Secularism 101: Religion, Society, and Politics

Secularism is one of the most important movements of the modern West. Its influence and power serve to differentiate it not only from the Middle Ages and more ancient eras, but also to differentiate the West 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 secularism on, but for others it is a reason to mourn. Yet just what is secularism and where did it come from? Why did a secular vision of society develop in Western culture but not so much elsewhere in the world? Perhaps a better understanding of the history and nature of secularism will help people understand its role and influence in society today. Secularism is constantly being challenged, but neither its challenge nor its defense will go very far in a state of ignorance.

Secularism 101: Defining Secularism
Origins with George Jacob Holyoake
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. The term secularism was created in 1846 by George Jacob Holyoake in order to describe "a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life" (English Secularism, 60). Holyoake was a social reformer who believed that the government should work for the benefit of the working classes and poor based upon their needs in the here and now rather than any needs they might have for a future life or for their souls. As we can see from the quote above, the early usage did not explicitly portray the concept in opposition to religion; rather, it only refers in passing to the idea of focusing upon this life rather than speculation about any other life. That certainly excludes many religious belief systems, most importantly the Christian religion of Holyoake's day, but it doesn't necessarily exclude all possible religious beliefs. Later, Holyoake explained his term more explicitly:
Secularism is that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point, as the immediate duty of life - which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from Atheism, Theism or the Bible - which selects as its methods of procedure the promotion of human improvement by material means, and proposes these positive agreements as the common bond of union, to all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service" (Principles of Secularism, 17).

Once again we see a focus upon the material and upon this world rather than the immaterial, the spiritual, or any other world - but we also don't see any specific statement that secularism involves the absence of religion. The concept of secularism was originally developed as a non-religious philosophy focused upon the needs and concerns of humanity in this life, not the possible needs and concerns associated with any possible afterlife. Secularism was also designed as a materialistic philosophy, both in terms of the means by which human life was to be improved and in its understanding of the nature of the universe. Today, such a philosophy tends to be labeled humanism or secular humanism and the concept of secularism, at least in the social sciences, is much more restricted. The first and perhaps most common understanding of "secular" today stands in opposition to "religious." According to this usage, something is secular when it can be categorized with the worldly, civil, non-religious sphere of human life. A secondary understanding of "secular" is contrasted with anything that is regarded as holy, sacred, and inviolable. According to this usage something is secular when it is not worshipped, when it is not venerated, and when it is open for critique, judgment, and replacement.

Secularism 101: Religious Origins of Secularism
Secularism as an Outgrowth of Christian Doctrine & Experience
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. Actually, the concept that there is a difference between the spiritual and political realm can be found right in the Christian New Testament. Jesus himself is cited as advising listeners to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's. Later, the Christian theologian Augustine developed a more systematic division by distinguishing between two "cities," one that ordered the things of the earth (civitas terrenae) and one that was ordered by God (civitas dei). Although Augustine used these concepts as a means to explain how God's purpose for humanity developed through history, it was employed by others for more radical ends. Some, who sought to reinforce the doctrine of papal primacy, emphasized the idea that the visible Christian Church was the actual manifestation of the civitas dei and, as a consequence, was owed greater loyalty than civil governments. Others sought to reinforce the principle of independent secular governments and used passages from Augustine which stressed the important role played by the civitas terrenae. This theological defense of autonomous civil powers would ultimately be the view that prevailed. In medieval Europe, the Latin term saecularis was usually used to refer to "the present age," but in practice, it was also used to describe those members of the clergy who did not take monastic vows. These clergymen chose to work "in the world" with the people instead of removing themselves and living in seclusion with with monks. Because of their working "in the world," they were not able to live up to the high standards of morality and personal conduct, thus preventing them from maintaining the absolute purity that would otherwise be expected of them. Those who did take monastic vows, however, were within reach of those high standards and as a consequence it wasn't unusual for them and for the Church hierarchy to look down a bit upon those saecularis clergymen. As we can see, then, the separation between a pure religious order and a less-than-pure, this-worldly social order was very much a part of the Christian church even during its early centuries. This distinction was later fed as theologians differentiated between faith and knowledge, between revealed theology and natural theology. Faith and revelation were long the traditional provinces of Church doctrine and teaching; over time, however, a number of theologians began to argue for the existence of a separate domain of knowledge characterized by human reason. In this manner they developed the idea of natural theology, according to which knowledge of God could be obtained not simply through revelation and faith but also through human reason while observing and thinking about Nature and the universe. Early on, it was emphasized that these two spheres of knowledge actually constituted a united continuum, but this alliance did not last long. Eventually a number of theologians, most notably Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, argued that all doctrines of the Christian faith were fundamentally based upon revelation, and as such were necessarily filled with contradictions which would cause problems for human reason. As a consequence, they adopted the position that human reason and religious faith were ultimately irreconcilable. Human reason must operate in and on the realm of empirical, material observation; it might arrive at the same conclusions as religious faith and the study of supernatural revelation, but they could not be united into a single system of study. Faith could not be used to inform reason and reason could not be used to structure faith. The final push towards widespread secularization was not caused by anti-Christian secularists but by devoted Christians who were aghast at the devastation caused by the religious wars that swept across Europe in the wake of the Reformation. In Protestant countries there was initially an attempt to translate the

