Secularism and Atheism

George Jacob Holyoake, a British writer and newspaper editor, coined the term “secularism” in 1851. In his book, English Secularism, he quotes Harriet Martineau, the British sociologist and Unitarian,

The adoption of the term Secularism is justified by its including a large number of persons who are not Atheists, and uniting them for action which has Secularism for its object, and not Atheism.

Although this statement sets up a contrast that distinguishes Secularism from Atheism, in the rest Holyoake’s book the line is blurred. For instance, he contrasts “Secular education” and “Secularism”:

Secular education is by some confounded with Secularism, whereas the distinction between them is very wide. Secular education simply means imparting Secular knowledge separately—by itself, without admixture of Theology with it. The advocate of Secular education may be, and generally is, also an advocate of religion; but he would teach religion at another time and treat it as a distinct subject, too sacred for coercive admixture into the hard and vexatious routine of a school. He would confine the inculcation of religion to fitting seasons and chosen instruments. He holds also that one subject at a time is mental economy in learning. Secular education is the policy of a school—Secularism is the policy of life to those who do not accept Theology.

Today, The National Secular Society in the UK defines secularism in the following way:

Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

They go on to specify:

Secularism is not atheism

Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. Secularism simply provides a framework for a democratic society. Atheists have an obvious interest in supporting secularism, but secularism itself does not seek to challenge the tenets of any particular religion or belief, neither does it seek to impose atheism on anyone.

Secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society – in politics, education, the law and elsewhere, for believers and non-believers alike.

This more closely resembles the concept of the separation of church and state rather than Secularism as it is used by Holyoake. Citizens of the United States may have taken notice that the coinage of the word “secularism” post-dates the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The word secularism may have two possible meanings, but there is no other single word which is used to describe the concept that the state should be neutral in matters pertaining to religion.

Although the word secularism was not coined until 1851, its root, secular, has been around since the fourteenth century, and means earthly, worldly, temporal or profane, as opposed to spiritual, or sacred. We find it being used by John Milton in Paradise Lost.

Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names,
Places and titles, and with these to joine
Secular power, though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God, promisd alike and giv’n
To all Beleevers; and from that pretense,
Spiritual Lawes by carnal power shall force
On every conscience; Laws which none shall finde
Left them inrould, or what the Spirit within
Shall on the heart engrave.

This appears in the last book when the angel Michael tells Adam what lies in store for humanity. This summary is inflected with Milton’s own ideas regarding liberty. He describes corruption in the Church. The representatives of the Church seek worldly, or secular power while pretending to still be spiritual. With this power they shall force their law on every conscience. This passage is not surprising since Milton argued for a separation of church and state and religious toleration, as least as far as Christian sects were concerned.

Although the notion that the state should refrain from involvement in religious affairs has antecedents stretching back to at least the Ancient Greeks, much of our contemporary understanding of the concept comes from the Enlightenment. We owe a tremendous debt to John Locke for many of the concepts the make the modern world modern and the concept of the separation of church and state is not least among them.

The American and French Revolutions would give a chance for many of these ideas, including the idea of secularism, or laïcité in French, to be put into practice. However, many Western countries would not follow for a long time. England, with a monarch who is also the head of the Church of England, is a particularly difficult case. Until 1778 Catholics were unable to own land or to keep a school. In 1791 further restrictions were removed from Catholics and 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed, allowing Catholics to serve in Parliament, although a few restrictions remained in place. Although nonconforming Protestants were not persecuted as severely, they were not allowed to hold civil or military office. To matriculate from Oxford or to graduate from Cambridge it was necessary to be taking communion in the established Anglican Church. The Anglican Church today is still the official state religion of England, although not of Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

As in England in the nineteenth century, in the United States during a comparable period the strongest supporters of the separation of church and state were religious minorities like the Baptists. The separation of church and state protect religious minorities even more than it does non-believers, as atheists have no religious practice to be restricted.

Support for a separation of church and state is an essential protection of the liberty of all individuals. It is distinct, and entirely so, from atheism. It is a position about the best way to order the temporal authority of the state regarding spiritual matters. Secularism, has often been the word used to describe this political viewpoint.

2. The view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition


1. (Philosophy) philosophy a doctrine that rejects religion, esp in ethics
2. the attitude that religion should have no place in civil affairs

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged


2. the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the influence of religious beliefs.

Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary


1. a view that religion and religious considerations should be ignored or excluded from social and political matters.

-Ologies & -Isms.

It is essential in our current political climate that we have a word for this. I grew up believing that word was “secularism.” Apparently Jaques Berlinerblau did so as well. He calls the association of secularism with atheism “groundless.” Until I started researching for this post I thought so too. However he does note, and I believe rightly, that the religious right has profited from this confusion.

Second, for secularism to reinvigorate itself it needs to reclaim its traditional base of religious people. As I noted in my forthcoming book, the secular vision was birthed by religious thinkers, such as Martin Luther, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (the last two, admittedly were idiosyncratic believers, but believers nonetheless).

Throughout American history it has been groups like Baptists, Jews, progressive Catholics as well as countless smaller religious minorities who have championed secular political ideas. But religious believers today, even moderate religious believers, will not sign on to secularism if they think it’s merely the advocacy arm of godlessness.

He also points out:

Yet it is not only foes, but friends of secularism, who sometimes make this mistake as well. Nowadays most major atheist groups describe themselves as “secular.” Many are in fact good secularists. But others, as we shall see, are beholden to assumptions that are strikingly at odds with the secular worldview.

Which brings me to why I wrote this post.

I see that there is a new action afoot called “Openly Secular.” To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how this differs from the “Out Campaign.” Perhaps that one had simply stopped receiving enough attention. To say that one is “secular”, well, what the heck does that even mean. I am secular, earthly, temporal… okay, but I thought that goes without saying. Even people who call themselves spiritual would probably say that they are also of this earth.

This muddies the water very badly, and I think for no other reason than people think there is some advantage to be had to avoiding the word “atheist.” To see the danger that Berlinerblau is warning us about we need look no further than Rick Santorum’s recent comments.

I think we should start calling secularism a religion,” Santorum told a grinning Fischer. “Because if we did, then we could ban that, too, because that’s what they’ve done: they’ve hidden behind the fact that the absence of religion is not a religion of itself.

I’m afraid my voice in this movement is very small, but I hope that I’ve persuaded you to not use secularism when you mean atheism. Like all people who do not belong to the majority religion, atheists do have a self-interest in this. I hope everyone keeps Rawls’ “Veil of Ignorance” in mind and advocates for the freedom of conscience, not only for ourselves, but for all.

If, some months from now, Openly Secular continues to draw attention, perhaps we will need to take a page from Holyoake’s book and coin a new word.

  1. Thanks for clarifying this I admit I’ve been a bit confused with the whole thing!

  2. makagutu said:

    This is a good post my friend. I have seen many people use secular in place of atheism. Maybe they are blind to the knowledge there is a difference.

    • fojap said:

      When you consider the father, it’s almost a surprise that Ted Cruz isn’t more nuts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: