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What Does "Secular" Mean?

It means being non-religious — but it's not quite that simple.

Admittedly, definitions suck. They never satisfy everyone and — worse than that — they often bore. But they are unavoidable. So here we go:

What does “secular” even mean?

The short answer: Secular means non-religious.

OK, so what then does “religious” mean? Well, “religion” — as all scholars of religion know all too well — is notoriously difficult to define.

However, in the social sciences, when trying to describe religious life, we refer to the 3-Bs: belief, behavior, and belonging. Religion generally involves one, two, or all three aspects, to varying degrees, and depending on the religious tradition or culture at hand.

By belief, we mean belief in supernatural beings or entities, such as God or gods, spirits, angels, demons, jinn, etc. as well as non-empirically verifiable realms, such as heaven, hell, etc. As for behavior, we mean things like ritual performance, prayer, holiday celebrations, fasts, feasts, confession, bat mitzvahs — the myriad things people do in relation to religious beliefs. And by belonging, we simply mean identification with or membership in a religious community, tradition, denomination, or congregation.

So to be secular means that 1) a person does not believe in supernatural beings, entities, or realms, 2) a person does not engage in religious behaviors, and 3) a person does not identify as religious and is not a member of a religious community.

To be secular is to maintain a naturalistic worldview in which belief in anything is always proportioned to the evidence available. It is about engaging in a variety of activities that are understood as this-worldly, and to identify with, or be a member of, non-religious groupings or associations.

To be secular does not mean that one lacks belief. Secular folks believe in all sorts of things, like loving their spouses and children, or the value of education, or the potential of science, or the importance of protecting the earth, or the fact that Yoko Ono should have never been allowed to sing on the White Album. Our lives are rife with beliefs — but none of them are beliefs in supernatural deities, creatures, or realms.

Of course, many secular people — despite their lack of religious beliefs — do engage in at least some religious rituals. For example, many of us can still enjoy a pleasant Christmas morning, or a hearty Passover seder, or an end of Ramadan breaking-of-the-fast. Or spiritually-infused yoga. Some of us might even go to church — perhaps because we just like the music. Very few people do nothing that is remotely religious.

But when you’re secular, you tend to engage in a minimum amount of such religious activity, and you do so for reasons other than religious faith; you do it because you dig the food, or because it makes your partner happy, or to please your in-laws.

As for belonging, secular people see themselves primarily as members of the human race, or of particular nations, or of given racial-ethnic groups, or of soccer teams, or of political groups, or of social movements, or of occupational associations, or motorcycle clubs, or hiking clubs. In short, secular folks associate with a host of various social groups and organizations, but none that are religious in nature.

So, that’s what secular means. At least in a contemporary American context; what it means to be secular in Japan, India, Yemen, or the Brazilian rainforest, is a whole other ball of wax. And there are so many related terms, such as secularism, secularization, atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker, apostate, heretic, infidel, spiritual but not religious, etc., etc.

We’ll get to all of those in due time.