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Secularization and Secularism


The terms secularization and secularism have had a variety of meanings since they were coined; "secularization" in the mid-seventeenth century and "secularism" in the mid-nineteenth, both incorporating the word secular. "Secular," from the Latin "saeculum," a generation or age, originally referred to secular clergy who were not in a monastic order. It also came to refer to the worldly realm. Secularism is used here in two current sensesan emphasis on the this-worldly rather than the other-worldly, and what is called in the United States as the "separation of church and state." In Latin countries terms based on laic imply stronger state controls, based on their history of struggles with the Catholic Church.

Secularization involves both increasing state control of spheres formerly controlled by religious institutions and the expansion and freedom from religious control of nonreligious institutions, both state and private, and comprising education, social welfare, law, publication and the media, and forums for the expression of belief and action. In some areas, notably Turkey and communist countries, there has been state control of religion, rather than separation of church and state, and it is unclear if such countries should be called secular. Every secular country has a different version of secularism, and none of them has an absolute separation of church and state. Secularism involves belief in the priority of this-worldly considerations, and an end to religious doctrinal influence on law, education, and welfare, and the need for equal treatment of various beliefs and believers. To its opponents secularism often implies unbelief, a sense also included in some dictionaries but denied by most secularists, whether or not they are believers.

Secularism has also involved egalitarian political and social treatment of religious minorities and unbelievers, which had not been true of either Protestant or Catholic majorities, while Islam had a place for minorities but an unequal one. The major Asian religions have traditionally been more religiously tolerant and have had fewer struggles over secularism.

Works about secularism and secularization have been scattered over time and region, with the greatest concentration covering the "secularization thesis," most popular in Great Britain, which posited a steady progress of secularization, which has not since occurred outside Western Europe. India, where secularism is a central political issue, has seen more varied literature on the subject. Many works relevant to secularism and secularization are centered on different concepts.

History and Nature of Secularization and Secularism to 1914

Secularization originally meant the transfer of ecclesiastical property to civil or state ownership, and its first recorded use was apparently after the Thirty Years War in 1648 to mean the transfer of church lands to states. Christian Churches were huge landowners, and religious institutions in non-Christian countries also held or controlled very large properties, which states increasingly secularized. In England Henry VIII's dissolution of monasteries was a secularizing step. Secularization over time came rather to refer primarily to a process in which religious influence over government, institutions, ideas, and behavior is reduced and reliance on this-worldly bases for these spheres grows.

In premodern times religion and religious institutions had far greater power than they did later, though Confucianism, some kinds of Buddhism and Hinduism, and rationalist philosophies in ancient Greece, the Muslim world, and Europe had strong this-worldly elements. Secularization and secularism began in Western Europe, along with the rise of capitalism and stronger states. Other secularizing forces occurring first in the West, included the rise of science and the scientific outlook, over many centuries. The Copernican revolution in astronomy and the Darwinian evolutionary revolution contradicted the creation stories in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures, and cast doubt on these scriptures' literal infallibility, The spread of belief in this-worldly causation to ever-greater spheres, including history and social science, undermined ideas of divine intervention. In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment building on earlier science and philosophy, the idea of the Great Watchmaker who created the universe but did not afterward intervene became widespread among intellectuals, and was later refurbished to fit evolutionary theories. The Enlightenment had important proponents in most of Western Europe and the Americas, where Benjamin Franklin (17061790) and Thomas Jefferson (17431826) are the main names.

Protestantism is often considered a force for secularization, though it initially increased religiosity and religious loyalties, both among Protestants and among reformed and aroused Catholics. Ultimately, the proliferation of sects, including some liberal ones, and exhaustion in religious wars, helped lead to religious toleration by governments and recognition of various religious and irreligious beliefsall elements of state secularism.

Several intellectuals encouraged secularism with writings advocating religious toleration, like John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) and John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859). Enlightenment writers often stressed anticlericalism and attacked the Catholic Church. Several, including Voltaire (16941778), said that religion was a good thing for the lower classes, to keep them honest, diligent, and peaceful, an idea that got support from the anti-church violence during the French Revolution. This idea had wide currency in the Muslim world until the Iranian Revolution (1979) showed again that popular religiosity did not always have such orderly effects.

The rise of nation-states and of nationalism encouraged secularism. Except in countries like Poland, Ireland, and former Yugoslavia where religious and nationalist boundaries coincide, nationalism and nation-states have tended to undermine organized religion. Religious loyalties and ideologies were supranational, and religion supported hierarchical relations between genders, toward minorities, and in everyday life, which conflicted with the priorities of the nation. Nationalism provided an ideology for nonreligious loyalties. This accompanied socioeconomic modernization and industrialization, requiring similar workers, similar rules for treating people, and national markets. Nationalism was a secular force, and religion could play only a subordinate role in most nations. In many countries nation-states struggled with church control over schools, law, and social institutions, and generally nation-states won and expanded secular institutions.

Industrialization, urbanization, and the rising role of economic class groups helped undermine religious ties and promote secular ideologies, whether nationalist, liberal, or socialist. The rising socialist movement was often antireligious. The atheism of Karl Marx (18181883), who saw religion as unnecessary in a communist state, became widespread among workers and their supporters.

