Secularism in society has been a hot issue for decades, if not longer, and is a popular subject of debate and essay writing. Some argue that secularism is at fault for a perceived decline in the morality of society, whereas others feel that secularism represents a positive trajectory for society to take in terms of progress. At the same time, however, it is important to note that secularism is hardly an original concept in modern society and that the evolution of secularism can be traced over time. This sample sociology essay explores the modern concept of secularism in contemporary society.
Secularism in contemporary society
Secularism is an important principle in modern societies. Despite the modernity of the concept, it was developed through the teachings of ancient Greek philosophers and played a part in everyday ancient Greek culture. Over time as the principle has evolved secularism was able to be distinctly defined. Secularism can be defined as the separation of church and state. In other words, political decisions will not be influenced by any religious institutions.
The concept can also be expanded to all decisions governing the lives of its citizens, not just political ones. This allows citizens to have reassurances that a religion they may or may not believe in will not influence the laws that govern their daily lives. Secular societies are usually found in democracies and can be found in many nations around the world although the versions of the concept may differ from country to country.
Individual conception of secularism
Despite the prevalence of the principle, not all individuals are supportive of the concept. Religious individuals may find that secularism is constricting on their religious freedoms and have largely viewed the principle as a war against their religion.
“The anti-secularists are decidedly unhappy with even the liberal democracies, not because these systems are capitalist or insufficiently democratic but because their ‘liberalism’ enshrines a conscious separation of private meaning and public legitimacy” (Vanaik, 1997)
There have also been claims that the concept of secularism is not as modern a concept as has been thought. Certain scholars theorize that the concept of secularism itself will change. Through demonstrating the way in which secularism has developed over time the modernity of the concept will be established. Secularism all over the world will also be analyzed to demonstrate the modernity of the concept.
Implementing a set of moral codes
The principle of secularism is a modern concept as it frees individuals from the constraints of religion. The concept is modern as the religious myths were dispelled with the rise of rationality.
“There is something about modernity that erodes the plausibility of religious belief and weakens the influence of religious symbols in the social structure and culture at large.” (Hunter, 1983).
Secularism is a concept that is modern in all themes of modernity: political, cultural, scientific and philosophical. Secularism is politically modern as during the Enlightenment it was determined that politics should be focused on not on how society should be but how it actually is. In that form secularism can assist in doing this as religion in government can influence politicians to create laws which ascribe to a religious ideal of how society should be.
Secularism is also culturally modern as individuals no longer rely on religion to govern their daily lives. In the past religion would dictate when individuals would eat, what work they would complete, whom they would marry, or what activities they could engage in. For modern individuals, religion no longer governs their lives in the same way it did for those living in medieval times. Secularism is also a scientifically modern concept as science refutes many of the beliefs held by religions. Modernity establishes itself on what is rational and religious beliefs are not rational which is what makes secularism entirely modern.
Secular progress during the Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was a movement during the seventeenth and eighteenth century that strived to change society in the pursuit of reason and rationality. The scientific method was seen as the proper vehicle for governing knowledge rather than religion. Philosophers and the scientific revolution propelled the Age of Enlightenment forward and ensured that secularism would be a founding principle of democratic societies. However, some scholars have argued that the Enlightenment has not had the influence on religion that was originally thought to have been had.
“It seems, then, that the revision of the character of religion in the Enlightenment was not as thoroughgoing as it might have been, and the traditional linkage of modernity and Enlightenment has continued to be propagated by some and still acknowledged by others” (Barnett, 2004).
Although the reliance of religion was still prevalent around the seventeenth and eighteenth century the influence of religion has decreased over time. Although religious institutions are still large and the numbers of individuals who state they are religious are numerous the actual extent that religion influences daily life have decreased in our modern age. However, extremely religious people who subscribe to the creationist beliefs continue to feel that their religion is being attacked by scientists who propose the Big Bang Theory or politicians who no longer ascribe to religious beliefs to influence policies despite the contrary evidence.
Individuals who are religious these days may attend a church service once a week or attend religious organizations occasionally as a part of their belief system. However, religion does not govern our daily lives as it has done so in the past. Due to the uncertainty of life and lack of knowledge about science those living in medieval times allowed religion to govern when they would eat, grow their crops, who they would marry and what they believed. The influence of religion was vast and extreme as individuals would believe that they would be punished for their actions if they displeased their God.
