Responding to Charles Taylor’s question, ‘What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age?’, this essay sets out to develop an alternative engaged theory of religion and secularity. It comes back with three alternative questions. Firstly, how can we find a way to understand the social whole without reducing the complexities and contradictions of social life to that of a singular age—in this case the notion of a secular age? Secondly, what is the social basis of religion and secularism? Here the approach treats both faith in the transcendental and ‘opposing’ arguments that God does not exist as social belief systems, each originating from different dominant ontological valences emerging at different times in human history. Thirdly, the essay asks, how are we to live in our time? Human flourishing, it is argued, will require re-embedding and substantially qualifying the hubris of the modern within a holistic matrix of ontologically different and often contradictory ways of relating.
This essay will suggest that we need to recover forms of relations that arose out of analogical and genealogical ways of being present in customary ways of life (though not necessarily the cultural content of the ways in which those relations were once lived). It requires a politics of ontological limits. This train of argument leads us to a general proposal that lies at the heart of this essay. The social whole can better be understood in terms of changing intersecting assemblages of ontological formations—life-ways formed in tension with each other. In these terms, ontological formations are themselves understood as patterns of practice and meaning constituted at different dominant levels of abstraction. These formations are always in tension with each other—sometimes creatively, often destructively.