January 3, 1825, Robert Dale Owen bought the entire town of New Harmony, Indiana. His goal was to set up his perfect society based on “the principles of the sciences by which a superior character can be formed…and by which a superfluity of wealth can be created and secured for all without injury of any.”(59) Owen’s new world allowed no religion because it “created and perpetuated…a total want of mental charity among men” and “generate superstitions, bigotry, hypocrisy, hatred, revenge, wars, and all their evil consequences.” (58) Therefore, it would be “devoid of forms, ceremonies, and mysteries; for those constitute the errors of all existing systems…which created anger, and produced violence and bloodshed throughout society.” (57) Owen based his beliefs squarely on the “consistent truths of nature” that “would result in the formation of characters ‘that…will not only greatly surpass the wise and learned of the present and proceeding times, but will appear as they really will be, a race of rational or superior beings,’”(57) (foreshadowing Richard Dawkin’s “brights”?).
Robert Owen’s social experiment illustrates a midpoint in the trajectory of the social imaginary of Western society described by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age as it moved from the medieval enchanted world to secularism. In Owen, we see the audacity of the belief that both society and human character can be formed and engineered apart from any higher source. This drive required a new basis for public order “beyond and in spite of confessional differences.” (127) Natural Law became the foundation that would free society from all past issues of confessional differences and political domination. Owen set forth a program that “through the discipline and training of subordinate population” would result “in the internalization of values of self-control and industriousness among these subjects.” (118) Here, we see the movement toward an “extraordinary confidence in the capacity to remodel human beings.“(121)
What Taylor helps us understand is the complicated process that made possible this ambitious program toward an ordered society based on exclusive humanistic and naturalistic beliefs. Already, in Owen’s imaginary, we see several key features of the pre-modern thinking being displaced (or subtracted, using Taylor’s terminology): 1) the idea that world of nature pointed to what was beyond itself; 2) society was grounded in a higher reality (a heavenly kingdom); 3) that people lived in a enchanted world –being both open and vulnerable. These developments made it possible for Owen to propagate his scientific based, self-sufficient society, buffered against any transcendent reality. In the 1820s, this suggests a huge leap forward from the enchanted world of the 1500s.
However, in 1800, Western society was far from fully secular, though the door was clearly opening. In a debate between Alexander Campbell, a Christian preacher and apologist and Robert Owen that lasted for several days, it was asked which of these viewpoints (Biblical Christianity or Owen’s social engineering) prevailed. Only three in the crowd of over one thousand stood for Owen. Even in 1820s, it was still a long way to our day when “religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested).”  (21-22) The vast majority of Western society were still “porous,” not yet able to accepted a disenchanted world. However, Campbell himself was unknowingly contributing to the process of disenchantment and excarnation. With the help of the Reformation, during which the idea of a making over of society began with removal of a two tiered society (saints vs. sins), the common man was now expected to rise to higher levels of holiness and good character, which in the past was left for the monks and priests. Further, we find in Campbell the exclusive regulation of God’s action to the Scriptures, leaving the cosmos free of spirits and anything transcendent. God could only be known now through rational, scientific, deductive study the Word. Though Owen and Campbell were debating from different points of view, they were both caught in the world increasingly “disenchanted and de-charged of transcendence.” (Smith, 39) The process of secularization had clearly taken root, a “realm purified of the contingency, particularity, and irrationality of religious belief, and instead…governed by universal, neutral rationality.” (21)
Owen himself, like so many other scientific thinkers in antebellum America, had not yet rejected God outright. He still held to a Deist belief. But the door was now open for Secular3, when “belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” (Taylor, 3) Owen foreshadows much of this secular age of the 20th century that we now accept as normal. As Smith well summarizes this first part of Taylor’s book as answering the question: “How, in a relatively short period of time, did we go from a world where belief in God was the default assumption to our secular age in which belief in God seems, to many, unbelievable.” (Smith, 47)
What Taylor describes was best illustrated for me by a student I had in my campus ministry. Rebecca, grow up in the church, with dedicated Christian parents. She was intellectually brilliant and highly scientific. She knew her Bible, at least the facts of the Bible, better than I did. But, it soon became clear that something was missing in Rebecca’s faith. She was surrounded by people who experienced a life changing and intimate relationship with a living God through the presence of Jesus’ spirit in their lives. But what trouble Rebecca was that none of this made any sense to her. She knew and accepted the facts of Biblical Christianity, but they were no different then the facts she found in a chemistry book. She was so thoroughly rational, scientific or captured in a disenchanted and secularized worldview, that the concepts of “the spiritual” or “a relationship with an invisible God” had no clear meaning in her mind. It made absolutely no sense. But, at the same time, she was haunted by something missing that she saw in others. Here, I believe, is the challenge for the Church today: How can God become real or make sense to those who are like Rebecca? 500 years ago, there were very few Rebeccas in the world. Today, she is becoming the norm! Taylor gives us a guide to how this happened.
Richard J. Cherok, Debating for God: Alexander Campbell’s Challenge to Skepticism in Antebellum America (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2008).
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2007).
James K.A. Smith, How Not to be Secular (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2014).