My Youth Are (Not) Secular 1: What Does 'Secular' Mean?


In 2007, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor published a 900-page work concerning the philosophy of religion entitled A Secular Age. The book immediately won Taylor almost every award imaginable, as well as the acclaim of prominent philosophers and sociologists around the world. Over the past decade, scholars and pastors have unpacked Taylor’s incredible analysis of modern religious climates, and recently a number of individuals have begun to publish these reflections (see Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor edited by Collin Hansen, 2017).

One of the most prominent of these reflections is the ongoing work of James K.A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, whose 2014 work How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor helps to make accessible Taylor’s larger work while also offering Smith’s analysis about what Taylor’s observations bode for the church of the future. This 2016 lecture at BYU provides a further summary of Smith’s work:

Over the next week, the Next Institute will be unpacking a 5-point summary Smith makes as a part of his presentation of Taylor’s work, and applying it specifically to the state of youth ministry in the 21st century.


Taylor distinguishes between different uses of the word ‘secular’. Originating in the Middle Ages, the word was originally a way of distinguishing between the normal, common, and temporary, and the sacred or holy - both vocationally (secular vs. sacred jobs, for instance), and in terms of the kingdoms of Earth and heaven. Moving into the modern age, ‘secular’ became associated with a rational, naturalistic worldview devoid of religion. Indeed, sociologist Max Weber and his contemporaries famously proposed a ‘secularization thesis’ at the turn of the 20th century, predicting that as scientific discovery and rationalism advanced, the world would find itself to be less and less religious. Ironically, some of the most prominent sociologists of religion in the 20th century such as Peter Berger (originally a proponent of the secularization thesis) have since rejected the thesis, noticing that globally religious observance grew in the 20th century instead of declining. 

Taylor instead proposes a third use of the term ‘secular’ - rather than referring to an absence of belief, secular refers to the contestability of belief in our modern age. Borrowing from Berger, Taylor argues that the plausibility structures or conditions (what is possible, or even probable) in our society of have changed. Whereas for many hundreds of years, one would assume normal religious belief in an individual until proven otherwise, Taylor now observes that traditional belief cannot be taken for granted in society - individuals can increasingly find alternate and individual worldviews (including atheistic ones, but also alternate religious perspectives) plausible. 

For youth workers, Taylor’s redefinition of the secular helps to name a transition we are experiencing in our youth groups today. It further focuses concepts initially explored by Christian Smith (Soul Searching) and Kenda Creasy Dean (Almost Christian) regarding the widespread belief in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism among youth (and parents) to also acknowledge drifts toward the plausibility of other options. In other words, MTD is not a final option for many of our youth. Instead, while holding to MTD, our secular age promotes (sometimes unconsciously) the plausibility of other explanations, often evidencing itself in youth as a ‘drift’ away from religion such that the rejection of religion for many is not finally a process of pained soul-searching, leaving teens empty of the religion they once had, but a ‘joyful casting off’ of structures of religion that have long sense lost their power and have been replaced with other explanations and worldviews already.

At its base level, this first thesis calls youth ministers to not only not assume biblical literacy in students, but also to not assume biblical motivations or proclivities. Students today are just as likely to not believe they have a ‘god-shaped hole’ they are filling with something, just as likely to not believe in the authority of the Bible not because of historical criticism but because their understandings of science and ethics seem implicitly more valid, just as likely to not consider the perspective of a pastor or youth leader as necessary or helpful when making big decisions. Youth pastors used to broad contact work (hanging around at football games, coming to meet students’ friends at lunch, attractional events) may find such methods less and less effective not out of outside animosity (antagonistic school administrations, ‘evil’ atheists) or failures of execution (simply not being ‘enough’ to attract students) but simply because students, rather than thinking they already have what we provide, feel they don’t need it at all.