Secularism 101 - History, Nature, Importance of Secularism

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?

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Close-Up Of Globe Against White Background
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There isn't always a lot of agreement on what secularism is. One problem is the fact that the concept of "secular" can be used in multiple, related ways which are different enough to create difficulty in knowing what people mean. A basic definition, the word secular means "of this world" in Latin and is the opposite of religious. As a doctrine, then, secularism is typically used as a label for any philosophy which forms its ethics without reference to religious beliefs and which encourages the development of human art and science.

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Some try to claim that secularism is a religion, but that's an oxymoron, analogous to claiming that a bachelor can be married. Examining the characteristics which define religions as distinct from other types of belief systems reveals just how wrong such claims are, which raises the question of why people try so hard to defend the position.

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Because the concept of the secular stands in opposition to religion, many people may not realize that it originally developed within a religious context. Religious fundamentalists and conservatives who decry the growth of secularism in the modern world may be the most surprised because this fact demonstrates that secularism isn't an atheistic conspiracy to undermine Christian civilization. Instead, it was originally developed for the sake of preserving peace among Christians.

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While secularism is usually used to denote the absence of religion, it can also be used to describe a philosophical system with personal, political, cultural, and social implications. Secularism as a philosophy must be treated a differently from secularism as a mere idea.

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Secularism as a Political & Social Movement

Secularism has always carried a strong connotation of a 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 takes precedence.

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Secularism and secularization are closely related, but they do not offer the same answer to the question of the role of religion in society. Secularism argues for a sphere of knowledge, values, and action that is independent of religious authority, but it does not automatically exclude religion from having authority when it comes to political and social matters. Secularization, in contrast, is a process which does involve such exclusion.

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Secularism & Secularization are Vital for Liberty and Democracy

Secularism and secularization are positive goods which must be defended as foundations of liberal democracy because they enhance the broad distribution of power and oppose the concentration of power in the hands of a few. This is why they are opposed by authoritarian religious institutions and authoritarian religious leaders.

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Does Secular Fundamentalism Exist? Do Secular Fundamentalists Exist?

Some Christians allege that America is threatened by "secular fundamentalism," but what is that? The most basic characteristics of Christian fundamentalism can't apply to a secularism of any sort, but even the characteristics which apply most broadly to fundamentalisms of many sorts can't be applied to secularism.

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Religion in a Secular Society

If secularism opposes the public support of religion or the presence of ecclesiastical figures 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? Opponents of secularism and secularization fear exactly such things, but those fears are misplaced at best.

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Critiques of Secularism

Not everyone has regarded secularism as a universal good.  Many fail to find secularism and the process of secularization to be beneficial, arguing that they are in fact the primary sources of all society's ills. According to such critics, abandoning atheistic secularism in favor of an explicitly theistic and religious foundation for politics and culture would create a more stable, more moral, and ultimately better social order. Are such critiques reasonable and accurate?