The word “secular” refers to an important principle, but it is one that is widely misunderstood, and the word is used in two very different (almost opposite) ways, which leads to confusion. This touches mostly on politics and governance, but it connects also to science and many other human endeavours.

In the following I will first outline two ideas which I will call simply P and x. Then I will discuss the meaning of the word “secular”, and the fact that we need to develop better ways of speaking clearly.

Let P be a way of managing public affairs whereby a variety of viewpoints get equal chance to express themselves, subject only to a few restrictions coming from broad notions of what does not abuse this by descending into hate speech and the like. In particular, P represents the idea that no viewpoint is allowed to trump all others at the outset by declaring itself to be the sole true representative of some basic value that all ought to respect.

Let x be one among the various opinions that there are about the nature of reality and basic human identity. x might be a form of Christian commitment, for example, or it might be a form of atheism, or Islam, or another idea.

Item P here is, as I say, a way of managing the decision-making process in public affairs when there is a range of opinion on show. It may also function as a way of shaping what sorts of things are said in places of education, and what artworks are supported by funds from taxation.

This P corresponds to one of the possible meanings of the word “secular”, but I have deliberately given it a label (P) rather than a name, in order to avoid confusion, because the word “secular” is often used to mean something else.

One of the most important features of P, in fact its defining feature, is that none of the items x are allowed to declare that they are the sole respecter of the principle contained in P. The point about P is that no one viewpoint, whether religious or irreligious, may trump all others by declaring itself to be the sole voice of reason, for example, and on this basis exercise political power without appeal to any further court of opinion. In other words, P is the decision that we are all better off if we don’t invest political discussion with the weight of sacred authority. Here, by ‘sacred’ I do not necessarily mean religious; I mean by it things like deep existential commitments, such as the commitment to reason itself, and to equality itself. The idea is that political leaders and parties should not claim to be the sole or primary location or voice of such deep universals.

When this principle fails, totalitarianism rises. A state body begins to claim that citizens should respect its decisions without any hope of some higher principle which might allow them to question it. When this happens, free speech and a free press have been compromised. Restricted education and unjust imprisonment soon follow. Corresponding evils can happen in smaller bodies such as a school. That is why schools and universities also need to respect P.

According to P, if someone wants to support their policy by making a direct appeal to universals such as truth itself, or reason itself, then they may do so only by first relinquishing political power. That is what the principle P represents, and it is important and right.

Equally, if someone wants to support their policy by making a direct appeal to God, without further explanation that others can follow, then they may do so only by first relinquishing all political power. That is what P is all about, and it is important and right.

(That is also what Christianity is all about.)

Now the principle that I have called P is a principle of government that most western societies champion and try to respect, and it is often called “secularism”. However, that same word “secular” or “secularism” is also widely used for something else, namely,  the elimination of all recognition that religious language and commitments might be worthy of respect and a voice. This idea especially claims that only irreligious viewpoints truly understand and respect the secular principle. So now we have two very different meanings: the principle P which might be called “a considered secularism” and something else, which might be called “anti-religious secularism”. Calling both of these by the same name is highly confusing, because in many respects the second is a negation of the first. However, the notion of “religion is suspect” has now become so closely associated with the title “secular” that the whole area has become confused.

For clarity, then, let me emphasize that the principle that I have called P is what I and many others of us think is the right way to manage governance of public affairs. The principle P is good, and if by “secularism” you mean P then I fully welcome your secularism, and indeed I think this is what Christian commitment ought to do. To follow Christ is not to re-introduce the very controlling type of religion which he so forcefully opposed.

However, if by “secular” someone means “non-theism wins the sole right to respect; no other viewpoint gets even a voice” then such a person has twisted the meaning of the word out of all recognition, and they have embarked on a form of totalitarian thinking. This is not P; it is a totalizing idea that I will call Q.

Returning to P, I said just now that I think Christian commitment is shown by promoting P. Since the word “Christian” is also so widely misused, I should say immediately that if that word has become, for anyone, synonymous with unreason or superstition or bigotry then I hope such a reader will understand that that is not what I intend by the word; I am using it rather to refer to a way of life that respects certain formulas such as the Apostles’ Creed and which tries to work out what truthful and creative life is like in view of that. In the present context, the implication is that we don’t want members of parliament to wave Bibles or other sacred texts at election rallies, as if there was some sort of “religious vote” that they can lay claim to. There is no such thing as a “religious vote” because the only form of religion that deserves respect is a form that respects democracy and contributes to the political sphere in the form of a leavening influence. That is, as a good MP (or senator, delegate, etc.) one is committed to behaving well and respecting the principles of fair governance and respect for other people’s points of view. This includes the awareness that a political position must not present itself as if it was sacred. Fortunately most politicians in the UK understand this, but it is something that some parts of American politics need to learn.

It follows also that we don’t want MPs to make comments in the House of Commons beginning with phrases such as “I feel that God is saying …”. This is not because they would suffer disdain and ridicule, and it is not because we are trying to expunge God from public affairs. It is because we are bringing in our commitment to fairness by refusing grand-standing, and that is how one exhibits trust in God in this context.

Many people are quite muddled about this. The worldwide Christian community has its share of people who don’t understand the value of a considered secularism, and who may even think that P is some sort of regressive step away from a more ‘godly’ form of government. This is quite wrong. It is as wrong as that part of atheism which leans towards Q. I am not very well informed about Islam, but one of the things that troubles me about Islam, at least in its official voice, is that it seems not to have fully embraced the principle of a considered secularism. I am happy to note that there are serious and considered Islamic voices urging the benefits of secularism (see for example http://www.charterforcompassion.org/index.php/deepening-our-historical-perspective/secularism-and-islam) but I note that, for the moment at least, the word ‘sharia’ seems to have both religious and legislative overtones at the same time.

The principle P—the considered secularism that I think is good and welcome—was worked out over a long period of time, primarily by Jewish and Christian thinkers, with further elaboration by atheist thinkers, and some versions of other viewpoints have welcomed it. It has roots in the people who were executed in the first century AD for refusing to worship Roman political or civic leaders. It was quite deeply written about (though later forgotten) by clerics in the Middle Ages. Its development was strongly influenced by things like the Protestant Reformation, the English Civil War and the period of western culture often called the Enlightenment. I am not competent to trace the history in full, but it is notable that the sense of free expression that P seeks was championed by religious people. It is not an atheist invention as some moderns like to suggest.

This principle of government includes that atheism gets to hold the same rights to political influence as other ideas about ultimate reality. It does not mean that secularism is the same as atheism.

Now, to conclude, I have described two meanings of the word “secularism” and I have pointed out there is confusion because in many respects the second meaning is not just a colouring of the first, but a negation of the principle enshrined in the first. In the second meaning (Q), only atheistic or agnostic voices are allowed to be called “secular”, and therefore only they get full respect. This is a power-grab, as ugly as all the various power-grabs that there are in human history. But it is a subtle area, because in the first version (P) we still don’t want explicit mention of God in political affairs, except as a last resort when someone is willing to risk their career on something they care deeply about. So P might look like Q, but it is not Q. P is an expression of thoughtful behaviour in which people are alert to the subtlety of human existence and therefore slow to condemn one another when it comes to religious and irreligious differences.

[The above was informed by my general experience and by reading books chiefly by Rowan Williams, Jonathan Sacks, Larry Siedentop, Simone Weil, Charles Taylor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.]

Magna Carta (British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106)

Magna Carta (British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106)