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Secularism

SECULARISM

A form of humanism that limits true value to those temporal qualities that contribute to man's natural perfection, both individual and social, to the actual exclusion of the supernatural. More than abstract theory, secularism, a generic term for the forms it assumes, is a philosophy of life, a movement of thought, and in the broad sense of the word a religion. Secularistic ethics is founded upon the principles of a purely naturalistic morality that is independent of revealed religion or supernaturalism. As a movement, it pervades government, economic theory, education, and family. In the sense that secularistic theories are concerned with ultimate truths, they may be considered as religious or sacral convictions. Secularism may be described as "a view of life that limits itself not to the material in exclusion of the spiritual, but to the human here and now in exclusion of man's relation to God here and hereafter" (U.S. Bishops' Statement, 1947).

Historical Development. Secularization of man's thought and action developed with the historical framework of modern Western civilization; its origins can be traced to significant economic, political, and religious changes within Christian culture itself. Common to each of these changes is greater separation of the temporal order from its religious influence by transferring various functions from religious to secular authority.

Early Indications. The 14th-century revival of commerce and the emergence of the merchant class within feudal society provided at least two indications of a forthcoming secularistic economic trend: first, the notion of "useful" freedom from external restraint, an acquired right granted by the free cities and distinct from the natural right inherent in land ownership; second, the attempted reconciliation of business practice with the religious prescriptions denouncing the profit motive. This personal liberty of the merchant class to follow business according to the dictates of their own self-interest became, in fact, the forerunner of 18th-and 19th-century laissez-faire individualism. Furthermore, the Church's attitude toward the change from the established "natural" economy to the rising "money" economy stigmatized the merchant as socially inferior and ethically questionable. Resisting the established authority, the rising middle class justified the change by structuring a juridically recognized society and by fostering revised theological opinion on such things as just price and usury.

The trend of thought in the 15th-century Italian renaissance was homocentric, glorifying the natural and emphasizing the human. The alliance of the papacy and the humanists was one of the dominant features of this culture (Dawson). Nonetheless, the advancement of the arts and empirical sciences, the rise of individualism and the decline of social responsibility (Neill), the failure of the conciliar movement for ecclesiastical reform and the personal failure of the papacy (Hughes), the ascendency of power and nationalism in the sociopolitical sphere (e.g., Machiavellian theory), and the need of secular education for expanding financial and commercial enter-prisesthese were the factors precipitating a crisis between secular preoccupations and religious inspirations within a society that remained basically Christian.

Reformers. Reacting against the abuses of Italian humanism and striving to return Christianity to its primitive purity, Martin Luther insisted upon an "invisible" Church, thereby separating religion from its cultural accretions. After the Peasants' War of 1524, the secular state, with its autonomous authority, became the new guarantor of the social order. John Calvin, on the contrary, established an autonomous "visible" church that claimed theocratic authority: collaborating with the state while at the same time controlling it from above. Assimilating current intellectual, economic, and political trends, while at the same time rejecting French Renaissance culture, Calvin offered a doctrine that appealed to the middle class: good works in the form of thrift, diligence, sobriety, and frugality are indispensable as a proof that salvation has been attained. Although neither the humanists nor the Reformers dreamt of the destruction of Christendom, the chief cause of the secularization of Western culture was, according to Dawson, the loss of Christian unity in the 16th century.

Rational Approaches. Scientific discovery (e.g., by Galileo, Isaac Newton) shattering medieval cosmology, discovery of ancient religions (e.g., Buddhism), and competition among Christian sects (notwithstanding the attempted religious tolerance of the Politiques) occasioned the search of intellectuals, starting with the 17th century, for a rational approach to faith in the study of nature itself: René Descartes in the reorganization of knowledge according to abstract principles; John Locke in his atomistic view of society, his political philosophy (preservation of property), and his reduction of faith to reason and charity to natural duty; Voltaire and the philosophes in their concept of society as a collection of individualistic interests and in their religion of deism, which acknowledged only the existence of God, virtuous living, and eternal reward. Deism, signifying the excision of super-natural revelation and institutional religion (in its revealed aspects) from the center of human life, was also followed by Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson of the American Revolution. Economic theory absorbed the laissez-faire of Adam Smith and the economic liberty of the Physiocrats. God and state were thus reduced to the role of safeguarding individual rights so that Reason, Nature, and Humanity might progress uninhibited to produce a harmony of enlightened self-interest and social welfare. Underlying these theories was the Cartesian principle of strict rational criticism.

