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Secular Confusions


These are not very articulate times, and terms or phrases such as secular, believer, the separation of church and state and so on need to be rethought entirely. If this task of lexical clarification is not done, then the virtually complete dominance of the atheistic and anti-religious definitions of central terms within contemporary culture will continue to be employed (intentionally or unintentionally) so as to exclude religious viewpoints from society.

Iain T. Benson

It is quite arguable that the term "secular" has changed its meaning over the last century and a half. The term in general usage now means, essentially, free from religion as in "we ought to keep religion out of the schools because they are secular." This was not the original meaning nor is it a meaning that recognizes the nature of religion in society or the role of belief (religious and non-religious) in the lives of citizens. The new meaning of secular is, in fact, closely related to two others: secularism and secularization that have been taken in an anti-religious direction , a direction that is inconsistent with the principles of a free and democratic society. The paper will also examine another central concept in the modern state that has been co-opted in an atheistic direction: "the separation of Church and State."

Secular, secularization, and secularism:

Before the Reformation the concepts of "religious" and "secular" did not exist as descriptions of fundamentally different aspects of society. [1] In fact, within the Roman Catholic tradition the categorization of clergy themselves remains to this day divided between "secular clergy" and "regular clergy." Those who are "secular" serve in the world (saecularis: "the times," "the age," "the world") and those who are "regular" are members of religious orders who live according to a rule (i.e. who take vows of poverty and obedience etc.). For it was "regular clergy" not "secular clergy" who took monastic vows of poverty, stability and obedience. Those in parish ministry were "secular" but, one always hoped, religious.

The term "secular" used in relation to priests denoted a difference of location rather than anything turning on orientation to religious faith. The historic use of "secular" in relation to clergy ought to alert us that the new use, which radically bifurcates religion and the secular, is just that, new. [2] This understanding of belief within civil society is the one that needs to be reclaimed and developed much more widely for the current anti-metaphysical bias has denuded our entire cultural endeavor.

Where the Oxford English Dictionary defines "secular," the uses of the word that suggest that the secular is "non-sacred" in character arise as recently as the mid-nineteenth century. [3] The term, as we now have it, originated in the mid 19th Century in the works of Holyoake and his fellow atheists. It is in works such as his that the current usage is adopted in which the "secular" is viewed as free from religion.

In fact, this more recent use of "secular", which we may justly call the atheistic interpretation, is seldom viewed alongside or against alternate understandings. This is not helpful since an atheistic definition, if used as the meaning for a central term such as "secular," fails to give a proper place to religion in the private and public dimensions of society. The atheistic "secular" becomes, in effect, a blueprint for the naked public square. A more informed historical understanding, built upon a richer epistemological ground, better reflects both the reality of beliefs in society and the principles of freedom that ought to undergird a properly civil society. Recently, the highest court in British Columbia overturned the newer atheistic use of "secular" and affirmed that the secular is a realm that has, properly, a place for beliefs that emerge from religious commitment. Justice McKenzie, for himself and a unanimous three-justice panel of British Columbia's highest court analyzed the term "secular" in the following manner: "Can 'strictly secular' in s. 76(1) of the School Act be interpreted as limited to moral positions devoid of religious influence? Are only those with a non-religiously informed conscience to be permitted to participate in decisions involving moral instruction of children in the public schools? Must those whose moral positions arise from a conscience influenced by religion be required to leave those convictions behind or otherwise be excluded from participation while those who espouse similar positions emanating from a conscience not informed by religious considerations are free to participate without restriction? Simply to pose the questions in such terms can lead to only one answer in a truly free society. Moral positions must be accorded equal access to the public square without regard to religious influence. A religiously informed conscience should not be accorded any privilege, but neither should it be placed under a disability. In a truly free society moral positions advance or retreat in their influence on law and public policy through decisions of public officials who are not required to pass a religious litmus test.

A contrary interpretation is not only insupportable in principle, it would raise immense practical difficulties. How would it be determined that a moral position is advanced from a conscience influenced by religion or not? If the restriction were applied only where the religious conviction was publicly declared it would privilege convictions based on a conscience whose influences were concealed over one openly proclaimed. The alternative would be to require inquiry as to the source of a moral conviction, whether religious or otherwise. Both alternatives are offensive and indefensible." [4] This development is to be welcomed but must be much more widely understood by politicians, media, the professions, the law and the academy itself.

