Secularism is generally the assertion that governmental practices or institutions should exist separately from religion or religious beliefs. Alternatively, it is a principle of promoting secularideas or values in either public or private settings over religious ways of thought.

In one sense, secularism may assert the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, and freedom from the government imposition of religion upon the people, within a state that is neutral on matters of belief, and gives no state privileges or subsidies to religions. (See also Separation of church and state and Laïcité.) In another sense, it refers to a belief that human activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be based on evidence and fact rather than religious influence.

The purposes and arguments in support of secularism vary widely. In European laicism, it has been argued that secularism is a movement toward modernization, and away from traditional religious values. This type of secularism, on a social or philosophical level, has often occurred while maintaining an official state church or other state support of religion. In the United States, some argue that state secularism has served to a greater extent to protect religion from governmental interference, while secularism on a social level is less prevalent. Within countries as well, differing political movements support secularism for varying reasons.

The term “secularism” was first used by the Britishwriter George Holyoake in 1846. Although the term was new, the general notions of freethought on which it was based had existed throughout history. In particular, early secular ideas involving the separation ofphilosophy and religion can be traced back to Ibn Rushd(Averroes) and the Averroism school of philosophy.Holyoake invented the term “secularism” to describe his views of promoting a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticizing religious belief. An agnostic himself, Holyoake argued that “Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.”

Barry Kosmin of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture breaks modern secularism into two types: hard and soft secularism. According to Kosmin, “the hard secularist considers religious propositions to be epistemologically illegitimate, warranted by neither religion nor experience.” However, in the view of soft secularism, “the attainment of absolute truth was impossible and therefore skepticism and tolerance should be the principle and overriding values in the discussion of science and religion.”

State secularism

Countries of the world with state religions in red, those without in blue.

Motto of the French republic on thetympanum of a church.

In political terms, secularism is a movement towards the separation of religion and government (often termed theseparation of church and state). This can refer to reducing ties between a government and a state religion, replacing laws based on scripture (such as theTorah and Sharia law) with civil laws, and eliminating discrimination on the basis of religion. This is said to add to democracy by protecting the rights of religious minorities.

Secularism is often associated with the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, and plays a major role inWestern society. The principles, but not necessarily practices, of Separation of church and state in the United States and Laïcité in France draw heavily on secularism. As in the West, the idea of separation of religion and government has also existed in India since ancient times. The modern Indian society is based on these values and to a certain extent, this attempt has been successful as well. Secular states also existed in the Islamic world during the later Middle Ages.

Due in part to the belief in the separation of church and state, secularists tend to prefer that politicians make decisions for secular rather than religious reasons.[12]In this respect, policy decisions pertaining to topics likeabortion, embryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriage, and sex education are prominently focused upon by American secularist organizations like, theCenter for Inquiry.[13][14]

Most major religions accept the primacy of the rules of secular, democratic society but may still seek to influence political decisions or achieve specific privileges or influence through church-state agreements such as a concordat. Many Christians support a secular state, and may acknowledge that the conception has support in biblical teachings, particularly Jesus’ statement, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”[15] (See article). However, someChristian fundamentalists (notably in the United States) oppose secularism, often claiming that there is a “radical secularism” ideology being adopted in current days and see secularism as a threat to “Christian rights”[16] and national security.[17] The most significant forces of religious fundamentalism in the contemporary world are Fundamentalist Christianity andfundamentalist Islam. At the same time, one significant stream of secularism has come from religious minorities who see governmental and political secularism as integral to preserving equal rights.[18]

Some of the well-known constitutionally secular states are India[19], France, the United States, Turkey andSouth Korea[citation needed], although none of these nations have identical forms of governance.

