Review of How (Not) to be Secular by James K. A. Smith

How (Not) to be Secular

This is the eighth in a series of book reviews Cornerstone is publishing on our WordPress site. This week’s review is on How (Not) To Be Secular by James K. A. Smith. The idea is to encourage our readers to soak themselves in Gospel-centered literature this summer. Let the break from school not be a break from our Father in Heaven.

How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor is what the author himself, James Smith, calls “your hitchhiker’s guide to the present.” While it is premised as a reading guide to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, it also independently serves as an excellent guide on how to live our lives in secular modernity. Smith draws inspiration from Taylor’s landmark work and compacts it into an accessible guide for the reader, expounding on topics he finds more pertinent and using more contemporary examples in his writing. I greatly appreciated Smith’s condensation of Taylor’s nine hundred page long work, identifying key concepts to explain and giving his own flavour to the ideas Taylor deals with.

Taylor considers the intellectual shift that occurred in the past few centuries, from an age of widespread belief in God to that where belief is the exception to the norm; the secular age. The word “secular” has become commonplace in society today, to the point where its meaning is not as obvious as one might think. Smith identifies Taylor’s three distinct definitions of the term. Firstly, secular1, a classical definition as being anything distinguished from the sacred. For instance, priests do sacred work while butchers do secular work. Secular2 is our modern definition, where it refers more to something being “areligious – neutral, unbiased, ‘objective’” such as in a secular public space. Taylor challenges this definition with his conception of the secular3referring to “an age of contested belief, where religious belief is no longer axiomatic… (where it is) possible to imagine not believing in God.” Hence, Taylor departs from the usual idea of secular being just divorced from religion and instead proposes that the modern, secular age is characterised as a space of competing claims of belief and meaning. Smith supports this claim by drawing on works by Julian Barnes and David Foster Wallace, authors who are continually being challenged by their belief. He argues that we live in a world more like what the authors describe than those presented confidently by new atheists or religious fundamentalists.

Smith explains that the secular age as conceived by Taylor is one where there are different understandings of how the world works. These understandings can either be “spins” or “takes”, where the former “has no room to grant plausibility to the alternative” and the latter “is open to appreciating the viability of other takes.” Most notably, there is the take of “exclusive humanism”, where meaning and significance can be accounted for “without any appeal to the divine or transcendence.” Smith challenges the reader, in light of the nature of the secular age being a ground for contesting claims, to present his worldview as a take rather than a spin. In essence, he challenges us to respect other worldviews as viable alternatives, understanding the logic and coherence behind them, before presenting our own. Not merely as a form of respect, Smith argues that only by presenting takes are we able to dialogue with believers of other worldviews. He criticises many he sees wistfully wishing for the shift of secularism to have never happened, pushing their spin of the world in as a closed system. Personally, reading Smith has encouraged me greatly in being able to have meaningful conversations with people about their faith. I have learnt (and am still learning!) how not to push my beliefs onto people. Rather, I try to listen, understand and present my account of the Gospel and my testimony before asking, “What do you think?”

Smith also criticises the modern apologetic who, faced with the attack of new atheists, continually presents “evidence that demands a verdict.” In doing so, Smith argues, the apologetics excarnate Christianity, turning it into a mere belief system without the experiences of the believer. Taylor argues that disbelieving “because of science” is not so much to do with the data but to do with the story and self-image that comes with it, where rationality is associated with maturity. Hence, merely presenting more data will not help the apologetic, as it does not compel the unbeliever towards belief. Instead, Smith calls for presenting “an alternative story that offers a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith” where the goal is not to establish some “vague theism” but rather, an “invitation to… Christianity.” This spoke to me personally as well as I too am of the belief that apologetics merely defuse certain barriers people have towards the faith, but it is the compelling narrative of a believer’s life through faith that people come to see the testimony of our Lord Jesus. I wouldn’t go as far as Taylor/Smith to suggest avoiding apologetics totally. Nonetheless, I would echo their call to ensuring that the worldview we portray is not an excarnated one, but rather, one that includes the transformation in our lives as a testimony of the faith.

There is so much more that Smith unpacks in Taylor’s great work, including topics such as ethics, atheism, immanence in art etc. The book is a great guide for anyone confused with the spiritual landscape today of seemingly prevailing unbelief. Whether you are a seeker, skeptic of follower of Jesus Christ, How (Not) To Be Secular is an informative roadmap to navigating the secular age today.


Nicholas Chuan


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