“Rather, the very essence of religion was differently defined- that is to say, in each of the two historical moments different conditions of religion’s existence were in play” (Asad, 1999).
As scientific reasoning began to change the views of individuals on the very existence of their world, religion became less prominent.
Evolution of faith and reason
As religion has evolved over time so has the concept of secularism itself. After the advent of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, the French Revolution played a key role in adapting the concept. While the Enlightenment advanced the thought of religion apart from daily life. The French Revolution advanced the idea of the separation of religion and politics. The ideology of the revolution was to overthrow the power from the bourgeoisie to the masses. The church was a prominent feature of the bourgeoisie class as the institution got wealthy of the charity and taxes given by the poor workers.
Secularist advancement during the French Revolution
The French Revolution advanced the concept of secularism that is currently present in Western democracies. However, scholars have argued that some aspects of the French Revolution strived to preserve religion in some way.
“The one thing we might say with some assurance is that, on the heels of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution…numerous thinkers of quite different religious and political persuasions were convinced that people needed to worship some transcendent force of idea if civilization was to survive the crisis of legitimation that afflicted it.” (Pecora, 2006).
As religion has been seen as the core step in forming a civilization there is a fear of what our society could become without the moral grounding that religion provides. This is an argument posed by those against secularism of society. For example, members of the Protestant faiths believe it is their Christian ethics and belief system that defines society and not secular rules enforced by governments.
While the French Revolution advanced the concept of secularism to Western democracies. Colonialism spread the concept all over the world. As European countries conquered third world countries, they spread their cultural and political beliefs. One of these principles was secularism. While many nations have difficulty separating their religious beliefs from their politics, other nations were able to adapt and evolve into secularist beliefs. India is a common example of a nation which adopted a secularist principle in their government.
“The Indian state’s official commitment to secularism was seen as the guarantor of communal amity and national unity, themselves considered the prerequisites for pursuing the goals-democracy, prosperity, social justice and cohesion- of successful modernization” (Vanaik, 1997).
Secularism and religious peace between Hindus and Muslims
For India, secularism was an important step in creating the unity that was needed after independence led to strong religious discord between Muslims and Hindus. Through espousing the principle of secularism, Indian politicians strived to show that religion did not matter as politics would be separate from religion. The nation used secularism as a principle to advance unity.
While these examples provide support for the concept of secularism other advances in nations’ histories has provided an argument against the relevance of the concept of secularism. The rise of religious movements especially in Islamic countries has demonstrated that religion is not as an endangered concept as has been taught. Islamic countries largely rule with religious laws and decrees. Most Islamic countries are theocracies which go against secularist views.
“One consequence of this has been a more confident criticism of the predictive claim of secularization theory- that with the advance of modernity, religion becomes increasingly marginalized or privatized” (Asad, 1999).
The anger and animosity that Islamic countries hold towards Western nations could be in part to the secularism that exists in these countries. Islamic countries may believe that these countries who do not follow God may be immoral. As those religious individuals who within Western countries believe that secularism is an assault on their religion, Islamic countries feel that Western principles are an assault on their religions and way of life.
Secularism in Islamic countries
Early Islamic expansion also had trouble dividing religion from government and implementing secular rules. Islamic countries have largely been criticized for these beliefs however scholars have argued that these beliefs are a result of secularist philosophies.
“As a result, the contemporary rise of religious and ethnic nationalism is explained as a reaction to the previous authoritarian imposition of the Western European model of state secularism within predominantly religious and multi-ethnic societies.” (Spohn, 2003).
The backlash against secularism within these countries demonstrates that the concept of secularism needs to evolve to accommodate nations which had difficulty separating their politics and religion as Islamic countries do. This could also go towards accommodating extremely religious individuals in Western societies who believe that secularism in government impugned on their religious freedoms.
The debates and speeches over religious freedom and freedom from religion bring us to the current role of secularism in our society. A faction of our society have strong religious beliefs and would want religion present in all facets of daily life in order to be a continual reminder of religion and God. These individuals believe that religion plays an important role in maintaining morality in society and secularism has driven morality from our culture.
“We want to criticize the imperial hubris of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, even as we worry about ignoring that tradition’s role as a (perhaps the) foundation of the secular Enlightenment, that is, the moral outlook of a modernity that we would be loath to abandon” (Pecora, 2006).
Critics of secularism would attempt to restore religions role in society in an effort to restore this morality.
