Secular Humanism

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Secularism or Secular Humanism is a way of life and thought that is pursued without reference to God or religion. The Latin root saeculum referred to a generation or an age. "Secular" came to mean "belonging to this age, worldly." In general terms, secularism involves an affirmation of immanent, this-worldly realities, along with a denial or exclusion of transcendent, other-worldly realities. It is a world view and life style oriented to the profane rather than the sacred, the natural rather than the supernatural. Secularism is a nonreligious approach to individual and social life.

Historically, "secularization" first referred to the process of transferring property from ecclesiastical jurisdiction to that of the state or other nonecclesiastical authority. In this institutional sense, "secularization" still means the reduction of formal religious authority (e.g., in education). Institutional secularization has been fueled by the breakdown of a unified Christendom since the Reformation, on the one hand, and by the increasing rationalization of society and culture from the Enlightenment to modern technological society, on the other. Some analysts prefer the term "laicization" to describe this institutional secularization of society, that is, the replacement of official religious control by nonecclesiastical authority.

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A second sense in which secularization is to be understood has to do with a shift in ways of thinking and living, away from God and toward this world. Renaissance humanism, Enlightenment rationalism, the rising power and influence of science, the breakdown of traditional structures (e.g., the family, the church, the neighborhood), the technicization of society, and the competition offered by nationalism, evolutionism, and Marxism have all contributed to what Max Weber termed the "disenchantment" of the modern world.

While institutional secularization and ideological secularization have proceeded simultaneously over the past few centuries, the relationship between the two is not causally exact or necessary. Thus, even in a medieval, Constantinian setting, formally religious in character, men and women were not immune from having their life, thought, and work shaped by secular, this-worldly considerations. Likewise, in an institutionally secular (laicized) society it is possible for individuals and groups to live, think, and work in ways that are motivated and guided by God and religious considerations.

Secularization, then, is itself a fact of history and a mixed blessing. Secularism, however, as a comprehensive philosophy of life expresses an unqualified enthusiasm for the process of secularization in all spheres of life. Secularism is fatally flawed by its reductionist view of reality, denying and excluding God and the supernatural in a myopic fixation on the immanent and the natural. In contemporary discussion, secularism and humanism are often seen in tandem as secular humanism, an approach to life and thought, individual and society, which glorifies the creature and rejects the Creator. As such, secularism constitutes a rival to Christianity.

Christian theologians and philosophers have grappled in various ways with the meaning and impact of secularization. Friedrich Schleiermacher was the first theologian to attempt a radical restatement of Christianity in terms of the Renaissance and Enlightenment humanist and rationalist motifs. While his efforts were brilliant and extremely influential in the development of theology, critics charged that rather than salvaging Christianity, Schleiermacher betrayed crucial aspects of the faith in his redefinition of religion in terms of the human feeling of dependence.

No contemporary discussion of Christianity and secularism can escape dealing with the provocative Letters and Papers from Prison penned by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Primarily because the work is fragmentary and incomplete, Bonhoeffer's concepts such as "Christian worldliness," "man-come-of-age," the world's arrival at "adulthood," and the need for a "non-religious interpretation of Biblical terminology" have been subject to heated debate about their meaning and implication. Friedrich Gogarten (The Reality of Faith, 1959), Paul van Buren (The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, 1963), Harvey Cox (The Secular City, 1965), Ronald Gregor Smith (Secular Christianity, 1966), and the "death-of-God" theologians are examples of those who have pursued one possible course by restating Christianity in terms of a secular world. Kenneth Hamilton (Life in One's Stride, 1968) denies that this is the best way to interpret Bonhoeffer and argues that the German theologian never wavered in his basic, orthodox stance.

While discussions among theologians during the 1950s and 1960s tended to focus on adapting Christian theology to secularization, the 1970s and 1980s saw a vigorous new resistance to secularism in many quarters. Jacques Ellul (The New Demons, 1975) was among several voices arguing that secularism was itself a form of religion and was antagonistic both to Christianity and to a true Christian humanism. Francis A. Schaeffer (How Should We Then Live? 1976) and other fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals attacked secular humanism as the great contemporary enemy of Christian faith.

