Sunday, April 17, 2016

Secular has two contexts and definitions

By Mathew Goldstein

Secular and non-religious are synonyms.  Insofar as we know what it means to be religious we also know what it means to be non-religious.  Secular can describe individuals or institutions.  A secular individual can have, or a secular institution can represent, opinions that range anywhere between being pro-religion and anti-religion. An individual with anti-religion opinions, or an institution representing anti-religion opinions, is more likely to be secular than religious because being both religious and anti-religion tends to be self-contradictory.  

However, when the secular institution is government we are talking about laws. Therefore our definition of secular is now the definition found in legal dictionaries. Legal definitions often differ from the definitions for the same word found in general usage dictionaries.  Legal concepts are rooted in legal concerns such as civic equality and liberty.  So it is with secularism as a legal concept.  Secular government is non-religious government.  But unlike opinionated secular individuals and non-government institutions, secular government also requires religious neutrality.

This is a substantial difference and it is important.  Secular government does not represent pro-religion or anti-religion opinions.  Secular government does not favor theism over atheism or vice-a-versa.  Secular individuals and non-government institutions may advocate either for, or against, religions or religious beliefs.  Secular government institutions avoid taking sides on questions of religious beliefs or practices.

When we advocate for secular government we should be advocating for government neutrality vis-a-vis religious beliefs and practices.  This entails sometimes accommodating religious beliefs and practices when it is practical to do so without sacrificing the enactment or enforcement of secular policies.  Secular policies are justified by the overall available empirical evidence.  Individual liberty, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of association, are secular values.  Religious convictions and practices are considered for accommodation, but not as legal or policy justification.  

Advocating for secular government, advocating for religious beliefs, and being religious, are all mutually compatible, at least in theory if not always in practice. A conflict occurs when religious beliefs are actively opposed to secular laws and polices.  In that zero sum context secularists should be willing to stand against those particular religious beliefs, not because they are religious beliefs but because the beliefs conflict with secular government.  The notion that secular government avoids all conflict with all religions and religious beliefs is false.

As individuals, some secularists are anti-religion.  Religions are fictions, with no exceptions, and that alone is proper justification to be anti-religion.  Believing that falsehoods are truths, whether it is believing that there is no global warming problem, that humans are not primates with single celled ancestors, or that some holy book contain instructions from a deity, is bad for humanity.  I would prefer living in a country, and on a planet, where people accurately recognized the difference between fiction and fact and lived in the non-fictional universe instead of living in a human imagination created parallel fictional universe.

Yet it would be a mistake to look to government policy and laws as instruments for converting individuals from religion to secularism. That would betray secular government as a legal principle rooted in neutrality.  Government neutrality as a legal principle has merit and should not be sacrificed.  Converting people away from religion also has merit and that should be pursued separately through individual advocacy and non-government institutional advocacy.  We can each advocate for both types of secularism, or we can advocate for secular government without advocating generally against religious beliefs.  Either way, we should respect this distinction between the two different definitions of secular for the two different contexts.

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