Nominal secularism in society
On the other side of the debate are those who see images of religion still present in our politics and government despite secularism. Some would argue that the word God and elements from the Book of Genesis exists in our pledge of allegiance, on our money and on several government landmarks or buildings.
“The second type of conflict arises when a religious symbol, such as the crucifix, or the crece, is used as a public language of identity by State authorities. In this case, unlike in the first type of conflict, the contested symbol represents the dominant religion and not that of minority groups.” (Mancini, 2008).
The presence of just Judeo-Christian beliefs in government is another conflict which secularism should hope to avoid. By only indicating the presence of one religion demonstrates that the government believes in the superiority of one religion over another. This could lead to conflict in a country such as the United States where many different ethnicities, cultures, and religions exist. By staying truly secularist a country can avoid favoring one religion over another leading to less conflict and strife. This can lead to the unity which India strived towards.
The birth of modern secularism in contemporary society
Despite its roots in the ancient and development through history secularism is a highly modern concept. It existence could not be present without the Enlightenment which brought about the modern era. Secularism is also a modern concept as religion was such a key part of ancient society that civilizations could not exist without it. As societies evolved and became more modern the need for religion for the society to function has decreased.
In our modern era, religion plays a less key role in the functioning of our society. However, the concept of religion continues to play a part in our discourse.
“On the one hand, we feel that the real basis of collective life, both as matter and as representation, lies elsewhere other than in religious belief, and it does so more or less universally. On the other hand, we find ourselves routinely invoking deep-seated difference of civilization between, say, Christianity and Islam” (Pecora, 2006).
Secularism may evolve to a principle which will no longer exist as religion continues to no longer play a key role in our society. A separation of church and state will no longer be necessary as lawmakers would no longer make decisions based on their religion and individuals would no longer need to fight for their religious freedoms. The modernity of secularism may give rise to a new form of postmodernism.
Secularist utopia and the future
Despite the claim that our democratic society is secularist the policies and positions which lawmakers at times support can refute that claim. Topics which are highly controversial and debated among lawmakers in the United States are largely based in religion. Issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and banning prayer in schools are debates that would not exist without religion. Opponents of gay marriage are against the idea because of religious doctrines that dictate that homosexuality is wrong and against the teachings of God.
Opponents also argue that they are aiming to preserve the sanctity of the institution of marriage by not allowing gay people to desecrate it. Marriage can be considered a largely religious institution that politics is being used to protect. Those who protest abortion also do so because of religious beliefs. They argue that abortion goes against the will of God and the act kills God’s children. The debate over prayer in schools is also one based in religion as religious individuals would want the nation’s children to be exposed to prayer. The supporters of prayer in schools argue that those who did not wish to pray could abstain from the act however the dominant religion’s prayer is utilized within the school.
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These policies impinge on the rights of others and make judgmental decisions based on religion. By limiting the rights of others these individuals are striving to push forward the dominant culture while denying minorities the rights to live the life they wish to lead. These religious policies of conservative politicians that are being put in place are not so different from the religious policies of Islamist nations or theocracies. Americans cannot critique the Middle East without first analyzing the role religion plays in our own policies and practices. The world-view towards Islam must change and individuals should stop forward religious agendas which go against the secularist ideals of the modernity.
In order for secularism to be a fully modern concept in our time, completely secularist societies are needed. These societies would not allow the word God to be present on their money, in our pledges or the ten commandments to be written on government buildings. These societies also would not allow politicians to advance policies and laws which further advance their own religious views and beliefs while restricting the rights of others. Through creating societies which allow religion to exist only in the private sphere and not the public sphere, a fully secularist society could exist advancing the modernity of our society.
Asad, T. (1999). Religion, nation-state, secularism. Nation and religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia, 178-196.
Barnett, S. J. (2004). The Enlightenment and Religion: the myths of modernity. Manchester University Press
Hunter, J. (1983). American evangelicalism: Conservative religion and the quandary of modernity. Rutgers University Press.
Mancini, S. (2008). Power of Symbols and Symbols as Power: Secularism and Religion as Guarantors of Cultural Convergence, The. Cardozo L. Rev., 30, 2629.
Pecora, V. P. (2006). Secularization and Cultural Criticism: Religion, Nation, and Modernity. University of Chicago Press.
Spohn, W. (2003). Multiple modernity, nationalism and religion: a global perspective. Current Sociology, 51(3-4), 265-286.
Vanaik, A. (1997). The furies of Indian communalism: religion, modernity, and secularization. Verso Books.