principles of the religious community into the wider political community; that, however, failed due to the growing divisions between Christian sects. As a result, people needed to find a common ground if they wanted to avoid civil war. This forced a reduction of overt and explicit references to specific Christian doctrines - reliance upon Christianity, if it remained, became more general and more rationalized. In Catholic nations the process was slightly different, because members of the Church were expected to continue to adhere to Catholic dogma, but they were also allowed a degree of freedom in political affairs. Over the long run, this meant that the Church came to be excluded more and more from political affairs as the people found that they appreciated having a realm of action and thought where they could be free from ecclesiastical authorities. This, in turn, led to an even greater separation between church and state than existed in Protestant lands. The attempt to separate faith and reason as being different kinds of knowledge rather than different aspects of the same knowledge was not welcomed by Church leaders. On the other hand, those same leaders were becoming increasingly uneasy with the growth of rationalistic speculation in philosophy and theology. Instead of accepting the differentiation, however, they sought to repress that speculation in the hopes of holding on to the primacy of faith that had characterized Christianity for centuries while retaining rationalistic inquiry - but on their own terms.

Secularism 101: Secularism as Philosophy
Secularism isn't always just the absence of religion
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 is secularism? The philosophy of secularism has been explained in a number of different ways, although they all have certain important similarities. George Jacob Holyoake, the originator of the term "secularism," defined it most explicitly in his book 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: The improvement of this life by material means. That science is the available Providence of man. 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."

The American orator and freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll gave this definition of Secularism:
Secularism is the religion of humanity; it embraces the affairs of this world; it is interested in everything that touches the welfare of a sentient being; it advocates attention to the particular planet on which we happen to live; it means that each individual counts for something; it is a declaration of intellectual independence; it means the pew is superior to the pulpit, that those who bear the burdens shall have the profits and that they who fill the purse shall hold the strings. It is a protest against ecclesiastical tyranny, against being a serf, subject or slave of any phantom, or of the priest of any phantom. It is a protest against wasting this life for the sake of one we know not of. It proposes to let the gods take care of themselves. It means living for ourselves and each other; for the present instead of the past, for this world instead of another. It is striving to do away with violence and vice, with ignorance, poverty and disease.

Virgilius Ferm, in his Encyclopedia of Religion, 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.

More recently, Bernard Lewis explained the concept of secularism thus:
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 secular not 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.

