellectually trapped within an immanent frame. What follows is a deep structure protest that there are broader horizons, so much more to be said, explored, researched and discovered. The journey ahead entails an archival rediscovery of lost insights and language such as the good and incarnational humanism.

Charles Taylor’s 2007 book A Secular Age is a major contribution to the analysis of our philosophical and cultural climate in the West, and its philosophical history. He traces how we moved from theism through deism to atheism over 500 years, roughly 1500 to 2000 C.E. In this substantial, Templeton Prize tome, he explores how we can reframe the current dialogue and debate about our identity and our ‘secularity’. Who indeed are we late moderns? What are the possibilities for dialogue between people of such divergent philosophical and ethical positions? How can we live and work together in a positive way? Are there trends to highlight? What are the poetic and prophetic connectors, the interpretive keys to unlock the mystery of our age, to broaden the horizon of the contemporary spiritual and cultural imagination? To accomplish this task, we must recover aspects of language itself as part of the quest.

Our language has lost, and needs to have restored, its constitutive power, claims Taylor. This means that we can deal instrumentally with realities around us but their deeper meaning (the background in which they exist) the higher reality which finds expression in them, is ignored and often invisible to us. Our language has lost the power to Name things in their embedding, their deeper, richer and higher reality. The current incapacity of language is a crucial factor in our incapacity of seeing well and flourishing. Our language, our vision and our lives often remain flattened in late modernity. The discussion that follows is an attempt to recover the richness of language and also its larger horizon of meaning.

In A Secular Age (2007) and his previous important discussion on ethical culture (philosophical anthropology), Sources of the Self (1989), Taylor documents a major change in the social imaginary, or interpretive background, the way things seem or make sense to us. One might also call this the conditions of plausibility. It is a shift in ethos and includes people’s basic sensibilities, their assumptions and perceptions about the way things really are. He speaks about our need to learn from our historical roots: “Our past is sedimented in our present and we are doomed to misidentify ourselves as long as we cannot do justice to where we came from.” (C. Taylor, 2007, p. 29). This could also be called a history of the present state. Our philosophical narrative is vital to self- understanding.

Taylor has noted that human flourishing has become the main focus of life in a period of unbelief in the transcendent or the divine. We have moved from a transcendent to an immanent worldview since medieval times. In the West, God was once the ultimate good for the majority of citizens, and now human flourishing is the ultimate good within what he calls an “immanent frame” or personal horizon. Every person and every society inescapably lives by some conception of human flourishing (fulfilled life, one worth living, one which we naturally admire). It is often inscribed in ancient moral codes, philosophical theories, or religious practices and devotion. So the definition of human flourishing is another key concept in our quest.

Contrary to many, Taylor does not believe in the demise of religion in our post-secular age, but instead claims that we are in pursuit of more, rather than less, spirituality today. This reveals what he calls the ‘Nova Effect’ of multiple spiritual journeys or quests for meaning. We have not given up on spirituality and meaning; late moderns are looking for it everywhere; they are bent on making sense of their existence, even in this age of nihilism. He also speaks of multiple modernities, because we actually experience modernity differently in different contexts. We are cross-pressured. Perhaps this is why some authors also speak of people employing multiple selves. Late moderns are definitely on a search and no one is quite sure where it will end. Perhaps the very popular academy award winning film “Life of Pi” is a sampler of the complexity of such a journey. The main character explores several religious and secular views to make sense of his adventure; there are many tensions between them. There must be significant cultural resonance with the ambivalence in the story to give it such a cult status as a film.


Taylor notes three major forms of spirituality or ‘hypergood’ today: exclusive (scientific) humanism, also received as scientism; Christian or theistic humanism; and neo- Nietzschean anti-humanism with its emphasis on exploring the Dionysian appetites. Early modern historian Brad Gregory (2012) adds a fourth view: avant-garde trans-humanism. Some people want to remake the human, or invent the human through various forms of manipulations (for example, genetic and technological means). Taylor focuses attention on the first three, feeling that this point of discussion is where there exists the greatest increase in understanding of our twenty-first century modern identity. They are vital for bigger picture discernment of the age we inhabit.

