Secularism Today

At its core, “secular” is the opposite of or in contrast to “sacred” and by extension “religion.” (”Religion” is a relatively new concept in human culture, as we use it today. “Sacred” and “secular” are older.) Coming from the Latin, its derivation is from “worldly” or “temporal” as contrasted to “eternal” or, I suppose, “other-worldly.”

The term “secular” is used today in several different ways — ways that are in tension with each other, with real implications. That’s true for those who use the term for something they support, as well as for those who use the term for something they oppose.

Pope Benedict XVI said, “There is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West … a world without God has no future.” Mitt Romney, running for President in 2007, equated “secularism” with “radical Jihadism.” Newt Gingrich denounced “secular fanatics,” and wrote about Obama’s “secular-socialist machine.”

In this article, I’ve tried teasing out four different meanings of the word as used especially by those who support secularism. There’s obviously some connections between them; they are, however, somewhat in tension.

1. Separation of Church and State

The first meaning has to do with the separation of church and state – or religion and government.  Not religious ideas and politics, because politics is simply how we organize our public life, and as long as people have religious ideas, those will inform their ideas about politics.  But not intermingling the state itself with the apparatus of religion. This was original meant to ensure that the government does not mandate or influence what religion one practices.  John Locke, a political theorist our country’s founders drew heavily on, wrote that “the Care of Souls does not belong to the Magistrate …” and James Madison, whose writings on church/state separation are foundational, wrote “… the religion … of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.”

This is why government-sponsored prayers (and yes, public school teachers are part of the political power structure) are not permitted under “secular” government.  And why dictating public policies merely because they are part of one’s religion is also a violation of “secular” government — it would force that religion’s practices on those who do not subscribe to that religion.

And yes, sometimes limit the First Amendment freedom of religion. In 1990, the US Supreme Court applied this idea, in upholding the prohibition of the use of peyote in religious ceremonies. The opinion, written by Justice Scalia, drew on an 1879 decision, in that case deciding that it was permissible to outlaw polygamy, a religious practice that had become common in the rather new Mormon religion. Scalia quoted that anti-polygamy decision: “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the laws of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.” I don’t think of Justice Scalia as being a defender of secularism, but in that decision, he was.

And yet, in the last couple of national elections we heard arguments by some candidates for public office that the Bible should prevail over the Constitution. Quite the opposite of this first meaning of “secularism.”

2. Natural Morality Is Sufficient

In the 19th century in Britain, there was a philosophical movement that arose called “secularism.” George Jacob Holyoake, an early leader, defined it this way:

“Secularism is that which seeks the development of the physical, moral and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point, as the immediate duty of life – which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality.”

He organized Secular Societies – local groups – and proposed these groups make such positive agreements “the common bond of union, to all who would regulate life by reason and enoble it by science.”

In this, his project was similar to that of Felix Adler, who in the US founded Ethical Societies, around a common bond of union to make ethical development the highest goal of life. In this sense, Ethical Societies are about secularism – though we tend not to use that term, because here in the US, that first meaning is more prevalent – separation of church and state. Which we also tend to support.

One of the insights that led to the founding of the first Ethical Society was the idea that every religion had, as a core purpose, to promote making ethical and moral decisions. Adler and the founding generation of Ethical Societies were inspired to find what promoted good no matter what your religious beliefs or lack of beliefs were. Adler picked up on at least the first half of a 19th century saying, “I spell God with two o’s – and the devil without the d.” Good was the center of Ethical Culture: not god.

Adler nevertheless founded Ethical Culture as a kind of religious alternative – rather than alternative to religion – and with freedom of belief including whether one took the ethical teachings religiously or not.

3. Smash the Church?

Secularism as an explicit philosophy moved beyond the definition of “secular” as finding the common values no matter what the belief, to a third definition of “secular” – without belief. Especially in the American Secular Society, Secularism (capitalized on purpose) promoted being active against religions getting any government support or protection in America, even in ways that other groups do. The movement promoted taxing church property, doing away with tax-supported chaplains to political bodies and the military, having presidents and governors prohibited from promoting days of prayer or thanksgiving and any religious holidays. Some of these are similar to goals of the first type of secularists. Some go beyond that.

Notice that when promoting the taxing of church property, the implication is that religiously-based organizations will have fewer public rights than other charitable, educational and philanthropic organizations — organizations which may have similar philosophies and programs, or may be essentially private clubs promoting specific ideas, but which do not call themselves religious. Advance philosophical ideas, exempt. Advance religious ideas, not exempt. Sports clubs, exempt. Religious communities, not. Oppose or support racism, exempt. Teach ethics, exempt — unless there’s a religious connection. Declare a day to honor the Confederacy, okay for government officials. Declare a day of thanksgiving, not okay. Only religious groups would be targeted.

I don’t see any evidence in the U.S. today of any active movements with any real potential power to “smash the church” and all religious institutions or to “liquidate clergy” (as Stalin put it); nevertheless, such efforts have been part of human history and represent an extreme version of this kind of secularism, and some who use the term today really seem to mean that they prefer to end religion through treating religion differently from other charitable or educational organizations.