In mid-nineteenth century England, the terms secularist and secularism were coined by George Holyoake (18171906), who founded a secularist society that helped end religious discrimination in parliament and elsewhere. In the late nineteenth century elite ideas were increasingly secular and agnostic, including Charles Darwin (18091882) and his "bulldog" Thomas Huxley (18251895), the radical literary critics of Russia, and the new field of sociology, with Auguste Comte (17981857), Émile Durkheim (18581917), Max Weber (18641920), and others. Bible criticism, with Germans like Richard Strauss (18641949) and Frenchmen like Ernest Renan (18231892), undermined faith in established religion. Even an ideological trend that most people in the early twenty-first century find repellentscientific racismwas predominantly secular. Women's rights movements have been secular in their effect, as all major religions endorsed male control of and superiority to women and denied women rights regarding property, work, political participation, and control of their bodies. In much of the world resistance to women's rights has been primarily based on religious, antisecular, ideas.

Secularism usually endorses the idea found in nationalism, socialism, feminism, and some science, of progress. Darwinism, against the occasional caveats of Darwin, was seen as a story of progress, and was applied to Spencer's "survival of the fittest" in human society. Social Darwinism was intertwined with racism, one of whose offshoots was the eugenics movement, a supposed recipe for race amelioration. Socialism, nationalism, and feminism expected a better future, to be brought by human secular activity. By contrast, religions often saw history as a fall from a golden age, or as a period in which individual salvation was possible only through religion. A better world might only come via a sudden, millennial process. The contrast between traditional Jewish expectations of a messiah and the this-worldly efforts of modern (secular nationalist) Zionists exemplifies this difference.

The period 18481914 was the heyday of secularism and of belief in progress in the West, and saw their first rise in the Global South. Several countries established secular states after major struggles. The papal territories were a major obstacle to Italian unification, which required their conquest and a break with the church, a break not healed until Mussolini's concordat. France experienced many struggles between clericals and anticlericals. French laicisme, more militantly anticlerical than British and American secularism, won out decisively in the 1905 law disestablishing the Catholic Church. In England the Church of England remained established but, partly as a result of struggles by secularist groups, legal restrictions on nonconformists, Jews, and atheists ended, and the established church's power declined. The United States outlawed federal church establishment in the constitution, and the late nineteenth century saw the rise of new secular cultural trends and even the popularity of agnostics like Walt Whitman (18191892) and Robert Ingersoll (18331899). In all Western countries public education of children and young adults spread rapidly, and it was increasingly a secular education. In several Western countries, the fight against the Catholic Church was often the key issue in politics. Anticlericalism, with secular implications, became central to politics in several countries, partly because nineteenth-century popes ruled against modern socialist and liberal ideas.

Popular belief and state control over education and welfare became increasingly secular. In Eastern Europe and the Global South traditionalist religion remained strong and secularism made fewer inroads in governmental policy than in Western Europe, but secularism was rising, especially among intellectuals and the newly educated classes, and was often a component of nationalism. Many forces favoring secularism were similar in the West and the Global South, except (1) their time span was much shorter in the Global South, and (2) many secularizing forces entered with imperialism in the Global South, and some who resisted imperialism also resisted secularism and incorporated religion in resistance. The Indian National Congress, however, founded in 1885, was ideologically secular, secularism being the only way to unite different Hindu castes, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, and others in a single national movement. In the Middle East the new ideologies of Turkish, Iranian, and Arab nationalism, which arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, emphasized Islam less and secular and nationalist values more. Several Iranian and Turkish nationalists were hostile to Islam and constructed idealized pre-Islamic national pasts full of modern and secular virtues. Even Arab nationalists, who saw Islam as a great Arab achievement, mostly favored a more secular legal system with more equal treatment of minorities. While words like secular never became widely popular in Muslim countries, where adherence to Islam by political leaders, and also state churches, continued, there were strong secular trends.

Among Jews secular trends were strong in the West, especially in the middle classes, but less in Eastern Europe and in the Global South. Theodor Herzl (18601904) and most founders of political Zionism were secularists, but many Eastern European Zionists were not. Oriental Jewry was essentially untouched by secularism by 1914, while most Jews worldwide were either indifferent or hostile to Zionism until the 1930s. Among Jews secularism and nationalism were not congruent; many Zionists were not secularists, and many secularists were not Zionists.

Secularism and Its Opponents since 1914

Since World War I there was at first a rise in secularism in the Global South, but then a rise in antisecularist forces, both in the United States and in the Global South, along with a decline in optimism about the future. The biggest impetus to secular nationalism came after World War I, with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (18811938) in Turkey, whose leaders wanted a strong secular national state to catch up with the West. Ataturk's secularizing measures included Romanization of the script, outlawing the use of Arabic, ending religious education and the shari'a, basing personal status law on the Swiss Civil Code, votes for women, and discouragement of veiling. His were the strongest measures outside the communist world, and after World War II, when political parties competed, some of his measures were eased. While in the early twenty-first century Turkey has seen Islamist or partially Islamist parties in power, there has been little change in secular laws and practices, which have been guarded by periodic interventions of the secularist army.

