In the 21st century, the term secularism is used to describe a political and constitutional concept that means separation of church and state. The concept involves two major notions, including the idea that people are equal before the law, the Constitution and government policy regardless of their religious beliefs or social status. The second principle of secularism is that religion and politics should never be mixed.
Initially the word secularism was used in a far broader context. Translated from Latin it means "of this world," which is seen as meaning the opposite of religious. Dictionary definitions of the term in its more modern context include indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations; a view that religion and religious considerations should be ignored or excluded from social and political matters; or secular spirit or tendency, especially a system of political or social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship.
Secularism as a term was first introduced by British secularist and co-operator George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) in the middle of the 19th century. Holyoake took part in a number of political and economical agitations including the abolition of all oaths required by law, the secularization of education in public schools and the disestablishment of the Church. Holyoake used the term secularism to describe a form of opinion that deals only with matters which can be tested by the experience of this life. In his view, a secularist society had to exclude the impact of any religious beliefs and should focus on what he referred to as the now. In that sense secularism had three major principles - it sought to improve life by material means; it argued that science is the available Providence of man; and that it is good to do good.
With time the term evolved and was considered a description of any philosophy which develops its ethics with no reference to religious dogmas and which seeks to promote human art and science. Although the simplest way to explain secularism is as the absence of religion, it is often considered a philosophical system with personal, political, cultural and social implications. Those who support the concept believe that the various doctrines of secularism have been taught by free-thinkers of all ages. Secularism claims to be an extension of free-thought, a philosophical standpoint, according to which opinions should be based on science, logic and reason.
In general, secularism aims to ensure that there is no discrimination against anyone on the basis of religion or faith. It also tries to prevent hegemony of one religion or majoritarian religious sentiments. It sets limits to the validity of religion in the public arena and society. The goal of secularism is to form an autonomous naturalistic and materialistic political and social sphere.
In the 21st century, Holyoake's term has survived but the meaning of the term has changed significantly. No single and explicit definition exists as secularism is still subject to contradicting interpretations. It is most widely used in its political sense of separating the church and state and treats people as individuals, rather than members of any kinds of groups. Secularism has been used by the West to help it differentiate itself from the way of life and government in the Middle Ages and from other cultural regions on the globe. Secularism is often compared to democracy. It is important to distinguish secularism from secularization. Secularization represents a process that involves the exclusion of religion from having any power over social and political affairs. Though secularism promotes knowledge and action independent of religious authority, it does not necessarily exclude religion.
Secularism has many opponents and has been heavily criticized since the idea was born. The very concept, out of its political aspect, has been blamed for focusing exclusively on the present life and on the material world. At the same time, secularism as a social and political philosophy has been opposed by many who believe that it is the reason for many of the faults of society. It is often compared to atheism and attacked as fiercely for its principles. Critics of secularism argue that an explicitly theistic and religious basis for politics and culture would result in a more stable, moral and generally better social order.