According to Karl Marx, by 1844 the criticism of religion—the ‘premise’ of all social criticism—was ‘essentially complete’. A hundred and sixty years later, Edward Said endorsed the sentiment in Humanism and Democratic Criticism—though more by way of hope than expectation, given the persistent dangers posed by ‘religious enthusiasm’. ‘Surely’, Said entreated, ‘it must be a major part of the humanistic vocation to keep a fully rounded secular perspective’. For today, it is routinely doubted that secular criticism can offer a ‘fully rounded’ perspective on our contemporary predicament: either some intrinsic religiosity must be included within a more spiritually expansive humanism, or else materialists will have to accept that their work will never be complete.

Postsecularism might thus be regarded as the last ‘post’ of all. Just as postmodernists and postfeminists explain that progress is a fiction and the rationalist subject is ‘male’, and postcolonialists that both are Eurocentric; just as postpositivists assert that cognitive explanation and value are indivisible, multiculturalists urge us to take ethno-religious identity seriously and globalization theorists speak of multiple modernities—the further thought strikes: that all along, the deepest problem with critical social theory has been its presumption of the truth and inevitability of secularist humanism, especially of the kind that overvalues science. The unstable ground beneath all the posts is thereby supposedly exposed.

The consequence is that it is now becoming difficult to put forward propositions that might ‘offend’ people’s faith identities, or to insist upon minding the distinction between mundane matters and whatever higher-order touchstones are felt to imbue them with significance. Those who oppose religious affiliation in politics, or religious segregation in education, welfare or law, are losing ground. The ‘spiritual turn’ thus emerges—perhaps not so unexpectedly after all—as the radical outcome of the ‘cultural turn’; and Marx’s premise seems to have been undone. The postsecular condition takes many forms, in theory as in politics: erstwhile critical realists contrive ‘alethic’ supertruths, while others produce elucubrations on the luminosity, liminality and thisness of events, the holiness of the everyday, the uncanny impulses of performativity and affect, the vital sensing of things and the approach to absolute otherness. Whether such enquiries speak to, or about, ‘religion without religion’, in Derrida’s phrase, or just the ‘secularization of the secular’, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, a more accessible set of reflections is taking centre stage, one version of which finds Jürgen Habermas pursuing a new dialogue Between Naturalism and Religion. Being ‘religiously unmusical’ himself, Habermas notes that ‘the thesis that a religious orientation to a transcendental reality alone can show a contrite modernity the way out of its impasse is once again gaining adherents’.

With A Secular Age, Charles Taylor steps forward as adherent-in-chief. This is a hefty volume, whose dust-jacket proclaims it winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize, an award made by a foundation dedicated to ‘progress in religion’ in its inter-relations with science, and bestowing some £800,000 of appreciation. In 1992 Taylor’s intervention on the ‘politics of recognition’ quickly became established as the heavyweight underpinning of multiculturalism, and he remains prominent in high-level Canadian policy forums. Clearly his speculative temperament has proved no obstacle to institutional influence, and his latest exercise in the philosophy of history is also, firmly, an intervention. One of Taylor’s main goals is to challenge the hegemony of atheism—the presumption of ‘unbelief’, as he prefers to call it—which he thinks has become dominant in certain crucial milieux, including academic and intellectual life, ‘whence it can more easily extend itself to others’.

Taylor’s strategy can be apprised through his title’s negative—and unacknowledged—echo of Kant. In ‘What is Enlightenment?’, Kant announced that he lived in an age of enlightenment, but not an enlightened age. For Taylor, we live in a secular age, but not necessarily an age of secularism. Certainly, ‘titanic’ changes have occurred: over some five centuries, we have moved from a world in which everyone believed in God, and where not to do so would have been all but incomprehensible, to one in which questing after true spiritual transformation is only one option amongst others. Three modes of ‘secularity’ are defined here. The sense of the first—Taylor calls it Secularity 1—is that God has been ‘emptied out’ of public and official life, though this is quite compatible with majority religious belief. Secularity 2 refers to the actual decline of belief and devotional practice, at least in Western Europe. But it is Secularity 3 that most interests Taylor, referring to the underlying ‘conditions of belief’: the way in which moral and ontological questions are apprehended and negotiated. Secularity 3 describes an age in which—in contrast to pre-modern social orders—‘faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others’. In this third sense, ‘secularity’ has nothing to do with the lessening of religion; on the contrary, ‘the secular’ is now expanded to include ‘the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual or religious experience and search takes place’. Belief and ‘unbelief’ are not to be regarded as ‘rival theories’ but as ‘alternative ways of living our moral/spiritual life’.

With this initial set of distinctions in mind, Taylor works forward from medieval Christendom, with occasional references to ‘pre-Axial’ systems, to construct a sweeping picture of how it was that ‘we’ got from a fused, sacred sense of being in the world to the fractured mentalité of the secular age. The story is one in which the ‘bulwarks of belief’ are steadily broken down. Thus we move from an enchanted world (‘charged’ objects, portentous occurrences, spirits actively entwined with terrestrial doings) to a disenchanted one; from a porous self (people ‘possessed by’ and ‘receiving’ supernatural influences), actively seeking God’s love and intervention, to a fortress-like, auto-sufficient self, keeping the world and its deeper currents at a distance. God’s functional, kingly cosmos becomes an impersonal, causal universe. A life punctuated by periodic revelry and symbolic overturnings is regularized into disciplined and purified conduct. Multiple, simultaneous and ‘kairotic’ times are reduced to a singular linear temporality; ‘vertical’ social relations and ethical norms to ‘horizontal’ ones. A sociality collectively orientated to the divine becomes a society of individuals, governed by the hidden hand of mutual benefit, while the ‘incarnation’ of mystery and inspiration is replaced by intellectualistic ‘excarnation’.

The central three sections of A Secular Age are essentially a history of ideas, and Taylor paints a long series of thought-pictures and thinker-portraits. It was Augustine who first presented the compound logic of the distinction between the earthly and heavenly cities, without which secularism makes no historical sense. Lipsius’s neo-Stoicism contrasted the virtues of detachment and constancy to compassion reflective of God’s love. Descartes theorized a mechanical universe and an ethics of a disciplined, reasoned charity. The natural-law philosophers confirmed that men are rational and sociable, and thus rights-worthy. Deism, in which a creator but non-interventionist God presides over an impersonal order, represented the ‘great disembedding’ of Spirit from its previously earthly setting. Then came the ‘turning point’ of Enlightenment anthropocentrism and the emergence of ‘exclusive humanism’, shorn of all theological trappings. A modern social imaginary was consolidated, governed by characteristic ‘metatopical’ spaces—civil society, the public sphere—and agents, above all, the people. The world of pastoral mediation began to disappear first; hell was ‘eclipsed’, and then divinity itself. Secularism came to be not only a ‘live option’, but the ‘default option’, in which social actions and meanings involve nothing outside intra-human relations.