Western modernities are the fruit of new inventions, new stories, newly constructed self- understanding and related practices; they cannot be explained in terms of perennial features of human life. Some want nominalism or nothing to do with anything essentialist called human nature per se. They are rooted in new forms of consciousness, a new sense of self and a new world picture: a new outlook.  Let us begin with an understanding the immanent frame.


1. The Immanent Frame

In Charles Taylor, we are offered a particularly insightful analysis of our current cultural ethos. He captures the way in which we have located ourselves in the late modern world and the picture that has taken our minds captive: he identifies it as the immanent frame. This house of the mind and imagination constitutes a unique social imaginary (implicit understanding of the space in which we live) in human history. Our focus at this point of the discussion will be to exposit the key insights of Chapter 15 of A Secular Age (2007) called “The Immanent Frame”. In this critical analysis, he shows how religion has been philosophically and culturally marginalized in the West, even while it is in resurgence by numbers, especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia. It is the Christian religion that has had the greatest shaping influence on western culture by many accounts. As a plausibility structure, however, it has become marginalized or merely tolerated. One might well notice a hegemony against religion within academic circles. Taylor gives us tough insights and leads us to think freshly and circumspectly about how we have arrived in this cultural space, and about our current options for thinking differently, and more creatively.

The core theme of this landmark book (C. Taylor, 2007, p. 510) is to study the fate of religious faith in the strong sense in the West, meaning: a. belief in a transcendent reality, and b. the connected aspiration of personal transformation, which goes beyond ordinary human flourishing. He is calling into question the subtraction story or Western Master Narrative (one deeply embedded in our late modern consciousness), where science replaces religion after Christendom. Within this faulty perspective, the growth of science entails the death of God and the recession of religion. Religion is often perceived to be replaced by science. Taylor asks some tough questions: Is this hermeneutically valid? When did science become equivalent to secularism and why? He would see this as a situation of fundamental contestability. Taylor would call into question this misperception of reality, and suggest that it is a hermeneutical grid that is wanting.

In the face of this phenomenon (subtraction story or secularity 2), he wants to explore with us the plausibility of the life-nurturing, transcendent dimensions of human culture. He does not believe that all citizens of late modernity need to deny the possibility of the transcendent within this immanent frame. They need not live within a horizontal dimension only, which includes a flattened (thin) form of language. From his perspective, the story of the rise of modern social spaces doesn’t need to be given an anti-religious spin (C. Taylor, 2007, p. 579). The actual reality of Western culture is closer to the truth that “a whole gamut of positions, from the most militant atheism to the most orthodox traditional theisms, passing through every possible position on the way, are represented and defended somewhere in our society” (Ibid. 2007, p. 556). They are defended in various non-neutral contexts, institutions and communities.

This actuality creates for citizens of late modernity the sense of being cross-pressured by the different views (the plurality of positions) they encounter, making them uncomfortable at times. We do learn how to negotiate these spaces and the appropriate language of each. Citizens may indeed experience these different views in different spheres of their lives. The dialogue and debate of these perceptions is still very robust, with endless potential options to find meaning. Both belief and unbelief in God co-exist within society (Taylor’s secularity 3 position). He articulates a more inclusive and complex reading of late modernity than we often hear from other scholars and media pundits.

What does Taylor mean by the term immanent frame? The buffered identity (as opposed to the porous pre-modern) self is a key part of such a mental frame. It operates within a disenchanted world where supernatural beings or forces with teleological goals or intentions are deemed close to impossible (C. Taylor, 2007, p. 539). Final causes are eliminated from the world picture. With this immanent frame, there is a loss of a cosmic order; everything important is this-worldly, explicable on its own terms; it fits within the time-space-energy-matter dimensions of a strictly material world. Social and political orders are constructed by humans solely for mutual benefit, not to please, or resist, a divine entity or conform to a transcendent good. Society is instead made up of atomistic individuals. Each human is charged with finding her or his own way of being human, his or her own individual spiritual path (chosen from the options available in the Nova Effect). Everyone has also become their own measure of the good (auto-nomos) and their freedom to choose is a primary concern (the inviolable liberty of personal volition).

