On Secularism

On Secularism October 16, 2012

Jacques Berlinerblau has been all over the place with his new book How to be Secular. Jason Pitzl-Waters has a rundown over at The Wild Hunt, (which will soon be leaving us and I wish him well.) I’m just getting into it, but I wanted to put down some thoughts on secularism in general before I started getting into his arguments.

The word “secular” comes from the Latin “saeculum” by the way of french “seculer,” meaning “in the world”. Its earliest use was the phrase “secular clergy,” which seems like a contradiction to us. It referred to priests who lived in the community with their congregation, rather that being separated from the community, either physically by monastery walls or symbolically by the strict rules of a monastic code.

That idea of “in the world” seems to be the root of our use of the word. To be “secular” is to be worldly, to be in the world and to be of the world. “Secularism” turns the word into an ideology, and this is where it gets confusing.

Many thinkers have used “secularism” to describe the belief that we should be focused on the world and not on anything that originates from outside of it: gods, spirits, revelations from heaven, angelic voices, etc. You can hold that view pragmatically and still believe that such things exist, or you can say that there is nothing outside of the world, and there you have materialism and atheism.

The Catholic theologian Richard McBrien tried to separate it into a positive and negative form. So secularism denies or wishes to exclude the sacred, while “secularity” is a “positive, or at least neutral, term, which affirms the integrity and independence of worldly realities in themselves.” (Caesar’s Coin, p.205) Secularism is opposed to religion, while secularity is opposed to the idea that the temporal world is only an extension or an instrument of the spiritual world.

For better or worse, McBrien’s distinction never caught on. For our purposes this doesn’t matter. We’re usually focused on the political implications, and both approaches result in the same political idea: that political discourse should be focused on the world rather than on otherworldly things.

For the atheist, this is because there are no otherworldly things, but why would a believer embrace secularism as a political philosophy? Usually it’s because the worldly is available to everyone involved, while those otherworldly things are only accessible to certain sects. In a democracy, or another government where the will of the people plays a role, secularism means that everyone gets to participate because no one sect has cornered the market.

It also allows the state to sidestep the problem on competing religious truth claims. I read the holy text and decide that the government should fund health care; you read the holy text and decide that the government should not tax anyone to pay for anyone else’s health care. Which interpretation is correct? As far as the secular government is concerned, neither interpretation matters because the authority of one sect’s holy text is not recognized. It may matter to you or your community, but when it comes to engaging with people outside your community then you must put down your holy text.

This requires each party to use arguments and evidence that are accessible to everyone. Not surprisingly, this is unacceptable to the people that Berlinerblau refers to as the “Revivalists” and we call the Religious Right. Such people tend to be manichean in their thinking; you are either operating under the dictates of our sect or you are an atheist/communist/satanist. For the Revivialists, there is no such thing as neutral ground.

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