Secularity and Secularism explained

April 20, 2010

The origin of the word "secular" is Latin, in which "saeculum" meant a fixed period of time, roughly one hundred years or so. In the Romance languages, it evolved into "century". In Christian Latin, saeculum was a useful term for distinguishing this temporal age of the world from the divinely eternal realm of God. Anything "secular" has to do with earthly affairs rather than with spiritual affairs. The Oxford English Dictionary records this meaning for secular: "Belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the church and religion; civil, lay, temporal."

After the Enlightenment, the term "secular" gained additional meaning as thinkers found more and more earthly affairs which ought to be separate and independent from religious classification and control. Two primary examples are the gradual disentanglement of capitalist economics and democratic politics from religion during the 17th and 18th centuries. Viewed as a process, the secular came to be understood as something that comes in degrees, has stages, and can gradually evolve over time. During the 19th century, more freethinkers conceived of a future ideal society that could become thoroughly secular.

As additional uses for "secular" were discerned to explain and justify the separation of social and political institutions from religion, two main subdivisions of the secular became useful: "secularity" and "secularism". 

Secularity can be objectively observed, measured, and studied by social sciences such as history, sociology, and political science. The history of a country displays the degree of its cultural secularity: how some aspects of a culture are more a matter of religious responsibility and how other matters are not. The sociological study of a society can reveal how social institutions escape religious control and which remain under religious influence. The political study of a country’s constitution, laws, and bureaucracies can show whether its government has many entanglements with religion, or few entanglements. There is no need for religions to object to the careful study of secularity. How secularity exists and whether it grows or declines in certain ways can be a discoverable matter of fact. An example of a multi-disciplinary academic center studying secularity is The Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College in Connecticut. 

Debating the value of secularity is instead about secularism. Secularism refers to philosophical justifications for approving of secularity and for promoting and expanding secularity. There seems to be no convenient term for opposition to secularism. "Spiritualism" already has another meaning. "Fundamentalism” only refers to extreme minority views about how to deal with secularity. "Theocracy" advocates religious control over politics, but it doesn’t suggest a clear view for dealing with wider society. Perhaps "anti-secularism" will have to serve.

There are varieties and degrees of secularism. In this brief essay, we can only distinguish five major kinds of secularism and all of them are widely discussed nowadays. Keeping their differences in mind can be great help for understanding how arguments for secularism work. 

Structural Secularism: Most of the important structures of society, its core economic and institutional modes of organization, ought to be independent from religion. The number of social institutions that religions can effectively control or seriously influence ought to diminish.

Ethical Secularism: The ethical principles guiding society ought to be free from religious control or orientation so that the worldly welfare of humanity takes priority. Humanism’s defense of equal and universal human rights is an obvious example. There are three major sub-kinds ranging from conservative, progressive, and pioneering ethics. Stoic Humanism’s stress on personal happiness and liberty makes it a natural ally of conservative libertarianism. Civic Humanism's stress on the overall welfare of society leads towards utilitarianism and progressive liberalism. Ecological Humanism demands a radically pioneering balance of human concerns against animal and environmental concerns. 

Legal Secularism: The foundational political doctrines and constitutional articles ought to separate government from religion. Government must be able act autonomously from all churches and government can impose impartial justice on all citizens regardless of their religious views. 

State-Sponsored Secularism: Government ought to use its powers to positively discourage religious belief. There should be many laws authorizing all social institutions from education to media to extensively contradict and deride religion. Additional laws placing special and expensive burdens on religious believers to teach and practice religion should be established. 

Militant Secularism: The combination of the four other secularisms (structural, ethical, legal, and state-sponsored) all carried out to their furthest limits. The ideal goal of militant secularism is the gradual eradication of religious belief in society, so that all people are atheists in practice and apathetic towards religion. 

It is difficult to guess at numbers, but not all secularists are militant secularists. For example, State-Sponsored Secularism hardly has widespread approval among nontheists who seem mostly satisfied with the Legal Secularism of America’s separation of church and state. On the other hand, there are signs that some European countries have been growing more comfortable with State-Sponsored Secularism, such as France .

Secularists should have a clear idea of which kinds of secularism has their sympathies, and a definable way to state how far their secularism goes. Yes, there are serious controversies among secularists about the extent of justifiable and wise secularism. If secularists don’t know how to express and explain themselves, religions are happy to introduce their anti-secularism by applying the label of “militant secularist” to all opposition.

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