A discussion of the secular within American academics must begin with a discussion of the meaning of the secular as it has been developed within the American academic and cultural worlds. An understanding of its constructed meaning must examine the secular’s genealogical roots and discover the complex, contradictory and ambiguous semiotics which have come to “define” it. (Definition of course must be understood as accomplishing the error of pinning a singular, correct, essential meaning to a term.) This understanding will become further complicated as the secular becomes associated with secularism, and secularists, and an attempt to unite or separate the terms from one another.
The roots of the secular can be found in Middle English “seculer, seculere, secler, seclere, and seculier” which etymologically connect to the Old French “seculer” and the Latin “saeculāris” and “saeculum”. The Oxford English dictionary connects the originating Latin terms with a significance described as being “the world”. The English world at the time of “secular’s” lacked an understanding or vision of a world without a god and the church functioned as primary source for defining an understanding of much of that world. From the church’s perspective the secular were members of the church who performed nonholy tasks within the church or within the community. Secular clergy worked to perform the daily tasks necessary to the maintenance of the church, alongside the rest of the secular population of the church immersed in the common world and dependent upon the monastic, or “holy”, members of the church for their spiritual well-being. The world was part of the church, the secular was part of the church, and the meaning of the secular contained no hint of opposition to the church, or to any absence of belief, or distance from the religious experience.
From the 15th to the 19th century the secular would continue to be united with a religious world or would be separate only as a matter of function, not opposition. The tools of a worker’s trade would be secular, of the world, not the church, but such an indication would not imply any animosity toward the religious. The plow that a family might own could be described as being a secular item, while the Bible, or other such things contained within their home would not be. The teacher in the local school could be seen as performing a secular task, even if at the time that teacher would lead the students in prayer and function within a community dominated by the authority of the church. A harmonious relationship between the church and the secular would remain in place until the middle and end of the 19th century when the British social and political world would contain movements described as being atheistic and when blasphemy laws would part of British law.
George Holyoake would first use the term “secularism” in Reasoner in 1851. This choice of text would begin an evolution in the meaning of the secular in which the secular would become associated with the atheistic, agnostic, free-thinking, and opposition to religion and the church. Such associations though were imposed upon the secular by the religious. Holyoake’s goal though had been to avoid such associations. In 1854 he would write: “The term Secularism has been chosen … as expressing a certain positive and ethical element, which the terms ‘Infidel’, ‘Sceptic’, ‘Atheist’ do not express.” He had at times in his life described himself as an atheist, free-thinker, and agnostic, eventually deciding to connect himself more with agnosticism and secularism than with the other descriptors seeking to organize a positive model for interaction in the world that was separate from the religious, instead of being immersed in conflict with it.
This understanding of the secular as a term whose meaning depends completely upon its attachment to the religious has shaped an understanding of the secular through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and up into the present. The choice of such an understanding was shaped by majority religious influences in academics and culture in Britain and the US. The secular/religious binary works to limit and restrict an understanding of secular framing a discourse which is dominated by religious voices. A discussion of the religious does not depend upon an association with the secular, but discussion of the secular as has been too much constructed depends upon the religious. A typical definition of the secular will frequently contain reference to an opposition to religion, while common definitions of the religious will not depend upon reference to its denial of a secular world. This discourse conflates secularism with atheism and sees the secular as being compartmentalized completely by a relationship to the religious. A search for definitions of “religion” or “religious” will very likely contain no reference to the secular or secularism, but most all definitions of the “secular” and “secularism” will be dominated most completely by reference to an absence of religion or opposition to it. Religion will be defined as being a “belief in the supernatural” and will not be defined as “a rejection of a natural understanding of the world”. Religion as such functions as a positive term in which the definition describes what religion is, and secularism functions only as negative term in which its definition describes what it is not. Holyoake in the quote above described his desire to present the secular/secularism as representative of a positive stance toward an understanding of the world. “Atheism” did, and does, function as the specifically negative term descriptive of an absence of belief in a god. The secular and secularism can or could be something different from this, more than this, but the hegemonic dominance of the sacred/religious within Western, European and American cultures works to prevent this.
Footnote: “Nonholy” functions as a neologism or portmanteau working in contrast with the “unholy” which is evil and/or wicked. The “nonholy” participates within the church to serve the church’s wishes but does not seek to represent or connect with the divine, holy, spiritual world.