Secular society

In studies of religion, modern Western societies are generally recognized as secular. This is due to the near-complete freedom of religion (one may believe in one religion, many religions or none at all, with little legal or social sanction), as well as the general belief that religion does not ultimately dictate political decisions. Nevertheless, the moral views originating in religious traditions remain politically important in many of these countries, such as Canada, France, Turkey, United States and others (see Laïcité). In some, religious references are considered out-of-place in mainstream politics. For example, among the first to delineate the nature of a secular society, D. L. Munby characterizes a secular society as one which:

  1. Refuses to commit itself as a whole to any one view of the nature of the universe and the role of man in it.
  2. Is not homogenous, but is pluralistic.
  3. Is tolerant. It widens the sphere of private decision-making.
  4. While every society must have some common aims, which implies there must be agreed on methods of problem-solving, and a common framework of law; in a secular society these are as limited as possible.
  5. Problem solving is approached rationally, through examination of the facts. While the secular society does not set any overall aim, it helps its members realize their aims.
  6. Is a society without any official images. Nor is there a common ideal type of behavior with universal application.

Positive Ideals behind the secular society

  1. Deep respect for individuals and the small groups of which they are a part.
  2. Equality of all men.
  3. Each man should be helped to realize his particular excellence.
  4. Breaking down of the barriers of class and caste.[20]

Modern sociology, born of a crisis of legitimationresulting from challenges to traditional Western religious authority, has since Durkheim often been preoccupied with the problem of authority in secularized societies and with secularization as a sociological or historical process. Twentieth-century scholars whose work has contributed to the understanding of these matters include [(D. L. Munby)], Max Weber, Carl L. Becker, Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, M.H. Abrams,Peter L. Berger, and Paul Bénichou, among others.

Secularism can also be the social ideology in whichreligion and supernatural beliefs are not seen as the key to understanding the world and are instead segregated from matters of governance and reasoning. In this sense, secularism can be involved in the promotion ofscience, reason, and naturalistic thinking.

Secularism can also mean the practice of working to promote any of those three forms of secularism. As such, an advocate of secularism in one sense may not be a secularist in any other sense. Secularism does not necessarily equate to atheism; many secularists are religious, while atheists often accept the influence of religion on government or society. Secularism is an essential component of a secular humanist social and political ideology.

Some societies become increasingly secular as the result of social processes, rather than through the actions of a dedicated secular movement; this process is known as secularization.

Secular ethics

George Holyoake’s 1896 publication English Secularismdefines secularism as:

Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable. Its essential principles are three: (1) The improvement of this life by material means. (2) That science is the available Providence of man. (3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good.[21]

Holyoake held that secularism and secular ethicsshould take no interest at all in religious questions (as they were irrelevant), and was thus to be distinguished from strong freethought and atheism. In this he disagreed with Charles Bradlaugh, and the disagreement split the secularist movement between those who argued that anti-religious movements and activism was not necessary or desirable and those who argued that it was.

Arguments for and against secularism

Proponents of secularism have long argued that the general rise of secularism in all the senses enumerated above, and corresponding general decline of religion insecular states, is the inevitable result of the Age of Enlightenment, as people turn towards science andrationalism and away from religion and superstition.[22]

Opponents argue that secular government creates more problems than it solves, and that a government with a religious (or at least not a secular) ethos is better. Some Christian opponents contend that a Christian state can give more freedom of religion than a secular one. For evidence, they cite Norway, Iceland, Finland andDenmark, all with constitutional links between church and state and yet also recognized as more progressive and liberal than some countries without such a link. For example, Iceland was among the first countries to legalise abortion, and the Finnish government provides funding for the construction of Mosques. Some cite the counterexample of the Netherlands and, more recently, Sweden, it being both a secular state and socio-politically progressive although having disestablished its state church in 2000.

Proponents of secularism also note that theScandinavian countries are socially among the most secular in the world, with particularly low percentages of individuals who hold religious beliefs.[23] Recently this argument has been debated publicly in Norway where movements sought to disestablish the state’s Lutheranchurch.[24]

Some modern commentators have criticized secularism by conflating it with anti-religious, atheistic, or even satanic belief systems. The word secularism itself is commonly used as a pejorative by religious conservatives in the United States. Pope Benedict XVIhas declared ongoing secularization to be a fundamental problem of modern society, and has made it the goal of his papacy to counteract secularism and moral relativism. Though the goal of a secularist state is to be religiously neutral, some argue that it is repressive of some aspects of religion. Ostensibly, it is equally repressive toward all religions in order to equally protect all from interference by others.

Some political philosophies, such as Marxism, generally hold that any religious influence in a state or society is negative. In nations that have officially embraced such beliefs, such as the former Eastern EuropeanCommunist Bloc countries, the religious institution was made subject to the secular state, in the public interest. Freedom to worship was subject to licensure and other restrictions, and the doctrine of the church was monitored to assure conformity to secular law, or even the official public philosophy. Ironically, although this was done to ensure public safety and stability, these governments often also used atrocities to maintain their power; events such as the Great Purge, the Cultural Revolution, and the actions of the Khmer Rouge are among many examples cited against the moral viability of purely secular governments. In the Westerndemocracies, it is generally agreed that these policies contravened full freedom of religion.

Some secularists believe that the state should be kept entirely separate from religion, and that religious institutions should be entirely free from governmental interference. Churches that exercise their authoritycompletely apart from government endorsement, whose foundations are not in the state, are conventionally called “Free” churches.

Some secularists would allow the state to encourage religion (such as by providing exemptions from taxation, or providing funds for education and charities, including those that are “faith based”), but insist the state should not establish one religion as the state religion, require religious observance, or legislate dogma.

Secularist organizations

Groups such as the National Secular Society (United Kingdom) and Americans United campaign for secularism and are often supported by Humanists. In 2005, the National Secular Society held the inaugural “Secularist of the Year” awards ceremony. Its first winner was Maryam Namazie, of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran.

Another secularist organization is the Secular Coalition for America. While it is linked to many secular humanistic organizations and many secular humanists support it, as with the Secular Society, some non-humanists support it.

Local organizations such as Freethought Association of West Michigan work to raise the profile of secularism in their communities and tend to include secularists, freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, and humanists under their organizational umbrella.

Student Organizations, such as the Toronto Secular Alliance, try to popularize nontheism and secularism on campus. The Secular Student Alliance is an educational nonprofit that organizes and aids such high school and college secular student groups.

In Turkey, most prominent and active secularist organization is Atatürk’s Thought Association (ADD), which is credited for organizing demonstrations in four largest cities in Turkey in 2007, where over 2 million people, mostly women, defended their concern in and support of secularist principles introduced by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Leicester Secular Society founded in 1851 is the world’s oldest secular society.

