Secularism is one of the most important movements in the history of the modern West, helping differentiate the West not only from the Middle Ages and more ancient eras, but also from other cultural regions around the world. The modern West is what it is largely because of secularism; for some, that is a reason to cheer, but for others it is a reason to mourn. A better understanding of the history and nature of secularism will help people understand its role and influence in society today. Why did a secular vision of society develop in Western culture but not so much elsewhere in the world?
Despite its importance, there isn't always a great deal of agreement on just what secularism really is. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the concept of "secular" can be used in a couple of ways which, while closely related, are nevertheless different enough to make it difficult to know for sure what people might mean. The word secular means "of this world" in Latin and is the opposite of religious. As a doctrine, secularism is usually used to describe any philosophy which forms its ethics without reference to religious dogmas and which promotes the development of human art and science.
Calling secularism (the insistence on separation of church and state) a religion should be instantly recognized as an oxymoron, analogous to claiming that bachelors can be married. Sadly this is not the case, and it has become far too common for critics of secularism to claim that it's a religion which is being improperly supported by the government. Examining the characteristics which define religions as distinct from other types of belief systems reveals just how wrong such claims are.
Because the concept of the secular is normally conceived as standing in opposition to religion many people may not realize that it originally developed within a religious context. This may also come as quite a surprise to religious fundamentalists who decry the growth of secularism in the modern world. Rather than an atheistic conspiracy to undermine Christian civilization, secularism was originally developed within a Christian context and for the sake of preserving peace among Christians.
Although secularism can certainly be understood as simply the absence of religion, it is also often treated as a philosophical system with personal, political, cultural, and social implications. Secularism as a philosophy must be treated a bit differently than secularism as a mere idea, but just what sort of philosophy can secularism be? For those who treated secularism as a philosophy, it was a humanistic and even atheistic philosophy that sought the good of humanity in this life.
Secularism is used in a restricted sense today, but it retains a philosophical aspect in political and social situations. Secularism has always carried a strong connotation
of the desire to establish an autonomous political and social sphere which is naturalistic and materialistic
, as opposed to a religious realm where the supernatural and faith take precedence.
Although secularism and secularization are closely related, they nevertheless differ because they do not necessarily offer the same answer to the question of the role of religion in society. Secularism argues generally for a sphere of knowledge, values, and action that is independent of religious authority, but it does not necessarily exclude religion from having any authority over political and social affairs. Secularization, however, is a process which does involve such an exclusion.
Supporters of secularism and secularization can best rebut attacks from religious critics by emphasizing how the two are vital for democracy, personal liberty, and even religious freedom. Secularism prescribes state neutrality in religious matters, but they are not morally or politically neutral. They are positive goods which must be defended as foundations of liberal democracy. This is why they are opposed by authoritarian religious institutions and authoritarian religious leaders. Secularism and secularization enhance the broad distribution of power and oppose the concentration of power in the hands of a few.
Some Christians say they are in conflict with "secular fundamentalism," but what is this and does it even exist? The most basic characteristics of Christian fundamentalism can't apply to secularism of any sort: virgin birth & deity of Jesus, substitutionary death & physical resurrection of Jesus, and a literal heaven/hell. These aren't the limits of the concept, since the label applies to other religions, but even the characteristics which apply most broadly can't be applied to secularism.
If secularism opposes the public support of religion or the presence of ecclesiastical authorities simultaneously exercising public authority, what role is left for religion in a secular society? Is religion doomed to a slow decline and attrition? Is it relegated to a web of quaint but unimportant cultural traditions? Such are the fears of opponents to secularism and secularization who argue that religion is too important to be eliminated in such a manner and blame atheists for their woes.
Secularism had not always been regarded as a universal good. There are many who fail to find secularism and the process of secularization to be beneficial. They argue that it and atheism the sources of all society's ills. According to them, abandoning atheistic secularism in favor of an explicitly theistic and religious basis for politics and culture would produce a more stable, more moral, and ultimately better social order. Are their critiques of secularism reasonable and accurate?