What is secularism?
The British social reformer George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) encouraged people to reject received
wisdom and authoritarian politics and instead to examine all claims in the light of reason and science and
with an eye to human progress. Inspired by a previous generation of Enlightenment thinkers, he
popularized a this-worldly attitude to personal morals, to philosophy, and to the organization of society
and politics. He coined the word ‘secularism’ to describe his approach.
Today, the words ‘atheist’ (which he rejected as too negative) or ‘humanist’ (not used by him but adopted
by many of his contemporaries and successors) do most of the job that Holyoake meant ‘secularist’ to do,
describing non-religious philosophies, morals, and personal world views. The word ‘secularism’ still has
multiple meanings, but this book is about the most common use of the word: an approach to the ordering
of communities, nations, and states.
We’ll examine later the different definitions that exist even of this specific political secularism, but a good
provisional modern definition is that adopted by the contemporary French scholar of secularism Jean
Baubérot. He sees secularism as made up of three parts:
separation of religious institutions from the institutions of the state and no domination of the political
sphere by religious institutions;
freedom of thought, conscience, and religion for all, with everyone free to change their beliefs and
manifest their beliefs within the limits of public order and the rights of others;
no state discrimination against anyone on grounds of their religion or non-religious world view, with
everyone receiving equal treatment on these grounds.
This secularism is not fully implemented in any state and never has been, but is the ideal towards which
secularists like Baubérot wish to move the political order.
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