According to these descriptions, secularism is a positive philosophy that is concerned entirely with the good of human beings in this life. The improvement of the human condition is seen as a material question, not spiritual, and is best achieved through human efforts rather than supplications before deities or other supernatural beings. We should remember that at the time that Holyoake coined the term secularism, the material needs of the people were very important. Although "material" needs were contrasted with "spiritual" and thus also included things like education and personal development, it is nevertheless true that very material needs like adequate housing, food, and clothing loomed large in the minds of progressive reformers. Today, the philosophy that was called secularism tends to be labeled humanism or secular humanism and the concept of secularism, at least in the social sciences, is much more restricted. The first and perhaps most common understanding of "secular" today stands in opposition to "religious." According to this usage something is secular when it can be categorized with the worldly, civil, non-religious sphere of human life. A secondary understanding of "secular" is contrasted with anything that is regarded as holy, sacred, and inviolable. According to this usage something is secular when it is not worshipped, when it is not venerated, and when it is open for critique, judgment, and replacement.

Secularism as a Political & Social Movement
Autonomous Sphere Independent of Religion
Although secularism tends to be used in a restricted sense today, it nevertheless retains a philosophical aspect, particularly when it comes to political and social situations. Throughout its history, the concept has carried with it 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. Traditionally, the state under Christianity was treated as a necessary evil - something required to uphold public order, but ultimately an institution that could only serve to corrupt people and distract them from their more important duties to the Church. In contrast, the Church itself was regarded as the primary institution to which the state must remain subordinate. Although the state might be responsible for public order, the Church carried the more important responsibility of people's souls and their eternal fates. This began to change during the Middle Ages as various philosophers and theologians broke away from this early, Augustinian view of politics and government. Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued that the state is entrusted by God with the very necessary and positive functions of creating the social conditions in this world that can allow for salvation in the next world. Again, the state is conceived of as subordinate to the Church, but it is no longer treated as negative. Yet even this began to change once the Italian Renaissance launched a revolution in both thought and action across Europe. Even very early Renaissance writers like Dante believed that temporal leaders had a right and a duty to exercise authority independently of any needs or desires of the Church. This perspective did not become become widespread until after the Middle Ages ended, but over time, the basic principles of political philosophers like Machiavelli would come to dominate the continent. A final break with the past occurred, however, not in the writings of political philosophers but in the actions of intolerant Christians. Traditionally it was believed that explicitly Christian doctrines needed to be at the heart of civil society, but all that fell apart during the religious wars which occurred after the Protestant

Reformation. As Christian slaughtered Christian and Christian state warred against Christian state on little basis other than differences in Christian doctrine, people began to realize that there was a need to create a bit of separation between Christianity on the one hand and the state and culture on the other. In this way society could develop some basic institutions and principles of social organization on which all could agree, regardless of their ecclesiastical affiliation. Some relied upon the doctrine of Natural Law as derived from ancient Stoic philosophers; others helped develop rationalized forms of Christianity, for example in modern Deism. Renaissance Humanism also played an important role in all of this by providing access to documents and ideas from the ancient Greeks and Romans. This was not to say that philosophers and politicians were hoping to create a separation of church and state as people understand it today. Such a system would be quite foreign to the people of the 16th century, and it is unlikely that they would approve of it because they continued to believe in the need for Christianity for people to be moral and to obey their political leaders. They were not trying to break away from Christianity, but they did realize that Christianity would not be an adequate basis for settling the religious and political disputes which plagued Europe. Thus they sought to develop an independent realm of thought and action where political and social issues could be settled without recourse to religious principles or even religious authorities. An important step in that process was the development of the philosophy of natural law by scholars like Hobbes and Grotius. Hugo de Groot, Grotius' Dutch name, stuck his neck out in challenging the religious culture of the Netherlands by arguing that human beings were actually free to change their political and social circumstances to suit their own needs. This meant that people had the right to form their own laws, create their own political institutions, and make their own decisions about how to conduct their political and social affairs. This, in turn, meant that humans might actually be able to affect the course of their own salvation - and that's what represented the most serious challenge to religious orthodoxy. This legal philosophy relied upon principles of human freedom and employed universal concepts to propose particular ideas about the nature of both humanity and government. Instead of a universal Church that was based upon transcendental values and supervised a universal political empire, however, they conceived of independent, nationalistic states that were sovereign in their own right and subordinate to no religious authority. Each state was free to make its own laws in order to achieve the goals it decided were important. Each state was conceived of as sovereign, controlling its own destiny free of ecclesiastical control or interference. They were also not expected to always agree on everything, even though they might share the religion of Christianity. Rather, they were expected to pursue their own national objectives as their leaders saw fit. Over time this led to political relativism where political decisions were evaluated not according to universal principles, but instead according to local context and cultural variations. Such relativism did not, however, come to dominate completely - also in place of Christian universalism there developed secular forms of universal political and social doctrines. According to these doctrines humanity was more unified than cultural variations implied. Despite local variations, all people were portrayed as having the same basic needs and desires, and as a consequence, there existed a set of universal principles of economic, political, and/or social justice according to which individual economic, political, and social systems should be judged. Christian universalism, which had been dealt a sore blow in the religious sphere by the Protestant Reformation, was ultimately sidelined in the political and social spheres by the challenges of relativism and universalism, both secular in nature. Neither subordinated the state to religious or supernatural interests and values. Both agitated for the acknowledgment of an autonomous sphere of knowledge, values, and action where human needs could be addressed by human institutions, free of the burdens of ecclesiastical authorities or interference.

