The term secular is generally used to mean "worldly, as differentiated from ecclesiastical." The term has changed meaning dramatically over time. Its original definition preserved its Latin meaning - "of an age" - as evinced in the Secular Games, or the Carmen Secularae ("Song of the Augustan Age") by Horace.
The term may be a euphemism used by atheists, since atheism generally has negative associations in the United States. Atheism actually isn't secular (common mistake) because in a secular society everyone is considered to be legally equal no matter what they believe in or don't believe in. Atheism is a religious point of view that God(s) do not exist and is therefore not all inclusive.
The United States was founded as a secular republic, where religious freedom is affirmed in the Constitution and where no special religion is established. However, 'secular' here is not a synonym for 'atheistic' as secular society includes both Atheists and believers. Moreover, it is impossible to fully separate a legislative or educations system from moral beliefs and its sources, and the Bible overall was the primary foundational single source for America's principles and precepts.
Hunter Baker in The End of Secularism, distinguishes between pluralism and secularism, and argues that while the latter has rejected religious foundations of traditional morality, yet secularism itself is an ideology based upon certain philosophical foundations, with its own presuppositions. Rather than being the impartial referee it is promoted to be, when this becomes the orthodox ideology of a nation, it works toward censoring that which opposes it, stifling religious life and discourse.
George Holyoake's 1896 publication English Secularism defines secularism as:
Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable. Its essential principles are three: (1) The improvement of this life by material means. (2) That science is the available Providence of man. (3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good.
Holyoake held that secularism and secular ethics should take no interest at all in religious questions (as they were irrelevant), and was thus to be distinguished from strong freethought and atheism. In this he disagreed with Charles Bradlaugh, and the disagreement split the secularist movement between those who argued that anti-religious movements and activism was not necessary or desirable and those who argued that it was.
Contemporary ethical debate is often described as "secular", with the work of Derek Parfit and Peter Singer, and even the whole field of contemporary bioethics, having been described or self-described as explicitly secular or non-religious.
History of Secularism
The derivation of an ethical code from purely secular "worldly" concerns begins in Ancient Greece with the philosophical study of nature. The Hebrew term for nature is not found in the Bible. Hence, natural law, natural justice, and natural rights are Hellenic in origin. Greek and Roman philosophers, while not atheists, nevertheless built their ethnical philosophy from natural considerations.
Christian theologians differed on their assessment of secular thought. Tertullian asks "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" On the other hand, Thomas Aquinas championed secular thought and provocatively starts the Summa Theologica with the question: "Whether, besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required?" After Aquinas, a harmony between secular thought and religion was the rule until the 19th century. The notion of secularism being inherently anti-religious become the norm after the French Revolution.
- Emmet Kennedy, "The Tangled History of Secularism," Modern Age (Winter 2000) Volume 42, Number 1; online edition
- Hunter Baker, The End of Secularism