In keeping with the last post on humanities, I thought I’d ruminate with no effort or knowledge to back it up on what the term “secular” means.
If the fundamentalists are to be believed, it is a synonym of “humanist” and also “Satanist”, “infidel” and “homosexual”. But somewhat more seriously, I have seen it used in journals to mean those who are not religious, those who aim to the elimination of religion, and those who seek to exclude religion from the affairs of the political institutions. None of these are exactly right, as far as I can tell.
In Australia it seems to be a term used largely in the context of education, since given that we are a society that is largely secular (it’s in the constitution: “116. The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth”) the amount of state funding to religious schools is a debated topic. Some 70% of secondary and primary school federal funding is given to religious schools, although pre-tertiary education is a state responsibility.
Since the 1870s in various Australian states, state education has been supposed to be secular, and from that time on it largely meant “non-denominational”. Only in the early part of the 20th century did it acquire the sense of “irreligious”. The idea of secularism which Australia initially adopted, and which I suppose was also the sense in other western nations, was that no particular religion would be given priority in state activities, such as law, parliament, and so on. One of the major objectors to secularism at the time were Protestant ministers, who correctly saw that their dominance over Catholics was under threat.
But to call someone “secular” does not mean they are without religion at all, although it may be the case that a secularist has none, and fears dominance by religious interests in non-religious affairs. It means they do not want religions to be preferred in official matters of state. In other words, no governmental agency or instrument may favour one religion. This has also always been interpreted to mean that no governmental agency, etc., can impose religion upon the irreligious as well.
There are good terms for those who have no religious affiliations or convictions: “irreligious” will do nicely. For those who deny the existence or rationality of gods, “atheist” does fine. “secularist” means someone who opposes state religion of any kind.
I would very much like, therefore, politicians to stop currying favour with religious voting blocs (themselves quite legitimate in a democracy) by over-funding students of religious schools to the detriment of the “secular” schools. I suspect it is unconstitutional, but there’s probably case law that allows it.* It is, at least, contrary to a society comprising many and no religions. Australia, since 1971, has allowed a “no religion” answer on the census, and since then it has grown to around 18%, but when you add in the “not stated/inadequately described” category, it is around 30% of the population. That is the largest slice of the demographic pie of all religions, even more than the Catholics. Some are Jedi, as well… That is over 3.5 million people.
So when politicians kowtow to religious parties and interests in Australia and impose on the rest of us the values of one religion or even one denomination, that is equivalent to Anglicans forcing Catholics to adopt women as priests by law. In fact, it’s worse, because there are fewer Catholics (and far fewer Anglicans). That is what secularism prevents, and in a state ruled by law, notionally, it is a matter of parity for the largest minority that we get the same protections that any other religion does. And make no mistake, secularism, as I have argued before, protects other religions too.
What has brought this to my attention is that I am authoring a chapter of a book on Australian Atheism. Oddly, PZ Mackerel isn’t one of the authors. I thought he had a contract with Beelzebul to be first author after Dawkins in all atheism books.
* Rather a famous one[PDF], I should have remembered.