The terms secular and secularism have come to life as keywords in the last forty years, largely because of their contrastive relationship with religious and religion. These contrasts have been precipitated by such historical events as the presidency of Jimmy Carter (1977–81; the first modern president avowedly a born-again Christian); the papacy of John Paul II (1978–2005); and the Iranian Revolution (1979). The meaning of secular was relatively uncontested in the early and middle Cold War era (“Godless Communism” was not called secular), but the word has gained energy and complexity in debates provoked by the new age since Thatcher, Reagan, the end of the Soviet Union, the crisis in India provoked by militant Hinduism, and the rise of Islamism. The denotation of secular is an issue around the world, for example in both South Asia and the Middle East, as well as the United States and the European Union, especially in relation to new immigrants. Within English-language political and intellectual debates, Edward Said’s “Secular Criticism” (1983) marks one major beginning.
Secular comes from Latin adjective saecularis, from saeculum, “generation” or “age.” The Latin poet Horace wrote his Carmen Saeculare in 17 BCE at the request of the Emperor Augustus to mark the inauguration of a new age. Within medieval Latin Christianity, saecularis designated what pertained to “the world,” in contrast to the Church. The implied contrast is between what is of an age and what is eternal: the timed versus the timeless. OED citations offer hardly any instance of the now conventional binary pairing sacred/secular, though for secularization can be found the quotation “He resented the secularization of revenues set apart for a . . . sacred purpose” (1888).
The OED presents secular as arising (with a first attestation in 1290) to capture a distinction within the community of Christian clerics: regular or religious clerics lived in monastic seclusion, while secular clergy lived in the world. The OED second sense is equally early in its first citation (in fact, from the same collection of English Saints’ lives): this sense no longer denotes a distinction within the Church but a distinction between religion or the Church and the world of affairs, a “seculer court” (c1290). In this usage, the secular could still be closely affiliated with the Church. As early as 1380, John Wycliffe wrote of “the seculer arme of þe chirche,” the means by which the Church could physically punish offenders.
The sense of the secular as contrasted with the spiritual first appears in OED in a moment from Paradise Lost. Because the clergy dominated formal education, a minor but intriguing transferred sense developed that referred specifically to lower-class autodidacts, as attested in the quotations: “Oft haue I obserued . . . a secular wit that hath liued all daies of his life by what doo you lacke, to bee more iudiciall . . . than our quadrant crepundios” (Thomas Nashe, 1589), and “Hang him poore snip, a secular shop-wit!” (Ben Jonson, 1631).
A more specialized sense arises in later C15 applying to the arts: “neither in holi scripture nor in seculare litterature vnlerned” (Thomas More, 1529), clearly related to the later usages by Nashe and Jonson. A Victorian characterization of classical Greek education states that it was not entrusted to priests (generally the case in England at the earlier time) “but to the professors of the secular arts—rhetoric and gymnastics” (1835).
Another specialized sense, relating to educational policy, has become important in the last 150 years, and especially controversial recently. It implies “the exclusion of religious teaching from education,” or from that part of it provided at public expense.
There is a further sense in the OED that contrasts the temporal or worldly with the realm of eternity or the spirit rather than organized religion. Richard Hooker, in a 1597 attestation, asserts that “[r]eligion and the feare of God as well induceth secular prosperitie as euerlasting blisse in the world to come.” Perhaps this is more Protestant; it is certainly Weberian.
The verb secularize, first attested in C17, follows the same pattern. Its first usages involve transfer from ecclesiastical or clerical status to civil status. But by C18 it has taken on a sense more moral than legal. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) gives as its second sense, “to make worldly.”
All of these senses of secular were well established when G. J. Holyoake raised the concept to a new pitch by his polemical formulation of Secularism in his book of that title published in 1854 and in his journal, The Reasoner. He coined the term secularism after spending six months in prison as the last man to be punished in this manner for public blasphemy. OED summarizes Holyoake’s view as “The doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or in a future state,” or as Gladstone put it in 1876, “the positive and exclusive claims of the purposes, the enjoyments, and the needs, presented to us in the world of sight and experience.” As early as 1890, the Times noted what has become a regular topic for recent debate, “characteristic . . . secularist intolerance.” In C20, the adjective secular has assumed major importance when related to the larger, non-institutional form of this worldview, which has at least since C19 been taken by some opponents and some advocates as equivalent to materialism (OED secularity, last attested in 1882).
This context of Victorian debate opened the way to the sense of secularization that has been a crucial part of Western discourse for the last 150 years. Whereas secularization initially meant no more than conversion of property or governance from church to civil use (as in secularization of the administration, attested 1864), by the 1860s, in the wake of the term secularism, uses are sometimes directed to the history of the arts and culture that crucially “prepared the way for that general secularisation of the European intellect” (Lecky, 1865). It is worth noting that in French there is a related term laicité (etymologically related to the English term lay) which embodies an entire philosophy of the neutrality of the state in regard to matters of religion. It was the most important ideological underpinning of the Third Republic, established in 1870, and remains a crucial element of contemporary debates in France, particularly in relation to Islam. It is not too paradoxical to say that laicité is the secular religion of republican France.
In recent usage, an important development as yet unregistered by the OED has been that the secular is now contrasted not simply to religion, the church, or the spiritual, but to any and all forms of what Kenneth Burke called “God-terms” (Rhetoric of Religion, 1961). So, for instance, in the work of Edward Said, secular writing is opposed to nationalist writing, even though the nation-state had earlier been itself a major instance of the secular.