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Secularity, also the secular or secularness (from Latin saeculum, "worldly" or "of a generation") is the state of being unrelated or neutral in regards to religion. Anything that does not have an explicit reference to religion, either negatively or positively, may be considered secular.[1]

Historically, the word secular was not related or linked to religion, but was a freestanding term in Latin which would relate to any mundane endeavour.[2] However, the term, saecula saeculorum (saeculōrum being the genitive plural of saeculum) as found in the New Testament in the Vulgate translation (circa 410) of the original Koine Greek phrase εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων (eis toùs aionas ton aiṓnōn), e.g. at Galatians 1:5, was used in the early Christian church (and is still used today), in the doxologies, to denote the coming and going of the ages, the grant of eternal life, and the long duration of created things from their beginning to forever and ever.[3]

The idea of a dichotomy between religion and the secular originated in the European Enlightenment.[4] Furthermore, since religion and secular are both Western concepts that were formed under the influence of Christian theology, other cultures do not necessarily have words or concepts that resemble or are equivalent to them.[5]

In many cultures, there is little dichotomy between "natural" and "supernatural", "religious" and "not-religious", especially since people have beliefs in other supernatural or spiritual things irrespective of belief in God or gods. Other cultures stress practice of ritual rather than belief.[6] Conceptions of both "secular" and "religious", while sometimes having some parallels in local cultures, were generally imported along with Western worldviews, often in the context of colonialism. Attempts to define either the "secular" or the "religious" in non-Western societies, accompanying local modernization and Westernization processes, were often and still are fraught with tension.[7] Due to all these factors, "secular" as a general term of reference was much deprecated in social sciences, and is used carefully and with qualifications.[8]

One can regard eating and bathing as examples of secular activities, because there may not be anything inherently religious about them. Nevertheless, some religious traditions see both eating and bathing as sacraments, therefore making them religious activities within those world views. Saying a prayer derived from religious text or doctrine, worshipping through the context of a religion, performing corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and attending a religious seminary school or monastery are examples of religious (non-secular) activities.

The "secular" is experienced in diverse ways ranging from separation of religion and state to being anti-religion or even pro-religion, depending on the culture.[9] For example, the United States has both separation of church and state and pro-religiosity in various forms such as protection of religious freedoms; France has separation of church and state (and Revolutionary France was strongly anti-religious); the Soviet Union was anti-religion; in India, people feel comfortable identifying as secular while participating in religion; and in Japan, since the concept of "religion" is not indigenous to Japan, people state they have no religion while doing what appears to be religion to Western eyes.[10]

A related term, secularism, involves the principle that government institutions and their representatives should remain separate from religious institutions, their beliefs, and their dignitaries.[citation needed] Many businesses and corporations, and some governments operate on secular lines. This stands in contrast to theocracy, government with deity as its highest authority.

Etymology and definitions[edit]

Secular and secularity derive from the Latin word saeculum which meant "of a generation, belonging to an age" or denoted a period of about one hundred years.[11] In the ancient world, saeculum was not defined in contrast to any sacred concerns and had a freestanding usage in Latin.[12] It was in Christian Latin of medieval times, that saeculum was used for distinguishing this temporal age of the world from the eternal realm of God.[11] The Christian doctrine that God exists outside time led medieval Western culture to use secular to indicate separation from specifically religious affairs and involvement in temporal ones.

This does not necessarily imply hostility to God or religion, though some use the term this way (see "secularism", below); Martin Luther used to speak of "secular work" as a vocation from God for most Christians.[citation needed] According to cultural anthropologists such as Jack David Eller, secularity is best understood, not as being "anti-religious", but as being "religiously neutral" since many activities in religious bodies are secular themselves and most versions of secularity do not lead to irreligiosity.[13]


According to the anthropologist Jack David Eller's review of secularity, he observes that secularization is very diverse and can vary by degree and kind. He notes the sociologist Peter Glasner's ten institutional, normative, or cognitive processes for secularization as:[14]

  • Decline – the reduction in quantitative measures of religious identification and participation, such as lower church attendance/membership or decreased profession of belief
  • Routinization – "settling" or institutionalizing through integration into the society and often compromise with the society, which tends to occur when the religion becomes large and is therefore one mark of success as a religion, although it is less intense and distinct than in its early formative "cultish" or new-religious-movement stage
  • Differentiation – a redefined place or relation to society, perhaps accepting its status as one religion in a plural religious field or morphing into a more "generic" and therefore mass-appeal religion.
  • Disengagement – the detachment of certain facets of social life from religion
  • Transformation – change over time (Glasner cites [Max] Weber's analysis of Protestantism as a transformation of Christianity for a new social milieu)
  • Generalization – a particular kind of change in which it becomes less specific, more abstract, and therefore more inclusive, like the supposed "civil religion" in the United States; it moderates its more controversial and potentially divisive claims and practices
  • Desacralization – the evacuation of "supernatural" beings and forces from the material world, leaving culture and rationality to guide humans instead
  • Segmentation – the development of specialized religious institutions, which take their place beside other specialized social institutions
  • Secularization – the processes of urbanization, industrialization, rationalization, bureaucratization, and cultural/religious pluralism through which society moves away from the "sacred" and toward the "profane"
  • Secularism – the only form that leads to outright rejection of religion, amounting to atheism

