How (Not) to Be Secular is “a book about a book”. It is a slight book because it pales in size to the monumental work it attempts to interpret. It is an introduction, a summary, and short commentary, or perhaps a ‘literary butler’ guiding the unitiated through the intellectual history of secular modernity found in Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s, A Secular Age. Taylor’s book is not difficult to read and Taylor writes very well, but like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it is very long with intricate ideas necessary to inform his unfolding argument. Like a Character from War and Peace, if one misplaces the face of a particular character, confusion wil reign in later chapters. Fortunately, Taylor outlines his thesis in the opening pages of the 900 that follow. Taylor makes it clear that his book challenges the “subtraction story” of mainstream secularisation theory, which understands contemporary secularism as the obvious conclusion of a decline in religious belief and global superstitions generated by the Enlightenment. In contrast, Taylor contends that the modern age is not an age without religion; instead, secularisation announces ‘a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others.’ The result is a pluralism which, as well as offering extraordinary freedom, creates new challenges and a lack of social stability. Taylor’s position is rather radical because he posits the notion that modernity’s great disappointment is actually the unforseen formulation of late medieval and early modern “Reform” movements which had unexpected consquences: first, reform undermined religious hierarchies. Second, it simplified religious practice, and third, it generated a new interest in nature and ordinary life. Of course, the authors of that reform had no idea they were catalysing the disembedding of social world views. Taylor calls this a “post-axial” unfolding that enabled a more secular way to think about society and the world. Despite wider politcal aspects of the enlightenment, Taylor finds the roots of modern “exclusive humanism” in the reforming alterations to Christian theology and practice.  Simply put, Christianity is a large stakeholder in the development of secularism.
Smith’s book takes Taylor’s thesis as the beginning point for a guide on how to be a person of faith in modernity. That is, How (Not) to Be Secular. Smith is striving to make Taylor’s philosophy accessible mechanics and preachers alike. So instead of opening with a review of Taylor’s taxonomy of meanings for “the secular”, Smith probes secularity through the musings of the agnostic Julian Barnes, who doesn’t believe in God yet, but as the chapter subheading suggests, feels haunted by religion; Taylor refers to this as an “echo” of transcendence. Again, Smith observes how the novels of David Foster Wallace clarify the “cross-pressures” of our increasingly personalsed universe. As Smith writes it, Wallace “documents a world of almost suffocating immanence – God is dead, but he’s replaced by everybody else”. Thus, Smith provides possible questions and applications of Taylor’s book for lay people to ponder while steering clear of easy religious sentiment, arguing for example that contemporary Christian apologetics is little more than what Taylor calls “spin,” “an overconfident ‘picture’ within which we can’t imagine it being otherwise”.
The majority of How (Not) to Be Secular is a brief, clear and comprehensive explication of Taylor’s book. All five chapters mirror the five parts of A Secular Age, attending to main themes without micro-analysing the complexities of Taylor’s argument.
Smith writes very well. I particularly enjoyed his explanation that the modern question is not if we live in a secular (“immanent”) frame but whether we “inhabit it as a closed frame with a brass ceiling [or] an open frame with skylights open to transcendence”.
Smith does move beyond simply clarifying Taylor. He scrutinises the limitations of Taylor’s narrative, observing the clear “tension between creaturely goods and eternal goods” may be “a hangover of … scholastic Thomism.” Again, he faults Taylor’s readiness to “jettison aspects of historic Christian teaching” rather than consider new ways to satisfy contemporary spiritual aspirations. Realistically, however, Smith limits himself to setting forth Taylor’s ideas rather than critiquing them.
I had wondered how to review a book that exposits another book, when I am not fully familiar with the original. However, like biblical commentators, Smith sees his book as most useful when read alongside A Secular Age. However, for those who will never read Taylor’s beast of a book Smiths work is indispensable.
Having Mennonite and Anabaptist leanings I was most interested in Smiths summary of Taylor’s diagnosis of the tensions of the Protestant Reformation. Given that I come from an Annabapt tradition and also live within a sacramental tradition, I was a little disappointed that Smith followed Taylor in neglecting the Radical Reformation, though it must be said, the book is already long enough. Likewise I have mixed feelings about Smith’s enthusiasm for sacramental Christianity as the antidote for conservative, liberal, and emerging Protestants’ shared captivity to secularisms “immanent frame”.
Smith is a good read and there is here is no requirement to wade through A Secular Age as Smiths work stand on it’s own as commentary and overview. However, a reader will be more better able to understand its importance with a rudimentary understanding of History and Philosophy. And, as a final thought, I think Taylor’s view on secularism is both coherent and encouraging. Knowing Chritianity’s role in secular formation means we have a hand in the game. If we shaped the game in the first place, then we ought to be able to play the game more effectively than we give ourselves credit. If we don’t, then we merely choose to live with the less hopeful theories of secularism that point to the inevitable demise of religion.