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Interview by Bruce Ellis Benson


What It Means to Be Secular

A conversation with philosopher Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is one of those rare philosophers who influence the conversation in several distinct fields of inquiry within their discipline. A noted Hegel scholar, he has also addressed contemporary social and political debates in books such as The Ethics of Authenticity and Multiculturalism, and he has given considerable attention to the role of religion in the modern world, in works such as A Catholic Modernity? and Varieties of Religion Today: Williams James Revisited (both of which are reviewed in this issue of Books & Culture). Taylor is perhaps best known for his magisterial work, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, published by Harvard University Press in 1989.

Bruce Ellis Benson met with Taylor several months ago in New York, where Taylor was lecturing at the New School University.

We live in a secular society. What do you think that means?

To say we live in a secular civilization is to say that God is no longer inescapable. It doesn't mean that we live in a society from which God has been expelled. I don't think we ever will live in such a society for very long; the Communists tried that. But the nature of this modern secular society is that it's deeply plural. We have to accept that the ultimate grounding of the civilization we share in common is up for grabs.

Every society has an implicit order—a set of understandings out of which its members make sense of their practices. This set of understandings I describe as a social imaginary, drawing on Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities and on the work of JÜrgen Habermas and Michael Warner, among others. Why imaginary? Because it's very important to get away from the mania for strictly theoretical approaches that proceed as if these implicit understandings were explicitly spelled out in a series of propositions.

If you compare the different political cultures of the Western European and North Atlantic liberal democracies, for example, they look very similar at the level of theory. But the way the ...

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