From the perspective of biblical Christian theology, secularism is guilty for having "exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator" (Rom. 1:25). Having excluded the transcendent God as the absolute and the object of worship, the secularist inexorably makes the world of man and nature absolute and the object of worship. In biblical terms, the supernatural God has created the world and sustains its existence. This world (the saeculum) has value because God has created it, continues to preserve it, and has acted to redeem it. While God is Lord of history and the universe, he is not identifiable with either (pantheism). Men and women exist in freedom and responsibility before God and for the world. Stewardship and partnership define man's relationship to God and the world.

The sacral, theocratic character of ancient Israel is modified with the coming of Christ. With the work of Christ, the city and the nation are secularized (desacralized), and the church as the temple of the Holy Spirit is what is now sacralized. The relationship of the church to the society around it is not defined in terms of a mission to resacralize it by imposing ecclesiastical rule upon it. The relationship is one of loving service and witness, proclamation and healing. In this sense, then, secularization of society is a Christian calling. That is, society must not be divinized or absolutized, but viewed as something historical and relative. Only God is finally sacred and absolute. Reestablishing the sacredness of God will, however, imply the proper, relative valuation of this world.

In no sense, of course, is the distinction between the sacred and the secular an unbridgeable gap. In the same way that God speaks and acts in the saeculum, Christians must speak and act creatively and redemptively. This means that the secular world must not be abandoned to secularism. In all cases, Christian life in the secular world is to be carried out under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and in obedience to the will of God rather than the will of the world. And in situations, such as the United States, where the general populace is enfranchised and invited to have a voice in public policy, public education, social services, and so on, Christians may work to ensure that the Word of God is heard and is given room among the many other voices which will constitute the heterogenous whole. To insist that the Word of God be imposed on all without exception is to fall once again into an unbiblical authoritarianism. To fail to articulate the Word of God in the saeculum, however, is to acquiesce in a secularism which, by excluding the Creator, can lead only to death.

D W Gill
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

P. L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy; K. Hamilton, DCE, 609-10.


Catholic Information

A term used for the first time about 1846 by George Jacob Holyoake to denote "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). More explicitly, "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). And again, "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:

The improvement of this life by material means.

That science is the available Providence of man.

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).


The origin of Secularism is associated especially with the names of Holyoake and Bradlaugh. George Jacob Holyoake (born at Birmingham, 13 April, 1817; died at Brighton, 22 January, 1906) met Robert Owen in 1837, became his friend, and began to lecture and write articles advocating socialism or co-operation. In 1841, with Southwell, Ryall, and Chilton, he founded a magazine called "The Oracle of which was succeeded by "The Movement" (1843), and by "The Reasoner" (1846). In 1861 the publication of the latter was discontinued, and Holyoake founded "The Counsellor" which later on, was merged with Bradlaugh's "National Reformer". Owing to differences between Bradlaugh and Holyoake, the latter withdrew from "The National Reformer," started the publication of "The Secular World and Social Economist" (1862-64), and in 1883 of "The Present Day". Among the political and economical agitations in which Holyoake took a leading part may be mentioned those for the repeal of the law prohibiting the use of unstamped paper for periodical publications, for the abolition of all oaths required by law, for the secularization of education in the public schools, for the disestablishment of the Church, for the promotion of the co-operative movement among the working classes, etc.

