Definition: secular

Much of the disagreement between people – in areas of religion and elsewhere – centres around unacknowledged differences of definition. It is important to know what someone means when they use a word, and it is often pretty easy, if you’re paying attention, to notice that a difference of definition is serving as a barrier to communication. Please read this in the light of my recent comments on What words mean. I hope that people who disagree with me will continue to lay out their reasons in the comments, and everyone with me will tell me how well I am conveying my ideas.

Today’s definition: “secular”.

It is variously used to refer to “everyday life” (as opposed to consideration of religious ideas of the transcendent), or as a pejorative for the increasingly non-religious way many people approach life these days. What is common is that it tends to be associated with a lack of religion.

What seems to be disputed is whether “secular” approaches to life – particularly public life and politics – are actively anti-religious, or simply non-religious.

This distinction has come up before on this blog. Long-time readers will, I hope, already anticipate my preferred definition here.

When I promote secularization, or a secular public sphere, I mean one that does not privilege one religious perspective over another. That is, a secular government is one that does not take a side in questions of faith. It doesn’t promote prayer; it doesn’t prohibit prayer. It doesn’t encourage religious observance; it doesn’t discourage religious observance.

For the most part, I would say that is what secular governments aim for in the real world. (I’m quite pleased with this trend, so far as I have observed it in the countries I’ve lived in.)

So why might some people associate the word with anti-religious sentiments and actions?

Well, there are several reasons. One is that some of the vocal cheerleaders for secular government these days are atheists. The National Secular Society in the UK is a prominent example – they actively lobby against religious privilege in that country, and advocate for the equal treatment of atheists. And of course, many of the most vocal atheists these days are vocal in their criticism of religious beliefs. So it is natural for people to connect in their minds the word “secular” with “anti-religious”. Similarly, people like me who identify as secular humanists are all (so far as I know) atheists. From my perspective, this is because approaching the world from a secular perspective – one that begins as neutral toward religious claims – will tend to lead one to atheism. From another perspective, it may seem that secular has some built-in anti-religious bias.

Another reason is that, historically, pretty much every culture has privileged one or another religious belief in its laws and customs. So, when we move towards a secular society, those privileges tend to be lost. The groups who once enjoyed those privileges naturally feel like they are under attack. They lose their special voice in government (removal of laws that are exclusively motivated by religious dogma). They lose their special voice in education (removal of teaching materials that are informed by religious dogma, and/or that are in contradiction of scientific evidence). They are no longer able to impose their rituals on public events, to the exclusion of others (removal of sectarian prayers in council meetings, or the inclusion of other religious and non-religious voices).

To someone like me, who identifies with a group (atheists) that never enjoyed those privileges, it is laughable to hear religious people moan about intolerance when they learn that they will finally have to follow the same laws as everyone else.

But I certainly can understand how humbling and, perhaps, frightening, it must be to see one’s tribe fall from a position of accustomed privilege to become an equal among many competing voices.

And, of course, there are people who would like religion to disappear from the world entirely. There are dogmatic anti-theists who blame much human evil on religion, and then advocate that we would be better without this blight on our culture. There are ideologues who see religion – or at least, undomesticated religion – as a threat to their ideology (such as Stalinist or Maoist communism).

I am not one of those people. And, though some would call them “secularists”, I would not. They are not neutral to religion. A secular state is neutral toward religion.

So being an atheist doesn’t automatically make one a secularist. Nor does being a secularist automatically make one an atheist. For example, one of the main reasons the US constitution was formed in explicitly secular terms was because many of the religious groups in the fledgling country had fled from persecution in Europe. They recognized that a secular state – one that did not give state power to religious institutions – was the best protection for their religious freedom. Quakers, Unitarians, Deists … even, at different times, Protestants and Catholics, have experienced the tyranny of an ascendant religious power over those weaker in numbers or force. A secular state provides protection for everyone against the majority.

Current demographic trends show non-belief outstripping belief to varying degrees in many developed countries. If this continues, it may be that within a few decades atheists will be the majority. It will then be even more clearly in the best interests of the religious minority to have strong secular protections in place so that their religious freedoms are protected from possible attacks from this new majority.

Other people’s definitions and discussions:

Oxford dictionary online main definition: “Not connected with religious or spiritual matters”

Google search definition: “denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis” main definition: “of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal”

Merriam Webster definition 1b: “not overtly or specifically religious”

Free Dictionary definition 2: “Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body”

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance glossary entry for secularism: “A term created in 1846 by a British freethinker George Holyoake:

  • The belief that government decisions should be made independently of religious considerations.
  • The promotion of ideas and values not based on religious criteria.”

Wikipedia article on secularity

Other commentators: No Forbidden Questions, and here’s a debate at Camels with Hammers that revolves (in part) around competing definitions. It is clear to me that not everyone sees “secular” as I do. I’ll try to use the word carefully.


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