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A Secular Age

Narrated by: Dennis Holland
Length: 42 hrs and 7 mins
Categories: Non-fiction, Philosophy
3.6 out of 5 stars (7 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age? Almost everyone would agree that we - in the West, at least - largely do. And clearly the place of religion in our societies has changed profoundly in the last few centuries. In what will be a defining book for our time, Charles Taylor takes up the question of what these changes mean - of what, precisely, happens when a society in which it is virtually impossible not to believe in God becomes one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is only one human possibility among others.

Taylor, long one of our most insightful thinkers on such questions, offers a historical perspective. He examines the development in "Western Christendom" of those aspects of modernity which we call secular. What he describes is in fact not a single, continuous transformation, but a series of new departures, in which earlier forms of religious life have been dissolved or destabilized and new ones have been created.

As we see here, today's secular world is characterized not by an absence of religion - although in some societies religious belief and practice have markedly declined - but rather by the continuing multiplication of new options, religious, spiritual, and anti-religious, which individuals and groups seize on in order to make sense of their lives and give shape to their spiritual aspirations.

What this means for the world - including the new forms of collective religious life it encourages, with their tendency to a mass mobilization that breeds violence - is what Charles Taylor grapples with, in a book as timely as it is timeless.

©2007 Charles Taylor (P)2014 Audible Inc.

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Masterpiece

This masterpiece is dense, complex and long. But it is wonderfully well read. Taylor doesn’t know how to use a single syllable word if a multi-syllable word can be found. Some quotes are read in their original French, German or Latin. But there’s usually translation. Highly, highly recommend this book!

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  • Norman
  • 13-06-2015

Needs Guest Narrators for French and German

It's great to have such a serious academic title available on audio, but the publisher, Audible Studios, need to seriously reconsider using English language narrators for the many long passages in French or German. Audible Studios produces French and German audiobooks for their foreign .fr and .de sites, so this is hardly beyond their resources or competence. Holland makes so many errors with his French, and his German is simply growling, guttural English (not remotely like anything that sounds like German and utterly unintelligible), that the foreign language passages, which frequently come in the space of every couple minutes, make the book an unnecessarily painful experience for the many multilingual listeners who are likely to be among its audience. Passages shouldn't be unintelligible just because they're in a foreign language, especially for listeners fluent in those languages.

Prospective listeners not fluent in French or German needn't be put off from the book in that all such passages are translated after the initial (horrific) reading.

I still give the book 4 stars overall, as any audio production of a 900-page tome from Harvard Press is a considerable service. Holland well captures Taylor's meditative yet embattled tone, though the book lacks structure and I think promises more than it delivers in terms of its thesis.

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  • Marcus
  • 28-07-2015

Exclusive Humanism and Religious Beliefs

Charles Taylor master narrative about secularism is full of history context and well founded insights. His exposition of the relevant facts in western civilization path toward humanism and rationalism is clear. His interpretation of these facts and the way in which they were understood in our society gives the readers an enlightened perception of our postmodern condition. This is a work that deserves multiple readings or listenings. I already listened to it three times and each one of them provided me with new insights and reflections.

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  • Tim R. Prussic
  • 13-03-2018

CT's massive work is worth the work

What about Dennis Holland’s performance did you like?

The reading quality was good, well-paced and understandable. Some reviewers have objected to the pronunciation of the French. It was cool with me. Actually, I enjoyed listening to it, but I don't know from beans when it comes to French pronunciation.

Any additional comments?

Charles Taylor (CT) won me over right away with his erudition. He pulls from everywhere, which can be overwhelming. Scholars like CT are impressive and my hat's off on that score. CT is also, I think, a generous and honest scholar. All things considered, I feel that he's a master, and I'm naught but a student. I hope to read more of his work and plan to benefit from it if I do.

This book is trying to tell the story of how we got to where we are: a secular age. But such a story, as CT himself confesses, depends heavily on where one thinks we actually are. As to where we are, I'm left with the impression that secularism, naturalism, and materialism are on their way out. At least, it would seem that such narrow, unnatural views of the world -- even when combined and re-combined in this way and that -- have proven anemic to the task of developing a fulsome understanding of life in its dizzying variety, especially its spirituality. The Imago Dei is far too interesting to be hemmed in by these modern categories.