4. Secularism as Social Trend

But there’s yet another way that the term “secular” is used: to describe the trend in society of the turning of many individuals from godliness to godlessness, without any reference at all to government action.  For an example, check the book by David Niose, Nonbeliever Nation.  Niose is a former president of the American Humanist Association.

Pollsters have taken to studying religious groups as if they are market segments – the marriage of religion, politics and economics is a topic for another day. In doing this, they’ve noticed something: the non-religious, or what they’re calling “nones,” are the fastest-growing group within the religious “marketplace.”

In surveys of religious identity, in just 20 years, the number of Americans who identify as non-religious has doubled to 15%. That’s about the same as the percentage internationally. So much for America being more religious than the rest of the world?

In another survey, 20.2% of Americans identify their religious identity as “none” – and another 5.2% say “don’t know.” That’s doubled also since 1990. It’s slightly higher among the younger, about 22%.

One pollster, Barry Kosmin, who has studied this phenomenon quite a bit, writes,

Many believe that the US population is steadily becoming more religions – but this is an optical illusion. Many evangelicals have simply become more aggressive and more political.

In the meaning of “secular” meaning separation of church and state – there’s a battle going on, and the trend looks like anti-secularism has risen in the past 20-30 years.

But in the sense of “secular” meaning what individuals privately believe, what they take as their identity – “secularism” is going in the other direction. It’s simply the trend: fewer people associating with formal religion. Churches in the US are losing 1 million members per year.

Beware. though, of how one interprets these numbers. Not all those who identify as “not religious” on polls are atheists, agnostics or humanists. Many are simply apathetic about religion, or dislike explicit atheism or agnosticism as much as they dislike explicit theism.

And some are theistic – but have come to see “religion” as that aggressive element that is trying to put religion into government.

In the American Religious Identification Survey, in recent years, 82% of Americans said “yes” to belief in some divinity. (Note that means 18% did NOT say “yes.”)

Of that 18% who did not say “yes”, 6% simply refused to answer the question. One can speculate on why, but we don’t know how many of those were just unwilling to express any opinion, or found the question without meaning.

That leaves 12% who are not theistic – implicitly at least. Only 1.6%, though, identify explicitly as atheist or agnostic. More than 5 times as many who are not theists do not use the labels “atheist” or “agnostic” as use them. Even “atheist” or “agnostic” is not an identity they welcome – perhaps because of the social negativity of the label, perhaps because “atheist” has often come to mean “anti-theistic” more than just “without belief in deity.” Or perhaps because it just isn’t that important to them to have nontheism as an identity. Other values, commitments, are more important to them.

So about 80% in the US say they believe in a deity or force they’d call god, and about 15-20% have no religious identity. That still sounds like a lot of religious people – but also look at the fact that less than 50% of Americans today attend religious services on a regular basis.

If we count the “nones” – or “seculars” – as about 15% — that’s 50 million Americans. To give you some perspective on that: Mormons are about 3 million. Episcopalians are about 3 million. The United Methodist Church includes about 8 million people.

Of course, among those called “nones” are many who do believe in a personal God, in a higher power, and/or in an afterlife, but just don’t identify with any institution. But in another poll, of those who did believe in a God, about 50% of those said that didn’t make a difference in their life or their decisions. Religious identity? It’s complicated.

To further complicate matters – there are some who have a religious identity but who are atheists or agnostics or humanists. Ethical Culture is a religious identity for many of us. Many Unitarian Universalists are not theists. Members of Humanistic Judaism are generally not theists, either.


I’d contend that the last and first definitions of “secularism” are actually the most common: — being personally without religious identity, and keeping the church and the state as institutions separate – I’d suggest that these issues are, in fact, connected.

The separation of church and state is frightening to want to see Christianity as the default state of Americans, privately or publicly, and so they’ve organized to reverse that. As they become aggressive and hostile to that governmental secularism, individual secularism seems to increase. That in turn may fuel the aggressive anti-secularism even more. At least for now, some of their more grand plans for de-secularizing government have been pushed back … and the trend in the population seems to look as though it’s going to be harder and harder for them to get control of national institutions in order to achieve their anti-secular goals. That’s not so true on local and state levels.

What does seem to me to be obvious is that the original fuel for secular government in the first sense I described – where government does not promote nor oppose private religion – turns out to be the system which is probably most stable. When government is used – or threatened to be used – to enforce theological standards, more people as individuals move away from organized and traditional religion.

I’m a secularist in several of these senses: I do not want the government promoting religion (but also I don’t want government opposing religion as somehow different from other community, idea-promoting or philanthropic organizations). I am personally without a belief in a deity or higher power. I’m not a “none,” technically, since I have taken Ethical Culture and Unitarian Universalism as my religious identity, but I have a lot in common with the “nones” and at the same time see these ethics-based and values-based humanist communities as “religion for the nones.”

When you hear about “secularism” in politics and religious identity – keep in mind that the word means different things, some of which are not in agreement with each other. And consider that the rise of anti-secularism (against both individual and governmental secularism) may itself be a reaction, a last gasp in the face of a rising tide of private disaffection with traditional religious ideas.

Related posts

Comments are closed.