In Iran Reza Shah, (r. 192541) imitated Ataturk. He promoted the secular nationalist view of Iran earlier favored by oppositionists, glorifying pre-Islamic Iran and denigrating the Arabs and Islam. He forced men and later women to adopt Western dress, promoted a secular public school system, and so forth. His son, Muhammad Reza Shah (194l-1979), continued secularist measures. With secular opposition cowed, and secular nationalism partly associated with the status quo and subservience to the United States, support grew for a religious opposition that appealed to anti-Western and antityrannical feelings and triumphed in 1979. Since then, however, secular opposition and thought have revived.

In Egypt the secular nationalism of Gamal Abdel-Nasser was undermined by defeats by Israel, and his secular successors followed unpopular economic and political policies. A growing Islamist movement there has influenced policy. Islamism is strong in the Muslim world, though several governments have suppressed it. The association of secularism with Western dominance helps account for this growth of Islamism; even the strict rulers of Saudi Arabia are attacked as infidels dependent on the United States. When Muslims want to be free of Western interference, and associate the West with support for Israel, many do not want to imitate ideologically the secular West.

In Pakistan and Israel religious identity was the raison d'être of movements to create nations. The early Zionist leaders were, however, secularists, and much of the population is still secularist. Muhammad Ali Jinnah (18761948) of Pakistan was also a secularist. Reactions against secularism, organized into several parties have, however, taken advantage of both states' religious basis, and have grown. Both states incorporate significant bodies of religious law, including religious courts for some matters.

India, where there are several major religions, is more complex. While Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh movements have grown, the secular Indian National Congress represented the main trend of the national liberation movement. Once the Muslim League adopted and agitated for the creation of Pakistan in the 1940s, communal-religious feelings were aroused, culminating in partition in l947. A Hindu political party ruled for some years until the secular Congress Party ousted it in 2004. Religiously based political movements have caused a weakening of secularist commitments in the Global South, at the same time as most governments continue to follow secular policies in education, welfare, and economics.

The other major area where secularism has been on the defensive and religious politics on the rise is the United States. Although the United States is very different from the Global South, the rise of religious politics in both since around 1970 is to some degree a reaction to governmental secular measures. The Supreme Court, partly responding to cases brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, began rulings favoring church-state separation in the states only in the 1930s. After World War II there were several secularizing governmental measures, but antisecular opposition has focused on two Supreme Court decisions, the outlawing of school prayer in 1962 and the legalization of abortion in 1973. The earlier concern of the religious right with evolution has also continued, as well as focus on opposition to schools' teaching about homosexuality or even about sex. Many feel that after 2001 the U.S.. government under President George W. Bush became less secular, endorsing federal funds for "faith-based" programs and acquiescing to religious objections to stem-cell research and to funding international programs that include mention of abortion.

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the end of communism unleashed some backlash and restatement of traditions, though secularism remains strong. Even among secularists, concern over contemporary behavior patterns has been added to antisecularist ideologies. Among worldwide trends decried by antisecularists are the rise of freer sexual habits and of sexually transmitted diseases, a rise in crime rates, and a decline in community action and spirit. Some find in revived religious ties and morality an answer to such problems. Many traditions have come to be romanticized and seen as belonging to religion. The religious right creates a picture of harmony that never existed, generally idealizing the past family situation and social relations. Antisecularists everywhere appeal to the past to create religious roadblocks to the liberation of, and equal rights for, women.

In the past, when secular ideologies like nationalism, socialism, free market capitalism, and others had not been widely tried they could be seen as panaceas, while religion in government existed widely, and its faults were obvious. In the early twenty-first century this situation has reversed, with secular ideologies having been tried and shown problems, and religious groups able to present alternative ideologies and create effective religio-political organizations.

Many of the changes instituted by governmental secularization have been retained or reinstated when religious parties come to power, as seen in Iran. The Islamic Republic adopted a largely secular constitution and its economy and schools are mainly secular, despite a religious overlay, which, as with the U.S. religious right, concerns mainly questions of gender and sexuality. Secularist ideas are also popular and religious government unpopular.

The backlash to secularism can produce its own backlash, as is happening in the early twenty-first century in Iran and possibly in India. Taking the whole world, secularism is not in dramatic retreat, although antisecular ideologies are stronger than they were. Religious politics are not important in the large, secular Japan and China, nor are they in most of Europe. Secularism seems strongest in countries that are growing in prosperity and in those that have considerable resources devoted to social safety nets, like Western Europe and Canada. The presence of large Muslim populations in Western Europe discriminated against and sometimes following Islamist ideologies and gender practices that disfavor women has created problems for European secularism, however. The most dramatic expression of secularism in the face of such problems has been the controversial French outlawing of wearing religious symbols, including the headscarf, in the schools in 2003.

See also Atheism ; Cultural Revivals ; Nation ; Nationalism ; Religion and the State ; Sacred and Profane ; Toleration ; Zionism .


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Nikki R. Keddie

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