April 27, 2015

What Does Secular Mean?

Manifestacion Anti Clerical or (The Street Gaz...
Manifestacion Anti Clerical or (The Street Gazzete: Anti Clerical Manifestation) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Despite widespread confusion, secularism is not synonymous with atheism. So what is secularism? The National Secular Society explains it quite well when they note that secularism "is a principle that involves two basic propositions." The two propositions are as follows:
  1. There must be strict separation between church and state, and
  2. People of various religious beliefs (including those with no religious beliefs at all) must be equal under the law.
Right. Secularism is about the separation of church and state. Someone advocating secularism is seeking government neutrality on matters of religion. One can be a religious believer and support secularism. And fortunately, many religious believers do so. They recognize that secularism is good for them too.

Where things get tricky is when we stop talking about the principle of secularism and start talking about people. When a person identifies himself or herself as "secular," he or she may be communicating one of at least two fairly different things. First, identifying oneself as secular may mean that one supports secularism as defined above. That is, I advocate secularism and therefore identify myself as being secular. As noted above, this does not necessarily mean that I am not a religious believer. Second, identifying oneself as secular may mean that one is not religious. Used this way, someone could be non-religious but support state intervention aimed at eradicating religion, which would hardly be consistent with secularism.

In my experience, "secular" is most often used by people to describe themselves or others as non-religious. Thus, one often hears the term used to describe atheists, humanists, freethinkers, and anyone else we might characterize as non-religious. But this is an interesting case where different uses of "secular" and "secularism" can lead to some confusion. Just because someone identifies as secular does not necessarily mean that he or she supports separation of church and state. And just because someone identifies as secular does not necessarily mean that he or she is not religious.
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