Amidst a study of such staggering breadth, certain narrownesses stand out. CT says that the post-Latin Christian world is the domain of secularism. This "secular age" and its philosophical, ethical commitments are vigorously rejected by cultures outside the niche of Northern-Atlantic West. While secularism et al are hugely influential, that influence is mostly rejected throughout the world, making evident the narrowness of the "secular age". CT also lays a good deal of responsibility at the feet of the magisterial Reformation and its children (especially Calvinism) but doesn't focus much (at all?) on the effects of the Council of Trent and the Roman Catholic Reformation on the development of modernity. Nor does he focus on the Radical Reformation's contributions. Finally, I found his categorization of the enchanted and disenchanted worlds to be intriguing and helpful, but also sterile or unnatural. The categories of porous and buffered selves are similar. CT's analytical categories make some good sense. They get at something helpful and true, but they seem unable to offer cogent gradations between these poles, which is where we all live.

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  • Daniel L. Scott Jr.
  • 07-11-2016

secularism as conscious, deliberate choice

Taylor's book, long, often wordy and perhaps needlessly complex, nonetheless is a must read for people of faith living in the the North Atlantic nations. A Secular Age explains why believers are so often like the man in the gospels who cried out to Christ, "Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief. It also explains the difference between Christianity as practiced and explained south of the equator from the same faith north of the equator, a matter Phillip Jenkins has described so well. I am certainly the richer for the hours spent listening and pondering this most important work.

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  • tr
  • 19-04-2016

Covers a lot of territory

Very thorough discussion of the secular age. Often seems to argue that Christianity is not in anyway affected by the arguments of the naturalist and materialist. One of the best books someone has ever read to me.

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  • David Huang
  • 14-09-2015

Long, winding, but worthwhile

I will have to listen to it again. This book is quite expansive, so some background in history and philosophy would be helpful.

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  • jacob lewis
  • 07-07-2019

Clear presentation

Very pleasant voice and pacing although the speaker's French was a bit hard to catch at times (I can't speak for the German though)

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  • Jeffrey D
  • 27-07-2020

