In praise of the secular

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True secularism is not anti-religious



Not many words are defined by what they are not. But when I looked up ‘secular’ in my computer dictionary it said ‘not religious, sacred or spiritual.’

Even the Oxford dictionary defines it negatively: ‘Denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.’

In most religious circles ‘secular" is a bad word. It conjures up a world that has gone on its merry way without thought to spiritual matters: ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ And often ‘secular’ is thought to be anti-religious rather than being merely non-religions.

I want to say a few words in praise of the secular. The Free Online Dictionary points out that the secular is ‘worldly rather than spiritual.’ Since we are mortal creatures living our lives in the world we need to pay attention to what is worldly. A longer article in Wikipedia on secularism affirms the view that ‘human activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be unbiased by religious influence.’ (Isn’t the Internet wonderful. You can find out most anything.)

Secularism in the political realm is certainly to be desired. I want to live in a country where religious freedom is truly acknowledged. This means that in a secular society we are free to believe and practice any religion or no religion. The only proviso on that is that what we do does not harm other people.

True secularism is not anti-religious. If it takes on anti-religious tones it then becomes a religion or belief system that has no place for religion. Secularism is neutral toward religion.

Religion can influence the political realm, as I spent a couple of columns discussing. It is natural for those in power, or who aim to be in power, to want to implement their belief system. We see this rather blatantly in our United States neighbours. In Canada it is only beginning to come out in the open, but is becoming more and more clear that a fundamentalist belief system is being systematically implemented. The line between religion and politics is a very fuzzy one.

Secularism can come to the rescue. Those in the know tell us that secularism arose in the Christian west. As Lloyd Geering says, in Such is Life, ‘out of the once vibrant culture that shaped the Western world there has been emerging a new kind of culture that is humanistic, secular and global in its outreach.’

Secularism has inherited the values that undergird Christianity, and all religions, and protects and promotes them. In recent decades it has been secular society that has championed the role of women, the acceptance of all sexual orientations and pushed for justice for minorities and native cultures. It is the humanistic, secular world that is concerned for the environment: the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breath.

Granted, religion has often been in there, especially in its liberal forms, but society has been the dynamic force. It is worth noting that this year in London marks the first time that every country has at least one woman competing in the Olympic games.

Secular concerns are based on actual experience. What is actually happening to our health and welfare? What is the best scientific evidence available? What must we do to survive and prosper as human beings on planet earth?

I’ve been reading Don Cuppit’s Reforming Christianit, and he affirms that secular society is where the teachings of Jesus are best incorporated. Justice, human rights, equality, and all the values that promote the human good can best flourish in a secular, democratic, society. Jesus’ parables and pithy sayings are rarely about religion but about how we need to relate to one another.

And Jesus’ teachings reaffirm the human values that go back into the First (Old) Testament. The author of Ecclesiastes – ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’" – was a cynic and secularist, giving only a slight nod to God and religion. Proverbs is mostly good advice on how to get along well in this world. The prophets laid down the values that still undergird the quality of our humanity.

Freedom, openness, tolerance, compassion, a deep concern for the human good, acting on the basis of the best available information are marks of the kind of world we need, and the environment where a true spirituality can emerge.


TAGLINE: Don Murray is a retired United minister. He lives in Shortts Lake.


Geographic location: Oxford, United States, Canada London Shortts Lake

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Recent comments

  • VegtaBILL
    August 08, 2012 - 09:26

    Interested Reader, how do you even believe in what you say. God is all forgiving and all loving.....but if you don't bow down to him in this life he will burn you in hell for eternity. Makes a lot of sense...not. If a dictator promised you eternal life or eternal hell depending on whether you followed him, would it be the same. I believe there may be more than we can see but I definitely do not believe in a god who would punish good people just because they don't bow down to him. That is not a god that is a tryrant. Be good to people and you will receive love and happiness in THIS life.

  • Byron Miller
    August 08, 2012 - 08:08

    What this article is really saying is; if everyone lived according to the Ten Commandments, Loved their neighbour as they love themselves, Treated everyone as they would like to be treated, Be kind, good and generous to others, Love your enemies, enjoy life and live in peace; then the world would be a better place for all of us to live by whatever way we choose to live. I guess that describes most of the teaching of Jesus/Christianity. Except for one thing; Jesus told his followers that they are no longer of this world and not to get caught up in the mortal/physical (secular) things of the world but to focus on Him and Eternity. Christians is a name given to those who choose to follow the teachings of Christ. Religions are secular in nature in that many religious doctrines stray from Jesus' teachings and directives. So, we all have to live in this mortal world and try to get along and help each other. But for Christians, the ultimate goal in life is to prepare for eternity, not to live by the fleshly and secular world views and man made laws which go against Jesus' Word/teachings.

  • Interested Reader
    August 06, 2012 - 20:18

    Interesting.... until we remember that heaven is our home, not this world and that just because the world thinks it's worth fighting for, does not mean believers should get caught up in "the causes of the world". Ultimately, the important thing is that when we get right with God, our lives will impact this world so that more people can get right with God - for eternity. The word religion is man's attempt to reach God by their own system of efforts and works. The words "saved by grace" are God reaching out to us - allowing us to simply receive forgiveness, deal with our sinful natures and live holy lives in service to God. Worldly systems (secular) may "look like Jesus" but underneath they are not serving Him - they are serving their own desires and the end is death. Even Jesus said, Many will cry Lord Lord, and He will say, I never knew you. So do justly, love mercy AND walk humbly with God. Don't leave God out of the picture. Our humanness is not enough to save us.