Phil Zuckerman Ph.D.

The Secular Life

What Is Secularism?

Although complex, it's pretty clear.

Posted Aug 28, 2018

Article 20 of Japan’s constitution, written in 1946, states the following: “Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority. No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious act, celebration, rite or practice. The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.”

In 2006, Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion, which has since sold approximately four million copies, and has been translated into numerous languages.

And just recently, a new survey found that 59 percent of people in Scotland are non-religious, with 37  percent being Christian and 4 percent being some other religion. Thus, for the first time in Scottish history, secular people well outnumber religious people.

Now, what do Japan’s constitution, Richard Dawkins’ international best-seller, and the high rate of irreligiosity in contemporary Scotland have do to with each other? Well, they all relate to secularism—a term that is growing in usage and becoming more and more relevant to the state of the world.

But what does secularism actually mean? What does it refer to?

Like any broad term meant to capture a phenomenon that is simultaneously social, cultural, historical, political, and philosophical, “secularism” is not one specific thing. Rather, secularism is constructed and employed by various people in diverse ways, connoting or signifying different ideas, processes, orientations, and occurrences. It’s usage and meanings are truly disparate, to be sure.

That said, we can delineate three main types or manifestations of secularism: 1) political secularism, 2) philosophical secularism, and 3) socio-cultural secularism. All three overlap and are all related to one another, yet they definitely exhibit divergent traits and embody discrete meanings. It is thus best to think of these three forms of secularism metaphorically—like three branches stemming out from a common tree, united at root, and yet obviously distinct.

The first form of secularism is political secularism: ideologies and policies which seek to keep civic life free from religious domination or preference. That is, keeping government out of the business of religion and religion out of the business of government. Such an end is articulated and achieved in various ways, some more successful than others—and some more repressively than others—to be sure. But what is important here is that this form of secularism is not necessarily synonymous with atheism or even anti-religion. Rather, it has to do with what place or status religion ought to have in government and civil society. And from the letters of Thomas Jefferson to the First Amendment, and from France's ethos of laicité to the constitution of modern Japan, political secularism is championed by many religious and non-religious people as the best way to keep religion free and respected while simultaneously guaranteeing the equal rights of members of minority religions, or those with no religion at all.  

Philosophical secularism is an umbrella term meant to capture that body of thought, writing, and activism which seeks to critique religion, debunk its claims, challenge its clerical authorities, and ultimately disabuse religious people of their religious faith and participation. From the ancient skepticism of Lucretius and Wang Chung to the best-selling books of the New Atheists, philosophical secularism entails the direct deconstruction of religious truth claims, criticisms of religious practices and leaders, and the promulgating of anti-theist polemics and anti-religious social protest. 

Finally, socio-cultural secularism entails perhaps the most ubiquitous form or secularism: the weakening or diminishing of religion in society, in day-to-day life. We’re talking things like more stores being open on Sunday, people spending more time on the internet than studying the Bible, fewer people seeking to be priests or nuns, television shows or Broadway musicals making fun of religion with little backlash, and so on. At root, socio-cultural secularism is both a socio-historical and demographic phenomenon whereby more and more people are caring less and less about religion. It involves greater numbers of people in a given society living their lives in a decidedly secular manner, utterly oblivious or indifferent to supernatural things like God, sin, salvation, heaven, or hell, and being distinctly disinterested in religious rituals and activities, and being less inclined to include or consider religion as a significant or even marginal component of their identity.

In short, political secularism is about the separation of Church and State, philosophical secularism is a school of thought that sees religion as a mistaken or malevolent phenomenon that ought to be debunked and discarded, while socio-cultural secularism refers to secularization: the weakening or loss of religiosity in day to day life over time. 

For further reading, I’d recommend:

  1. The Oxford Handbook of Secularism
  2. How to be Secular
  3. The Secular Outlook
  4. The Necessity of Secularism
  5. Rethinking Secularism

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