I would like to begin this document by framing a vision of the secular in a manner quite contrary to the vision of the secular as it has been promoted and accepted far too frequently within American culture. To shape this understanding we can look to the differences present within three things: water, holy water, and secular water. The analogical comparison of course will be to the world, the religious world, and the secular world. We begin with water, plain ordinary water, present in vast abundance throughout the world. (Though the vast abundance of clean safe water for consumption, agriculture, hygiene and other things is becoming more and more scarce with time.) Different from plain ordinary water we have holy water, blessed and filled with magical, spiritual, supernatural qualities which distinguish it completely from just plain water. Finally we have secular water which really is nothing but plain ordinary water with the adjective “secular” thrown in front of it. To compare and contrast the three from a nonsecular view we can see that holy water holds value and importance within the human condition that separates it completely from the cheap ordinary water which functions within so much of the global ecosystem. Plain ordinary water, the common water of a secular world, does nothing but promote life and health. Without it there would be no life. With a scarcity of it all of life’s qualities diminish, health, hygiene, technology, … Without it we could not keep our bodies alive. Without it we could not keep ourselves clean. Without it we could not grow crops. We could not water our household plants, or clean and operate our cars. Our heating and cooling systems depend upon it. We use it to wash our clothes too, not just our bodies. We use it to make paint, and soap, and thousands of other consumable technological products. This is all that water can do for us. Holy water on the other hand is special. It is different than just plain water. It has significant sacred essential value. Without the holy where would this world be?
We can move easily from this analogy to a vision of the world as it has been framed within a religiously dominated society. Within this vision we have a world that holds or contains no meaning apart from that constructed by the divine. The theist will describe the atheist as believing in nothing, as having a worldview lacking any meaning or real substance. The atheist is only not a theist. The secularist is only a person who does not support or value religion. Their visions and understandings are meaningless and nothing, valueless like the water that flows from the spigot to fill our lives.
Imagine an alternative vision, a secular vision, in which all parts of life contain an abundance of meaning, social, personal, aesthetic, physical, intellectual, … Imagine the secular as being nothing but a default condition, like plain ordinary water. Remember the one vision in which the religious see a secular world as being nothing but a rejection of the significance and value of a holy world. Contrast that to a recognition of the situation in which religiosity devalues the significance and qualities of the real world which we all share. The religious wish to define the secular as being nothing but a failure to see the value of religious experience. Perhaps it would be more accurate to note how completely religion devalues the natural inherent qualities contained within a common, default, secular world. The religious wish to see secular worldviews as being nothing but negative, shaped only by what they are not, by what they oppose. To put the shoe on the other foot religion must me seen as unworldly, unhuman, nothing but the rejection of common shared human values.
I choose to see the world as filled with meaning, and I see religious authority as wishing to impose its holy/unworldly values on others present within a shared world. A secular vision of religious freedom seeks to restrict the power of the one to impose its will upon the other. An alternative vision of religious freedom, too common in America in the 21st century, sees religious freedom as being exactly the freedom to impose one’s religious requirements upon the other, through coercive, legal, and violent means.
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This dissertation will seek to free itself from a framing of the secular as nothing but the absence of religion by first deconstructing such a framing, then by presenting an alternative vision, then by using this vision as a tool for critique and analysis of one portion of American culture, the continued presence, and even growth, of poverty within the American economic world. A first section will look at the genealogical and etymological history of the secular from its first appearance in middle English in the 15th century through to significant transformations of its use and meaning which began to occur in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It will then describe how an understanding, or misunderstanding, of the secular has been shaped across the last 100 years. A second section will present a vision of the secular contrary to that which has been imposed upon it through the acts of religious authority. It will describe secularism as functioning more completely in contrast to the sacred through use of a secular/sacred binary, as it rejects the limitations placed upon it as they are shaped by the restrictions dictated through the exclusive use of the secular/religious binary. Following this it will work to present an understanding of the sacred which focuses upon a desire for the sacred present within the individual/community, seeing this desire as essentially shaping the sacred, and rejecting any notion that the sacred exists as an inherent quality contained within the sacred thing itself. The third section will argue that the American cultural experience presents a vision of poverty as an essential part of the human experience which perpetuates its continence as a sacred thing necessary for the preservation of the maintenance of an exceptional American reality.
Charles Taylor describes the stretch of time from the end of the middle ages through the Renaissance in Britain as a time in which it was “virtually impossible not to believe in God.” “The functioning mode of local government was the parish".
Note: David Grabber, Green European Journal