Secularism 101: Secularism vs. Secularization
Excluding Religion from Social and Political Affairs

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. During the process of secularization, institutions throughout society - economic, political, and social - are removed from the control of religion. At times this control might have been direct, with ecclesiastical authorities also having authority over the operation of these institutions - for example, when priests are in charge of the nation's only school system. Other times, the control might have been indirect, with religious principles constituting the basis for how things are run, such as when religion is used to define citizenship. Whatever the case may be, either those institutions are simply taken away from religious authorities and handed over to political leaders, or competing alternatives are created alongside the religious institutions. The independence of these institutions in turn allow individuals themselves to be more independent of ecclesiastical authorities - no longer are they required to submit to religious leaders outside of the confines of a church or temple. A practical consequence of secularization is the separation of church and state - in fact, the two are so closely associated that they are almost interchangeable in practice, with people often using the phrase "separation of church and state" rather than secularization. Nevertheless, secularization is actually a process that occurs across all of society, whereas the separation of church and state is simply a description of what occurs in the political sphere. What the separation of church and state means in the process of secularization is that specifically political institutions - those associated with varying levels of public government and administration - are removed from both direct and indirect religious control. It does not mean that religious organizations cannot have anything to say about public and political issues, but it does mean that those views cannot be imposed upon the public, nor can they be used as the sole basis for public policy. The government must, in effect, be as neutral as possible with respect to divergent and incompatible religious beliefs, neither hindering nor advancing any of them. Although it is possible for the process of secularization to proceed smoothly and peacefully, in reality that has often not been the case. History has shown that ecclesiastical authorities who have wielded temporal power have not readily handed over that power to local governments, especially when those authorities have been closely associated with conservative political forces. As a consequence, secularization has often accompanied political revolutions. Church and state were separated in France after a violent revolution; in America the separation proceeded more smoothly, but nevertheless only after a revolution and creation of a new government. Of course, secularism has not always been so neutral in its intent. At no point is it necessarily anti-religious, but secularism does frequently promote and encourage the process of secularization itself. A person becomes a secularist at the very least because he believes in the need for a secular sphere alongside the religious sphere, but more likely than not he also believes in the superiority of the secular sphere, at least when it comes to certain social issues. Thus, the difference between secularism and secularization is that secularism is more of a philosophical position about the way things should be, while secularization is the effort to implement that philosophy forcibly, if necessary. Religious institutions may continue to voice opinions about public matters, but their actual authority and power are restricted entirely to the private domain: people who conform their behavior to the values of those religious institutions do so voluntarily, with neither encouragement nor discouragement emanating from the state.

Secularism 101: Religion in a Secular Society
What place or role can religion have?

