Magazine article The Humanist

Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom

Magazine article The Humanist

Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom

Article excerpt

Secularism: Politics,

Religion, and Freedom


Oxford University Press, 2017 176 pp.; $18.95

In the not so distant past, say the 1960s or 70s, a secular society seemed to be the obvious goal of all but the most backwards nations of the world, and certainly was the stated ideal in the United States of America. But in todays world, where even mainstream American politicians want to see Christianity put into our Constitution, is that still the case?

In Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom, Andrew Copson, the chief executive of Humanists UK, gives us a short, useful introduction to the idea of secularism, its history, and, most importantly, its present state in the world. And that state isn't necessarily something to feel optimistic about.

Copson begins with a working definition of secularism--the ordering of society based on: 1) the separation of religious institutions from state institutions; 2) freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; and 3) equal treatment on the grounds of religion or a nonreligious worldview.

The first third of the book is a whirlwind history of secularism, starting in ancient Greece but quickly progressing to the Enlightenment in the 1700s and forward to today. Copson's worldview is enlightening, and while he does discuss the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, he spends more time with the history of France and its secular, aggressive anti-clerical path in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

He then gives a chapter each to the broader arguments for secularism and against secularism. The strongest of the anti-secular arguments is the loss of a sense of national identity and social order. Further, the argument goes, secularism is laden with value judgments for the simple reason that secularization is nothing more than a way to push Western values onto non-Western cultures.

These chapters emphasize that secularism doesn't equal atheism, although truly secular states are tolerant of atheists as well. But for most of its history, secularism is adopted to mediate between different religions, rather than between religion and no religion. …

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