God or bust

Should you listen to this 42-hour-long book? Most Audible reviewers seem to think it is worth the time. I think many people will not find it rewarding enough. If you are of European extraction, and Christian, probably Catholic, and miss the days of St. Francis, as evidently does Charles Taylor, you may find the book persuasive and enjoyable. You may plow through 42 repetitive hours of listening. You may even know exactly what he means by such undefined phrases as the “cosmos,” “transcendence, “spiritual,” “God,” “time immemorial,” “time out of mind,” and “higher time.” I did not. And I could never figure out how he could possibly know that certain social phenomena have been around since time out of mind, since presumably that phrase refers to human life before we have any record of it. But let’s be honest: this is not so much a book of history or philosophy as it is a book that marshals facts from around the world and from many points in the past to persuade you, reader, that his prescriptions are correct. So when he writes of “time immemorial,” and “time out of mind,” he probably has little in mind except some vague, romanticized idea of what he hopes humans were like back then, whenever “then” is. I will in this paragraph describe three small problems with the book. First, there are many passages in French and German. They are often translated, but it is far from clear to me why the French and German passages are present to begin with in an English edition. There is no philological analysis, so there seems to be no reason for the French and German. Second, Taylor often says that “I [Taylor] want to say …” instead of just saying what it is he wants to say, and giving reasons for it. Most readers probably do not care what he “wants” to say. Third, he includes the reader in his assertions by frequently using the words ‘us,’ ‘we,’ and ‘our.’ The problem is that the “we” are not all the same; certainly I rarely felt that I belonged in the category he was implicitly putting me into. In fact, in an odd use of the first person plural, he usually exempts himself from the “we,” because of his unique insights as presented in the book. A larger problem is ethnocentrism. It is a book that ranges widely in time and space, from the “Axial Age” to the present, and from the US to Africa (Dinka) and Australia (Aboriginals after European contact). It is a work devoted to a certain religious loss in the development from “pre-modern” to “modern” society in, especially, the North Atlantic part of the world. The loss has to do with the loss of a transcendent God’s plan, design, providence, mystery, and will as a central organizing principle of society and the person. But the God that Taylor is talking about has little to do with the Axial Age (except in Israel), and little to do with India, China, Aboriginals, and Dinka, for example, at any time. Most of humanity, now and through human history and prehistory, is simply left out of Taylor’s preferred guiding principle of a personal, theistic God. This is an astonishingly self-centered position to take in the 21st century – what luck for someone with Taylor’s views to have been born in 1930s Quebec, one of the last bastions of Catholic traditionalism in the world, so that he could grow up within the best religion! Furthermore, in a book about theological change through time, it is remarkable that his idea of God and the sacred is unchanging and without history. On this topic, see further the review of Taylor’s book by Peter Gordon in The Journal of the History of Ideas, October, 2008. Another large problem for the conservation or reinstatement of God’s plan, will, providence, mystery, or design in modernity is the issue of teleology. Clearly the discovery that most diminished the conditions for the possibility of belief in teleology was the discovery of evolution by natural selection, largely by Charles Darwin. It is difficult to go back to teleology after Darwin. But Taylor does not grapple with that issue. He mentions a caricature of Darwinism (“nature red in tooth and claw”) and finds certain aspects of the neo-Darwinian synthesis to be “implausible” and calls “dogmatic” the fact that evolution does not include design from beyond the evolutionary process. Unlike the cases of fiction and persuasive argument (Taylor’s book is an example of the latter), in which plausibility is of utmost importance, and unlike religion, which is the locus classicus of the dogmatic, evolution by natural selection (and sexual selection, and genetic drift, etc.) is supported not by plausibility and not by dogma, but by an enormous amount of empirical data, whereas competing theories have little or none. Taylor brings no data to bear. A reasonable conclusion is that he has none. According to evolutionary theory, there is no evidence for God’s design in the evolution of any biological creature, including humans, although individual humans, or groups of humans, may feel that they have or can create a certain kind of destiny and that a personal God is involved with that destiny. If so, there can be a rescue of a certain kind of teleology, but it has little to do with the feeling in the middle ages that God was working in each and every blade of grass, and the purpose of the blade was God-given. Taylor is of course free (it is not “rigorously banned” – this claim is a pure fantasy on the part of Taylor, although he has plenty of company in this fantasy) to discover and assert evidence of design in biological evolution; if he can find none (and as far as I know there is none), then he really should not claim that his position is in any fundamental way different from those of the various theorists of intelligent design. Instead of data, Taylor resorts to “mystery,” and is then quickly off on his way, skipping through the ages, telling plausible stories. Darwin ended The Origin of Species with the famous depiction of the grandeur in the view of life he describes. One could even find a religion in it; but it is not Taylor’s religion that would be so found. Taylor’s religion, to be compatible with science and modernity in general, would require a reckoning with Darwin, a reckoning he refers to obliquely in the book, and one he flinches from. I have to admit I only got three-quarters of the way through this tome. When I reached the part where he touches, briefly (as is the case with most of his topics, although each brief discussion is repeated over and over, as though that will solve the problem), the issue of the “triumph of the therapeutic,” or the “therapeutic turn,” I gave up. The discussion of psychotherapy is not only brief, it is superficial, stereotyped, and caricatured. This is a complex issue, breezed through by Taylor, in his haste to persuade you, the reader, that only God and transcendence are of any lasting importance. Life is too short to spend more time on such unsupported dogma.

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  • Pogo
  • 29-07-2018

What it means to live in a secular age

The book itself is well written and important, but the narration was problematic. There are many extended quotations in French (followed by English translation), which the narrator relentlessly mangles. A small thing compared to the overall importance of the book, but after several hours it was annoying and distracting.

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  • Kindle Customer
  • 06-09-2017

Brilliant

A very compelling diagnosis of the modern secular culture. Extremely helpful in understanding the tensions between the modern moral order and modern epistemology, which often seem incompatible. The narrator is a perfect choice for this book. Very clear articulation and enjoyable for listening. Highly recommended.