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. A word of caution is important here when it comes to terminology. One frequently hears or reads about secularists seeking the restriction of religion to "private" life and getting it out of "public" life - a position which gives people the impression that secularists don't want anyone ever talking about religion in public again. Although some secularists may harbor such feelings, this interpretation relies upon the fact that the public/private distinction has more than one meaning. For secularists, they do not mean it in the same sense that a person's financial situation should remain private rather that becoming public knowledge. Instead, they are using "public" in the sense of "maintained for or used by the people or community." Thus, the desire to have religion removed from "public life" involves removing it not from public view but from public (read: government) support. The desire for religion to be made private involves not keeping it secret but keeping it a personal, voluntary endeavor. We can see, then, that there is nothing about the process of secularization or a philosophy of secularism which requires the demise of religion. Secularists themselves are quite divided in their evaluations of religion and what role they think religion should have in society. Many are adamant in their belief that religion does more harm than good and they do hope that it will eventually disappear. Many others, however, are happy for it to retain a role in the social and moral lives of believers. Some secularists even support religious charities in their social efforts for the relief of poverty and suffering. If religion withers in a secular society - and such a fate is entirely possible - the blame cannot be laid directly at the feet of secularism and secularization. They can only be held accountable for creating the conditions for the actual cause: people's disinterest in religion. In a non-secular society, people have little chance to ignore or get away from religion. Everywhere they go, either ecclesiastical authorities have some power over them or the principles of some particular religion are used as a basis to control their lives. In a secular society, however, escape from domination by religion and religious leaders is possible. No one is beholden to any religious organization or religious values unless they specifically choose to be. If enough people choose not to be associated with religion, then religious organizations will decline due to decreases in income and membership. Religious leaders are surely justified in lamenting such a possibility, but by opposing secularism and secularization, they make two errors. First, they place responsibility for such a predicament in the wrong place. Instead of attacking secularism for allowing people the chance to ignore religion, they should instead take a closer look at why they might be worth ignoring. Second, any attempt to attack secularism essentially admits that they are unable to maintain people's interest and support on a purely individual, private, and voluntary basis. This may indeed be true, but it is a devastating thing to acknowledge - yet religious leaders who attack secularism don't seem to understand what it means. For some reason, they fail to realize that publicly supported and/or enforced religion is ultimately worthless. If they really believe that that is the only way that religion can survive, then they admit that religion itself is worthless - and that validates the secularist position that religion simply isn't necessary for the public good.

Secularism 101: Critiques of Secularism
Not everyone likes secularism - but why?
Needless to say, secularism had not always been regarded as a universal good. Even today, there are many who not only fail to find secularism and the process of secularization to be beneficial to society, but actually argue that it is the source of all of society's ills. According to them, abandoning secularism in favor of a more explicitly religious basis for politics and culture would produce a more stable, more moral, and ultimately better social order. But are their critiques of secularism reasonable and accurate?

