What does ‘secular’ actually mean?

This post makes a short and simple argument: there are actually two basic meanings of the term ‘secular’, but historians routinely confuse the two, and we need to get them distinct if we are to make any analytical headway. Indeed, this distinction is crucial for understanding secularity, secularization, and European political culture.

The Christian usage

The first is the specifically Christian usage, which dates to the early modern period, although it expresses an idea that goes back to the foundation of Christianity, and was widely used until the secular revolution of the 1960s. This usage uses ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ to distinguish between the two halves of the Christian polity, that is, the ‘secular’ Christian state, responsible for earthly matters, and the ‘religious’ Christian church or churches, responsible for eternal matters. In most mainstream Christian theology, both secular and religious activities in this sense are considered useful.

Many non-monotheistic cultures, by contrast, do not bifurcate moral duty in this way. In the secular Soviet Union, for example, the political leadership was also the moral leadership: there were not two sets of institutions, and two sets of hierarchies, political and religious; these were combined into a single politically supreme and morally authoritative hierarchy.

So, in this Christian usage, one can speak of ‘secular authorities’, to mean people in the government (rather than in the church); and ‘secular intellectuals’ to mean people working in universities (rather than in theological colleges). In this usage, these people could still very easily be Christians; it’s just that they’re working in the ‘temporal-concerns’ bit of the Christian polity, rather than the ‘eternal-concerns’ bit.

Finally, and crucially: in this Christian usage, the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ are distinct, but they are also partners. The assumption is that, in Christian polities, the Christian church and religious sphere, and the Christian state and civil sphere, will continue to co-operate for as long as the Christian polity survives. Of course, political reality has been much messier than this: medieval, early modern and modern European history is full of Christian disputes about where exactly the religious/secular boundary should lie. But co-operation is how it’s supposed to work in theory.

The secular usage of ‘secular’

 The secular usage of ‘secular’ is quite different. In this usage, the terms ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ do not refer to components of the same Christian polity, but to two completely distinct moral cultures, one belonging to Olden Days, the other belonging to Recent Times. ‘Religious’ is taken to mean ‘adhering to an ideology that secular people have moved beyond’. Being ‘secular’ in this sense is a subset of being ‘non-religious’: it means (a) not being ‘religious’, but also (b) being more modern than ‘religion’. There is a chronological contrast between the two.

So in this usage, ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ are opposites, they’re inversely related: the more you have of one, the less you have of the other. So, if we speak of a ‘secular intellectual’, we mean someone who expressly identifies as not belonging to any ‘religion’.  This is not like the Christian usage, where ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ are supposed to be co-operating partners.

Why is this important?

For two reasons. The first is quite simple: when we read British sources from prior to the ‘secular revolution’ of the 1960s, we need to be sure we’re not misinterpreting them as employing the secular usage when actually they’re employing the Christian usage.

The other reason is quite fundamental: that these categories reflect the history that created them. These two usages of the terms ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ are quite distinct: they reflect different worldviews. This means that, as Britain’s Christian culture declined, there was no automatic or easy way for people to slip from the Christian usage into the secular usage. Instead, this transition took cultural work. Someone, or some people, needed actively to rework these Christian categories to create the secular usage. My research suggests that, for the mainstream of British public culture, this transition mostly took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

So two crucial lessons are embedded into the very language of the secularization debate – lessons which subvert much of the way in which that debate has been thus far conducted. First: Britain’s shift from the Christian framework to the secular framework was a transformation, not an evolution. It required a distinct reworking of some fundamental categories. Second: this transformation required active human creativity. It was not an automatic process of history.

If you would like to learn more, you can look at this post, or read my forthcoming book.