What Secularization Did to the Self

According to one history of secularization, we owe our very selves to it. As C. S. Lewis’s god-haunted protagonist in Till We Have Faces exclaims to the deities, “There’s no room for you and us in the same world. You’re a tree in whose shadow we can’t thrive. We want to be our own.” According to this model, only when we are detached from the divine can we come into our own.

Yet, this somewhat simplistic narrative misses the deeper dynamics at play within the secular self. In what follows I will begin by examining some current debates about secularization. I will then defend what I think is key to contemporary secularism when it comes to the self and identity, namely, the “ninety-degree turn.” My point will be that this turn, which immanentizes the divine, stresses finite being beyond what it can bear. The resulting fractures are seen most clearly in the splintered and empty self of post-structuralist philosophy. We are left not with thriving selves but with lost ones.

The Secularization Thesis

North American and European academics in the second half of the twentieth century debated the merits of the “secularization thesis,” which held that modernity lead inevitably to the separation of church and state and the rise of unbelief. This thesis was sharply criticized beginning in the 1980s, with sociologists and historians pointing to local religious diversity and an observable religious revival as counter-evidence. One example is American sociologist Peter Berger, who had a famous change of heart on this topic. He writes:

My point is that the assumption that we live in a secularized world is false. The world today, with some exceptions, is as furiously religious as ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists, loosely labeled secularization theory, is essentially mistaken . . . Although the term “secularization theory” refers to works from the [19]50s and 60s, the key idea can be traced right back to the Enlightenment. The idea is simple. Modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals. And it’s precisely this key idea that turned out to be wrong.

Charles Taylor refers to this inevitability-of-religious-decline assertion as a “subtraction story.”[1] The idea is that unadorned humanity—as a natura pura, perhaps—is not religious, but for various historical and psychological reasons, man relied upon religion as an explanatory system. But once those reasons are no longer relevant, religion was stripped away, leaving pure, non-religious humanity. So, for example, once we knew enough about weather systems and could control irrigation through technology, we no longer needed to worship made-up gods with supposed power over the weather. With religion subtracted, we were left with just ourselves, no deities required.

What Berger and others came to realize is that this story was both historically and empirically false. Taylor attends to the historical data, while Berger and most of his fellow sociologists took a closer look at the contemporary world. Berger describes receiving in the late 1990s a massive tome from the MacArthur Foundation, summarizing the work of the Fundamentalism Project. In addition to the growing awareness of thriving Catholic, evangelical, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim religious communities beyond the elite enclaves of the developed world, the phenomenon of Islamic-inspired terrorism made “secularization theory” look outdated.

Further, recent scholarship argues for the theological ancestry of modern secularism. Works such as Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity, Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual, Tom Holland’s Dominion, Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World, and Eric T. Nelson’s The Theology of Liberalism all make the case for continuity between theological convictions and such quintessentially modern preoccupations as human dignity, the importance of freedom, and individualism.

To their point, the older meaning of the term “secular” (from saeculum in Latin) was rooted in Latin Christendom. Originally meaning an age or a lifetime, in Christianity it came to signify the distinction between religious and secular clergy: the former members of religious orders (originally monks), the latter priests who lived and served in parishes “in the world.” This meaning is appropriated by modern thought in the direction of a separation of religion from politics and nature. Modernity, in other words, did not so much reject theology as utilize it to meet its own specific, political goals.


But does that mean that we do not live in a “secular age,” as Taylor has called it? Not quite. The “subtraction story” of the secularization thesis is rightly questioned, but the state of the developed world still demonstrates a shift in “backdrop,” as Taylor puts it, from a default of religious belief to one of irreligion or even atheism. Indeed, the reduction of theology or of the pursuit of ultimate ends to the political, evident especially in early modernity, is indicative of the immanentizing thrust of modern secularity.[2] This secular “immanent frame,” to quote Taylor, is the result of the move from a default of religious belief to a default of nonbelief (ASA 539-93).

Taylor’s “immanent frame” refers to a “natural” order (over and against any “supernatural”) one that systematically rules out transcendence. The development of this frame came about through, first, attributing the plan of Providence to “Nature” itself, without any necessary supernatural interventions (in providential Deism), and then attributing worldly order to the agency of the enlightened human mind, understood as human maturity coming to know for itself what is and what should be done. These changes, Taylor is quick to add, are not inevitable, but once they have happened, they create a way of viewing the world that is biased against the transcendent (ASA 543).

The recent Magisterium of the Catholic Church has acknowledged this secularizing shift. The writings of recent popes on Christian mission now argue that Latin Christendom has devolved into the post-Christian mission territory of the New Evangelization. For the Church, as well as for many believers in other religious traditions, the developed West is secular terrain.