One of the most common objections to secularism as a philosophy is its emphasis on this world rather than any future life or the disposition of a human soul. According to secularist principles, we should be guided in our actions and beliefs first and foremost by the consequences our actions have for our lives and the lives of other human beings here and now. The existence of something beyond our material existence is not necessarily denied, but it is also not accorded any special status meriting consideration. Indeed, the very fact that we can't know for sure if such an existence awaits us in the future is considered an important reason not to spend much time worrying about it. Since we cannot know if a god, a heaven, a soul, or an afterlife exists, then they cannot rationally motivate any of our actions or beliefs. This, however, is completely contradictory to the basic doctrines of many of the world's religions. They, too, are interested in improving human life - but not on secular or materialistic terms. Instead, their primary consideration is the ultimate fate of a person's soul, karma, or some other immaterial substance which is transcendent to our current existence. Motivations which are based solely upon current considerations are therefore inadequate and even inappropriate because they supposedly miss the very point of our lives. In this they may or may not be true, and that means that this may be a fair critique of secularism as a personal philosophy. It is not, however, adequate when it comes to secularism as a political philosophy or secularization as a political and social process. The reason for this is that the mere possibility that the basic doctrines of a religion may be correct is not justification for establishing those doctrines as basic political or social principles applicable to all citizens. People may choose not to be secular in their personal lives - that is their right, and they may even be making the correct choice. However, it has to be their choice rather than a context which is forced upon them by others. Secularism as a personal philosophy rejects the relevancy of any transcendental beings or values, but secularism as a political and social philosophy rejects the validity of establishing any transcendental beings or values as central to the political and social realm. A closely related objection to secularism is the idea that it is unable to provide a sound basis for morality. According to critics who offer this argument, morality requires the existence of transcendental, eternal, and absolute principles or values which are unavailable in purely materialistic and this-worldly philosophies. When social and political systems eschew such principles and values, they also ultimately become empty in the moral realm as well - and an amoral social system is one which is doomed to chaos, corruption, and destruction. The primary problem with this objection is that is assumes so much more than it purports to demonstrate. It might make a valid point if a god exists, if transcendental values exist, if they are necessary for morality, if materialistic philosophies cannot provide a basis for morality - and if a host of other, equally questionable premises are also true. Unfortunately, it would be quite easy for any of them to be false, and there are good reasons to think that many are false. All that is necessary for this objection of fail is for a single premise to fail, and because so many are questionable, the objection itself is questionable at best. A further problem with this objection is that even if we are to grant that all of the premises are true in the general sense, how can we grant any of them as being true in a sufficiently specific sense? What is meant by this is simply that we cannot only grant the existence of a god or transcendental values generally; instead, we must grant the existence of a particular god, particular values, and a particular moral system. But which one should be granted and thus implemented as a basis for our social and political system, to be imposed upon even those who follow a different god and different set of religious principles? Unless that can be answered, a neutral secularism which neither grants a preference nor imposes a burden upon any particular religious system is preferable in a pluralistic and free society. One final objection worth noting is the idea that the process of secularization has the effect of separating people from the religious roots of their culture. This argument is commonly made by Christian conservatives, although we see it from Muslim and Jewish conservatives as well. According to them, in a secular society the dwindling domination of their religious tradition means that there is less and less opportunity or need for people to learn about the religious traditions and doctrines which constitute the basis for their culture.

This is an interesting, but ultimately ineffective argument. It is true that people in America today know a great deal less about Christianity than Americans may have known in the 19th century, but while that is unfortunate from a purely pedagogical standpoint, it isn't much of a political or social argument. People also don't know a great deal about ancient Greek and Roman religion, politics, and culture - and they certainly played an important role in the development of Western culture as a whole. That ignorance is lamentable, but it isn't a reason to start integrating Greek and Roman religious values into our political system or cultural institutions. People's lack of knowledge about Christian history and traditions is lamentable for the same reason and not much more. Of course, conservative religious leaders would disagree. Their goal is to promote their religious system, both by converting new members and by encouraging current members to hold their present course. This is much more difficult to do when neither the power of the state nor the power of mass culture are supporting them in their efforts. When they have to compete as equals beside every other religion and philosophy, they are much less likely to maintain the general dominance of their system. Naturally, they don't approve of this but there really isn't much they can do about it. If their beliefs are to be popular, it will only be through the merits of those beliefs. When they ask for the state or the culture to help them, they essentially admit that they cannot make it on their own. Certainly there is nothing wrong with arguing that people should not adopt secularism as the basis for their personal philosophy and as the basis for the way they conduct their lives - in the marketplace of ideas, it is a positive value to have many competing viewpoints. However, only those philosophies which seek to dominate society and eliminate the marketplace can also consistently and honestly desire the abolition of secularism as the mediating context among the various religious alternatives which the average citizen faces. []

Is Secular Humanism a Religion?
Myths About the Separation of Church and State
Myth: The Supreme Court has declared that Secular Humanism is a religion.

Response: Along with the above claim it is sometimes also argued that Secular Humanism has become an "established" religion in our public schools. Secular Humanism has, like Madalyn Murray O'Hair, become one of the Religious Right's favorite boogeymen: all manner of social evils are attributed to them as if it were hoped that, by eliminating them, society would achieve perfection. Whatever the ultimate motivations of such claims, the fact of the matter is they are simply false. First, it is not true that the Supreme Court has found Secular Humanism to be a religion. In the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins, Justice Hugo Black wrote in a footnote that:
Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God is Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others.

