The Subtraction Story of Secularity
by Timothy Keller
The late modern mind presents itself something like this: Science has changed things forever, because now we don’t need God to explain the world. Also, we have come to realize that we don’t need God to be moral, to love and work for a better world, or to have meaning and fulfillment in life. In fact, religion is a divisive force that, when weakened and dissolved, makes it easier for people to live together in peace. Those who are willing to think for themselves (rather than accepting tradition or what they have been taught) and who have the courage to accept the dictates of science (rather than retreating into the comforting illusion of God and afterlife) will see all this and be set free.
Charles Taylor calls this a “subtraction story” because it assumes science and reason simply took away God and left behind secularity—a life of personal meaning, freedom, and peace of mind; and of moral support for equality, human rights, and the betterment of humankind—all based on human reason and resources alone. Taylor doesn’t believe this at all. In A Secular Age, he argues that secular people find God hard to accept because they have embraced a new, constructed set of beliefs about the nature of things. The idea that it is natural to disbelieve in God once you “see the facts” ignores how difficult it has been for human beings to imagine the idea of a life of meaning and fulfillment without God and a transcendent dimension to reality. It took centuries of “new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices” to get there.
It is not natural to disbelieve in God. Columbia scholar Mark Lilla writes that to most human beings, deep interest in the supernatural, the afterlife, transcendence and God “comes naturally—its indifference to them that must be learned.” Consider where secularity is today. Many secular people hold that people are a complex of chemicals without souls, that love itself is just a chemical reaction that helps people pass on their genes, that when loved ones die they simply cease to exist, and that there is no right or wrong outside of what we in our minds choose to feel. The universe is just a cold, immense mechanism, and science merely a way to figure out how the giant clock works. “Reason [then] cannot offer us ecstatic fulfillment, a sense of community, or wipe away the tears of those who mourn.” Taylor and others explain that it took many generations of work to construct alternate beliefs and theories that could enable human beings to become comfortable with such counter-intuitive statements about love and personhood and moral value and still go on living.
In order to preach to the secular person—and to Christians who have been influenced by the secular age—we must resist secularity’s own self-understanding. It is not simply an absence of belief. Christians often accept this claim and respond by getting out their proofs and other rational bona fides. Not so fast, say Taylor and many others. Secularism is itself a set of alternative beliefs about God, human nature, history, rationality, society, identity, and morality that are just that—beliefs that are not self-evident, and which have no more empirical proof or basis than any other religious faith commitments.