"Secular" should be viewed alongside "secularization" and "secularism," though the differences between them are important. "Secularization" has been defined as: "The process in which religious consciousness, activities and institutions lose social significance. It indicates that religion becomes marginal to the operation of the social system, and that the essential functions for the operation of society become rationalized, passing out of the control of agencies devoted to the supernatural." [5] There is more to secularization than this, however and this definition of "secularization" hides the anti-religious dimension to secularism by describing only the results of secularization. The definition fails to describe the atheistic strategy behind the modern use of the "secular" and the drive for atheistic "secularization" that is properly identified as the ideology of "secularism."

Church and state

The distinction between the secular and the Church is, in a sense, properly jurisdictional. Again, however, we must be careful to ensure that a properly functional jurisdictional distinction is not used as an argument to separate religion from culture. This functional distinction, noted in contemporary Catholic thought and represented in different ways in the earlier uses with respect to "secular clergy" and "regular clergy," may all too easily be mistaken as a distinction between a realm based upon faith or belief (which such uses term the religious) and one that is not (which such uses term the secular). I will argue that this latter understanding is flawed deeply.

The "separation of Church and state" functions, in fact, like a red herring that distracts from a proper examination of the nature of the secular and the role of religion in society. We need to understand that the separation of church and state is simply an obvious statement about jurisdictional competence that says nothing (or very little) about the separation of religion from culture. In fact, it is important for a host of reasons that the proper separation of Church from state not be accepted as the same as the separation of religion from culture. So if the real issue is the proper relation between religion and culture, where do we start in order to determine the proper place of religion in the "secular" state?

Well, we must first examine the nature of beliefs generally since religious beliefs are one set of beliefs and as such they ought not to be ruled out merely because of the source of those beliefs. A proper understanding of belief and culture recognizes, as I've argued above, that every person operates out of a variety of beliefs. There are no "unbelievers," even though there are religious unbelievers of various sorts. The beliefs relevant to debates within the state may be animated by religious or atheistic or agnostic assumptions or a combination of them. Beliefs that are "factual" or more "provable" are no more important by that fact alone. There is a current view that what can be measured scientifically is somehow more "real." But most of us fail to note that the greatest concerns in our lives - - relationships of love, conditions of existential concern or joy, the promptings of the ego and so on are not, in fact, empirical. We are victims of a prejudice against metaphysics. But such a prejudice just leaves us "thin" in relation to these metaphysical realities. Most people who believe impoverished notions do not, fortunately, live them out.

Few of those men and women of science who cling to the purposelessness of the universe in their scientific assumptions live this way in their human relationships and with respect to their own careers. The denial of an end or telos in theory is rarely lived out consistently by those who propose it. If such proponents believe chance is behind the universe, most show a striking disconnection between this and how they expect others to behave. How can we complain of the behaviour of others in practice if we seriously believe that chance is at the center of a meaningless Universe? Their practice puts the lie to their theories or, at least, shows that their theories do not provide a complete explanation for what matters to them in life. All believers, that is to say all citizens, have the same right of expression and conscience protection in contemporary constitutional democracies. The fact that a person's beliefs emanate from atheistic presuppositions is no bar to public office, neither should beliefs that emanate from religious convictions be. When religion is raised as a concern against a particular politician, for example, this is often due to anti-religious bias or ignorance. The legacy of the origins of atheistic secularism is all around us.

One really ought to function with a fully engaged conscience whether one is religious or not. [6] So why do we say that personal religious beliefs ought not to influence, say, ones role in public office but that conscience (informed by religion) may? Are we only to allow all kinds of influence as long as they do not come from religion? Why, for example, ought the beliefs of a politician that originate in materialism be acceptable but a critique of materialism animated by religious convictions be unacceptable? Atheistic presuppositions ought to have no greater credibility on account of their sources. It is how the principles work out in practice that should provide the basis for judgment and criticism.

Yet to use "the separation of Church and State" or the phrase "you cannot impose your religious views on others" as arguments against the place of religion in all aspects of public life is precisely the kind of silly argument that is made widely in contemporary culture by many in the media and politics. Consider, for example, politicians who say things like this: "I am a good Catholic but I don't let my religious views influence my political decisions - - I keep my religion and my work separate." How frightening! Shouldn't we expect and, in fact, demand that a politician have his or her beliefs actively involved in what he or she does for the common-good? What notion of vocation and occupation does such a person have?