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  • P
  • 25-03-2016

Marred by the long quotes in terrible French

Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

This was always going to be a challenging listen, because of its length and the complexity of its theme. But the reason I had to abandon it partway through had nothing to do with the content.

The written work includes frequent long (up to a paragraph in length) quotations from key thinkers in the original language, followed by a translation. For the audible version, it needed to be edited so that only the translation was narrated. I don't know anybody who can translate mediaeval Latin or 18th century French by ear while driving a car down the motorway, so including the original texts added nothing. As the book progressed, I became increasingly frustrated at having to listen to several minutes of incomprehensible narration before getting to the translation.

As the narrative of the book moved to consider the thinkers of 17th and 18th century France, my frustration was increased by the grating, truly bad French accent of the narrator, and for the first time I had to abandon an audio book in the middle

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  • Anonymous User
  • 08-09-2018

Rich but mixed performance

This would be an excellent reading of Taylor’s magnum opus if the narrator did not insist on reading French and German quotations despite being ignorant of both languages. The work itself is obviously hugely stimulating.

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  • Jim Vaughan
  • 02-06-2016

Challenging, Complex and Intellectually Brilliant!

500 years ago, almost everyone was religious. "God" was assumed to be self evident as a power in the World. So how did we get to this, our secular age, where belief is often seen as irrational, mainstream religion is in decline, and the diversity of beliefs and unbelief have gone supernova? This is the central question Taylor addresses in this fascinating, detailed and intellectually rich magnum opus.

This is not a book for the faint hearted - several chapters were so complex, I had to listen hard, with full attention, and often go back more than once to really understand them. Once "in the groove" however, I found the fullness of Taylor's analysis, and the breadth of his understanding, awesome.

This is an account of the evolution of Western thought over the past 1000 years and beyond - not just an evolution of ideas, but in what Taylor calls our "Social Imaginary". He evocatively traces how the Mediaeval "porous" self, within an "enchanted" Cosmos, where dis-ease in nature reflected disease of spirit, where witches & demons, saints and relics had power, and transcendent & imminent worlds coalesced in a mutually supporting hierarchy of the "chain of being" - God, King, Priests, Barons, Surfs etc. as a unity of community and Cosmos - how this evolved through the Reformation and Enlightenment, through attempts (ironically) to reform the laity to the highest standards of piety, and became our modern day secular "buffered" humanistic individualistic self, living in a "disenchanted" imminent mechanistic universe.

What Taylor is attempting to refute are the prevalent "subtraction" narratives: that we have "grown up" out of religion, casting off childish superstition and ignorance, to be replaced by science and rational secular humanism. These subtraction accounts are compelling, and heroic, but totally unsupported by history. We are here because, not in spite of, our cultural roots. For example modern humanist values are traceable back to Christian values of "agape" as universal concern for others and we often forget that the precursors of our hospitals, universities and all forms of social care were founded and for centuries run, by the Church.

As for the future of religion, Taylor presents an optimistic and well argued case for a resurgence of interest in diverse forms of "transcendent" spiritual expression, and argues against the subtractionist view that religion will fade out as an unnecessary historical encumbrance. Imminent pleasures alone are insufficient, we need the transcendent dimension to re-discover the vivid fullness of life.

So, in conclusion, more than most audiobooks, listen to the sample before you buy. One thing that helped me was the narration by Dennis Holland in a pleasing and relaxed Canadian accent (Taylor is Canadian). Some short passages were in Latin, French or German, but for me, this did not detract.

Overall, whatever your views on religion, this audiobook is an erudite and ultimately highly enriching listen - but it does require some intellectual heavy lifting!

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  • Olli Huhtinen
  • 28-06-2020

One of the definite giants of our time

I've read this monumental work several times and I can honestly say it's a must read for anyone attempting to grasp the development and different imaginaries of our secular age. I recommend this audio book as a supplement to reading and studying the book itself, allowing you to revise the contents of the original.

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  • Jasmin
  • 30-11-2017

best book,

very good and profound book, if you like history, you vil love it, but be patient