Secularism is invariably defined “the concept that government or other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs.” Its broadest definition is probably that of the originator of the word, secularism, George Jacob (1846) as “a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life” (English Secularism, 60). “Secularism is that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point, as the immediate duty of life — which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from Atheism, Theism or the Bible — which selects as its methods of procedure the promotion of human improvement by material means, and proposes these positive agreements as the common bond of union, to all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service” (Principles of Secularism, 17). “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” (English Secularism, 35).
To be sure, there is a certain lofty ideal in the words of George Jacob. However, there is also a naiveness verging on dishonesty in both the simplistic concept and George Jacob’s more elevated version. The dishonesty lies in the denial of the writer of these words of the writers own nature, their own being, and the natural history of their own being. It is clear that no writer of any kind, who has lived since writing was invented to the present day, is not strongly influenced by the ideas, writings, commentaries, and actions of religion. This includes all those philosophers who are touted as the foundation thinkers of secularism, Marcus Aurelius, Epicurus, Ibn Rushd, Denis Diderot, Voltaire, John Locke, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russell and Robert Ingersoll. It might be comfort to those people who want to believe there is no God, or who simply think organised religion has been bad for the world, to dress up the carriage of some philosophy with gaudy signs saying, “No religions here”, while within the carriage a whole history of religious acumen sits in bottles for use by the secular alchemist to make their essential ‘natural’ oils for sales to the unsuspecting populace.
The dishonesty further lies in the concept of government. If secularism is a framework without religion, then it is only one of the many frameworks or arguments in a pluralist democracy. In that case it has no greater fundamental right in the argument than any other, and there is no fundamental reason why it should be the government more than any other. But of course secularism is not a stand-alone argument. In part as we have already discussed, it is an alchemy of religious thought. Conversely there is no religious thought that does not make great use of the natural world in its discourse. Of course, in a fundamental way, religion would not exist if it were not ‘natural’. Indeed, it might be claimed that religion, broadly, determines to understand and apply the fundamental laws of a reality that includes by is not restrained to the reality of the material universe we see around us. Surely, most humans do recognise that we humans and our material universe is a most peculiar entity, and thus it does not make deep rational sense that we are as we materially experience. Nonetheless, such a recognition does not preclude that it is uncomfortable in the extreme for some, and thus denial makes for a more comfortable house.
While an ethical and, certainly, a psychological, argument can be made for why that comfort should not be tolerated, it would not be of great concern if it was only between a ‘man and his pillow’. Yet it is not. In the great discourse about governance of large populations, that secularism becomes synonymous with democratic and justice processes must imply that it regards all thought and opinion with equity, and all acts with justice. As such, religious thought and religious act must be part of the secular movement in a democracy, and they are part of the justice system.
To be sure, the core argument that there should be separation between religion and state needs to be addressed. It cannot be addressed without understanding the fundamental principle that is being addressed, in any case. And the fundamental principle, is not that religion (only) should be separated from state, but that the democratic state, as a framework for bringing together divers opinion, evidence, and emotion, for the purpose of realising the best society we can accommodate from those divers arguments, is not at the behest of any specific organisation(s). In contemporary democracy these might include large corporations or non-government or non-religious organisations. I suggest it includes political parties, themselves. A secular state does not exist separately of religion, it exists in incorporation with religion, and many other organisations and institutions, and the people as individuals. That is the more honest reality, and that is a reality that cannot be transmuted by dressing-up the carriage of democracy.
I am a proponent of secular society. But not this sham that many contemporary proponents display as a vehicle for democratic value while carrying only a load of aetheism. A democratic state, indeed, should not be at the behest of aetheism.