To be sure, religious dogma is not legislation for the civil order but the principles of religion operate, and must operate, beyond the confines of dogma and authority appropriate within the Church. It is all a question of conviction. How does one argue principles in the "secular" and pluralistic realm in such a way that one convinces ones fellow citizens? That is the question, not some kind of pre-emptive exclusion of religion from public life and the state.

Everyone has "beliefs" and "faith" but not all are religious believers

The better way, to an understanding of ourselves and society, is to recognize that everyone necessarily operates out of belief or faith in relation to their actions. In his "Tamworth Reading Room Lectures," John Henry Cardinal Newman recognized that everyone who acts must take matters on faith and wrote: "Life is for action. If we insist on proofs for everything, we shall never come to action: to act you must assume, and that assumption is faith." [7] This is so even for atheists and agnostics. They are, though they might be shocked to learn of this - - men and women of faith. One must have a certain confidence or faith to function, as a human being. One currently common, but erroneous assumption is to bifurcate scientific "facts" from metaphysical "beliefs" and give primacy to the "real" world of science/facts as against the personal world of beliefs or "values." But this is to say too much and too little.

Simply put, science depends upon a wide variety of beliefs. Even the instruments of science that we may take to establish something we call "facts" require, at the very least, beliefs in their accuracy. That it was accurate yesterday is no guarantee that it will be accurate tomorrow. As Newman said, above, to assume is to have "faith." Science is full of such faithful assumptions. We need not be embarrassed about this fact, but we need to acknowledge it since avoidance of belief and an erroneous bifurcation between "belief" and "facts" allows science a superficial credibility that it does not have. In an age where scientific materialism still holds a great deal of sway, it is useful to point out to men and women of science (who may be confident in their atheism) that they too depend upon a host of faith-based assumptions to do their science. We must have "faith" or "belief" in the instruments and in our own reasoning to believe in "facts" at all. There is no place outside of beliefs, of whatever sort. It is simply bad philosophy to ignore the place of beliefs (those things we take for granted and do not re-prove to ourselves every moment) in our actions as human beings. These beliefs may be as trivial as reliance on the accuracy of what appears in our car's rear-view mirror or reliance that food prepared by unseen hands in a restaurant will not poison us or as complicated as believing that human beings have an inherent dignity that must be respected.

Life is about beliefs and everyone operates on the basis of beliefs whether they do so explicitly or, as is more often the case, implicitly. So the "secular" cannot possibly be a realm that is free from beliefs or, from faith. So then what kind of beliefs are allowed in the "secular realm?" This will depend very much on what assumptions we have about the "secular."

If we start off with the assumption (building into our use of the term "secular" for example) that religion has no place in the secular then, of course, we will tend to diminish the role of the religious in civil society. But this is really to adopt implicitly or explicitly the ideology of atheistically driven "secularism" since the "secular" viewed historically does not require such a removal of the sacred dimension from all aspects of life. The secular is, properly understood, a realm of competing faith claims, not a realm of "non-faith" or "non-belief" claims. Given the dominance of the atheistic definitions of "secular" and "separation of Church and State", it will take some time for them to be redefined so as to better support the right ordering of freedoms in contemporary society.

Note how in contemporary usage "secular schools" "secular government" etc. are generally understood to mean non-religious or not influenced by religion or religious principles. I would like to suggest that this is because we have adopted the atheistic or agnostic definition of "secular" and not a richer and more properly inclusive conception. The separation of Church and State is, after all, a jurisdictional distinction important to both the Church and the State. Most religious groups in the West, for example, do not in fact want the state to run the church or vice versa.

Conclusion: The need to examine key terms and phrases in culture

These are not very articulate times, and terms or phrases such as "secular", "believer", "the separation of church and state" and so on need to be rethought entirely. If this task of lexical clarification is not done, then the virtually complete dominance of the atheistic and anti-religious definitions of central terms within contemporary culture will continue to be employed (intentionally or unintentionally) so as to exclude religious viewpoints from society. To take one example, let us look briefly at the term "the dignity of the human person." This term emerges from classical and Christian sources historically. Why should I be able to assert this view if I base it on my liberal-atheist belief (and where, pray tell, did that come from but from religion?) that people have equality because equality is a good thing for social justice, but not on my, say, liberal-religious conviction that the dignity of the human person and all human persons is rooted in the fact that we are all children of God called into being by a loving Creator?