But the immanent frame perspective is by no means ethically neutral or strictly objective. It includes some things (values such as secular time) and excludes others—it renders ‘vertical’ or ‘transcendent’ worlds as inaccessible or unthinkable, at the very least irrelevant to serious thought and life. It takes a hard moral position, and it operates as a philosophically reductionistic stance. The world is leaner, smaller, less rich from this perspective. Taylor refers to this moral position as exclusive humanism (otherwise known as naturalistic materialism). The restrictive ideology of scientism follows suit with it.

2. The Five Cultural Identifiers of Scientism

Although scientism (and the philosophical positivism of A. J. Ayer) has been academically discredited by many philosophers and scientists in the twentieth century, this ideology still seems to dominate popular thinking, even among many bright science students, academic scholars and professional scientists. It is particularly strong among the New Atheists and the cause of much confusion. In order for a belief to be considered valid or credible, scientism requires that it be scientifically testable, or falsifiable. Thus, much claim to knowledge even within the university is discredited or excluded. We even have to be skeptical about things we know to be true.

We need to unpack this concern. A valid, while limited, approach to knowing (science) somehow morphs into a dogma: an exclusivist ideology (scientism). In many people’s hearts and minds, it assumes its location within a Closed World System. Taylor captures the potency of its ideology.

We can come to see the growth of civilization, or modernity, as synonymous with the laying out of a closed immanent frame; within this civilized values develop, and a single-minded focus on the human good, aided by the fuller and fuller use of scientific reason, permits the greatest flourishing possible of human beings…. What emerges from all this is that we can either see the transcendent as a threat, a dangerous temptation, a distraction, or an obstacle to our greatest good. (C. Taylor, 2007, p. 548)

What are the markers or assumptions of the scientism outlook? Perhaps the following succinct five points can assist our inquiry into the matter.

a. The Epistemological Claim: No knowledge is deemed valid or justified unless its claims can be tested and verified empirically through experimentation, observation and repetition. This criterion is part of an intellectual infrastructure which controls the way people think, argue, infer, and make sense of things. Truth claims that do not submit to this kind of scrutiny become irrelevant, invalid, or unacceptable. This principle of knowledge is heavily weighted or biased towards the instrumental and mechanistic. It sometimes leads us towards more trivial goals in research, because of the attraction to a greater degree of certainty.

b. Utopian Sentiment: Science is seen as the futuristic guide to human progress intellectually and culturally. The past tradition, especially that influenced by Christian religion (or any religion for that matter), is taken as false opinion and superstition (even dangerous). It is seen as detrimental to or restrictive of human progress. The growth of scientific knowledge guarantees social and political progress—humans are seen to be flourishing and getting better because of science, technology and medicine. Scientism inherently assumes a warfare model in science-religion relations, a posture which began mid-nineteenth century. It assumes that as science advances, religion is culturally replaced or displaced, demoted in importance to the point of redundancy. The progress myth entailed in scientism reaches a utopian pitch at times. This is the tone we often find in ‘Wired Magazine’, or the ‘Humanist Manifesto’ or in our post-humanist friends. Quentin Schultze speaks to this in his book Habits of the High Tech Heart (2002). There is a fair amount of denial of the problems that emerge with new technology, and ethical issues which emerge with scientific advances.

