David Brooks, Jamie Smith, Charles Taylor, and me!

With that subject line the game to play is the old Sesame Street standby, “which one doesn’t belong?”

But David Brooks’s column yesterday summing up Taylor’s massive tome while mentioning Smith’s work gives me an excuse to link to the PDF of my own review of A Secular Age. An excerpt:

It is undeniably the case that there has been a massive shift from 1500 to the present day, and the orthodox believer owes Taylor a great debt for debunking the simple myth about the rise of reason at the expense of religion. But how to measure the extent of the shift? Taylor is nothing if not careful and circumspect in his observations, and he is surely correct to note that many believers recognize their faith as one option among many, and recognize this in a way that seems entirely anachronistic to ascribe to believers in the sixteenth century (31). Modern believers, Taylor argues, no longer understand themselves as open to external spiritual forces or seek objects which impart divine favor.

I’m not so sure. Because Taylor is interpreting underlying conditions of belief, he cannot rely on surveys or social science to support his claims. This is both a strength and a weakness. The strength is that Taylor can investigate those elements of our culture not amenable to statistical measurement; the weakness is that he seems often to resort to his own sense of things. One wonders how ubiquitous the “we” is that he employs when describing the modern mindset.


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