Digest of terms


a term used to describe the frame of reference being used to interpret how the present world is being understood. It is part of a verbal family which includes secularity, secularism, secularist, and secularisation. By implication they each convey a sense of distinction from a world view which is 'religious'.

It is important to distinguish between three different usages. Firstly, there is a relatively neutral sense which is affirming that much of public life functions independently of any particular religious perspective. Thus, air traffic control is co-ordinated internationally, science and its applications follow agreed testable procedures, and all without particular religious reference. Similarly, the now secular tradition of International Law is recognised by most nations of the world, along with their signing up to the charter of human rights. This sense of the secular does not assert that religious perspectives are necessarily of no importance, although some judge that to be the case. It allows that for many others, religious perspectives underpin the common rationality of all these public realms. On this meaning of secular, religion and secularity are seen as potentially complementary, each rooted in faith which is not contrary to reason.

Secondly, secularity is used as explicitly critical of religion. In many societies throughout the world, there are individuals and organisations in whose eyes religion is a matter of indifference, or simply nonsense. With little difficulty they can find extensive evidence past and present that religions have sponsored violence and inequality. Therefore In this sense, the secular sets a moral challenge to any religious believer - one that may lead to defensiveness or perhaps to gratitude.

The third sense of the secular is more exclusively rejecting of there being any potential worth in religions. In this sense, secularity becomes secularism. Whereas pursuit of secularity, though critical of religion, remains open to debate, secularism closes down all argument and simply asserts the empty falsehood of all religion. In effect, secularism risks becoming as closed a world view as is sometimes found in any of the religions it rejects.

Differences in the meaning of the term secular can be seen in its application to the constitutions of different countries. In the USA, the connotation is one of separation between church and state; by implication public life and institutions are secular, religion belongs in the private realm. (Irony 'One Nation under God' and regular presidential greeting: 'God bless America'.) In India, the connotation is that of all religions being equal with none being established. In France, as a secular republic, there is a serious question mark against the public credibility of any religion and suspicious of any outward expressions if and when they appear in public places.

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