The next century can and should be the humanist century. Dramatic scientific, technological, and ever-accelerating social and political changes crowd our awareness. We have virtually conquered the planet, explored the moon, overcome the natural limits of travel and communication; we stand at the dawn of a new age … Using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our lifespan, significantly modify our behavior, and alter the course of human evolution. (Humanist Manifesto II, p. 5)

c. Intellectual Exclusion or Hegemony: Insights from the humanities, philosophy and theology are treated with the hermeneutic of suspicion. Scientific rationalism dismisses faith as mere fideism (belief without good reasons, or against the evidence) or irrationality (outside the grasp of rational mankind). Scientism pits truth against beauty and goodness. To be poetic is taken to be trivial or irrelevant. Scientism’s inherent materialism entails that “science” refuses mystery, the metaphysical or anything transcendent, the miraculous, even the metaphorical, poetic or epiphanic. Certain human ways of knowing are simply written off and disrespected; this can be accompanied by a good supply of academic hubris.

d. Anthropological Implications: People are viewed as sophisticated cogs in the cosmic machinery, or simplified as the most intelligent animals (higher primates). All human characteristics, including mind or soul, are believed to be explicable in terms of body (neuron networks, DNA makeup, biochemistry or physiology, at bottom physics and chemistry). There is a philosophical (ontological) reductionism at work, i.e. the higher is explained in terms of the lower: mind in terms of brain, human social behaviour in terms of physics and chemistry. Humans are appreciated mainly for their instrumental value: earning capacity, socio-political usefulness and their excellencies of giftedness. (See for further discussion Craig Gay, The Way of the Modern World, 1998; E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, 1977; Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, 2012)

e. Implications for Ethics: Science is seen to normatively provide a more reliable and superior decision-making guide; it becomes the new alternative to religion and morals in discerning the good and the shaping of the moral self (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values, 2010). In a moral sense, science moves into dominance as a culture sphere, absorbs and redefines morality in scientific categories, according to a scientific agenda. Scientific principle and rationality claims to be applicable to all, and thus is much less divisive than religion. Religious or personal moral values are to be kept to the private sphere of one’s life, but not to be part of public discourse (Lesslie Newbigin, Foolisness to the Greeks, 1986). It is also important to note here that scientism’s ethical outlook objectifies the world, giving one a sense of dominance or control over it. Knowledge, technology or expertise offers privilege to those in power, meaning that ethical self-justification can often occur.

To sum up, scientism is the notion that natural science constitutes the most authoritative (if not the only legitimate) epistemology or form of human knowing, and that it is at the very least superior to all other interpretations of life. It assumes a materialistic, immanent, Closed World System, which rejects the validity of any transcendent elements. There is a strong attraction to the idea that we are in an order of nature and that we do not and cannot transcend it. David Hart captures the sentiment.

An admirably severe discipline of interpretive and theoretical restraint [modern empirical science] has been transformed into its perfect and irrepressibly wanton opposite: what began as a principled refusal of metaphysical speculation, for the sake of specific empirical inquiries, has now been mistaken for a comprehensive knowledge of the metaphysical shape of reality; the art of humble questioning has been mistaken for the sure possession of ultimate conclusions. This makes a mockery of real science. (D.B. Hart, 2013, p. 71)

Furthermore, with respect to the immanent frame, the buffered identity of the disciplined individual moves in a constructed social space, where instrumental rationality is a key value, and time is pervasively secular. All of this makes up what Taylor wants to call “the immanent frame”. There remains to add just one background idea: that this frame constitutes a “natural” order, to be contrasted with a supernatural one, an “immanent” world over against a possible “transcendent” one. (C. Taylor. 2007, p. 542)

Taylor points out two different ways of seeing the world within this immanent frame, closed (CWS), and open. One does have the choice in late modernity to open oneself to the beyond or the transcendent, the more. As per Wittgenstein, each way of seeing is a picture that holds us captive (seems to us both natural and logically unavoidable), but clearly one view is more restrictive. But of course, it can block out (make us blind to) certain aspects of reality by the very nature of how it shapes our way of analyzing the world. Scientific ways of seeing and knowing restrict our ability to see and know, for a specific purpose. It involves an unquestioned background, something whose shape is not perceived, but which conditions, largely unnoticed, the way we think, infer, experience, process claims and arguments. For example, a major thesis in modernity is that science must bring secularity in its train, which for Taylor is a non-obvious, unproven and biased claim. It is only one of the stories available in late modernity with its own bias. It should be thought through more carefully. But many of us take it on board as a cultural assumption (a default position) without thinking about it (see David Bentley Hart’s brilliant critique of this view in The Experience of God: being, consciousness, bliss. 2013).

