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 secular ideas 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. (See also public reason.)
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 British writer 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 of philosophy 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.
In political terms, secularism is a movement towards the separation of religion and government (often termed the separation of church and state). This can refer to reducing ties between a government and a state religion, replacing laws based on scripture (such as the Torah 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 in Western 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. In this respect, policy decisions pertaining to topics like abortion, embryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriage, and sex education are prominently focused upon by American secularist organizations like, the Center for Inquiry.
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. (See article). However, some Christian 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" and national security. The most significant forces of religious fundamentalism in the contemporary world are Fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist 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.
Positive Ideals behind the secular society
Modern sociology, born of a crisis of legitimation resulting 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 which religion 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 of science, 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.
George Holyoake's 1896 publication English Secularism defines 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.
Holyoake held that secularism and secular ethics should 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.
Proponents of secularism have long argued that the general rise of secularism in all the senses enumerated above, and corresponding general decline of religion in secular states, is the inevitable result of the Age of Enlightenment, as people turn towards science and rationalism and away from religion and superstition.
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 and Denmark, 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 the Scandinavian countries are socially among the most secular in the world, with particularly low percentages of individuals who hold religious beliefs. Recently this argument has been debated publicly in Norway where movements sought to disestablish the state's Lutheran church.
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 XVI has 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 European Communist 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 Western democracies, 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 authority completely 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.
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 the references list in the article on secularization