Friday, November 9, 2007


Secularism is generally the assertion that certain practices or institutions should exist separately from religion or religious belief. Alternatively, it is a principle of promoting secular ideas or values in either public or private settings. It may also be a synonym for "secularist movement". In the extreme, it is an ideology that holds that religion has no place in public life.

In one sense, secularism may assert the freedom of religion, and freedom from the government imposition of religion upon the people, within a state that is neutral on matters of belief, and gives no state privileges or subsidies to religions. (See also Separation of church and state and Laïcité.) In another sense, it refers to a belief that human activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be based on evidence and fact rather than religious influence. (See also public reason.)

The purposes and arguments in support of secularism vary widely. In European laicism, it has been argued that secularism is a movement toward modernization, and away from traditional religious values. This type of secularism, on a social or philosophical level, has often occurred while maintaining an official state church or other state support of religion. In the United States, some argue that state secularism has served to a greater extent to protect religion from governmental interference, while secularism on a social level is less prevalent. Within countries as well, however, differing political movements support secularism for equally varying reasons.

The term "secularism" was first used by the British writer George Holyoake in 1846. Although the term was new, the general notions of freethought on which it was based had existed throughout history. In particular, early secular ideas involving the separation of philosophy and religion can be traced back to Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and the Averroism school of philosophy. Holyoake invented the term "secularism" to describe his views of promoting a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticizing religious belief. An agnostic himself, Holyoake argued that "Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life."

Barry Kosmin of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture breaks modern secularism into two types: hard and soft secularism. According to Kosmin, "the hard secularist considers religious propositions to be epistemologically illegitimate, warranted by neither religion nor experience." However, in the view of soft secularism, "the attainment of absolute truth was impossible and therefore skepticism and tolerance should be the principle and overriding values in the discussion of science and religion."

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