Review: How (Not) to Be Secular by James K.A. Smith

How Not to Be Secular

This weekend I had the privilege of delivering a series of talks at a men’s retreat for my church. The theme of my talks was “Christian Calling in a Secular Culture.” My primary text was the Book of Ecclesiastes, which expresses better than any other book I know what it feels like to live in a world where life’s answers so often evade us. The second source I relied on was How (Not) to Be Secular by Reformed theologian James K.A. Smith (Eerdmans, 2014), which recently won Christianity Today’s 2015 Book Award in the category of Christianity & Culture. Over the course of only 139 pages, Smith distills the ideas set forth in the nearly 900-page volume A Secular Age by Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor (Belknap Press, 2007). Taylor’s main thesis is that we are all secular: secularity is a part of the air we breathe today, and there’s no going back. But what exactly does it mean to be secular?

Each of Smith’s chapters corresponds to the main sections in A Secular Age, which allows Smith to undertake a point-by-point evaluation of Taylor’s arguments. Taylor begins by arguing that we are living in an age that is “haunted.” There is no denying that belief in God is no longer our default setting (in the terminology of sociologist Peter Berger, theism is no longer part of our shared “plausibility structure”). And yet the more reflective secularists will admit that it sometimes feels as though “something may have been lost”—we are left with a void that occasionally presses on us in ways that are hard to articulate. But the “haunting” goes both ways: even we religious folk are plagued by the specter of doubt. Taylor uses a number of terms to describe this sense of haunting: secularization is the process of fragilization, in which all beliefs may be called into question. This creates a feeling of cross-pressure: we are all simultaneously pulled by the forces of exclusive humanism (in which meaning and significance are sought solely with reference to our immanent world) and the ghost of transcendence.

How did we get to this place? The myth that we are so often told—and which Taylor is at pains to deconstruct—is the so-called subtraction story. This is the story of human progress and the triumph of reason, which arises through a long historical process of stripping away all our religious and superstitious dogmas. We have gone from a world of polytheists, to one of monotheists, to deists, and finally to atheists. This myth is based on the compartmentalization of faith (which is private, subjective opinion) and reason (which is neutral and unbiased). But Taylor argues that we cannot so neatly divide the world into believers and unbelievers. We are all by nature believers. Something had to fill the void left by the loss of faith in the transcendent. Enter exclusive humanism, which resulted from a radically different understanding of the self. In centuries past, premoderns understood themselves in terms of the porous self—the self that is open and vulnerable to transcendent forces beyond our control (whether divine or demonic). But through a series of historical contingencies (Taylor calls them zig-zags—the process was not inevitable), we have developed a sense of the buffered self—the self that is insulated and autonomous. We have put ourselves in the place of the judge. As a consequence, we no longer see ourselves as living in a hierarchichally ordered cosmos, where meaning is imposed from the outside by a transcendent source, but rather in a universe, an immanent order of natural laws.

Taylor calls this newly constructed social space the immanent frame, which is defined entirely in terms of the natural (rather than supernatural) order. But even within this shared immanent frame, there are different ways of living and thinking. More specifically, there are takes and there are spins, which can in turn be either open or closed. A take is a construal of life that recognizes itself as one of several competing options: an “open take” (which is how both Taylor and Smith would identify themselves) is one which acknowledges the immanent frame as our default cultural setting, but which nevertheless acknowledges the possibility of (“openness to”) the transcendent. A “closed take” is one which accepts the immanent frame as the whole story, but is still honest about the haunting presence of “something more.” In contrast to the takes are the more dogmatic and self-assured spins—the fundamentalisms of both religion (open spin) and irreligion (closed spin—think Dawkins & co.). One of Taylor’s primary goals is to move us away from the spins, creating a space for dialogue between people who recognize their own convictions merely as “takes.” But this is not to say that all takes have an equal claim to truth (see also Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism?).

In defense of his own take, Taylor does offer a certain apologetic, but it is a subtle one. He invites his readers to experience the tug of the transcendent, pointing to certain “fields” of cross-pressure: agency (what makes my choices meaningful?), ethics (are our ethical motives purely biological?), and aesthetics (why does art/nature move us?). None of these are offered as knock-down logical proofs; after all, Taylor and Smith would both argue that classical apologetics rests largely on the mythical subtraction story of modernity, with its pretensions to rational neutrality. But these fields of cross-pressure can still serve to put a proverbial rock in the shoe: “Don’t you feel it? Don’t you have those moments of either foreboding or on-the-cusp elation where you can’t shake the sense that there must be something more” (137)? Taylor suggests that only an open take can provide the resources needed to account for fullness, the universal human longing for significance and value.

Despite his generally positive appraisal, Smith is occasionally willing to critique Taylor. For example, Taylor seems to uncritically accept a more humanist version of Christianity, stripped of the supposed “violence” of atonement or damnation. But Smith rightly points out that Taylor is merely presenting his own preferences with little argument here (116-117). At this point, the reader ought to look elsewhere for a more thorough defense of the traditional doctrine of depravity, which undergirds these more “unpleasant” aspects of the Christian faith (I might recommend Fallen: A Theology of Sin, edited by Robert Peterson and Christopher Morgan).

Overall, I think that How (Not) to Be Secular is an excellent work. Smith does a remarkable job of explaining difficult concepts in engaging prose, with an entertaining mixture of references to popular culture, such as Radiohead and Johnny Cash (the one error I found in the book was Smith’s reference to Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails, which was actually a cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”). However, readers would be well served by a prior familiarity with the history of philosophy and religion. But even this one caveat is mitigated by the glossary that Smith provides of Taylor’s terms. I would also encourage readers to look at reviews of Smith at The Gospel Coalition and Eerdword.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.


  1. Existential Apologetics: A Third Way beyond Classical and Presuppositional | Allkirk Network - June 15, 2015

    […] he is, is making a point about the secular world which we all inhabit. We have been told that this immanent world is all there is, and that our longings for something transcendent are mere projections and […]

  2. In Defense of Worldview | Allkirk Network - January 4, 2016

    […] of Aristotelian philosophy has become subject to what Charles Taylor calls the process of fragilization: common sense isn’t so common in the secular […]

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