Given this default of modern secularity, it is unsurprising that dissatisfaction with the modern is becoming dissatisfaction with the secular. “Were there a post-modern, it would be the post-secular.”[3] So states John Milbank in arguing for “the post-postmodern agenda” to consist in “problematizing the secular.” Milbank here marks the shift in the academy from the dominance of the secularization thesis to the rise of theories of the post-secular. The meaning of “post-secular,” however, varies from thinker to thinker. Some mean, like Milbank, the critique of modern secularity. Jürgen Habermas, who popularized the term, intends a reopening of the public square to a rationally purified religious discourse.[4] Others (such as Taylor) refer to a critique of secularization theory’s subtraction narratives. Still others (such as Berger) argue for the enduring relevance of religion as a sign that we are not and maybe never were truly secular.

Taylor’s argument that secularity is the new default of unbelief evades Berger’s critique of secularization theory, because a world in which religion is one option among many is also a world that can allow for relative growth or decay in religious belief and practice. Secularity does not mean no one chooses religion. It means, rather, that religion, when chosen, has to be a conscious choice among a menu of options and, further, is often understood within an “immanent frame” rather than one that includes some kind of transcendent deity.

Taylor defends the second point by tracing the rise of “exclusive humanism,” the sine qua non for the new default of unbelief. Exclusive humanism is “a purely self-sufficient humanism . . . accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing” (ASA 18).[5] As a theory, it is dedicated to immanence over transcendence, because transcendence is conceived, in this framework, as the enemy of immanence.

Taylor refers to the proliferation of spiritualities and religions as “the nova effect”: whereas pre-modern societies tended to have few religious options available, the rise of exclusive humanism created an opening-up of the options, “spawning an ever-widening variety of moral/spiritual options, across the span of the thinkable and perhaps even beyond” (ASA 299). In part, these options keep expanding because of the “cross-pressures” we feel in modernity: both toward and away from scientific rationality, individualism, and the immanent (ASA 594-617). Moderns feel tugs in multiple directions, perhaps to be an atheistic Darwinist at work but a dedicated practitioner of yoga on weekends.

The net result is that it is proving as difficult to extricate ourselves from the secular as it is from the modern. The dissatisfaction with scientific materialism and utilitarianism is often satisfied (at least temporarily) by new religions or spirituality within a purely immanent frame. Further, allegiance to the secular ideal itself can take on a religious quality, as Rosi Braidotti observes: “Religion may well be the opium of some masses, but politics is no less intoxicating, and science is the favourite addiction of many others.” She goes on to point out the latreic quality of the cults around secular “icons” like Che Guevara.[6] Post-secularism, much like post-modernism, appears more to reinscribe what it succeeds than to overturn it.

Secularity as a Ninety-Degree Turn

The rise of ontological immanence leads me to my main point for this section on secularization: secularity is best described as a ninety-degree rotation of the transcendent, submerging it within an immanent ontological and imaginary frame. Now the immanent and not the divine is presupposed to contain both our origin and our goal. As John Paul II says, “In our heavily secularized world a ‘gradual secularization of salvation’ has taken place, so that people strive for the good of man, but man who is truncated, reduced to his merely horizontal dimension.”

Such secular immanentizing is necessarily post-Christian. Why? Because a clear distinction between the immanent and the transcendent was required before one could be chosen in preference over the other, and it is only with Judeo-Christianity that such a clear distinction was provided. As we have seen, the distinction between “religious” and “secular” is due to Christian theological categories, so the rise of the “secular,” self-consciously understood as the opposite of “religion,” requires a post-Christian environment.[7]

The theoretical reason for the Christian distinction between secular and religious is rooted in the creation accounts in Genesis. As Robert Sokolowski explains, Judeo-Christianity created a new understanding of God and hence a new discourse of divine transcendence. For Greek and Roman pagan myth and thought, the divine was the best and highest within the being of the world. “God or the gods are appreciated as the most powerful, most independent and self-sufficient, most unchanging beings in the world, but they are accepted within the context of being.” Even Plotinus’s One, taught in a different and more Christianized context, is not conceivable without his necessary emanations (the Intellect and the World-Soul). The One may be beyond being, but he is nevertheless inextricably linked to the being of the world, which does not exist through a free choice of the One. Rather, the world is the inevitable ontological unfolding and imaging of the One.