Modern usage[edit]

Examples of secular used in this way include:

Related concepts[edit]

  • Secularism is an assertion or belief that religious issues should not be the basis of politics, and it is a movement that promotes those ideas (or an ideology) which hold that religion has no place in public life. French frequently uses laïcité as an equivalent idiom for sécularisme. Secularist organizations are distinguished from merely secular ones by their political advocacy of such positions.
  • Laïcisme is the French word that most resembles secularism, especially in the latter's extreme definition, as it is understood by the Catholic Church, which sets laïcisme in opposition to the allegedly far milder concept of laïcité. The correspondent word laicism (also spelled laïcism) is sometimes used in English as a synonym for secularism.
  • Laïcité is a French concept related to the separation of state and religion, sometimes rendered by the English cognate neologism laicity and also translated by the words secularity and secularization. The word laïcité is sometimes characterized as having no exact English equivalent; it is similar to the more moderate definition of secularism, but is not as ambiguous as that word.


All of the state universities in the United States are secular organizations (especially because of the combined effect of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution) while some private universities are connected with the Christian or Jewish religions such as Boston College, Emory University, the University of Notre Dame, Wheaton College and Yeshiva College. Other universities started as being religiously affiliated but have become more secular as time went on such as Harvard University and Yale University. The public university systems of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Colombia, India, and Japan are also secular, although some government-funded primary and secondary schools may be religiously aligned in some countries. Exactly what is meant by religious affiliation is a complex and contested issue since the ways in which religious identity is framed is not consistent across different religious and cultural traditions.[15][page needed]

See also[edit]




  1. ^ Lois Lee, Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular. Oxford University Press, 2015. pp. 31-37.
  2. ^ Zuckerman & Shook 2017, pp. 4-5.
  3. ^ "CHURCH FATHERS: Against Heresies, II.34.3 (St. Irenaeus)". New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, Fathers of the Church.
  4. ^ Juergensmeyer 2017, pp. 74–79.
  5. ^ Juergensmeyer 2017; Zuckerman, Galen & Pasquale 2016, ch. 2.
  6. ^ Zuckerman, Galen & Pasquale 2016, p. 31.
  7. ^ See: Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford University Press, 2003. esp. pp. 205-210; Michael Walzer, The Paradox of Liberation. Yale University Press, 2015. esp. pp. ix-xiv, 65, 76.
  8. ^ Zuckerman, Galen & Pasquale 2016, pp. 19, 51.
  9. ^ Eller 2017, pp. 500-501.
  10. ^ Eller 2017, pp. 501-504.
  11. ^ a b Zuckerman & Shook 2017, pp. 4–5.
  12. ^ Zuckerman & Shook 2017, p. 4.
  13. ^ Eller 2010, pp. 12–13.
  14. ^ Eller 2010, pp. 12–13. See also Glasner 1977.
  15. ^ Lewin 2016.


Eller, Jack David (2010). "What Is Atheism?". In Zuckerman, Phil (ed.). Atheism and Secularity. Volume 1: Issues, Concepts, Definitions. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. pp. 1–18. ISBN 978-0-313-35183-9.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
 ———  (2017). "Varieties of Secular Experience". In Zuckerman, Phil; Shook, John R. (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Secularism. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 499ff. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199988457.013.31. ISBN 978-0-19-998845-7.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Glasner, Peter E. (1977). The Sociology of Secularisation: A Critique of a Concept. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 978-0-7100-8455-2.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Josephson, Jason Ānanda (2012). The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226412337.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Juergensmeyer, Mark (2017). "The Imagined War Between Secularism and Religion". In Zuckerman, Phil; Shook, John R. (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Secularism. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 71–84. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199988457.013.5. ISBN 978-0-19-998845-7.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Lewin, David (2016). Educational Philosophy for a Post-Secular Age. Abingdon, England: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-41055-3.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Mullins, Mark R. (2011). "Religion in Contemporary Japanese Lives". In Lyon Bestor, Victoria; Bestor, Theodore C.; Yamagata, Akiko (eds.). Routledge Handbook of Japanese Culture and Society. Abingdon, England: Routledge. pp. 63–74. ISBN 978-0-415-43649-6.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Zuckerman, Phil; Galen, Luke W.; Pasquale, Frank L. (2016). "Secularity Around the World". The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199924950.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-992494-3.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Zuckerman, Phil; Shook, John R. (2017). "Introduction: The Study of Secularism". In Zuckerman, Phil; Shook, John R. (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Secularism. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 1–17. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199988457.013.1. ISBN 978-0-19-998845-7.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

Further reading[edit]

Iversen, Hans Raun (2013). "Secularization, Secularity, Secularism". In Runehov, Anne L. C.; Oviedo, Lluis (eds.). Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer. pp. 2116–2121. doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-8265-8_1024. ISBN 978-1-4020-8265-8.
Smith, James K. A. (2014). How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Tayor. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. ISBN 978-0-8028-6761-2.
Taylor, Charles (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02676-6.
 ———  (2011). "Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism". In Mendieta, Eduardo; VanAntwerpen, Jonathan (eds.). The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 34–59. ISBN 978-0-231-52725-5. JSTOR 10.7312/butl15645.6.
Warner, Michael; VanAntwerpen, Jonathan; Calhoun, Craig, eds. (2010). Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-04857-7.

External links[edit]