From within this mental and emotional picture, it just seems obvious to many who hold it that the order of the argument proceeds from science to atheism (C. Taylor, 2007, p. 565), that modernization brings secularization. In the nineteenth century, Durkheim and others assumed that science would develop to the point where people no longer need to believe in God or religion. They would graduate from such superstition. This is paralleled in the angry rhetoric of the New Atheists of today. But we note with Taylor that there exists a hidden leap of faith in this stance. It carries with it a false aura that it is obvious, or a logical conclusion. But it is not logically valid. It involves, however, a moral attraction to a materialistic spin on reality, a moral outlook (where God and religion is at the bottom of important things to consider).

It is not based on scientific facts, despite the fact that it takes some of its inspiration from the epistemological success of science. There is a heavy focus on human goods, on human flourishing: rights, welfare, equality, and democracy. Taylor clarifies:

We can come to see the growth of civilization, or modernity, as synonymous with laying out of a closed immanent frame; within this civilized values develop, and a single-minded focus on the human good aided by a fuller and fuller use of scientific reason, permits the greatest flourishing possible of human beings. Religion not only menaces these goals with its fanaticism, but it also undercuts reason, which comes to be seen as rigorously requiring scientific materialism. (C. Taylor, 2007, p. 548)

As already stated, we currently live with competing views in operation. Our culture pulls us in both directions: secular and religious (found in famous writers such as Blake, Goethe, Dostoyevski, Milosz) directions. People emerge through modernity with different results in their journey. Many top scientists have a strong faith in God—some claim forty percent in North America. The struggle for belief is ongoing, never definitively won or lost today. This is the major theme of the insightful dialogue in the CBC Ideas Series produced by David Cayley called After Atheism.

Taylor notices that we know of both, as I have seen in university students and faculty over many years. Sometimes they traverse from atheist to theist; at other times they move from theist to atheist.

a. Those who opt for the ordered, impersonal universe, whether in the scientistic-materialistic form, or in a more spiritualized variant, feel the imminent loss of a world of beauty, meaning, warmth, as well as of the perspective of self-transformation beyond the everyday (along with regrets about loss of its positive impact on society and nostalgia for a distant yesterday). Albert Camus is an example.

b. Those whose strongest leanings move them towards at least some search for spiritual meaning, and often towards God. (C. Taylor, 2007, 592-3)

3. Two Distinct Approaches to Seeing the World

In this light, it is helpful to understand the impact of two distinct ways of engaging the world intellectually and philosophically: epistemological and hermeneutical. These two perspectives emerged as a helpful talking point in a recent lecture on Middle European History at St. John’s College, University of British Columbia. A professor of Polish descent from Rice University had a vastly different perspective to those who favored the German or British way of seeing this post-World War 2 history of Poland. They had two radically different ways of seeing the same issues on development in Middle Europe since the Cold War. This distinction is relevant to our study of modernity.

a. Epistemological Approach (Descartes, Locke, Hume). The set of priority relations within this picture often tends towards a closed world position (CWS). Its assumptions include the following:

  1. Knowledge of self and its status come before knowledge of the world (things) and others.
  2. Knowledge of reality is a neutral fact before we (the self) attribute value to it.
  3. Knowledge of things of the natural order comes before any theoretical invocations or any transcendence (which is thereby problematized, doubted or repressed). This approach tends to write transcendence out of the equation.

Within this view, the individual is primary and certainty is within the mind. The self is an independent, disengaged subject reflexively controlling its own thought processes, self- responsibly. The oft-presumed neutrality of this view is in question. The way of seeing is in fact a heavily value-laden approach. It offers a whole construction of identity and society with its own distinctive priorities, values and biases. This is how Taylor defines the buffered self.

Materialism, in point of fact, is an aesthetic construction (not arising from science), a story many of us tell ourselves as late moderns, over and over again, about the entire cosmos and our place within it, our value, identity, trajectory and purpose. Humans have always had a way of placing themselves in the context of the cosmos and time; it is not actually possible to do without such perspectival reflections. But it depends on a certain naturalistic metaphysics or worldview, which was not always as dominant in the West historically as it is today. But is it rigorously plausible under scrutiny?

