On the secular

Iain Benson clarifies what different people mean by an historically loaded term.



Iain Benson clarifies what different people mean by an historically loaded term.


What does it mean when a country like Canada or Australia calls themselves secular depends entirely on one’s historical frame and understanding of the term. For most people, secular means non-religious. So the frequent bracketing by just about everybody – religious or non-religious – is the phrase “religion and the secular”. Now the problem that this poses is what we then put into the bundle of what is the secular. If the secular is public education, medical ethics, law, government – and religion is an “and”, i.e. outside of it – then a particular set of problems emerge.

One, in the pre-packaging of our understanding of secular, religion is deemed to be an also-player outside of it. And then what we’ve done is we’ve reconfigured secular in the way secularism, the ideology – the term coined in 1851 by the Englishman George Jacob Holyoake – he wanted the public order to be, as he put it, re-understood on a materialistic basis, i.e. cut off from metaphysics. Well, of course, that’s extremely dangerous, because metaphysics is what informs our sense of truth, beauty, goodness – all of these things that give our understanding of culture and our religions their real meaning.

So secular, understood as bracketed out from religion, and religion as bracketed out from the secular, is one and the major way it’s currently understood. Historically, that’s not how it was understood. Historically, secular comes from the term secularum which means “the age” or “the times”, and that was seen in contradistinction to eternity. So that within the Catholic tradition, you have to this day two orders of clergy, secular clergy and regular clergy. Secular clergy are those that are where? In the world, they’re in the times, they’re in the age. Regular clergy are in the monastery, they’re dedicated to prayer and eternity. But they’re both religious. This is very important.