Secularism as a Humanistic and Atheistic Philosophy

Secularism Isn't Always Just the Absence of Religion

Although secularism can certainly be understood as simply the absence of religion, it is also often treated as a philosophical system with personal, political, cultural, and social implications. Secularism as a philosophy must be treated a bit differently than secularism as a mere idea, but just what sort of philosophy can secularism be? For those who treated secularism as a philosophy, it was a humanistic and even atheistic philosophy that sought the good of humanity in this life.

Philosophy of Secularism

The philosophy of secularism has been explained in a number of different ways, although they all have certain important similarities. George Jacob Holyoake, the originator of the term "secularism," defined it most explicitly in his book English Secularism:

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."

The American orator and freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll gave this definition of Secularism:

Secularism is the religion of humanity; it embraces the affairs of this world; it is interested in everything that touches the welfare of a sentient being; it advocates attention to the particular planet on which we happen to live; it means that each individual counts for something; it is a declaration of intellectual independence; it means the pew is superior to the pulpit, that those who bear the burdens shall have the profits and that they who fill the purse shall hold the strings.
It is a protest against ecclesiastical tyranny, against being a serf, subject or slave of any phantom, or of the priest of any phantom. It is a protest against wasting this life for the sake of one we know not of. It proposes to let the gods take care of themselves. It means living for ourselves and each other; for the present instead of the past, for this world instead of another. It is striving to do away with violence and vice, with ignorance, poverty and disease.

Virgilius Ferm, in his Encyclopedia of Religion, wrote that secularism is:

...a variety of utilitarian social ethic which seeks human improvement without reference to religion and exclusively by means of human reason, science and social organization. It has developed into a positive and widely adopted outlook which aims to direct all activities and institutions by a non-religious concern for the goods of the present life and for social well-being.

More recently, Bernard Lewis explained the concept of secularism thus:

The term "secularism" appears to have been first used in English toward the middle of the nineteenth century, with a primary ideological meaning. As first used, it denoted the doctrine that morality should be based on rational considerations regarding human well-being in this world, to the exclusion of considerations relating to God or the afterlife. Later it was used more generally for the belief that public institutions, especially general education, should be secular not religious.
In the twentieth century it has acquired a somewhat wider range of meaning, derived from the older and wider connotations of the term "secular." In particular it is frequently used, along with "separation," as an approximate equivalent of the French term laicisme, also used in other languages, but not as yet in English.

Secularism as Humanism

According to these descriptions, secularism was a positive philosophy that is concerned entirely with the good of human beings in this life. The improvement of the human condition is treated as a material question, not spiritual, and is best achieved through human efforts rather than supplications before deities or other supernatural beings.

We should remember that at the time that Holyoake coined the term secularism, the material needs of the people were very important. Although "material" needs were contrasted with "spiritual" and thus also included things like education and personal development, it is nevertheless true that very material needs like adequate housing, food, and clothing loomed large in the minds of progressive reformers. None of these meanings for secularism as a positive philosophy are still in use today, though.

Today, the philosophy that was called secularism tends to be labeled humanism or secular humanism and the concept of secularism, at least in the social sciences, is much more restricted. The first and perhaps most common understanding of "secular" today stands in opposition to "religious." According to this usage, something is secular when it can be categorized with the worldly, civil, non-religious sphere of human life. A secondary understanding of "secular" is contrasted with anything that is regarded as holy, sacred, and inviolable. According to this usage, something is secular when it is not worshiped, when it is not venerated, and when it is open for critique, judgment, and replacement.