Secularism is the principle based in secular humanism that seeks to conduct human affairs based on secular, naturalistic considerations. It is most commonly defined as the separation of religion from civic affairs and the state, and may be broadened to a similar position concerning the need to remove or to minimize the role of religion in any public sphere.[1] The term "secularism" has a broad range of meanings, and in the most schematic, may encapsulate any stance that promotes the secular in any given context.[2][3] It may connote anticlericalism, atheism, naturalism, non-sectarianism, neutrality on topics of religion, or the complete removal of religious symbols from public institutions.[4]

As a philosophy, secularism seeks to interpret life based on principles derived solely from the material world, without recourse to religion. It shifts the focus from religion towards "temporal" and material concerns.[5]

There are distinct traditions of secularism in the West, like the French, Turkish and Anglo-American models, and beyond, as in India,[4] where the emphasis is more on equality before law and state neutrality rather than blanket separation. The purposes and arguments in support of secularism vary widely, ranging from assertions that it is a crucial element of modernization, or that religion and traditional values are backward and divisive, to the claim that it is the only guarantor of free religious exercise.


The British writer George Holyoake (1817–1906) employed the term "secularism" in 1851[6]
The British writer George Holyoake (1817–1906) employed the term "secularism" in 1851[6]

The first to use the already-extant word "secularism" in a modern sense, was the British agnostic writer George Holyoake, in 1851. Finding "Atheism" too aggravating, he sought a term that would describe a stance advocating to conduct life based on naturalistic (secular) considerations only, but without necessarily rejecting religion, thus enabling cooperation with believers.[7] Holyoake's definition of secularism differs from its usage by later writers. As the Humanist Heritage website notes, Holyoake provides a definition of secularism "much akin to modern definitions of humanism... broader than just atheism."[8] More modern definitions of secularism are likely to pertain to separation of church and state rather than personal beliefs.

Secularism may be categorized into two types, "hard" and "soft". "Hard" secularism considers religious propositions to be epistemologically illegitimate and seeks to deny them as much as possible. The "soft" variety emphasizes neutrality, tolerance and liberalism;[9] arguing "the attainment of "absolute truth" is "impossible and therefore scepticism and tolerance should be the principle and overriding values in the discussion of science and religion".[10]

State secularism

Countries with a state religion.
Countries with a state religion.

Main article: Secular state

In political terms, secularism is a movement towards the separation of religion and government (often termed the separation of church and state). This can refer to reducing ties between a government and a state religion, replacing laws based on scripture (such as Halakha, Manusmriti, and Sharia) with civil laws, and eliminating discrimination on the basis of religion. This is said to add to democracy by protecting the rights of religious minorities.[11]

Separation of church and state is but one possible strategy to be deployed by secular governments. From the democratic to the authoritarian, such governments share a concern to limit the religious side in the relationship. Each state may find its own unique policy prescriptions. These may include separation, careful monitoring and regulation of organized religion such as in France, Turkey, and others.[12]

A major impact on the idea of state religious liberty came from the writings of John Locke who, in his A Letter Concerning Toleration, argued in favour of religious toleration. He argued that government must treat all citizens and all religions equally, and that it can restrict actions, but not the religious intent behind them.[13]

Secularism is most often associated with the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and it plays a major role in Western society. The principles, but not necessarily the practices, of separation of church and state in the United States and Laïcité in France draw heavily on secularism. Secular states also existed in the Islamic world during the Middle Ages (see Islam and secularism).[14]

Maharaja Ranjeet Singh of the Sikh Empire of the first half of the 19th century successfully established a secular rule in the Punjab. This secular rule respected members of all races and religions and it allowed them to participate without discrimination in Ranjeet Singh's darbar and he had Sikh, Muslim and Hindu representatives heading the darbar.[15] Ranjit Singh also extensively funded education, religion, and arts of various different religions and languages.[16]

In accord with the belief in the separation of church and state, secularists tend to prefer that politicians make decisions for secular rather than religious reasons.[17] In this respect, policy decisions pertaining to topics like abortion, contraception, embryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriage, and sex education are prominently focused upon by American secularist organizations such as the Center for Inquiry.[18][19]

