A few weeks ago, I wrote a post which addressed the question whether Christianity paved the way for liberalism. See here. I maintained that Christianity in fact played a stronger role than is suggested by the account which grounds liberalism in the Enlightenment rejection of Christianity, but suggested that the relationship between Christianity and liberalism needs fuller exploration. Meanwhile Andy Koppelman has reminded me that Charles Taylor has a subtle account of the relationship in his magisterial A Secular Age. Indeed, Koppelman has an excellent review of the book in Dissent which was published in 2009. See here.
As Taylor describes it, the rise of liberalism grew out of the turn of Christianity toward this world and toward an emphasis on human flourishing. With this emphasis, it is easy to see how God might drop out of the picture. As Koppelman puts it, the “this-worldly ethos” did not need God.
Although the history developed by Taylor is central to the book, Taylor is ultimately concerned to show that acting on a belief in God is rational even in a secular age. In his lectures on William James, Varieties of Religion Today published four years before A Secular Age, Taylor put forth the argument that it was rational for an agnostic to act on the assumption that God exists.
Taylor, like Hans Kung, suggested that agnostics have a choice whether to act as if a God exists or not. For an agnostic either is a possibility. Taylor asks whether you would rather believe that the universe has a purpose and a meaning, and that you have a role to play in something larger than yourself or would you rather believe that the world is without meaning and purpose. As Koppelman observes the theist alternative is plagued by the problem of evil, and the secular alternative is embarrassed by the lack of meaning at its core. Indeed, the secular alternative has no grounding for a belief in objective morality. But the religious view is arguably not exempt from this concern. If God stands for something you believe in conscience to be immoral, is it right to follow God or your moral sense? If the latter, the religious view is on no better footing for morality’s grounding than the secular perspective.
One of the strong claims of A Secular Age is that the sociological claim that religion will fade away is profoundly mistaken. Religion has psychological attractions too powerful to expect it to fade into history. At the same time, secularism has psychological attractions that its adherents ordinarily do not recognize as causes leading to their position. Secularists are psychologically attracted to an identity that allows them to think of themselves as scientific, rational, opposed to superstition, and tough-minded enough to stare a meaningless universe in the face and live with it (while taking a silent leap to an objective morality without grounding). Meanwhile, theists want to believe that there is something beneath the material surface of reality, and that “beneath” (however ungrounded it may be) supports an understanding of beauty, love, and the moral sense.
Taylor’s view, as I understand it, is that in a secular age, religious people know they are taking a leap of faith. But many secularists are self-deceived.