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Meditation 1149
On the meaning of secularism

by: John Tyrrell

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Rick Santorum, ex-Senator and once upon a time a contender of his party's nomination for US President, suggested that secularism be considered a religion, and on that basis, removed from schools - and in a brilliant display of logic went on to state that this would open the way to bring the Christian religion back into schools.

I intended to write a rant about this as really it initially seemed an incredibly dishonest way of achieving his aim.

But before writing, I decided to look up the definition of secularism in my trusty old dictionary so I'd have some firm ground to work on.


  1. secular spirit, views, or the like, especially a system of doctrines and practices that rejects any form of religious faith or worship
  2. the belief that religion and ecclesiastical affairs should not enter the functions of the state, especially into public education.

On examining those two definitions, I find myself looking at two different concepts, the first one anti-religious, and the second a-religious. And my own understanding of secularism and the way I tend to use it is in accordance with the second definition - the a-religious viewpoint. 

This second definition is applicable to anyone who believes in separation of church and state, regardless of which religious viewpoint they personally follow. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, New Agers, agnostics, atheists, nones, Satanists, Scientologists etc can all be secularists without contradicting their own religious views.

When I want to discuss rejecting any form of religious faith or worship, I'll normally do it in terms of agnosticism, or non-belief - not in terms of secularism.

Now if Santorum was using "secularism" in line with the first definition - the anti-religious definition involving doctrines and practices that reject religion, then I think he'd be close to having a point. There almost is a religious aspect to secularism defined that way.

However - when we look at the relevant part of the First Amendment to the US Constitution which in the end is the basis for removing religious education from public schools (and which in many other countries is the model for their own concepts of Church-State separation even if it is not in their constitutions)- we see the words "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

This is not anti-religious, this is solidly a-religious. This is fully in line with the second definition of secularism Websters provides.

If we go back to Santorum's words, he talks about secularism being used to take the bible out of the classroom. That also is completely in line with the second definition - the a-religious definition rather than the anti-religious definition. (An anti-religious secularism would have the bible denounced in the classroom.) On that basis, he has no grounds whatsoever to call secularism a religion. His argument fails right there.

But let's face it. The fundamentalist Christians with whom Santorum has chosen to align himself with (in spite of being a Catholic) are unable to distinguish between a-religious and anti-religious. To them, those two positions are identical. They are not.


* Websters New World Dictionary, College Edition, 1960
page 1318

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