Secularism – the definition


Oct 11, 2011, 12:52 PM | Updated Apr 29, 2016, 02:52 PM IST


Secularism: a doctrine that rejects religion and religious considerations

That is how the Princeton University dictionary defines it. That of course is a short description. But who coined the word? Why did he/she coin it? What did he/she mean by it? The various encyclopedias tell us that one British writer by the name George Jacob Holyoake coined the word secularism in the early 1850s. The entry for secularism in The Oxford Companion to British History tells us that Christians in the 19th century believed that atheists lacked morals and therefore were incapable of exercising civil rights and thus were looked down upon. To circumvent this unfavourable connotation Holyoake came up with an alternative. And that alternative was to define secularism as a school of thought that was not concerned with religious beliefs but entirely with our own world. He argued that humans were capable of ethical life because they were inherently inspired to do good for our own sake. This is how Holyoake described secularism

Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable. Its essential principles are three: (1) The improvement of this life by material means. (2) That science is the available Providence of man. (3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good.

Thus came about a definition for a long held set of beliefs – stripped completely of religious considerations – which sought to argue that ethical life was possible outside of religion.

Secularism has been the basis for most modern political movements that sought to isolate public policy making from religion. During the course of this struggle, secularism has been interpreted and applied in various ways. Modern secular political movements in the west worked towards replacing laws based on religion with laws based on good for all people governed by them i.e. civil laws. Keeping religion private is a large part of secular movements. Thus the influence of “Church” over governments waned over time. A society is said to be secular when there is religious freedom and politics is not influenced by religious leaders.

We have witnessed perhaps the most amount of debate on secularism since our independence. Certainly it is one of the most debated topics. Thanks to the 42nd amendment, the preamble to the Constitution of India now reads as –

WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a _1[SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC] and to secure to all its citizens:

JUSTICE, social, economic and political;

LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;

and to promote among them all

FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the _2[unity and integrity of the Nation];

IN OUR CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do HEREBY ADOPT, ENACT AND GIVE TO OURSELVES THIS CONSTITUTION. [Words in bold are result of the 42nd amendment].

The Constitution does not define the word secular. This has led to varied interpretations and definitions by various individuals and groups. Add to that the qualifications of social order to freedom and rights provided by the constitution and we have a perfect recipe for heated debates. And we have seen more than one of such debates. This debate gathered steam in the 1980s and 1990s. To understand what was being debated, how it was debated, what was the outcome we need to follow them. There was plenty discussed in public, in political rallies, in the courts, during policy making etc. Let us look at some of them in the upcoming posts.

Image courtesy: India Today

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