Final Separation. But spiritual values, religious truths, and moral absolutes were finally separated from the public forum in the 19th-century application of Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism, in Thomas Malthus's doctrine of population, David Ricardo's classical economic theory (iron law of wages), and Herbert Spencer's politico-economic application of the scientific law of natural selection and individual freedom within representative government. Furthermore, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution had the effect of making God's relation with the world extremely remote and impersonal; the process of growth and decay seemed to rule out from the scientific point of view any conclusion about God. A distinct philosophy called secularism developed in the mid-19th century by George Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh of England postulated: principles of natural morality independent of all revelation and supernatural orientation; absolute freedom of opinion on all matters, including morality; natural improvement in this life; absolute separation of Church and State. (These same tenets are currently proposed by the American Humanist Association and the ethical culture societies.) The Constitution of the United States contained the freedoms of liberalism; the theories of Spencer, however, were not widely adopted until the last two decades of the 19th century. Unlike some European ideologies (laicism, communism), American democracy is pluralistic, with nonconfessional politics, but affording protection to religion.

The 20th century was characterized by its many forms of positivism, which applied the empirical basis of science to all intellectual investigation, social theories, and religious beliefs. Industrialized, technical civilization governed predominantly by economic values produced a mind closed to transcendent values, to metaphysics, and to theology; positivism reflected that mentality (Frederick Copleston). Besides logical positivism and analytical philosophy, the pragmatism of William james and the instrumentalism of John Dewey flourished in the democratic climate and pluralistic society of the United States. A form of secular humanism, it contains all the requirements for the development of a secular society.

In the late 20th century secularism appeared with nuanced meanings in three distinctive settings: Vatican Council II documents; the secular city process; the evangelical and the charismatic movements.

(1) The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church placed a positive emphasis on the vocation of the laity to work within secular affairs to which they bring a Christian dimension; nonetheless, "that ominous doctrine must rightly be rejected which attempts to build a society with no regard whatever for religion" (Lumen gentium 36). The text did not contain the term "secularism" so as to avoid confusion with "laicism" (sometimes called laicization), which suggests either a positive role in the Church for the laity or the negative meaning (found in English and German) of freeing the laity from ecclesiastical control.

(2) Not to be confused with secularism is the notion of the Secular City (H. Cox), a process of desacralization through emancipation: aware of his potentialities and responsibilities, man must make life possible in the world, which becomes his city under the care of his providence. Within this framework, the social sciences, especially sociology, become a principal source for the development of theology. Reaction included accusations of: establishing a Christian elite without concern for the typical layperson; ignoring further developments in which Christians are not supposed to despise the world but rather lift it up, consecrate it, and fulfill it. Less apparent but more critical in this process is the parallel growth of rationalism (in the strict sense) wherein internal consistency, rather than authority and faith, increasingly becomes the principal criterion for personal and social values and thus eliminates any religious dimension in the evaluating procedure.

(3) Supplanting institutional values (both ecclesiastical and nonreligious) with personal values based on an identification with diverse public and private interest groups, causes, communities, and movements frequently occasioned the juxtaposition (if not interpenetration) of secular and religious values within the same social setting. In addition, the lack of adequate criteria for evaluating seems to have contributed to two subsequent changes: the "reappropriation" of distinctive Catholic values among certain theologians (e.g., Rahner); and a turning toward a fundamentalist view of Scripture in some Christian assemblies and in charismatic groups within the more structured Churches. The fundamentalists or evangelicals and the charismatics pursued the distinction between "the world" (as evil) and "the born again" through the Spirit (as saved). The secular, whether personal, institutional, or social, thus became synonymous with secularism (irreligious) and was therefore rejected as a value for the "born again" Christian, who has Christ as his personal Savior and sole criterion of value.

Systematic Presentation. Although secularism is neither theistic nor atheistic, 20th-century American secular humanism generally appeared to be antitheistic. Negatively, the secular humanism of Dewey removed all dualism between the natural and the supernatural. Differing from the deists who did not deny truths about the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, later secularists considered the distinction between God and nature to be antagonistic; it is impossible to accept both the eternal and the temporal. This position is similar to Friedrich Nietzsche's contention that one who is loyal to the earth is a sworn enemy to the transcendent God. Furthermore, an immaterial principle is totally irreconcilable with the unity of human nature (against Cartesian depreciation of bodily values). Contrary to the Kantian notion of a faith that does not employ the scientific method, secularism maintains that whatever is real is also natural, both in the sense of not being supernatural and in the sense of being available in principle to scientific knowledge. New qualitative developments in nature and human experience cannot, however, break the biological continuity of life or place modes of being beyond the competence of scientific inquiry (e.g., the existence of God or an immaterial principle in man), since nature is ultimately defined by secularist thinkers in terms of what falls within the scope of the scientific method. Secularism also retains the pragmatic emphasis upon discernible consequences: man the knower is involved essentially in a process of adjustment to his environment and employs knowledge as a practical means of satisfying his needs and desires. In the social order, adjustment refers to both a technical control of nature and a social control of man.