In how it handled the definition of the "secular," the British Columbia Court of Appeal decision in Chamberlain, referred to above, is a model for the law and the first serious consideration of a non-atheistic "secular" in Canada. It provides the hope that, with proper consideration, the atheistically dominated understandings of "secular" which so preoccupy many journalists, politicians and lawyers, can be changed.

Secularism, as an ideology that is anti-religious, ought no longer dominate our understanding of the nature of the "secular" and our respect for religious articulations in the public life of our countries. Of course, the wise religious believer seeks, as did St. Paul in Chapter 17 of the book of Acts, to find common-ground with the people around him,but his explanations ultimately come from his deepest held philosophical and theological convictions and are most convincing when they communicate to the people listening in a language those people can understand. Religious politicians, and others in positions of leadership and guidance, must learn to speak the language of the day without compromising the truth they believe but, in doing so, they must recognize those terms that have become twisted into shapes that hide anti-religious presuppositions.

Religious believers need, in short, to brush up their lexicons if they are to engage properly and effectively those societies that have become, in a sense, inoculated against the Gospel, but we must first root out those key terms within our own usages that have been carefully, subtly and disastrously deformed to work against their original definitions and meanings. There is no properly "secular" state that excludes religion from culture and no free and democratic society that can exist with state-enforced atheism.


  1. F.M. Gedicks, "The Religious the Secular and the Antithetical," (1991) 20:1 Capital U. L. Rev. 20 145 at 116. Back to text.
  2. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1974) s.v. "secular clergy." The same book also notes that the term "secularism" was first used around 1850. Back to text.
  3. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., "secular," "secularism," and "secularity." All uses suggesting a meaning of "secular" that denotes an absence of connection with religion post-date G.J. Holyoake, The Principles of Secularism Briefly Explained (London: Holyoake & Co., 1859). Back to text.
  4. Chamberlain v. The Board of Trustees of School District #36 (Surrey School Board) Vancouver Registry No. CA 025465, Unreported (September 20, 2000), British Columbia Court of Appeal, at paragraphs 28 -29. A more detailed analysis of this decision may be found on the LexView section of the website of the Centre for Cultural Renewal at (www. Back to text.
  5. B.R. Wilson "Secularization" in M. Eliade, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1987) 159 at 160. Oxford Professor of Jurisprudence John Finnis, has noted that "Neither the differentiating of the secular from the sacred, nor the social processes of secularization, entail the mind-set or cluster of ideologies we call "secularism" see, "On the Practical Meaning of Secularism" (1998) 73 Notre Dame L. Rev. 491 at 492. On the question of the definition of "secular" in relation to law and society, see: Iain T. Benson "Notes Towards a (Re) Definition of the 'Secular'" (2000) 33 University of British Columbia Law Review, Special Issue, "Religion, Morality and Law" pp. 519 - 549. Back to text.
  6. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms lists as a Fundamental Freedom the "freedom of conscience and religion" at Section 2 (a). Note that the terms are listed conjunctively not disjunctively. What we say of religion in culture therefore, will have relevance to what we say of conscience. As the court understood in the Chamberlain decision, below, there is no reason except anti-religion to give protection to conscience but exclude conscience based-upon religious belief. Back to text.
  7. Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects (London: Longmans, 1899) at 295. Those who wish to come to a well informed understanding of the "secular" and faith should examine the works of Newman, particularly Discussions and Arguments and his Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford Between A.D. 1826 and 1843 (London: Longmans, 1898) in which he draws a distinction between "implicit" and "explicit" religion, ibid. at 279. It is just such a distinction that I am suggesting in this paper between "explicit faith" and "implicit faith." Back to text.


Benson, Iain T. "Secular Confusions." The Newman Rambler (December, 2000).

Printed with permission of The Newman Rambler.

The Newman Rambler is published semi-annually by the Newman Centre of McGill University. Visit the Centre's website at E-mail:

The Author

Iain Tyrrell Benson is a legal philosopher, writer, professor and practising legal consultant. The main focus of his work in relation to law and society has been to examine some of the various meanings that underlie terms of common but confused usage. An advocate that the public sphere should be open and inclusive of all citizens and their groups, whether their faith and belief commitments are based on non-religious or religious beliefs, Iain Benson was the first Executive Director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal, a non-partisan, non-denominational charitable foundation with status in both Canada and the United States, dedicated to examining the nature of pluralism with particular reference to the associational rights dimension of religion and expression.

Copyright © 2000 The Newman Rambler
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