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secularism
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George Jacob Holyoake
Charles Bradlaugh
freethought

 

Definition:
The word secular means "of this world" in Latin and is the opposite of religious. As a doctrine, secularism is usually used in reference any philosophy which forms its ethics without reference to religious dogmas and which promotes the development of human art and science.

The term secularism was coined by George Jacob Holyoake in 1841 and he originally used it refer to the practice of the ethics of freethought. Holyoake did not believe that secularism and atheism were related, but at the time Charles Bradlaugh argued that atheism was a prerequisite for secularism. Holyoake wrote the following about secularism in his 1896 English Secularism:

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.

Today, perhaps the best definition of secularism was given by Virgilius Ferm in his Encyclopedia of Religion, where he wrote that secularism is:

...a variety of utilitarian social ethic which seeks human improvement without reference to religion and exclusively by means of human reason, science and social organization. It has developed into a positive and widely adopted outlook which aims to direct all activities and institutions by a non-religious concern for the goods of the present life and for social well-being.

According to Bernard Lewis:

The term "secularism" appears to have been first used in English toward the middle of the nineteenth century, with a primary ideological meaning. As first used, it denoted the doctrine that morality should be based on rational considerations regarding human well-being in this world, to the exclusion of considerations relating to God or the afterlife. Later it was used more generally for the belief that public institutions, especially general education, should be secularÊnot religious. In the twentieth century it has aquired a somewhat wider range of meaning, derived from the older and wider connotations of the term "secular." In particular it is frequently used, along with "separation," as an approximate equivalent of the French term laicisme, also used in other languages, but not as yet in English.

Defined in such a manner, secularism is very closely related to modern humanist philosophies. It is easy to see why many religionists would oppose such a secularism, provided they believed that the only means to improving humanity is through their own particular religious system.

Secularism can, however, be used in a much narrower sense when conveying the idea that government and public policies should be "secular" in nature and therefore not reflect any sectarian, religious ideals - in other words, a strict separation between church and state. Such a secularism is supported by a great many religionists because, in the public arena, it puts all religions and all religious beliefs on relatively equal ground with regards to the government and public policies.

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Related Resources:

What are Political and Legal Philosophy
The Philosophy of Politics and the Philosophy of Law are often studied separately, but they are presented here jointly because they both come back to the same thing: the study of force. Politics is the study of political force in the general community, while jurisprudence is the study of how laws can and should be used to achieve political and social goals.

What is Philosophy?
What is philosophy? Is there any point in studying philosophy, or is it a useless subject? What are the different branches of philosophy - what's the difference between aestheitcs and ethics? What's the difference between metaphysics and epistemology?

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