Some Christian fundamentalists and scholars (notably in the United States) and Hindu fundamentalists (notably in India) oppose secularism, often claiming that there is a "radical secularist" ideology being adopted in our current day and they see secularism as a threat to "Christian rights"[20] and "Hindu rights" respectively,[21][22] as well as to national security.[23]

It has been argued that in the US, the concept of secularism has frequently been misinterpreted. Jacques Berlinerblau wrote that "Secularism must be the most misunderstood and mangled ism in the American political lexicon", and that the religious right purposefully equated it to atheism, communism and other ideologies since the 1970s.[24]

The most significant forces of religious fundamentalism in the contemporary world are Christian fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism, and Islamic fundamentalism. At the same time, one significant stream of secularism has come from religious minorities who see governmental and political secularism as integral to the preservation of equal rights.[25]

Some of the well known states that are often considered "constitutionally secular" are the United States,[26] France,[27] Turkey, India,[28] Mexico,[29] and South Korea, though none of these nations have identical forms of governance with respect to religion. For example, in India, secularism includes state involvement and restrictions in religion, while in France, secularism precludes state involvement in religion.[30][31] Despite being a constitutionally secular country, some Hindutva organisations demand for the declaration of a "Hindu state" within India.[32]

Secular society

In studies of religion, modern democracies are generally recognized as secular. This is due to the near-complete freedom of religion (religious beliefs generally are not subject to legal or social sanctions), and the lack of authority of religious leaders over political decisions. Nevertheless, it has been claimed that surveys done by Pew Research Center show Americans as generally being more comfortable with religion playing a major role in public life, while in Europe the impact of the church on public life is declining.[33]

Modern sociology has, since Max Weber, often been preoccupied with the problem of authority in secularized societies and with secularization as a sociological or historical process.[34] Twentieth-century scholars, whose work has contributed to the understanding of these matters, include Carl L. Becker, Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, M.H. Abrams, Peter L. Berger, Paul Bénichou and D.L. Munby, among others.

Most societies become increasingly secular as the result of social, economic development and progress, rather than through the actions of a dedicated secular movement.[citation needed]

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.[35]

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

Contemporary ethical debate in the West is often described as "secular". The work of well known moral philosophers such as Derek Parfit and Peter Singer, and even the whole field of contemporary bioethics, have been described as explicitly secular or non-religious.[36][37][38][39]

Secularism in late 20th century political philosophy

Main article: List of secularist organizations

It can be seen by many of the organizations (NGOs) for secularism that they prefer to define secularism as the common ground for all life stance groups, religious or atheistic, to thrive in a society that honours freedom of speech and conscience. An example of that is the National Secular Society in the UK. This is a common understanding of what secularism stands for among many of its activists throughout the world. However, many scholars of Christianity and conservative politicians seem to interpret secularism more often than not, as an antithesis of religion and an attempt to push religion out of society and replace it with atheism or a void of values, nihilism. This dual aspect (as noted above in "Secular ethics") has created difficulties in political discourse on the subject. It seems that most political theorists in philosophy following the landmark work of John Rawl's Theory of Justice in 1971 and its following book, Political Liberalism (1993),[40] would rather use the conjoined concept overlapping consensus rather than secularism. In the latter Rawls holds the idea of an overlapping consensus as one of three main ideas of political liberalism. He argues that the term secularism cannot apply;

But what is a secular argument? Some think of any argument that is reflective and critical, publicly intelligible and rational, as a secular argument; [...], Nevertheless, a central feature of political liberalism is that it views all such arguments the same way it views religious ones, and therefore these secular philosophical doctrines do not provide public reasons. Secular concepts and reasoning of this kind belong to first philosophy and moral doctrine, and fall outside the domain of the political.[40]

Still, Rawl's theory is akin to Holyoake's vision of a tolerant democracy that treats all life stance groups alike. Rawl's idea it that it is in everybody's own interest to endorse "a reasonable constitutional democracy" with "principles of toleration". His work has been highly influential on scholars in political philosophy and his term, overlapping consensus, seems to have for many parts replaced secularism among them. In textbooks on modern political philosophy, like Colin Farelly's, An Introduction to Contemporary Political Theory,[41] and Will Kymlicka's, Contemporary Political Philosophy,[42] the term secularism is not even indexed and in the former it can be seen only in one footnote. However, there is no shortage of discussion and coverage of the topic it involves. It is just called overlapping consensus, pluralism, multiculturalism or expressed in some other way. In The Oxford Handbook of Political Theory,[43] there is one chapter called "Political secularism", by Rajeev Bhargava. It covers secularism in a global context, and starts with this sentence: "Secularism is a beleaguered doctrine."

