In The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Stephen recently interviewed British comedian and TV producer Ricky Gervais to discuss his religious views. As an atheist, Ricky concludes, “You take any holy book or any fiction and destroy it. In a 1000 year time that wouldn’t come back the way it was but if you take any science book or any fact and destroy it, in a 1000 years it will come back exactly the same because all the tests will give the same results!”
Ricky is the co-creator of the show The Office, and also of some shows in HBO. His religious views are not unique to him, but they are increasingly prevalent in western civilization. We can see this mindset clearly expressed amongst the two and a half million viewers of this YouTube video. Take for instance this viewer, “Religion was invented to keep uncivilized people busy and organized. Then critical thinking and science happened.” Another viewer says, “If somehow religion never existed I think we would’ve progressed even further than we have already because we wouldn’t have over 50% of people on earth limiting their critical thinking skills due to what people thousands of years ago wrote in a holy scripture.”
When confronted with this worldview, Canadian Philosopher and Political Science Professor Charles Taylor asks a critical question: How did we get here? In 1500 it was almost impossible not to believe in God, while today it is almost impossible to believe in God. What happened? Not everybody answers this question in the same way. The popular version (echoed by people like Gervais) asserts that the old religious world was liberated from ignorance when the Enlightenment gave us science. Science now shows that the material world is all there is, and that religious belief is simply a vestige of the past; a bad habit inherited from an age of ignorance.
Taylor disagrees. He calls views like this one subtraction stories, which are their own social imaginaries. They make sense in the person’s mind, but the person ignores the assumptions that are taken for granted. The history of how we got here is rather more complex, and it has several implications for our understanding of this secular age. It is so complex that Taylor wrote a 900-page book with a series of lectures describing in detail the philosophical history of secularism. In order to simplify the main points of Taylor’s work, another Canadian philosopher named James Smith wrote a companion book to help people digest Taylor’s views. The outcome of this joint effort is significant. What Webber did to the study of economics, Taylor did to the study of secularism. In the words of Smith, this book “offers a genealogy of the secular and an archaeology of our angst.”
Understanding the historical development of secularism gives us an x-ray of our current secular age, revealing key ideas with relevant implications. First, secularity is not a synonym of unbelief. Rather, it is a mindset that lacks an axiomatic system for belief, therefore every belief is a contestant among many and it is also contestable. It is a place where believers are haunted by doubt while unbelievers are hunted by faith. Secondly, secularity is not what is left over once we subtract transcendence; rather it is an accomplishment, the sum of previous ideologies that have managed to create an immanent framework with the promise of providing significance without the need for transcendence. Yet, this promise is not quite fulfilled, because the significance that is experienced in transcendence cannot be found in immanence. The transcendent knocks at the door of the human heart; some people decide to ignore it, but the knocking does not stop. The words of Steve Jobs before he died capture well this phenomenon of secularism, “For most of my life, I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.” Finally, this internal angst for significance that cannot be found in the immanent has created a cross-pressured system that has lead to a nova effect in the market of spirituality. Thus, it is now common for people to say “I’m spiritual but I am not religious,” while at the same time they create their own collage of spiritual expression.
After watching the interview of Ricky Gervais, I knew that his argument had a fundamental fallacy. Taylor has helped me understand that this mindset is a subtraction story within a social imaginary. Gervais has imagined a world where religion is fiction while science is fact. He has also led himself to believe in a version of the world in which science can be discovered without being preceded by Christianity. He is as mistaken as a child who thinks that he could exist if he had different parents. As Taylor argues, the value of the individual, the study of nature that lead to the development of modern science, and the transformation of the social order that led us to democracy and capitalism have all merged to provide the foundation for a secular age. For better or for worse, a secular age is the unplanned child conceived in the realm of Christian thought.
 See video online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5ZOwNK6n9U&feature=youtu.be
 Smith, James K. A. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor . Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Location 87, Kindle Edition.
 Ibid, 13.