Charles Bradlaugh (born at Hoxton, London, 26 September, 1833; died 30 January, 1891) was a zealous Sunday school teacher in the Church of England, when Rev. Mr. Packer, the incumbent of St. Peter's, Hackney Road, asked him to prepare for confirmation which was to be administered by the Bishop of London. "I studied a little", writes Bradlaugh, "the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, and the four Gospels, and came to the conclusion that they differed" (Autobiography, 6). He wrote this to Rev. Mr. Packer, who hastily denounced him as an atheist. His views, which at this time were deistical later on reached extreme Atheism. From 1853 till 1868 he wrote a great number of articles under the pseudonym of "Iconoclast", gave many lectures, and held many public debates. In 1858 he edited "The Investigator", and in 1859 founded "The National Reformer". Elected by Northampton as a member of the House of Commons in 1880, he refused to take the required oath, and was not allowed to sit in the House. Re-elected the following year, he consented to take the oath, but this was refused on account of his Atheism. Finally, in 1886, the new Speaker allowed him to take the oath and sit in Parliament. In 1858 Bradlaugh succeeded Holyoake as president of the London Secular Society, and in 1866 enlarged the scope of this association by founding the National Secular Society, over which he presided until 1890, when he was succeeded by Mr. G. W. Foote, the actual president. The following words from Bradlaugh's farewell speech are significant: "One element of danger in Europe is the approach of the Roman Catholic Church towards meddling in political life. . . . Beware when that great Church, whose power none can deny, the capacity of whose leading men is marked, tries to use the democracy as its weapon. There is danger to freedom of thought, to freedom of speech, to freedom of action. The great struggle in this country will not be between Freethought and the Church of England, not between Freethought and Dissent, but - as I have long taught, and now repeat - between Freethought and Rome" (Charles Bradlaugh, II, 412).

In the United States, the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation, presided over by Mr. E. P. Peacock, with many affiliated local societies, has for its object the separation of Church and State, and for its platform the nine demands of Liberalism, namely:

that churches and other ecclesiastical property shall be no longer exempt from taxation;

that the employment of chaplains in Congress, in state legislatures, in the army and navy, and in prisons, asylums, and all institutions supported by public money, shall be discontinued, and that all religious services maintained by national, state, or municipal governments shall be abolished; that all public appropriations for educational and charitable institutions of a sectarian character shall cease;

that, while advocating the loftiest instruction in morals and the inculcation of the strictest uprightness of conduct, religious teaching and the use of the Bible for religious purposes in public schools shall be prohibited; that the appointment by the President of the United States and the governors of the various states of religious festivals, fasts, and days of prayer and thanksgiving shall be discontinued;

that the theological oath in the courts and in other departments of government shall be abolished, and simple affirmation under the pains and penalties of perjury, established in its stead;

that all laws directly or indirectly enforcing in any degree the religious and theological dogma of Sunday or Sabbath observance shall be repealed;

that all laws looking to the enforcement of Christian morality as such shall be abrogated, and that all laws shall be conformed to the requirements of natural morality, equal rights and impartial justice;

that, in harmony with the Constitution of the United States and the constitutions of the several states, no special privileges or advantages shall be conceded to Christianity or any other religion; that our entire political system shall be conducted and administered on a purely secular basis; and that whatever changes are necessary to this end shall be consistently, unflinchingly, and promptly made.

Although the name Secularism is of recent origin, its various doctrines have been taught by free-thinkers of all ages, and, in fact, Secularism claims to be only an extension of free-thought. "The term Secularism was chosen to express the extension of freethought to ethics" (English Secularism, 34). With regard to the question of the existence of God, Bradlaugh was an atheist, Holyoake an agnostic. The latter held that Secularism is based simply on the study of nature and has nothing to do with religion, while Bradlaugh claimed that Secularism should start with the disproof of religion. In a public debate held in 1870 between these two secularists, Bradlaugh said: "Although at present it may be perfectly true that all men who are Secularists are not Atheists, I put it that in my opinion the logical consequence of the acceptance of Secularism must be that the man gets to Atheism if he has brains enough to comprehend.

"You cannot have a scheme of morality without Atheism. The Utilitarian scheme is a defiance of the doctrine of Providence and a protest against God".

On the other hand, Holyoake affirmed that "Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life" (Charles Bradlaugh, I, 334, 336). But in many passages of his writings, Holyoake goes much further and seeks to disprove Christian truths. To the criticism of theology, Secularism adds a great concern for culture, social progress, and the improvement of the material conditions of life, especially for the working classes. In ethics it is utilitarian, and seeks only the greatest good of the present life, since the existence of a future life, as well as the existence of God, "belong to the debatable ground of speculation" (English Secularism, 37). It tends to substitute "the piety of useful men for the usefulness of piety" (ibid., 8).