Robert Sokolowski contrasts this to the implicit conviction of Anselm, expressed in his ontological argument for the existence of God. This conviction Sokolowski renders as “(God plus the world) is not greater than God alone.” This new, Christian conviction emphasizes that the world did not have to be at all, and yet God would still be, and he would be without any diminution of his being. This “Christian distinction” between God and the world is unprecedented within paganism. Indeed, Sokolowski rebuts the Heideggerian idea that, always and everywhere, men have wondered why there is something rather than nothing. In fact, that question arises out of specifically Judeo-Christian wonder.

Yet, once the distinction has been made, the danger is that the world will be conceived as self-enclosed and no longer operating by the kinds of natural necessity so obvious in the pagan myths. The agency of man, hemmed in by the gods or by nature (in ancient myth and philosophy respectively), seems unhinged from any natural necessity. “Man is seen less as a living thing embedded in a world,” Sokolowski writes, “and more as a knower detached from the world that he tries to control.” The possibility of secularity required the clear distinction between God and the world, if the world is to stand on its own.

In other words, Judeo-Christianity’s bright line between the one God and his manifold creatures was necessary for the option of choosing a world closed off from God. Only once the world was seen as having a relative autonomy vis-à-vis the divine could this autonomy be detached from God and made absolute. I am not, however, arguing that Christianity was a sufficient cause for secularity. Here the historical and sociological work done by secularization theorists can be quite useful in explaining the other conditions that created the possibility of the ninety-degree turn of secularity. Nor am I promoting another subtraction story, as though secularity was an inevitable result of Christianity.

My point is rather that secularity’s immanentizing move, once it was made, was and is in conscious opposition to the transcendent God of Judaism and Christianity. This is why secularity is a post-Christian reality that thrives most luxuriantly in post-Christian cultures.[8] Globalization and even more the hegemony of secular Western academic and entertainment elites can and do export secularity to other cultures, with varying degrees of success. But secularity’s homeland is in traditionally Judeo-Christian societies.

In the imaginary of secularity, phenomena that once were ascribed to God’s causality need to be explained on their own terms. Secularity dogmatically cuts off the “vertical” element of creation’s relation to God. Or, better, this relation is turned ninety degrees and subsumed under immanence.

Metaphysically, this ninety-degree turn is equivalent to the univocity of being. Christian thought required of its metaphysics both a distinction from and a relation to God. Various Christian proposals might emphasize more the dissimilarity from or more the similarity to God, but at their core they needed to account for both: how is it that God-plus-the-world is not greater than God alone (dissimilarity)? And yet how is that we have a world that comes from the Creator God and that images the divine fontal plenitude (Bonaventure) of all being (similarity)?

Modern secularity is prohibited a priori from such an analogical understanding of similarity with a greater dissimilarity. More pious or Deistic proposals might turn to an equivocal understanding of being, in which the removed divinity is operating at a completely different plane, untouchable by man’s reason and unrelated to creaturely being. Even these proposals, however, become practical univocity, because the only arena that matters existentially is the autonomous world. Secularity, therefore, is driven by necessity to find all that it needs in the world alone.

In this way, we arrive through the back-door at many genealogies of modernity that locate its seed in late-medieval metaphysics, in particular the proposal of the univocity of being.[9] On the one hand, this proposal has been made so many times (by thinkers coming from very diverse commitments) that it seems like a bad punchline, as though Blessed Duns Scotus is personally responsible for every secular ill.[10] On the other hand, Gilles Deleuze himself supports these genealogies by making Scotus an early hero in promoting the univocity of being, leading to an ontology of liquid immanence. Here I will prescind from the question of the best interpretation of Scotus, leaving it to others to determine if he is culpable for the charges laid at his door. My point is more general: regardless of its genealogy, secularity’s ontology (consciously grasped or not) will inevitably degrade into some kind of univocity of being.

I have argued that modern fluidity is a result of the ninety-degree turn to univocity of being. Understood in an orthodox manner, creation, which proceeds from God and returns to him, is established by this relationality to God. This natural flow vis-à-vis the transcendent God is the true memory upon which modern fluidity is drawing. In secularization, however, such originary flow is ruled out of bounds and reconceived as purely immanent. It was, in other words, turned ninety degrees. This ninety-degree turn of the fundamental creaturely relationship goes a long way to explaining the origin and power of fluidity in liquid modernity. But it also has implications for the self 

Why Secularity Matters for the Self

The severing of human origins from a transcendent God threw the identity of the individual into doubt. Of course, this destabilization was part of the point of Enlightenment secularization, which sought to reestablish man in a newly fluid state (to use Zygmunt Bauman’s terms) of fundamental equality rather than solidly predetermined. “Solid” determination, through class, family, or religion, left the individual vulnerable to hierarchization and hence inequality. “Liquid” equality would replace solid predetermination of status. What such liquifying humanists did not consider was the deep disorientation this newly secular liquidity would produce.

