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)

When used to describe a person, secular might mean "not religious," but it does not necessarily mean that. It could also mean that the person supports secularism, regardless of whether he or she is religious. Confused yet? Don't worry, secularism is not that difficult to understand and it probably makes sense to start there before we take a look at the meanings of "secular."

Despite widespread confusion, secularism is not synonymous with atheism. So what is secularism? The National Secular Society explains it 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.
Secularism is primarily 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 can 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," this can mean 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. In this context, "I am secular" would mean something like "I support the separation of church and state." As noted above, this does not necessarily mean that the person saying this is not a religious believer. A religious believer who supports church-state separation could identify as secular.

Second, identifying oneself as secular may be a way to communicate that one is not religious without labeling oneself as an atheist. Some people find "secular" to be much less stigmatizing than "atheist," and this might lead them to prefer to describe themselves as secular when they want to indicate that they are not religious. Used this way, someone could be an atheist who supports state intervention aimed at eradicating religion. This would hardly be consistent with secularism, and so it is easy to see how this might be misleading.

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.

When you hear someone refer to themselves as "secular," you might consider asking what they mean. Are they using it to indicate that they are not religious or that they support the separation of church and state? Either way, you may have found a potential ally.