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This article concerns secularism, 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. For other forms of being secular, and perspective on the terminology underlying the word "secularism", see secularity.

Secularism is commonly defined as the idea that religion should not interfere with or be integrated into the public affairs of a society. It is often associated with the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, and plays a major role in Western society. The principles of separation of church and state in the United States and Laïcité in France draw heavily on secularism.



As secularism is often used in different contexts, its precise definition can vary from place to place. In philosophy, secularism is the belief that life can be best lived by applying ethics, and the universe best understood, by processes of reasoning, without reference to a god or gods or other supernatural concepts. Secularism in this sense was coined by George Jacob Holyoake and is one of the precursors of modern secular humanism.

When applied to society, secularism is considered to be any of a range of situations where a society less automatically assumes religious beliefs to be either widely shared or a basis for conflict in various forms, than in recent generations of the same society. In this sense secularism is linked to the sociological concept of secularization and may be upheld as an academic thesis, rather than advocated as a desirable state of affairs.

In government, secularism means a policy of avoiding entanglement between government and religion (ranging from reducing ties to a state religion to promoting secularism in society), of non-discrimination among religions (providing they don't deny primacy of civil laws), and of guaranteeing human rights of all citizens, regardless of the creed (and, if conflicting with certain religious rules, by imposing priority of the universal human rights).

Secularism can also mean the practice of working to promote any of those three forms of secularism. It should not be assumed that an advocate of secularism in one sense will also be a secularist in any other sense. It is also important to remember that secularism does not necessarily equate to atheism; indeed, many secularists have counted themselves among the religious.

The antonym of secularism is usually theocracy, which is a form of government where religion often plays a major or dominant role. Secularism is often associated with the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment in European history.

The secular ethic

Holyoake's 1896 publication English Secularism defines secularism thus:

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

The secular society

In studies of religion, modern Western societies are generally recognized as secular. Generally, there is near-complete freedom of religion (one may believe in any religion or none at all, with little legal or social sanction). In the West, religion does not dictate political decisions, though the moral views originating in religious traditions remain important in political debate in some countries, such as the United States; in some others, such as France (see Laïcité), religious references are considered out-of-place in mainstream politics. Religious influence is also largely minimised in the public sphere, and religion no longer holds the same importance in people's lives as it used to.

Proponents of secularism have long held a general rise of secularism in all the senses enumerated above, and corresponding general decline of religion in so called 'secularized' countries, to be the inevitable result of the Enlightenment, as people turn towards science and rationalism and away from religion and superstition.

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 are Max Weber, Carl L. Becker, Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, M.H. Abrams, Peter L. Berger, and Paul Bénichou, among others.

The secular state

Most major religions accept the primacy of the rules of secular, democratic society. However, fundamentalism opposes secularism. The two largest religious fundamentalist groups in the world are fundamentalist Christians and Fundamentalist Islam. Secularism in India is challenged by Hindu Nationalism.

See also


  • Siddiqui, Hannana (2000). "Black Women's Activism: Coming of Age?". in Feminist Review, No. 64, Spring 2000, pp.83-96.


The secular ethic

  • Jacoby, Susan (2004). Freethinkers: a history of American secularism. New York: Metropolitan Books. ISBN 0805074422
  • Nash, David (1992). Secularism, Art and Freedom. London: Continuum International. ISBN 0718514173 (paperback published by Continuum, 1994: ISBN 071852084X)
  • Royle, Edward (1974). Victorian Infidels: the origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791-1866. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0719005574 Online version
  • Royle, Edward (1980). Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: popular freethought in Britain, 1866-1915. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0719007836

The secular society

See also the references list in the article on secularization

  • Chadwick, Owen (1975). The Secularization of the European mind in the nineteenth century. Cambridge University Press.
  • Cox, Harvey (1996). The Secular City. NY: Macmillan.
  • Martin, David (1978). A General Theory of Secularization. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0631189602
  • Martin, David (2005). On Secularization: towards a revised general theory. Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 0754653226
  • McLeod, Hugh (2000). Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848-1914. Basingstoke: Macmillan. ISBN 0333597486
  • Wilson, Bryan (1969). Religion in Secular Society. London: Penguin.

The secular state

  • Juergensmeyer, Mark (1994). The New cold war?: religious nationalism confronts the secular state. University of California Press. ISBN 0520086511

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