What is "secular"?

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.


More like this

The conservative government of John Howard is proposing to offer $20,000 to any school to employ a "religious person" as a chaplain for students. This isn't blurring the line of separation between church and state, he says. It's just "common sense". Right. [Updated, so moved up to the top] I wonder…
Language Log recently took apart the speech and interview by the Archbishop of Canterbury that the media are, inaccurately, reporting as advocating the introduction of Sharia law into British and by implication other common law jurisdictions. Its conclusion was that Abp Rowan Williams did not…
The Australian government, still in the period of meeting its election promises, has legitimised the relations between homosexual couples so that they now have the same rights as defacto couples, which is long overdue. But they didn't quite get it right. Why not? They didn't allow gays to get…
I've received a few emails from friends about this piece in Edge titled Why the Gods are Not Winning. The reason is that I've made it clear that in many ways I think religiosity as we understand it naturally arises out of the intersection of our societies and our cognition, that atheism is not the…

I am confident that you know that a "secular" priest is one who does not belong to an order, in distinction to one who is "regular" (subject to the rules of an order) or "religious".

Excellent analysis, and you are stumbling over the same problem we encounter in the U.S.: Those WITH belief like to give words heavily pejorative meaning and then beat their opponents with them. To wit, "Liberal" "Secular Humanist" "Atheist."

One angle you didn't consider (again, arising from within religion) is the religious juxtaposition of the "sacred" and the "secular." A separation of holy and "not", I suppose.

For my money, your definition of secular is right on target. In matters political, the decisions are to be made of, by and for the people, and those decisions are to be made law, and at no point is there any need for religious dogma to enter the deliberation.

By Robert Schneider (not verified) on 13 May 2009 #permalink

In the US, the constitution says pretty much the same thing, except "Congress" is substituted for "Commonwealth", which may give American politicians slightly more legal leeway to kowtow than Australians. Not that they pay attention to the constitution anyway. Of course, there is no such thing as "secular" for hardcore fundamentalists of any stripe. They never really separate their religion from politics or anything else. The religious meme assumes control of the mind, and won't allow entry to anything that even remotely threatens to dislodge it.

In the U.S.A. the separation of church and state, as insisted upon by Thomas Jefferson over 200 years ago, is important so as to permit individual thinking and respect for different views on all issues, and has been copied by many other countries in the writings of their constitutions. Secularism also encourages tolerance for other views more than do dogmatic, religious beliefs. Adherence to any religious tenet is learned and in the process, restricts creativity and individuality and is too often carried to the extreme of the belief that all other religions are inferior and/or wrong.

By denniscav (not verified) on 14 May 2009 #permalink

I've never really understood the rationale for government funding of 'private' schools. It reeks of reverse discrimination to me. Like welfare for the rich. Although I know of several families sending their kid/s to private schools who couldn't afford it without the government funding. I just feel that if governments pulled out of subsidising the private schools and funded the public schools properly the poor people's kids have a better chance for a good education as well.

By Katkinkate (not verified) on 14 May 2009 #permalink

Im usually the first to denegrate religious schools, 14 years of them will do that, but actually I think it is fair enough they get the same funding per child as any other school in a strictly eccenomic sense. Those parents are paying their taxes for government services same as anyone else. And as someone who went to a school founded for 'poor catholic girls' I have to admit they did waive fees for the truely poor, and private schools REALLY aren't just for the rich.

The fact they get more per child seems to be, from what I know form people in education, because private schools are much better at applying for funding and 'using' the system. I could be wrong. I sort of hope I am wrong.

That said, down with religous schools! Do it on Sunday, if you must. (If you go to Sunday school, does that count as not resting?)

(If you go to Sunday school, does that count as not resting?)

Only if you're part of the 5% that can stay awake through Sunday school.

I'd like to know more about the book on Australian atheism. Are the right people (apart from you) involved? Obviously I'm not, or I wouldn't be asking, but there's really no reason why I would be. I mean Jack Smart, Graham Oppy, Tamas Pataki, Greg Egan, and the like. And someone writing in it should at least mention 50 Voices in it, since it's so heavily Australian in its editor/contributor presence.

I'm surprised that I haven't heard about this book. Could you drop me a note off-thread if you don't want to clutter the discussion?