Pre-modern man had resources for answering the question “Who am I?” The family, with its lines of descent and its embeddedness in the region and nation, provides answers to the existential question. The lack of economic and geographic mobility also gave a sense of belonging and an identity. Even more importantly, pre-modern man knew his relationship to the divine. Thus, a millennium ago, identity was a solid fact: e.g., I am a creature of the Christian God, born into a peasant family and farming the estate of this particular lord. The very solidity of identity meant that my identity was not a questionable fact, and so no one bothered to think that much about it. Identity crises are not a notable feature of medieval life.

The modern liquification of social and familial roles in the name of a fundamental equality is a large part of the shift to liquid identity. But an even deeper factor is at work, namely, the loss of a sense of the human being as created by God and ordered to return to him. A theistic framework means that the most important feature in answering the Gnothi seauton is not what I think about my unique and individual self. It is rather what God thinks about me. This attitude is a fundamentally receptive one, and it makes the identity-question less vexing. In a theistic context, my job is not to create an adequate identity but to discern properly who God has created me to be.[11]

Of course, many or even most people in a pre-secular society might not be devout nor attend at all to what God thought about them. Nevertheless, the structure of God-given identity was the larger default framework within which they thought (or not) about themselves. In a secular age, that default framework has shifted to one in which identity is found through attention to oneself, not to God.

A thoroughly secular world is a world in which identity is not received but only self-constructed. This sounds like a recipe for an inflated, Promethean self. But in fact its default is the narcissistic empty self, who fruitlessly attempts to construct a self ex nihilo rather than receive it from beyond himself. Roberto Calasso argues that Homo saecularis “owes nothing to anyone” (and certainly not to God). Correspondingly, however, “there is an evitable sense of uncertainty, since he rests on something unstable—and perhaps insubstantial.” The emptiness of a society built on procedures, not meaning or the good, can provide no relief. Secularists “feel the insubstantiality of all that surrounds them . . . The same insubstantiality exists in they themselves. Personalized.” The liquid self is free and therefore is everywhere in chains.

It is no coincidence that widespread narcissism only emerged in the twentieth century, just as this omnipresent secularism became the new normal. The two go hand in hand: whenever the human person is presented with a godless world, de facto he is being asked to construct a private world of meaning and identity without the help of the divine. But the narcissist is not someone with an abundant self but an empty one, who seeks to create what he lacks. Secular man is the self-creating man—the narcissist. As Calasso puts it, the “watershed” moment is “the elision of the invisible, which has now become a precondition of everyday life.”[12] Secularism is not the absence of religion, which continues to exist in various forms, as the post-secularists point out. (Calasso proffers vegetarianism, Communism, and bodybuilding as religious realities.) Secularity is not so much the absence of religion as the absence of the transcendent divine.[13]

As I have argued in other essays in this journal, Gilles Deleuze’s fractured “I” and desiring subject are the selves that result from the relentless immanentizing of secular univocity. For Deleuze, identities are only simulacra or optical effects, the congealing of the fluid field of the one substance of being. This marriage of Spinoza and Nietzsche in ontological univocity leaves us with illusory or fractured selves. Zygmunt Bauman, without reference to Deleuze, nevertheless understood the liquid univocal ontology at play with the empty identities of post-modernism. They were, he thought, akin to “the spots of crust hardening time and again on the top of volcanic lava which melt and dissolve again before they have time to cool and set.”

This, then, is the legacy of the ninety-degree turn of secularity. In the effort to create a univocal field of equality, untrammeled from any relation to an enslaving God, secular thinkers yanked up the anchor that rooted the human person in her divinely received identity. Floating adrift on a liquid sea of options, with no structuring good to elevate one over the other, we cling to a sequence of identity-islands, often sexual in nature, because it seems to be the easiest way out of our predicament. But none has the finality to re-anchor our shipwrecked sense of self.

At this juncture, the ninety-degree turn seems more oppressive than liberating. The equality of everything in an immanent and univocal world is all well and good in theory. But it does not, as Walker Percy observed, help to get us through a Wednesday afternoon, nor to confront our own faces in the mirror. The unique outlines of each face are not destined for material reabsorption into the one substance of the world; rather, they are the down-payment of an eternal destiny. Secularity’s logic cannot even make sense of what it hopes to defend, namely, the irreducible expanse of one human life.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2007), 26-29, 569-79. Future references will be parenthetical and abbreviated ASA.