The fundamental principle of Secularism is that, in his whole conduct, man should be guided exclusively by considerations derived from the present life itself. Anything that is above or beyond the present life should be entirely overlooked. Whether God exists or not, whether the soul is immortal or not, are questions which at best cannot be answered, and on which consequently no motives of action can be based. A fortiori all motives derived from the Christian religion are worthless. "Things Secular are as separate from the Church as land from the ocean" (English Secularism, 1). This principle is in strict opposition to essential Catholic doctrines. The Church is as intent as Secularism on the improvement of this life, as respectful of scientific achievements, as eager for the fulfilment of all duties pertaining to the present life. But the present life cannot be looked upon as an end in itself, and independent of the future life. The knowledge of the material world leads to the knowledge of the spiritual world, and among the duties of the present life must be reckoned those which arise from the existence and nature of God, the fact of a Divine Revelation, and the necessity of preparing, for the future life. If God exists, how can Secularism inculcate the practical sufficiency of natural morality?" If "Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere" how can it command us to follow exclusively the light and guidance of secular truth? Only the Atheist can be a consistent Secularist.

According as man makes present happiness the only criterion of the value of life, or on the contrary admits the existence of God and the fact of a Divine Revelation and of a future life, the whole aspect of the present life changes. These questions cannot be ignored, for on them depends the right conduct of life and "the development of the moral and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point". If anything can be known about God and a future life, duties to be fulfilled in the present life are thereby imposed on "all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service". "Considerations purely human" become inadequate, and the "light and guidance" found in secular truth must be referred to and judged from a higher point of view. Hence the present life in itself cannot be looked upon as the only standard of man's worth. The Church would fail in her Divine mission if she did not insist on the insufficiency of a life conducted exclusively along secular lines, and therefore on the falsity of the main assumption of Secularism

Again, the Catholic Church does not admit that religion is simply a private affair. God is the author and ruler not only of individuals, but also of societies. Hence the State should not be indifferent to religious matters (see ETHICS). How far in practice Church and State should go together depends on a number of circumstances and cannot be determined by any general rule, but the principle remains true that religion is a social as well as an individual duty. In practice again, owing to special circumstances, a secular education in the public schools may be the only possible one. At the same time, this is a serious defect which must be supplied otherwise. It is not enough for the child to be taught the various human sciences, he must also be given the knowledge of the necessary means of salvation. The Church cannot renounce her mission to teach the truths she has received from her Divine Founder. Not only as individuals, but also as citizens, all men have the right to perform the religious duties which their conscience dictates. The complete secularization of all public institutions in a Christian nation is therefore inadmissible. Man must not only be learned in human science; his whole life must be directed to the higher and nobler pursuits of morality and religion, to God Himself. While fully recognizing the value of the present life, the Church cannot look upon it as an end in itself, but only as a movement toward a future life for which preparation must be made by compliance with the laws of nature and the laws of God. Hence there is no possible compromise between the Church and Secularism, since Secularism would stifle in man that which, for the Church, constitutes the highest and truest motives of action, and the noblest human aspirations.

Publication information Written by C.A. Dubray. Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIII. Published 1912. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


HOLYOAKE, The Principles of Secularism (London, 1860); IDEM, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (London, 1892), autobiography; IDEM, The Origin and Nature of Secularism (London, 1896); published simultaneously in America under the title English Secularism, A Confession of Belief (Chicago, 1896); McCABE, Life and Letters of George Jacob Holyoake (London, 1908); GOSS, A Descriptive Bibliography of the Writings of George Jacob Holyoake, with a Brief Sketch of his Life (London, 1908); The Autobiography of Mr. Bradlaugh (London, s. d.); BONNER, Charles Bradlaugh (7th ed., London, 1908); FLINT, Anti-Theistic Theories (5th ed., Edinburgh, 1894).

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