See also


  1. ^ Kosmin, Barry A. “Contemporary Secularity and Secularism.” Secularism & Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives. Ed. Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. Hartford, CT: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC), 2007.
  2. ^ Yavuz, Hakan M. and John L. Esposio (2003) ‘’Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gulen Movement’’. Syracuse University, pg. xv-xvii. ISBN 0815630409
  3. ^ Feldman, Noah (2005). Divided by God. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pg. 147 (“But with the Second World War just ahead, secularism fo the antireligious type was soon to disappear from mainstream American society, to be replaced by a new complex of ideas that focused on secularizing the state, not on secularizing society.”)
  4. ^ Feldman, Noah (2005). Divided by God. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pg. 25 (“Together, early protosecularists (Jefferson and Madison) and proto-evangelicals (Backus, Leland, and others) made common cause in the fight for nonestablishment [of religion] – but for starkly different reasons.”)
  5. ^ Feldman, Noah (2005). Divided by God. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pg. 113
  6. ^ Abdel Wahab El Messeri. Episode 21: Ibn Rushd,Everything you wanted to know about Islam but was afraid to AskPhilosophia Islamica.
  7. ^ Fauzi M. Najjar (Spring, 1996). The debate on Islam and secularism in EgyptArab Studies Quarterly (ASQ).
  8. ^ Secularism, Catholic Encyclopedia.
  9. ^ Kosmin, Barry A. “Hard and soft secularists and hard and soft secularism: An intellectual and research challenge.”
  10. ^ Feldman, Noah (2005). Divided by God. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pg. 14 (“[Legal secularists] claim that separating religion from the public, governmental sphere is necessary to ensure full inclusion of all citizens.”)
  11. ^ Ira M. Lapidus (October 1975). “The Separation of State and Religion in the Development of Early Islamic Society”, International Journal of Middle East Studies 6 (4), p. 363-385.
  12. ^ Feldman, Noah (2005). Divided by God. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pg. 6-8
  13. ^ Washington Post, November 15, 2006 “Think Tank Will Promote Thinking”
  14. ^ “Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism”
  15. ^ book of Luke, chapter 20, verse 25.
  16. ^ Bob Lewis (2007-05-19). “‘Jerry’s Kids’ Urged to Challenge ‘Radical Secularism’“. The Christian Post.
  17. ^ Rev Jerry Falwell (2001-09-15). “Jerry Falwell – Quotations – Seventh quotation“.
  18. ^ Feldman, Noah (2005). Divided by God. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pg. 13
  19. ^ “Preamble of the Constitution of India”
  20. ^ The Idea of a Secular Society, D. L. Munby, London, Oxford University Press, 1963, pp. 14-32.
  21. ^ Holyoake, George J. (1896). English Secularism.Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company.
  22. ^ MSN Encarta, Age of Enlightenment
  23. ^ Paul, Gregory S. (2005). “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies, A First Look”. Journal of Religion and Society 4
  24. ^ The Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Oslo; Norway Daily No. 238/02; 16 December 2002.


The secular ethic

  • Jacoby, Susan (2004). Freethinkers: a history of American secularism. New York: Metropolitan Books. ISBN 0-8050-7442-2
  • Boyer, Pascal (2002). “Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought” ISBN 0-465-00696-5
  • Nash, David (1992). Secularism, Art and Freedom. London: Continuum International. ISBN 0-7185-1417-3 (paperback published by Continuum, 1994:ISBN 0-7185-2084-X)
  • Royle, Edward (1974). Victorian Infidels: the origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791-1866. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-0557-4 Online version
  • Royle, Edward (1980). Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: popular freethought in Britain, 1866-1915. Manchester: Manchester University Press.ISBN 0-7190-0783-6
  • Taylor, Charles (2007). “A Secular Age”. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02676-6

The secular society

See also the references list in the article onsecularization

  • Berger, Peter L. (1967) The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  • Chadwick, Owen (1975). The Secularization of the European mind in the nineteenth century. Cambridge University Press.
  • Cox, Harvey (1996). The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. NY: Macmillan.
  • Kosmin, Barry A. and Ariela Keysar (2007).Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives. Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. ISBN-13: 978-0-9794816-0-4; ISBN-10: 0-9794816-0-0
  • Martin, David (1978). A General Theory of Secularization. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-18960-2
  • Martin, David (2005). On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory. Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 0-7546-5322-6
  • McLeod, Hugh (2000). Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848-1914. Basingstoke: Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-59748-6
  • Wilson, Bryan (1969). Religion in Secular Society. London: Penguin.
  • King, Mike (2007). Secularism. The HIdden Origins of Disbelief. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. ISBN 9780227172452

The secular state

  • Adıvar, Halide Edip (1928). “The Turkish Ordeal”. The Century Club. ISBN 0-830-50057-X
  • Cinar, Alev (2006). “Modernity, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey: Bodies, Places, and Time”. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-816-64411-X
  • Juergensmeyer, Mark (1994). The New cold war?: religious nationalism confronts the secular state. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-08651-1

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