This past weekend, I attended a public lecture by Charles Taylor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It was packed – standing room only! He discussed his book A Secular Age, focusing specifically on what he is up to in trying to give an account of our current secular age (an idea which in itself is hard to nail down, and which is in some sense also debatable) by telling an alternative story of how our age became “secularized.”

One of the most common accounts is usually described in what he calls a ‘subtraction’ story. Basically, subtraction stories amount to the removal of something – namely in the case of a secular age, religion – by asserting that something else came along to take its place – namely in the case of a secular age, the Enlightenment point of view, which privileged the scientific and rationalistic points of view. These points of view held that man, through the power of his reason, and through the methods of science could learn all there is to know about reality. Thus, religion, itself being an account of reality, would be unnecessary. Indeed, proponents of the Enlightenment predicted the demise of religion (some still believe it will eventually happen). Now obviously, if we only look around, religion has not actually been eradicated. This does not mean calling our age ‘secular’ or trying to give an account of the process of secularization is misled. But because the Enlightenment prediction was wrong, and other subtraction theories like it, Taylor believes that a deeper, much more substantial account can and should be given. Part of the mistake of subtraction theories (that is, why they come up short) is that they fail to take into account greater underlying issues or their scope is not wide enough to account for additional social/political/spiritual effects. A Secular Age is a movement in that direction – Taylor intends to tell a better story.

During his discussion, Taylor did focus on one of the aspects that gave the Enlightenment movement, and even (though more subtly) the process of secularization, their power (even though he would disagree with the story that secularization was only powered by the Enlightenment). The Enlightenment has had undeniable benefits for man – industrialization, medicine, civil engineering, etc. Not only has human life improved due to scientific discovery and rational organization, it must be said that it has done so in a way that disallows a return to “the way things were.” This is what Taylor calls the “Ratchet Effect” – ratchets work by moving only in one direction; every click up or forward cannot go back the other way. The Ratchet Effect describes the process by which human life has been improved by means of greater knowledge. When there is epistemic gain (greater understanding than before), human life often benefits. The Ratchet Effect also notes that when there is epistemic gain, the possibility of going back to an understanding when such new knowledge was “undiscovered” or non-existent is absent. Once epistemic gain has occurred, there is no going back. For whatever is past is now interpreted, known and understood through what is current.

Taylor’s Ratchet Effect is closely related to his earlier idea of “supersession.” Supersession describes transitional arguments, the kind which account for such things as scientific revolutions as reflected in the work of Thomas Kuhn. Taylor notes,

It is crucial to transition arguments that they make a more modest claim [than ruling out other arguments absolutely]. They are inherently comparative. The claim is not that Y is correct simpliciter but just that whatever is “ultimately true,” Y is better than X. It is, one might say, less false. Its message is: whatever else turns out to be true, you can improve your epistemic position by moving from X to Y; this step is a gain. But nothing need follow from this for the holders of third, independent positions. Above all, there is no claim to the effect that Y is the ultimate resting point of inquiry. The transition claim here is perfectly compatible with a further one which might one day be established, identifying a new position Z, which in turn supersedes Y. (“Explanation and Practical Reason” in Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 34-60)

This is the argument of a true pragmatist. Taylor here, is in the end, only giving an account of how we think. And so his arguments then, about a secular age, are admittedly only his account. Pragmatists try to offer a “best account.” As Alasdair MacIntyre (one of Taylor’s conversation partners) has said,

[W]e are never in a position to claim that now we possess the truth or now we are fully rational. The most that we can claim is that this is the best account which anyone has been able to give so far, and that our beliefs about what the marks of “a best account so far” are will themselves change in what are at present unpredictable ways.” (“Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science” in The Monist 60 (1977), 453-472)

No doubt Taylor’s work in A Secular Age has moved the ratchet up a click, to the extent that arguments about how our age became secularized have now at least to deal with Taylor’s own argument. It is impossible to go back to the more simplistic arguments (like subtraction theories). Any other story must at least be as substantial as Taylor’s.