Charles Taylor's Secular Age and the American Zodiac

Paul Harvey

In "Higher Times in the Bible Belt," John Schmalzbauer considers why historians have not been discussing Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Part of it has to do with the relative lack of social history in the work, of the kind that has most interested American religious historians of late. Of the work, Jon Butler has noted the lack of attention to the "experiences of ordinary people."

Butler draws on a deep knowledge of colonial American religion, noting that eighteenth-century observers found a combination of belief and unbelief. Together with recent scholarship on medieval and early modern Europe, such accounts challenge Taylor’s tendency to dichotomize the sacred and the secular.

Noting the interaction of the sacred and secular in the lives and practices of ordinary Americans, Schmalzbauer calls attention to one recent example, in Richard Callahan's Subject to Dust:

Focusing on twentieth-century Appalachia, historian Richard J. Callahan documents the persistence of such beliefs in Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields. Discussing the role of religion in everyday life, he describes how residents used the signs of the Zodiac to govern sowing and reaping, justifying such practices with appeals to both the Bible and the farmer’s almanac.

Some more potential material along the same lines: John Fea calls attention to the latest edition of Early American Studies, just as I had been using from that journal a very interesting piece, from a few years back, by Sarah Rivett: "Empirical Desire: Conversion, Ethnography, and the New Science of the Praying Indian" (Project Muse access required). Rivett has a fascinating passage about how English apostles of the 17th century sought to "hear" in Indian conversion voices the sound of authentic Christian primitivism; when they heard instead the same Puritan rhetoric that they had taught them, they heard it as false. There's much else of interest there, too.

The new edition of Early American Studies features a piece by T. J. Tomlin, "Astrology's from Heaven not from Hell: The Religious Significance of Early American Almanacs." Hope to get to that soon, or perhaps one of our readers can and give us a synopsis.


Anonymous said…
Perhaps historians have ignored Taylor's work simply because it's so freaking long? Honestly, who has time to read a 700 page book by a philosopher? I've thought about reading it myself, but have yet to crack the cover.
Randall said…
I recall hearing an editor, won't say who, telling me that he/she didn't like the writing style. Anyone else thought that?
Anonymous said…
I thought Taylor's book was absolutely brilliant and have used its main concepts in several articles I've written recently (they just haven't been published yet because of publication lag times). I think the argument about faith having to prove itself (rather than something assumed to be true) is quite right.
Kristi said…
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Rusty Hawkins said…
I'm with Ed. I read Taylor as part of a faculty colloquium this semester and it is an amazing book. While the writing style and length are a bit daunting, it has concepts that are incredibly useful for many different areas of religious history.

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