[2] Many commentators still take secularism in a purely political sense, to describe the separation of church and state in a polity and perhaps also freedom of conscience, plus equality under the law regardless of religious faith. See, e.g., Andrew Copson in Secularism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019; a reprint of Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017]), who is solely interested in the political definition; he derives the above facets of secularism from Jean Baubérot (see 2). A more nuanced analysis of different meanings of secularization is found in José Casanova, “The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms,” in Rethinking Secularism, 54-74.

[3] John Milbank, “The End of Enlightenment: Postmodern or Postsecular?” in The Debate on Modernity (London: SCM Press, 1992), ed. Claude Geffré and Jean-Pierre Jossua, 39–48 at 39.

[4] See an overview of Habermas’s proposal in Craig Calhoun, “Secularism, Citizenship, and the Public Sphere,” in Rethinking Secularism, 75-91; and Talal Asad, Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self, and Calculative Reason, Ruth Benedict Book Series, ed. David Scott and Elizabeth A. Povinelli (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 43-54, for a critique. Umut Parmaksiz provides a helpful overview of the literature in “Making Sense of the Postsecular,” European Journal of Social Theory 21, no. 1 (2018): 98–116 at 99-103. See also the cartography in Gregor MacLennan, “The Postsecular Turn,” Theory, Culture & Society 27, no. 4 (2010): 3-20 at 4, doi: 10.1177/0263276410372239; and Contesting Secularism: Comparative Perspectives, ed. Anders Berg-Sorensen, Rebecca Catto, and Linda Woodhead, Ashgate AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Series (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013).

[5] He argues that non-Western religions such as Buddhism and Taoism most likely are not exclusive humanisms, because of the reverence afforded to what is higher (ASA 18-19). I say “most likely,” because he acknowledges his lack of expertise in these religions, as do I.

[6] Post-secularism as a public discourse tends to focus on Islam as the primary example of the persistence of religion. As a result, post-secular rhetoric often exhorts openness toward minorities but not to practices and institutions associated with Western dominance (such as Christianity and Catholicism in particular). Braidotti notes that feminism has generally aligned with Enlightenment secularism, understood as the separation of church and state and the promotion of human liberation within an immanent frame, although she gives several counter-examples of religious or spiritual counter-traditions. Her proposal of a multi-relational neo-materialism, while it is parasitic upon religious imagery, remains secular in my sense of the word, as I will argue: it is thoroughly immanent.

[7] See Casanova, “The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms,” 60-66.

[8] This is also why secularity in my sense of the ninety-degree turn is not found (with few exceptions) in ancient cultures, despite their lack of a sense of true transcendence, in Sokolowski’s sense of the word. The world for them was not free from the divine but rather shot through with it. The same applies to non-Western religions in which a clear distinction between immanent creation and the transcendent God was never developed. In these cultures, the divine has aspects of transcendence, but exists as intermixed with immanence, which itself depends upon the divine. (See Charles Taylor, “Western Secularity,” in Rethinking Secularism, 31-53 at 32-33.) In contrast, modern secularity entails a decisive rejection of the transcendent (in favor of the immanent) rather than a coexistence with it.

[9] I am grateful to Ross McCullough for helping me to formulate this idea.

[10] Some of the more notable proposals come from a varied cast of characters: Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, 3rd ed., trans. Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995 [1985]); Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989); John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, second ed. (London: Wiley/Blackwell, 2006 [1990]); Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity; Thomas Pfau, Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013); and many others. For a dissenting interpretation of Scotus, especially as he is read by Radical Orthodoxy, see Daniel P. Horan, Postmodernity and Univocity: A Critical Account of Radical Orthodoxy and John Duns Scotus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014); and Dominic Abbot, “The Doctrine of Univocity: A Scotist Response to Radical Orthodoxy,” Citara 59, no. 2 (2020): 3-70.

[11] Taylor makes a similar argument concerning the importance for identity of locating oneself within a “moral space,” in relation to some constitutive good, in Sources of the Self, 25-52.

[12] Calasso, The Unnamable Present, 24. One might think that the prevalence of moral therapeutic deism means that contemporary religiosity is actually quite comfortable with the transcendent. Deistic transcendence, however, so removes God from ordinary human life that one is in fact, if perhaps not always in theory, asked to figure out questions of identity and meaning without God’s input.

[13] Calasso, The Unnamable Present, 49. Much like G. K. Chesterton, Calasso argues that, as belief in the divine decreases, gullibility increases (53).

Feature Image: Taken by Ascilto, The Giacometti room in Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Zealand, Denmark, 1 May 2002; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Angela Franks

Angela Franks is Professor of Theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston and a Church Life Journal Life and Dignity Writing Fellow. Her specialties include the theology of the body, the new evangelization, and the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Read more by Angela Franks