Scholars elucidate the complex relationship between the secular and the religious


In contemporary cultural discussions in America, when the word “religious” is mentioned, the word “secular” follows closely behind. The two terms seem to exist at opposite poles of public opinion, negating each other as surely as left or right, day or night, Notre Dame or USC. After all of the talk, one may well wonder: what do we even mean by “secular” or “religious,” anyway?

Etymologies and False Dichotomies

Defining what is religious seems straightforward enough. We use the term to refer to features of known world religions. Hence, Christian churches are “religious,” Buddhist prayer flags are “religious,” Muslim imams are “religious,” as are Jewish rabbis and Catholic priests. We can make sense of what is overtly religious easily enough because the institutions of religion are so apparent.

Not so for the secular. Though we might think of everything from religiously unaffiliated universities to local legislatures as “secular,” the exact meaning of the term is unclear. If secular simply means “non-religious,” then we would be left asking why a secular school like Harvard is home to several houses of worship or why the secular assembly of the Missouri state senate has its own chaplain. To illuminate what these words mean, it would do us good to examine their origins.

The word “religion” seems to stem from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind fast,” or perhaps from relegere, meaning “go through again,” which evokes the concept of ritual. “Secular,” on the other hand, originates in the Latin saeculum, meaning “age, span of time, or generation.” From its origins alone, there is something more temporary, more fleeting about the secular.

According to Gerard Bradley, Professor of Law, the word “secular” was formerly used to differentiate between life inside and outside of monastic orders.

“In earlier times, it just meant this world, temporal, and so there were “secular” priests, that is, those whose ministry was in the world and not the monastery,” Bradley told the Rover.

However, in contemporary parlance, the secular has come to stand at a distance from religious life in general, as Bradley explained: “More recently and generally now, it is the practical absence of God; acting as if God did not exist.”

In this sense, the secular does not stand against the religious directly. Rather, its stance toward religion is characterized through distance or even indifference. A secular society, then, need not be anti-religious. Here we can observe the dichotomy between the secular and the religious begin to fracture.

From the standpoint of governance alone, the only indicator of a society’s secularity is whether it has a separation between church and state, a separation that is ironically absent in the United Kingdom, despite the country’s much lower levels of church attendance compared to those of the secular United States. The absolute opposite of secularity at this governmental level would not be religiosity, which is a social phenomenon, but theocracy.

Meanwhile, the opposite of religion, at the level of government, would not be secularity but irreligion. We can think, for example, of countries in which religion is not distanced from government but actively targeted, as in the former U.S.S.R. and in current Communist China, where government officials must necessarily lack religious affiliation.

In this way, the religious and the secular do not stand in diametric opposition in the U.S. or elsewhere. However, secularism, in its capacity of distancing religion from public life, does not necessarily chime well with religious convictions, as recent health mandates and Supreme Court rulings have intimated.

Secularism in Practice

As a model of governance, secularism ostensibly does not favor one religious tradition over another. For America’s founders, the separation of church and state was meant to protect religious freedom and ensure a kind of religious pluralism that was effectively a Christian pluralism. In contemporary U.S. society, however, this attempt at religious equality has resulted in something closer to religious indifference and, in some cases, the dumbing down of religious expression in the public square.

Vittorio Hösle, Kimball Professor of Arts and Letters in the Department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures and Concurrent Professor of Philosophy and Political Science, sees the current discussion of religion in U.S. society as deeply problematic.

“What I find distressing,” Hösle told the Rover, “is the increasing opposition between a fundamentalist form of religion, which neglects the results of Biblical criticism and forgets the task of philosophically interpreting religion, and an aggressive atheist ideology, which comes in two flavors: the naturalist one, based on a silly misunderstanding of Darwin, and that of cultural relativism.”

Hösle identified the problem of discourse as a political and ideological one, in which fair-minded, intermediate thinking is drowned by polarizing opinions.

