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secularism was the word adopted by George Jacob Holyoake in the early 1850s to describe a system of morals and social action shaped exclusively by this-worldly considerations, irrespective of religious beliefs. The word was derived from the secular education movement for the complete separation of religious teaching from other forms of education.

Christians in 19th-cent. Britain argued that atheists, lacking belief in divine judgement, must be immoral and incapable of exercising civil rights. Holyoake wished to avoid the negative connotations of the word atheism by finding an alternative which stressed the positive nature of an ethical life inspired to do good for its own sake. Regarding religion as an irrelevance, he argued that secularism could extend beyond the bounds of atheism to include all enlightened reformers.

Local secular societies were formed in the 1850s, incorporating earlier groups of anticlerical and atheistic radicals who had supported Richard Carlile and Robert Owen. In 1866 these were brought together by Charles Bradlaugh in the National Secular Society though, unlike Holyoake, Bradlaugh argued that atheism was a necessary precondition for secularism. Ironically, secularism as a movement declined from the mid-1880s partly because society was becoming more secularized, making the campaigns of secularism seem unnecessary, although the National Secular Society continues as a pressure group for the complete secularization of state education, repeal of the blasphemy laws, disestablishment of the Church of England, and the removal of all religious influences in politics, law, morals, and society.

Edward Royle

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