What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age? Almost everyone would agree that in some sense we do: I mean the “we” who live in the West, or perhaps Northwest, or otherwise put, the North Atlantic world — although secularity extends partially, and in different ways, beyond this world. … But it’s not clear in what this secularity consists. There are two big candidates for its characterization … The first concentrates on the common institutions and practices — most obviously, but not only, the state. The difference would then consist in this, that wheareas the political organization of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection. … Religion or its absence is largely a private matter. The political society is seen as that of believers (of all stripes) and non-believers alike.
Put in another way, in our “secular” societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God, that is, coming to a point where the crucial importance of the God of Abraham for this whole enterprise is brought home forcefully and unmistakably. The few moments of vestigial ritual or prayer barely constitute such an encounter today, but this would have been inescapable in earlier centuries in Christendom.
This way of putting it allows us to see that more than the state is involved in this change. If we go back a few centuries in our civilization, we see that God was present in the above sense in a whole host of social practices — not just the political — and at all levels of society … And if you go back even farther in human history, you come to archaic societies in which the whole set of distinctions we make between the religious, political, economic, social, etc., aspect of our society ceases to make sense. In these earlier societies, religion was “everywhere”, was interwoven with everything else, and in no sense constituted a separate “sphere” of its own.
One understanding of secularity then is in terms of public spaces. These have been allegedly emptied of God, or of any reference to ultimate reality. Or taken from another side, as we function within various spheres of activity — economic, political, cultural, educational, professional, recreational — the norms and principles we follow, the deliberations we engage in, generally don’t refer us to God or to any religious beliefs; the considerations we act on are internal to the “rationality” of each sphere — maximum gain within the economy, the greatest benefit to the greatest number in the political area, and so on. This is in striking contrast to earlier periods, when Christian faith laid down authoritative prescriptions, often through the mouths of the clergy, which could not be easily ignored in any of these domains, such as the ban on usury, or the obligation to enforce orthodoxy.
But whether we see this in terms of prescriptions, or in terms of ritual or ceremonial presence, this emptying of religion from autonomous social spheres is, of course, compatible with the vast majority of people still believing in God, and practicing their religion vigorously. The case of the Communist Poland springs to mind. This is perhaps a bit of a red herring, because the pubic secularity was imposed there by a dictatorial and unpopular régime. But the United States is rather striking in this regard. One of the earliest societies to separate Church and State, it is also the Western society with the highest statistics for religious belief and practice.
And yet this is the issue that people often want to get at when they speak of our times as secular, and contrast them, nostalgically or with relief, with earlier ages of faith or piety. In this second meaning, secularity consists in the falling off of religious belief and practice, in people turning away from God, and no longer going to Church — even those who retain the vestigial public reference to God in public space.
Now I believe that an examination of this age as secular is worth taking up in a third sense, closely related to the second, and not without connection to the first. This would focus on the conditions of belief. The shift to secularity in this sense consists, among other things, of 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, and frequently not the easiest to embrace. In this meaning, as against sense 2, at least many milieux in the United States are secularized, and I would argue that the United States as a whole is. Clear contrast cases today would be the majority of Muslim societies, or the milieux in which the vast majority of Indians live. It wouldn’t matter if one showed that the statistics for church/synagogue attendance in the U.S., or some regions of it, approached those for Friday mosque attendance in, say, Pakistan or Jordan (or this, plus daily prayer). That would be evidence towards classing these societies as the same in sense 2. Nevertheless, it seems to me evident that there are big differences between these societies in what it is to believe, stemming in part from the fact that belief is an option, and in some sense an embattled option in the Christian (or “post-Cristian”) society, and not (or not yet) in the Muslim ones.
So what I want to do is examine our society as secular in this third sense, which I could perhaps encapsulate in this way: the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith. There will be people who feel bound to give it up, even though they mourn its loss. This has been a recognizable experience in our societies, at least since the mid-nineteenth century. There will be many others to whom faith never even seems an eligible possibility. There are certainly millions today of whom this is true.
Secularity in this sense is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual or religious experience and search takes place. By ‘context of understanding’ here, I mean both matter that will probably have been explicitly formulated by almost everyone, such as the plurality of options, and some which form the implicit, largely unfocussed background of this experience and search …