“The opposition is clearly linked to the main political divide, and that makes it even more ideological, that is, less able to listen to counterarguments. The rich intermediate tradition of philosophical theology, which is admittedly intellectually more demanding than either of the opposites, is almost absent of the public discourse,” Hösle explained.

The result is the sort of dialogue in which the words ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ become blurred and misunderstood. At a social level, religious individuals should be able to fully live out their faith in a society that is secular only in the sense of lacking an established religion. However, Bradley sees the societal indifference to religion and God as a challenge to Americans with religious convictions.

“The challenge for believers and religious communities today really is the pervasiveness of secularism, meaning that except in their own minds and small circle of co-religionists, they are supposed to act as if God does not exist. They are expected to privatize their religion. But most religions, especially including Christianity, are not private,” Bradley explained.

Christianity, indeed, calls one to put one’s faith into practice. Sometimes that practice will involve political action, such as voting in favor of laws that protect the poor and vulnerable. While some claim that secularism demands that people check their religious convictions at the door of the voting booth, it cannot be denied that many U.S. laws have a basis in religious tradition. Within a secular state, religiously-motivated laws are perfectly permissible, so long as they appeal to reason rather than religious authority. Laws must draw on something, and according to renowned German academic Jürgen Habermas, who is himself an atheist, the Judeo-Christian tradition offers a viable foundation.

“Up to this very day there is no alternative to it [the Judeo-Christian tradition],” Habermas said in a 2002 interview. “And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.”

Unavoidable Religion and Necessary Secularism?

When we understand religion as a social foundation in addition to a personal conviction, religion becomes nearly unavoidable in a society, even if it remains separate from direct involvement in government.

Romana Huk, Associate Professor of English and editor of the university’s Religion & Literature journal, perceives something enduring about religious ideas.

“It’s difficult to excise one’s thought from the religious roots culture is built upon,” she said to the Rover. “Many are engaged now in teasing out the only seemingly secular ‘reason’ upon which consequential social policy and so forth are built.”

In her own work as a scholar, Huk notices striking similarities between the programs of certain secular thinkers and religious traditions.

“Martin Heidegger’s supposed evasion of metaphysics in Being and Time (1927) resulted in his writing ‘a theology,’ heavily influenced by the Catholic thought of his own background and early reading of Aquinas,” Huk said.

“More recently,” she added, “Derrida’s own infamously irreverent ‘deconstructive’ philosophy has been written about as ‘being structured like a religion.’”

Insofar as religion is a way of applying meaning to reality, any kind of system structured around meaning, whether it’s of an ethical, aesthetic, or spiritual variety, has the capacity to be construed in the light of a religious tradition. Indeed, many such systems, from Heidegger’s phenomenology to Derrida’s literary theory, draw inspiration from the religious wellspring.

Religion may not be at home in the secular state, especially one that grows more and more apathetic toward traditions and creeds. However, religion as a binding force is here to stay.

Similarly, the secular aspects of U.S. society show no signs of disappearing. In his book God as Reason, Hösle goes so far as to suggest that secularism provides religious people with a chance to strengthen their faith.

“Only the experience of the utter contradiction of a purely secular religion can lead to a deeper relation to God, a relation in which autonomy will come to play a more significant role than in earlier epochs,” he writes.

Hösle clarified for the Rover how this remark relates to the situation in the U.S. by referencing the great surveyor of American society, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville.

“Tocqueville famously argued that in the triumph of democracy we feel divine providence. As a theist, one cannot deny that the rise of irreligiosity must be part of the divine plan. In which sense? Well, it is a reaction against heteronomous, superstitious, or merely sentimental forms of religiosity and will lead humanity to embrace a more rational form of religiosity,” Hösle said.

The debate concerning the secular and the religious circles around a series of interrelated ideas, from religiosity as a social disposition to theocracy as a form of governance. What one ought not to forget amidst this largely semantic maelstrom is that both sides, wherever they presume to stand, can learn from one another, if only, God-willing, they put aside indifference to understand what the other side really means.

Charlie Ducey is a senior studying English and German. He waxes poetic without warrant, but who needs a warrant to write poetry? Contact him at