As a footnote, it qualifies as an obiter dictum - this means that it is simply a personal observation of the judge, and hence is only incidental to reaching the opinion. It has no real weight when it comes to legal precedent and cannot be properly considered the "decision" of the court. Even so, Black was mistaken - if Secular Humanism were a religion, then it wouldn't be secular. The terms "religion" and "secular" are opposites.

That Other Church: Secularism As Religion?
From Austin Cline, I've written a number of times about secularism, especially when people misunderstand the concept. There are a number of writers on the internet who don't seem to understand the concept, but ignorance is not limited to bloggers. Even writers of respected magazines have trouble. Patrick Tomlinson wrote this letter to Christianity Today and kindly gave permission for me to reprint it here:

To whom it may concern, I am responding to the column recently posted in your website titled "That Other Church". I found its content to be of a particularly uninformed nature. I did not consider it offensive; more that it was laughable due to the myriad of mistakes, baseless assumptions, and outright ignorant logical fallacies it contained. But instead of dragging on like this, let's dive into point by point examples of this particular author's foolishness and deception... "Let's face it: Secularism is a religion. Let's treat it as such." Okay, here's his subject line and right away he has made an error. To quote the Webster's English Dictionary; "Main Entry: secïuïlarïism Pronunciation: 'se-ky&-l&-"ri-z&m Function: noun : indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations" In a nutshell (not that such a short, simple definition should need to be condensed) the concept of secularism means the absence of religion. Period. The meaning of the word itself rejects the possibility of what the author claims. He may as well try to argue the contention that Republicans are actually Democrats and that the Reverend Jerry Fallwell is actually an atheist. These claims are just as impossible to prove as is his subject line. Sadly, I'm sure this simple and unequivocal fact won't be enough to placate the author or his readers. So, here we go again... "For each element in the Judeo-Christian family of faiths, secularism has its counterpart: a strict ethical code, albeit focusing on health issues ("Thou shalt not smoke," etc.); the use of shame when individuals disregard ethical rules (e.g. fat people); a related promise of eternal life through medical advances; a creation story (Darwinian evolution); and so forth. All that's missing is a deity, but not every religion has one, as the case of Zen Buddhism attests." I like how the author slips in the subtle insult against other major world religions at the beginning of this statement. Did you catch it? He singles out his preference for his own religious background and dismisses the rest, as if Judeo-Christian elements were the only true measure of what constitutes religion. The rest of the statement is just insipid. The examples given are all easily proven wrong. Let's start at the beginning. There is no "strict ethical code" of secular people. The absence of religion in their lives means they determine their own ethical code on an individual basis and have wildly differing ideas about right and wrong. Nor does smoking disqualify people from being secular. Many are smokers, many are not. The same is true of religious people. This example is completely without merit. The second example is similarly flawed. Secularism in itself imposes no moral standards or ethical codes, so how can it have a system of shame against those who violate a code that doesn't exist? There are many fat