See also


  1. ^ Luke W. Galen. The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. Oxford University Press, 2016. p. 22-23
  2. ^ Stephen Bullivant; Lois Lee, eds. (2016). "Secularism". A Dictionary of Atheism. Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ John R. Shook, The Oxford Handbook of Secularism. Oxford University Press, 2017. p. 10
  4. ^ a b Nader Hashemi (2009). "Secularism". In John L. Esposito (ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195305135.
  5. ^ Yaniv Roznai citing Domenic Marbaniang in "Negotiating the Eternal: The Paradox of Entrenching Secularism in Constitutions", Michigan State Law Review 253, 2017, p. 324
  6. ^ Holyoake, G. J. (1896). English Secularism: A Confession of Belief. Library of Alexandria. ISBN 978-1-4655-1332-8.
  7. ^ Shook, Zuckerman, pp. 3-4.
  8. ^ "George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906)". Humanist Heritage. Humanists UK. Retrieved 8 October 2021.
  9. ^ Kosmin, Barry A. "Hard and soft secularists and hard and soft secularism: An intellectual and research challenge." (PDF), archived from the original (PDF) on March 27, 2009, retrieved 2011-03-24
  10. ^ Barry Kosmin of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, cited in Subhan, Jelis (March 16, 2016). "CONCEPT OF SECULARISM". SSRN: 1–2. SSRN 3517967.
  11. ^ Feldman, Noah (2005). p. 14. "[Legal secularists] claim that separating religion from the public, governmental sphere is necessary to ensure the full inclusion of all citizens."
  12. ^ Berlinerblau, Jacques, "How to be Secular", Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. xvi.
  13. ^ Elissa B. Alzate, Religious Liberty in a Lockean Society, Palgrave Studies in Religion, Politics, and Policy, 2017, p. 32
  14. ^ Ira M. Lapidus (October 1975). "The Separation of State and Religion in the Development of Early Islamic Society", International Journal of Middle East Studies 6 (4), pp. 363–85.
  15. ^ K.S. Duggal, Ranjit Singh: A Secular Sikh Sovereign, Abhinav Publications (1989) ISBN 81-7017-244-6
  16. ^ Sheikh, Majid (2010-10-31). "Destruction of schools as Leitner saw them". Dawn. Archived from the original on 2013-05-25. Retrieved 4 June 2013.
  17. ^ Feldman Noah (2005). pp. 6–8.
  18. ^ Washington Post, November 15, 2006 "Think Tank Will Promote Thinking" Archived 2017-10-29 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ "Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism". Archived from the original on 2009-01-17. Retrieved 2011-03-24.
  20. ^ Lewis, Bob (2007-05-19). "'Jerry's Kids' Urged to Challenge 'Radical Secularism'". The Christian Post. Archived from the original on 2007-05-21. Retrieved 2018-08-03.
  21. ^ Abdul Khaliq (2022-01-24). "A dirge for secularism in India". The Indian Express.
  22. ^ Press Trust of India (PTI) (2021-02-04). "India falls to 53rd rank in EIU's Democracy Index, dubbed as flawed democracy". The Economic Times.
  23. ^ Rev Jerry Falwell (2001-09-15). "Jerry Falwell – Quotations – Seventh quotation". Archived from the original on 2008-05-11.
  24. ^ Jacques Berlinerblau (2012-07-28). "Secularism Is Not Atheism". The Huffington Post. Archived from the original on 2017-10-18. Retrieved 2013-05-27.
  25. ^ Feldman, Noah (2005). p. 13.
  26. ^ Mount, Steve. ""The Constitution of the United States", Amendment 1 – Freedom of Religion, Press". Archived from the original on 30 August 2010. Retrieved 22 April 2011.
  27. ^ "Secularism and Religious Freedom in France". Archived from the original on 2020-10-30. Retrieved 2020-10-26.
  28. ^ "Preamble of the Constitution of India". Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2011-03-24.
  29. ^ See article 3 of the 1917 Mexican constitution, and Article 24. See also Schmitt (1962) and Blancarte (2006).
