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by George Jelliss
The term secular derives from the Latin saecularis and means pertaining to the real world of the here and now that we experience through our senses and deduce from our reasoning abilities, as contrasted with imagined or dream worlds such as some golden age set in the past, or some future utopia, or some idealised heaven set elsewhere in the universe or beyond.
The philosophy of life called secularism (a term introduced by G. J. Holyoake in the 19th century see also the biography page) therefore means the placing of emphasis on living our lives in the here and now in accordance with the evidence of our senses and our reason and not allowing ourselves to be carried away by wish-fulfilment into believing things just because they sound nice or are what we might like to be true.
This may sound a stern philosophy, and it does indeed require each individual to be prepared to think for themselves. This is why secularism is associated with freethought which is the willingness to consider alternative points of view, and scepticism which questions traditions and all people who set themselves up as authorities or experts.
What secularists believe to be true about the world therefore is what we can deduce by reason applied to the evidence of our senses. This is also called rationalism (or realism or objectivism) though for much of everyday life it amounts to little more than common sense. However, for aspects of the world beyond everyday experience, such as on the large scale of galaxies, the small scale of atoms, the distant past of evolution, the possible future consequences of our actions, and the often mysterious workings of our minds, we have to rely on the findings of science, though not uncritically. There is still a lot we do not know, and we must keep an open mind.
The secular philosophy cannot offer the reassurance of a certain vision of an ideal future. We only know that considerable changes are likely, and that there will be struggles between people with opposing ideas. We can only say that there are certain ideals of gentleness and tolerance towards which we should try to work. These include, for example, bettering the lives of humankind, through medical knowledge and social reform, promotion of democratic practices in place of dictatorship, supporting equable rights for women and the poor, preventing the exploitation and indoctrination of children. These ideas of morality and goodness are often expressed by the term humanism.
To use a term from computing, rationality is the default position. Everyone needs to be rational to survive from day to day. Any other claims for knowledge not based on rational investigation are optional extras. Where they violate reason they are fictions or delusions or romantic fantasies. Where they lie within the bounds of reason (which are not completely determinate) they amount to lifestyle choices, which may include moral codes and political stances for example.
Reason and science cannot always tell us the best course of action to achieve our objectives. This is where politics comes in. We have to make a judgment, based on the limited evidence available to us. The choice we make will depend on our individual past experiences, or on our individual personality. Ultimately the future is the outcome of struggle between alternative views. Secularists tend to be of diverse political views. Since we have only the one life we should work, and hopefully be assisted by society, to make the most of such abilities and talents and potentialities as we discover we have.
Being rational does not exclude being imaginative. Being capable of logical thinking does not exclude appreciation of poetry, art, music or literature. However, different people may well have very different ideas of what is beautiful, there is no one ideal aesthetics. All humans enjoy a good story, and that includes myths, legends, allegories, fairy and folk tales, and other extravagant imaginings such as those of science fiction. Many different peoples around the world have traditional stories about their origins, which offer explanations of the world around us and which give guidance on how we should lead our lives. These often contain wise though possibly simplistic sayings, good advice, delightful and moving stories, both humorous and tragic, and images, that are part of the world's great heritage from ages past.
Unfortunately however, some of these traditions, particularly where they have been developed into organised or codified religions ask their devotees to believe in ideas that are at odds with our present-day hard-earned knowledge of the real world. This is especially the case where these ideas have been set down many years ago in books that are now treated with undue reverence, as if every word written in them is literally true. This fundamentalism leads to unwarranted rivalries and hatred between different groups. Such ideas are often forcefully impressed on children from a very young age in a manner that many secularists regard as indoctrination or even child abuse.
One of the main concepts of religions is a belief in a god or gods. There are at least three different types, often confused together. (1) A creator of the universe, who may or may not still be able to intervene in its workings, by personal intervention or through evolutionary processes. (2) A personification of abstract ideas such as the universe, or nature, or the laws of nature, or of ideals such as perfect moral goodness, beauty, truth and justice. (3) A kind of parental persona or spirit with whom it is possible, in some mysterious way, to have a relationship of love and turn to for guidance and who will listen to prayers and protect you in difficult situations. Secularists take the view that there is no evidence for the existence of any such beings, except possibly in some very abstract sense.
Belief in a god or gods is known as theism. Consequently secularists are often called atheists (also unbelievers or infidels), even though this may only be a small part of their world-view. Some secularists call themselves deists, believing in some sort of creator or creative force whose only action was to initiate the existence of the universe (this view was popular in the 18th century, being adopted for example by such figures as Voltaire and Tom Paine), others call themselves agnostics (a term invented by T. H. Huxley), meaning that they don't know (it is possible to be agnostic about other subjects besides gods). A new umbrella term that is becoming popular is bright, meaning someone with a naturalistic, enlightened, outlook free from supernatural or mystical beliefs.
Some extreme religious believers tend to identify atheists and secularists with satanists and pagans, but this is just absurd prejudice since satanists and pagans are theists, satan being a type of dark god and pagans tending to believe in personifications of natural forces. Although much is still written about atheism and theism, for most secularists it is a dead subject, settled long ago. Worldviews that have no place for gods or superstition can be traced back to antiquity. I like to think that in any community there have aways been down-to-earth practical people who see the tales told by priests and mythmakers as just that fiction.
First draft, 13 June 2005.