secularists (I dare say there may even be fat secularist smokers). Neither being overweight, or being addicted to tobacco disqualifies someone from being secular. Next comes his "eternal life" example. Medical science promises the chance at extending human life and easing human suffering, not creating immortals. Even if medicine someday cures all disease and stops aging in its tracks, people will still be mortal. Statistics show that on average, people would live to be about 600 before an accident, injury, or violent crime killed them. That assumption excludes the fact that viruses and bacteria continue to evolve to get past our medical defenses. But more on evolution in a second. The fact that people look forward to medical advances that may take away some pain and suffering while they are still alive doesn't make them a secularist or disqualify them from being religious. Nor does it replace or substitute for a spiritual belief in eternal life. As for a "story of creation", his use of the "theory of evolution" is a poor choice. As is often the case, the author mistakenly believes that evolution tries or needs to explain the origins of life. Evolution speaks only about the development of life after it started. Secularists as a group have no specific creation myth. Many subscribe to scientific explanations of the origins of life and the universe, but many do not. Those who don't are still secular. Further, those who do side with scientific theories do so backed with mountains of physical observations and empirical evidence that has survived the test of falsifiability and peer review. These are not religious beliefs based on blind faith and exist outside of religion. Besides, many people who identify themselves as Christians also believe in evolution. The Pope himself has stated on more than one occasion that evolution is perfectly compatible with Catholic beliefs. Is it the author's intention to suggest that the Pope is secular? As for the lack of a deity, he is similarly wrong. One can believe in a god or gods, but not belong to a religious community or practice any religious rituals. So far, the author hasn't been right about a single claim he has made. Let's explore further... "The secular church is populous and dynamic, with a membership far exceeding that figure of 7.5 percent. Many individuals who identify nominally as Jews or Christians in fact are devout secularists." This one I find really astonishing. In the face of his secular opponent, the author tries to disenfranchise members of his own side and give them to the enemy! In so doing he commits a mistake known in logic and debate circles as the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. This basically means that he's claiming anyone that doesn't fit his narrow idea of what constitutes a Jew or Christian cannot actually be a Jew or a Christian and must actually be a secularist, (a "devout" secularist no less). I thought judgment was reserved for his god. The statement is obviously as false as it is arrogant, because having a belief in the Judeo-Christian concept of god disqualifies them from being secular. He might as well claim that these people are also married bachelors. Consider state education, where the secular church has ensured that its creation account alone be taught. According to the Discovery Institute, Ohio, Minnesota, and New Mexico are exceptions to this rule, now requiring students to know about scientific evidence critical of Darwinian evolution. Everywhere else, evangelism for this secular doctrine is a staple of 10th-grade biology class." The trouble with the above is that it is all misleading and patently false. Besides that, it's great. As we have established, secularists have no specific faith and believe many different things. If absence of heavy religious influences in one's life means people are more inclined to study science and hear what the evidence has to say, that predilection happens because of a lack of religion, not due to secularism. Further, there is no scientific evidence critical of evolution. If it such evidence is ever found, only then would it be appropriate to teach in classes dedicated to science. Asking schools to teach unscientific religious doctrine to students in science class is as inappropriate as a secularist insisting that evolution be taught at Sunday school. Can anyone give examples of a secularist crusade to force science and evolution into bible study groups? I didn't think so. I think this reveals which side actually "use[s] aggressive means in advancing their political age and spreading their faith." And we march on... "The prejudice on behalf of the secular faith emanating from the media is likewise hard to ignore. HBO's Bill Maher, raised Catholic but later converted to a harsh secularism, is among the frankest of news and entertainment industry figures in his contempt for competing religions, notably Christianity. The host of Real Time with Bill Maher speaks of himself as "spreading the anti-gospel."

Has anybody seen "The O'Reilly Factor" or "The 700 Club" with Pat Robertson? The best he has to offer in defense of his ascertation that the media is seething with secular programming is Bill Maher who nobody watches? Even the most liberal shows aren't purely secular. Take "The Daily Show" hosted by fellow Jew Jon Stewart. Maybe Mr. Stewart is one of those closet "devout secularists" he mentioned before... "The influence of Secular institutions on education needs to be reexamined. Young children are plainly being targeted for conversion to Secularism, whether in schools or otherwise. The Anti-Defamation League — a group that is Jewish only in the sense that bagels are Jewish — has been advocating a reading list of books for children of kindergarten age through sixth grade. While the emphasis is ostensibly on "anti-bias education," any child who takes to heart the message of these books would be adopting, among other things, a bias in favor of the Secular teaching on homosexuality. Secularism is the starting point for all people, only after being indoctrinated by parents and religious leaders do they become religious themselves. So a legitimate argument could be made that "conversion" is strictly a religious activity (and not all religions see the need to find converts, Judaism and Buddhism come to mind). He is also again guilty of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. In attacking the Anti-Defamation League, he again dismisses a group of religious people because they do not fit with his idea of proper Judaism. In this case, he reveals his bigotry for homosexuals, because no "true" Jewish group could possibly support the rights of gays to be treated equally. Further, he assumes that to be secular automatically means one is pro-gay. Although some might like this to be true, it obviously is not. There are many homophobic secularists and that viewpoint does nothing to disqualify them as being secular. []