On the meaning of secular

Craig Calhoun says the everyday use of the word can be misleading.



Craig Calhoun says the everyday use of the word can be misleading.


The word secular has an everyday meaning that can be very misleading – we sometimes think it just means the non-religious, or even the anti-religious. But it doesn’t. 

First off, it’s an idea that has been shaped from inside religion. Secular has as its root meaning the idea of the saeculum, the century, a unit of time even before Rome and then shaping Roman thought. And the root meaning is the temporal world, the material world of change, of getting old, of dying. And so religious thinkers have often talked about the importance of religion in a spiritual or otherworldly sense, but also in a this-worldly sense. 

And so from religion we have ideas like we might be born again, we might be saved, we might have eternal life, that go beyond the secular. But we also have ideas about proper morality and the way in which relationships should be carried out in this material world. And that’s the secular side of religion. So in the Middle Ages there were ideas like the secular priests. That didn’t means priests who didn’t believe in religion, it meant priests who ministered to people in their everyday lives, as distinct from focussing on monasteries or focussing purely on the afterlife. And so I think we still today understand the idea of secular poorly if we think of it as the anti-religious.

This extends into politics. In politics, we often think, oh, there must be no mention of religion – that secularism means no mention of religion. But it’s also possible to think of it as meaning fairness in reference to different religions. And so in a country like India that has millions of Muslims and millions of Hindus and not a few Christians and Buddhists and others, the secular isn’t the domain of a society with no religion, it’s the ability of people from different religious backgrounds to talk about the government that they share in common, and other goals that they share in common, without being prejudicial towards one religion or another.