  30. ^ Das Acevedo, Veena (27 December 2018). "Secularism in the Indian Context". Law & Social Inquiry. 38: 139. Archived from the original on 2 November 2020. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
  31. ^ "LAÏCITÉ: A MODEL OR A THREAT FOR FREEDOM OF RELIGION?". Religious Freedom Institute. Archived from the original on 2020-08-07. Retrieved 2020-05-15.
  32. ^ "Declare India a 'Hindu Rashtra': Hindu convention resolution". Hindustan Times. 2017-06-17. Archived from the original on 1 May 2021. Retrieved 2021-09-02.
  33. ^ "Secular Europe and Religious America: Implications for Transatlantic Relations". Pew Research Center. 2005-04-21. Archived from the original on 2018-07-04. Retrieved 4 July 2018.
  34. ^ The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber, London, Routledge Classics, 2001, pp. 123–25.
  35. ^ Holyoake, G. J. (1896). p. 37 Archived 2020-02-06 at the Wayback Machine.
  36. ^ Derek Parfit (1984). Reasons and persons. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-824615-2. OL 3172889M. 0198246153((inconsistent citations))((cite book)): CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  37. ^ Brian Leiter, "Is "Secular Moral Theory" Really Relatively Young? Archived 2018-04-05 at the Wayback Machine, Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, June 28, 2009.
  38. ^ Richard Dawkins, "When Religion Steps on Science's Turf: The Alleged Separation Between the Two Is Not So Tidy Archived 2006-12-25 at the Wayback Machine", Free Inquiry vol. 18, no. 2.
  39. ^ Solomon, D. (2005). "Christian Bioethics, Secular Bioethics, and the Claim to Cultural Authority". Christian Bioethics. 11 (3): 349–59. doi:10.1080/13803600500501571. PMID 16423736.
  40. ^ a b Inc., Recorded Books (2011-01-01). Political Liberalism: Expanded Edition. Columbia University Press. p. 457. ISBN 978-0-231-52753-8. OCLC 948824118.
  41. ^ Patrick., Farrelly, Colin (2004-01-01). Contemporary political theory: a reader. Sage. ISBN 978-0-7619-4908-4. OCLC 290530058.
  42. ^ Will., Kymlicka (2002). Contemporary political philosophy: an introduction. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-878274-2. OCLC 611694157.
  43. ^ Dryzek, John S.; Bonnie., Honig (2009-01-01). The Oxford handbook of political theory. Oxford University Press. p. 636. ISBN 978-0-19-927003-3. OCLC 474737332.

Further reading

  • Cliteur, Paul (2010). The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism. ISBN 978-1-4443-3521-7
  • Jacoby, Susan (2004). Freethinkers: a History of American Secularism. New York: Metropolitan Books. ISBN 0-8050-7442-2
  • Asad, Talal (2003). Formations Of The Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-4768-7
  • Taylor, Charles (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02676-6
  • Kosmin, Barry A. and Ariela Keysar (2007). Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives. Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. ISBN 978-0-9794816-0-4, 0-9794816-0-0
  • Martin, David (2005). On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory. Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 0-7546-5322-6
  • Benson, Iain (2004). Considering Secularism in Farrows, Douglas(ed.). Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society McGill-Queens Press. ISBN 0-7735-2812-1
  • Berlinerblau, Jacques (2012) "How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom" ISBN 978-0-547-47334-5
  • Cinar, Alev (2006). Modernity, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey: Bodies, Places, and Time. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-4411-X
  • Urban, Greg (2008). The circulation of secularism. International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society Archived 2020-11-02 at the Wayback Machine, Vol. 21, (1–4), December. pp. 17–37.