My son Doug has taken to calling himself a “secularist.” I think it is the perfect word for him, but he used it very casually in a conversation we were having about something else (the influence of Norman French on the English language, as I recall) and I got to thinking about what a good word it is. I had never heard it used the way he used it and I wondered if I had just not been paying attention.
The words I am more familiar with are atheist and agnostic. As I look at them, however, I see that both begin with negative prefixes. The question being raised is presented by the root—theos = God in the first case and gnosis = knowledge in the second. The position you might take, yourself, is presented not by the root, but by the prefix. These words offer the question, then: a) do you believe in God, or a god, or “the gods?” and b) do you believe we can know for sure about God, or a god, of “the gods?” Those are really good questions, but they are not the only good questions.
“A secularist is an adherent of secularism.” I don’t trust dictionaries for everything, but I am willing to go with the OED this far. Secularism (the OED again) is “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 a belief in God or in a future state.” I like that definition because I like where it starts. Here is another; I don’t like this one as well. “…worldly spirit, views or the like; especially a system of the doctrines and practices that disregards or rejects any form of religious faith and worship.” I found that one in Webster’s New World Dictionary. Note the emphasis: secularism is a system that disregards something. Does that strike you as odd?
As you can see, given where I started, it seems odd to begin with what this view disregards. Let’s play with this idea by looking at some other words. If I believe that a husband and a wife should keep their promises to each other—all of them; not just THAT one—then I could say I believe in “marital fidelity.” But this view I hold could be represented by quite a collection of other words that do not take their salience from “fidelity,” but from other notions entirely. I could be said to be cowardly, the theory being that if I were brave, I would be mating with as many women as would have me. You could argue that coward is not a word about marriage, but then you would have to admit that fidelity is not a word about bravery.
The root of the word establishes what we are talking about. I could ask whether you are the kind of person who lives with his tail tucked between his legs (the picture that the etymology of coward gives us) or a person who lives adventurously. The question of whether I am being true to my marriage vows is not even referred to by this set of terms. The choice of these terms imagines that we are talking about something else entirely.
Or, to get the same destination by another route, you could say that what I call “faithful,” is just doing the same things with the same person over and over again. It is just “routine.” Or worse, it is a routine, a “regular, unvarying, or mechanical procedure, discharge of duties, etc.”— (Webster’s New World Dictionary ). I am just a dullard, an automaton, vulgar (lower class) or bourgeoisie (middle class), or having no discrimination at all. The discrimination charge implies that in staying with my original choice of a mate, I am displaying no interest at all in newer models or, worse, no ability to discriminate between my present mate and the set of potential mates.
The word we begin with, in other words, has a landscape of meanings in mind and treats alternative meanings unfavorably. I may want to talk about how faithful I am to my wife; that brings infidelity onto the table as an alternative. You may want to talk about how risk averse I am (risk taking is a good thing) and brings risk avoidance onto the table as the unfavored alternative. Or about how mired I am in routine, unable to choose the good that is new or unable any longer to tell the difference.
So the root of the word chooses the topic and the prefix (usually) establishes a position with reference to that topic. That is why I like “that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life” and don’t like “a system of the doctrines and practices that disregards or rejects any form of religious faith and worship.” The first one says that secularism holds a certain view. The second one says that secularism disregards a certain view.
I myself would prefer to say that I value fidelity, rather than that I undervalue courage or that I can’t tell the difference between a lower quality mate and a higher quality potential mate. None of those distinctions has anything to do with what is true. All of them have to do with establishing just what we are talking about.
The idea that occurred to me as Doug and I were talking was that secular is a really good word for a relative emphasis on this world and its events and relationships without regard for the additional question of whether there are alternatives (other worlds, events, and relationships). Being a theist myself, I can’t think of the basis on which I would object to being called a “non-secularist.” Or an infrasecularist, if the question should be whether my views come up to the level of secularism or whether they stay below (infra- or hypo-) secularism.
Actually, I don’t want to be called a non-secularist. I just can’t think of how to go about complaining about it.