The group of words derived from the Latin saeculum (age or generation) are often ambiguous and their ambiguities are too often exploited for polemical purposes. In mediaeval times ‘secular’ meant temporal or worldly as opposed to the timeless realm of the divine but applied – for example – to clergy who lived ‘in the world’ rather than in monastic seclusion.
This meaning of ‘belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the church and religion’ (Oxford English Dictionary) remains the central meaning of the word today, but it has also taken on another meaning derived from coinage of the term ‘secularism’ by G J Holyoake in the 1850s to label a non-religious but ‘positive and ethical’ philosophy of life.
But ‘secularism’ has come to mean something more specific: the political philosophy that the state should preserve a distance from religion, should be neutral as between rival religions and beliefs. This is a doctrine that has derived much support from the growth of ideas about human rights and their enshrinement in international treaties and national laws since World War II.
A by-product of this development, however, has been a de-centering of religion – or rather, of Christianity – from its customary privileged place in European and other ‘western’ societies. Not unnaturally, traditionalist churchmen have seen the ideas of secularism as hostile to their interests, and so have come to lump together all secularists, denouncing alike those who support an open, neutral society (among whom many are in fact religious) and those ‘secularists’ who are hostile to religion, such as the so-called ‘new atheists’.
In the papers in this section it is secularism as a political philosophy that I concentrate on. The paper The Challenge of Secularism explores more of what is meant by secularism in this sense, and the paper Humanism and the Open Society argues the case for an open society in which Humanism will be just one more ‘religion or belief’. The paper Freedom of Religion and Belief and Freedom of Speech in an Open Society takes a more detailed and political view and asks three questions: 1: What is the legitimate role within society of groups representing a religion or belief? 2: What are the limits of self-govt for such groups within society? 3: What are the limits of free speech in the public space for religions and beliefs? Secularism – an approach from Human Rights points up the way that human rights almost entail a secularist politics.
The article Secularism in Europe takes a bird’s eye view of the constitutional and legal position in Europe; and another short article sounds the alarm about threats to secularism in the UK and Europe.
Finally, a paper on a more specialised topic concerns the way that the European Union engages with religion and belief: Article 17: Reasons for Concern produces evidence of a bias towards religion and discrimination against non-religious philosophies, contrary to the principles of the EU.