Taylor’s contention is that the power of materialism today comes not from scientific “facts”, but has rather to be explained in terms of the power of a certain package uniting materialism with a moral outlook, the package we call “atheistic humanism” or exclusive humanism. (C. Taylor, 2007, p. 569) It works off an ontologically reductionist thesis of materialism: everything which is, is based on “matter”, without explaining why this is taken as true. Taylor wants to question this confidence; he asks whether we are to logically conclude that everything is nothing but matter and that we should try to define our entire human and natural situation in terms of matter alone. Enlightenment of this sort is a kind of excarnation or out-of-body thinking. The self is radically abstracted from its socio-cultural embodiment and its historical narrative and retreats to the mind.

This approach employs a designative use of language (Hobbes to Locke to Condillac) which traps the pursuit of wisdom within language and confines it to immanence, where language and its relationship to truth are reduced to pointing. Language here primarily designates objects in the world. The object is observed, held at arms length, but not participated in. One assumes a use of language based on quantitative judgments that are non-subject dependent. This tradition also contributes to a mechanistic outlook on the universe. It is committed to the primacy of an empirical epistemology (evidence and justified belief). It is skeptical of universals or essences.

What about ethics? Once upon a time, human beings took their norms, their goods, their standards of ultimate value from an authority outside themselves; from God, or the gods, or the nature of Being or the cosmos. But then they came to perceive that these higher authorities were just their own fictions, and they realized they had to establish their norms and values for themselves, on their own authority. This is a radicalization of the coming to adulthood story as it figures in the science-driven argument for materialism. The dramatic claim to establish our own standards comes down to the thought that we no longer receive those norms from an authority outside us, but rather from our own scientific investigations (C. Taylor, 2007, p. 580). We became morally self-authorized.

Part of this Master Narrative is that for proponents of the death of God, they want to see God-absence as a property of the universe which science lays bare. This is true of the outspoken Richard Dawkins for example. Taylor notes:

It is only within some understanding of agency, in which disengaged scientific inquiry is woven into a story of courageous adulthood, to be attained through a renunciation of the more ‘childish’ comforts in meaning and beatitude, that the death of God story appears obvious. (Ibid. p. 565)

Of course, Taylor scrutinizes this narrative claim, this specific secularization thesis that he calls secularity 2. The claim is that religious belief is a childish temptation and a beautiful world (think Peter Pan), lacking the courage to face reality and grow up into a more complex, harsh world. Maturing into adulthood implies leaving faith in God behind. Loss of faith in adulthood is not an obvious fact of observable reality, but a construction of human identity and our place in the world (Ibid. p. 565). Just because it is common does not make it correct; it could be a mistake. Taylor questions whether it contains hermeneutical adequacy and weight (Ibid. p. 567). He is not at all convinced that the arguments from natural science to atheism are strong at all; they seem to include bad reason, inconclusive arguments, based on faulty, unreflective assumptions.

b. Hermeneutic Approach (Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer)

The presuppositions of the hermeneutical approach are:

i. Self is not the first priority: the world, society and the game of life come first. We only have knowledge as agents coping with the world, and it makes no sense to doubt that world.

ii. There is no priority of a neutral grasp of things over and above their value.

iii. Our primordial identity is as a new player inducted into an old game.

iv. Transcendence or the divine horizon is a possible larger context of this game (radical skepticism is not as strong). There is a smaller likelihood of a closed world system (CWS) view in the hermeneutical approach to the world. In a sense, it is more humble and nuanced.

Within this view, therefore, one is not boxed in or restricted regarding the parameters of thinking. Within this open immanent frame, certain hard features of the first approach to reality can be deconstructed and the weaknesses of such features exposed. Enlightenment could and does mean an engaging belief in God for millions, in fact, billions around the world. For example, it seems that ideologically materialistic China is set to become the largest national population of Christian believers in the near future.

The epistemological way of seeing is definitely a more myopic possibility. Thomas Nagel (2012) in Mind and Cosmos is one of many philosophers who question materialistic naturalism’s explanatory capacity in making sense of consciousness, purpose or teleology and moral value. He is joined by David Bentley Hart (2013) and Alvin Plantinga (2012). Hardened rationalism has a way of closing down the investigation and the dialogue, stifling imagination and creativity; we cannot call that progressive.

In the investigation into cynicism and nihilism, we propose that one gets more purchase from the hermeneutical approach, especially as we move beyond the necessarily restrictive purview of science itself. As Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar says, science the self-limiting methodology was never meant to be turned into an ontology or metaphysics (reductive materialism), never meant to be the final word on noble questions. When science morphs into the ideology of scientism, it leads to nihilism, confusion and the loss of meaning. Science was never designed to constitute a worldview or form a dogma; it does not contain the intellectual equipment. David Bentley Hart (2013) in his most impressive book, The Experience of God: being, consciousness, bliss, offers an amazing follow through from this discussion and helps citizens of late modern culture avoid implosion into nihilism and cynicism. He shows that naturalism does not make sense and is riddled with inner contradictions.

Naturalism is a picture of the whole of reality that cannot, according to its own intrinsic premises, addressthe being of the whole; it is a metaphysics of the rejection of metaphysics, a transcendental certainty of the impossibility of transcendent truth, and so requires an act of pure credence logically immune to any verification…. Thus naturalism must forever remain a pure assertion, a pure conviction, a confession of blind assurance in an inaccessible beyond; and that beyond, more paradoxically still, is the beyond of no beyond. (D.B. Hart, 2013, p. 77)

Another dimension of our current dilemma is the subjectivizing of morality. This also leads to relativism and nihilism: no shared code or normativity for the common good, no social glue or basis for resolving conflict. According to Notre Dame scholar Brad Gregory’s brilliant insight into our historical context,

A transformation from a substantive morality of the good to a formal morality of rights constitutes the central change in Western ethics over the past half millennium, in terms of theories, practices, laws, and institutions…. This rights morality relied on substantive, share beliefs about human goods but unwittingly fashioned an institutional framework for their subversion. (B. Gregory, 2012, pp. 184-5)

The discourse on rights began in a context of a perception of the common good; it was allied to the virtues within an overall transcendent horizon. But eventually it deteriorated to private interest, choice and entitlement. Initially, “properly to exercise one’s rights was to exercise one’s freedom and to pursue one’s individual good with an eye toward the common good” (Ibid. p. 197). Today one’s individual good seems to be in tension with the common good—rights discourse is accompanied by an expansive list of wishes, preferences and entitlements guaranteed by the state.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, GFCF Committee

Miraslov Volf’s book Flourishing: why we need religion in a globalized world, is an excellent follow-up to this discussion. He picks up on several themes in Taylor’s A Secular Age.

See also the following:

Charles Taylor, The Language Animal: the full shape of human linguistic capacity

Carkner, Gordon E. The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity. (2016)

Gay, C.M. (1998). The Way of the (Modern) World: or why it is tempting to live as if God doesn’t exist. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Gregory, B. (2012). The Unintended Reformation: how a religious revolution secularized society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Nagel, T. (2012). Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Oxford University Press.

Plantinga, A. (2012). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism. Oxford University Press.

Schumacher, E.F. (1977). A Guide for the Perplexed. Abacus.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: the making of the modern identity. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (1991). The Malaise of Modernity. Concord, ON: Anansi.

Taylor, C. (1994). Charles Taylor Replies. In J. Tully (Ed.) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The philosophy of Charles Taylor in question (pp. 213-57). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1999). In J.L. Heft (S.M.). (Ed.). A Catholic Modernity? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Zimmermann, J. Hermeneutics: a very short introduction. (OUP, 2015)


Text of Dr. Zimmermann’s GFCF address on “The Challenge of Christian Humanism” Wednesday, February 27UBC Lecture on Christian Humanism