Two meanings of “secularism” have dominated lately. One meaning is preferred by militant religionists, and the other is genuinely accurate.
Frustrated religious people have perverted the meaning of “secular” and “secularism” to include anything that stands in their way. Unable to control major social institutions to their liking, eager theocrats need an enemy to blame, and they easily hit upon the “secular” (when they aren’t blaming Satan or conflating the two!).
In a way, the theocrats have their eye on the right target — secularism does involve the political regulation of religion to prevent religious takeovers of society. Genuine secularism is simply the prevention of religious control over major social institutions (such as economic, educational, medical, media, and political structures). Secularism prevents religions from dictating who has the status of equal citizenship, who gets civil rights and liberties, and who has access to society’s means of self-improvement, employment, and enjoyment of private and public life. Secularism made full democracy possible, and successful constitutions around the world affirm a good measure of secularism. Secularism prevents religious strife and warfare within countries, and encourages conflict resolution and cooperation. Democracy cannot flourish unless citizens are free to debate all social issues and values; where religion is rigid, the mind and mouth stop working.
Despite benefiting from secularism and democracy, ungrateful religionists from many denominations are protesting against secularism and demanding that secularism fall. There must be an evil enemy preventing our victory on earth, they seem to say, and they’re sure about who that enemy is: secularism! Perhaps it’s the ingrained psychology so misused in their religions, the strange ability to “see” powerful agents at work in the world that aren’t really there. Those looking for a fight assume that any obstacle in the way must be an enemy looking for a fight with them — militants can only see mirages of opposed militants.
We must ask whether these militant religionists so eager to take over society and government are actually seeing clearly. Does secularism really have a hostile agenda against religion? Constitutional secularism, the mainstream secularism designed by the Enlightenment and enshrined in the US Constitution and dozens of other constitutions around the world, cannot have a hostile agenda against religion. Secularism only prevents religions from enacting a hostile agenda on society.
Sure, there are atheists who have an agenda against religion, happy to argue against religion and criticize religion in the “court” of public opinion. However, these atheists aren’t “militant” since they aren’t using the force of law or weapons of war against religious people. They also aren’t violating principles of secularism, since they are simply using the public realm of free speech. Atheists are happy to operate within the public space freely opened by a secular government, which is the same public space held wide open for religionists to defend their views as well.
“Atheism” and “secularism” are not identical in meaning. Atheism defends the nonreligious life. Secularism defends the lives of all citizens regardless of religious belief or none. Atheism is intellectually opposed to religion. Secularism is politically tolerant of all beliefs and worldviews, except of course, those that would destroy secularism and democracy. Secularism is a broad-minded stance, not a self-contradictory stance (see an excellent explanation and defense of secularism by Akeel Bilgrami here.)
Nonreligious people should prevent the hostile take-over of the meaning of the term “secularism” by militant religionists. Don’t feed their black-or-white, with us or against us, way of thinking. Secularism, and a free society, is for everyone. Secularism should be viewed by all as a precious political inheritance essential to democracy itself.