BY DON MURRAY
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.