Although antitheistic, secularism is not necessarily antireligious, especially in light of a religious feeling for the welfare of the secularist social ideal. Institutionalized religions, however, are divisive in that they attempt to mold personal and social conduct in conformity with norms derived from divine wisdom and law. Consequently, secularists seek absolute separation of church and state. Moral judgments can be determined only with respect to specific and developing situations; there cannot exist, therefore, universal norms of conduct, nor do human values have absolute or permanent significance. But an individual or society, in choosing a certain value as important, will establish a useful relation between an action and a goal; the actual attributed value, however, is relative to the current situation and is not dependent upon fixed, eternal ends. But social adequacy does provide a working criterion for choice: those actions are morally good that tend to extend the naturalistic outlook. Unhampered intellectual freedom, broadening opportunities for education, work, and cultural experience, and development of social agencies are social goods having moral overtones. Law is also a pragmatic instrument, used to satisfy the needs of all groups joined in the wider community. The doctrine of secular idealism, which on the one hand transforms nature, does not, therefore, transcend the temporalcoextensive with the materialto the spiritual and the supernatural.

Critical Evaluation. Inasmuch as secularism is centrally concerned with human destiny, it can be conceived as a form of humanism. In Christian humanism, man's destiny is both eschatological and incarnational: in the present order the last end of man transcends any end that man himself might propose; at the same time, however, man finds perfection of his nature as mannatural, human, terrestrial. Secular humanism, on the other hand, postulates nature as the self-sufficing totality of being; appraising man's ordination toward eternal life as a degradation of his nature, it tends to emphasize current human values to the exclusion of man's relation to God and His divine providence. Therefore, inasmuch as secularism rejects end and purpose to human life, it is anti-teleological; preoccupied with the efficient causality of the present in the evolutionary process of creating its own ends as it progresses, it practically excludes final and exemplary causality.

Secularism's narrow conception of knowledge, apart from its denial of essence, logically excludes any knowledge of God and the spiritual world. Human morality cannot thus be adequately explained. Although certain values (e.g., social progress) are desirable, they cannot be shown to be either ultimate or even obligatory: even though science might not need justification beyond its progress, science and morality are not coextensive. Furthermore, the denial of universal moral principles among secularists who treat separately fact and interpretation of anthropological discoveries according to evolutionary process can be questioned by historical investigation of the generalizations on which the assumptions of evolution as empirical hypothesis and as a universal philosophical principle of explanation are formulated.

See Also: agnosticism; atheism; enlightenment, philosophy of; freethinkers; rationalism; temporal values, theology of; theism.

Bibliography: "On Secularism," Catholic Mind 46 (January 1948) 18, annual statement of the hierarchy of the U.S., Nov. 16, 1947. j. collins, "Marxist & Secular Humanism," Social Order 3 (1953) 207232. c. h. dawson, The Judgment of the Nations (New York 1942); The Movement of World Revolution (New York 1959). b. de vaulx, History of the Missions, tr. r. f. trevett (New York 1961). g. j. holyoake, The Principles of Secularism (London 1859). e. j. hughes, The Church and the Liberal Society (Princeton 1944). t. p. neill, The Rise and Decline of Liberalism (Milwaukee 1953). h. pirenne, Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, tr. i. e. clegg (New York 1937). a. rademacher, Religion and Life (Westminster, Md. 1962). a. j. toynbee, The World and the West (New York 1953). d. callahan, ed., The Secular City Debate (New York 1966). y. congar, Christians Active in the World (New York 1968); "The Role of The Church in the Modern World," Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, 5v., H. Vorgrimler et al., eds. (New York 196769) 5:202223. h. cox, The Secular City (New York 1965). c. geffrÉ, ed., Humanism and Christianity. Concilium 86 (New York 1973). f. klostermann, "The Laity," Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, 5v., H. Vorgrimler et al., eds. (New York 196769) 1:231259.

[t. f. mcmahon]

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