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Secularization and Secularism

History And Nature Of Secularization And Secularism To 1914

Secularization originally meant the transfer of ecclesiastical property to civil or state ownership, and its first recorded use was apparently after the Thirty Years War in 1648 to mean the transfer of church lands to states. Christian Churches were huge landowners, and religious institutions in non-Christian countries also held or controlled very large properties, which states increasingly secularized. In England Henry VIII's dissolution of monasteries was a secularizing step. Secularization over time came rather to refer primarily to a process in which religious influence over government, institutions, ideas, and behavior is reduced and reliance on this-worldly bases for these spheres grows.

In premodern times religion and religious institutions had far greater power than they did later, though Confucianism, some kinds of Buddhism and Hinduism, and rationalist philosophies in ancient Greece, the Muslim world, and Europe had strong this-worldly elements. Secularization and secularism began in Western Europe, along with the rise of capitalism and stronger states. Other secularizing forces occurring first in the West, included the rise of science and the scientific outlook, over many centuries. The Copernican revolution in astronomy and the Darwinian evolutionary revolution contradicted the creation stories in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures, and cast doubt on these scriptures' literal infallibility, The spread of belief in this-worldly causation to ever-greater spheres, including history and social science, undermined ideas of divine intervention. In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment building on earlier science and philosophy, the idea of the Great Watchmaker who created the universe but did not afterward intervene became widespread among intellectuals, and was later refurbished to fit evolutionary theories. The Enlightenment had important proponents in most of Western Europe and the Americas, where Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) are the main names.

Protestantism is often considered a force for secularization, though it initially increased religiosity and religious loyalties, both among Protestants and among reformed and aroused Catholics. Ultimately, the proliferation of sects, including some liberal ones, and exhaustion in religious wars, helped lead to religious toleration by governments and recognition of various religious and irreligious beliefs—all elements of state secularism.

Several intellectuals encouraged secularism with writings advocating religious toleration, like John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) and John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859). Enlightenment writers often stressed anticlericalism and attacked the Catholic Church. Several, including Voltaire (1694–1778), said that religion was a good thing for the lower classes, to keep them honest, diligent, and peaceful, an idea that got support from the anti-church violence during the French Revolution. This idea had wide currency in the Muslim world until the Iranian Revolution (1979) showed again that popular religiosity did not always have such orderly effects.

The rise of nation-states and of nationalism encouraged secularism. Except in countries like Poland, Ireland, and former Yugoslavia where religious and nationalist boundaries coincide, nationalism and nation-states have tended to undermine organized religion. Religious loyalties and ideologies were supranational, and religion supported hierarchical relations between genders, toward minorities, and in everyday life, which conflicted with the priorities of the nation. Nationalism provided an ideology for nonreligious loyalties. This accompanied socioeconomic modernization and industrialization, requiring similar workers, similar rules for treating people, and national markets. Nationalism was a secular force, and religion could play only a subordinate role in most nations. In many countries nation-states struggled with church control over schools, law, and social institutions, and generally nation-states won and expanded secular institutions.

Industrialization, urbanization, and the rising role of economic class groups helped undermine religious ties and promote secular ideologies, whether nationalist, liberal, or socialist. The rising socialist movement was often antireligious. The atheism of Karl Marx (1818–1883), who saw religion as unnecessary in a communist state, became widespread among workers and their supporters.

In mid-nineteenth century England, the terms secularist and secularism were coined by George Holyoake (1817–1906), who founded a secularist society that helped end religious discrimination in parliament and elsewhere. In the late nineteenth century elite ideas were increasingly secular and agnostic, including Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and his "bulldog" Thomas Huxley (1825–1895), the radical literary critics of Russia, and the new field of sociology, with Auguste Comte (1798–1857), Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), Max Weber (1864–1920), and others. Bible criticism, with Germans like Richard Strauss (1864–1949) and Frenchmen like Ernest Renan (1823–1892), undermined faith in established religion. Even an ideological trend that most people in the early twenty-first century find repellent—scientific racism—was predominantly secular. Women's rights movements have been secular in their effect, as all major religions endorsed male control of and superiority to women and denied women rights regarding property, work, political participation, and control of their bodies. In much of the world resistance to women's rights has been primarily based on religious, antisecular, ideas.

Secularism usually endorses the idea found in nationalism, socialism, feminism, and some science, of progress. Darwinism, against the occasional caveats of Darwin, was seen as a story of progress, and was applied to Spencer's "survival of the fittest" in human society. Social Darwinism was intertwined with racism, one of whose offshoots was the eugenics movement, a supposed recipe for race amelioration. Socialism, nationalism, and feminism expected a better future, to be brought by human secular activity. By contrast, religions often saw history as a fall from a golden age, or as a period in which individual salvation was possible only through religion. A better world might only come via a sudden, millennial process. The contrast between traditional Jewish expectations of a messiah and the this-worldly efforts of modern (secular nationalist) Zionists exemplifies this difference.

The period 1848–1914 was the heyday of secularism and of belief in progress in the West, and saw their first rise in the Global South. Several countries established secular states after major struggles. The papal territories were a major obstacle to Italian unification, which required their conquest and a break with the church, a break not healed until Mussolini's concordat. France experienced many struggles between clericals and anticlericals. French laicisme, more militantly anticlerical than British and American secularism, won out decisively in the 1905 law disestablishing the Catholic Church. In England the Church of England remained established but, partly as a result of struggles by secularist groups, legal restrictions on nonconformists, Jews, and atheists ended, and the established church's power declined. The United States outlawed federal church establishment in the constitution, and the late nineteenth century saw the rise of new secular cultural trends and even the popularity of agnostics like Walt Whitman (1819–1892) and Robert Ingersoll (1833–1899). In all Western countries public education of children and young adults spread rapidly, and it was increasingly a secular education. In several Western countries, the fight against the Catholic Church was often the key issue in politics. Anticlericalism, with secular implications, became central to politics in several countries, partly because nineteenth-century popes ruled against modern socialist and liberal ideas.

Popular belief and state control over education and welfare became increasingly secular. In Eastern Europe and the Global South traditionalist religion remained strong and secularism made fewer inroads in governmental policy than in Western Europe, but secularism was rising, especially among intellectuals and the newly educated classes, and was often a component of nationalism. Many forces favoring secularism were similar in the West and the Global South, except (1) their time span was much shorter in the Global South, and (2) many secularizing forces entered with imperialism in the Global South, and some who resisted imperialism also resisted secularism and incorporated religion in resistance. The Indian National Congress, however, founded in 1885, was ideologically secular, secularism being the only way to unite different Hindu castes, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, and others in a single national movement. In the Middle East the new ideologies of Turkish, Iranian, and Arab nationalism, which arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, emphasized Islam less and secular and nationalist values more. Several Iranian and Turkish nationalists were hostile to Islam and constructed idealized pre-Islamic national pasts full of modern and secular virtues. Even Arab nationalists, who saw Islam as a great Arab achievement, mostly favored a more secular legal system with more equal treatment of minorities. While words like secular never became widely popular in Muslim countries, where adherence to Islam by political leaders, and also state churches, continued, there were strong secular trends.

Among Jews secular trends were strong in the West, especially in the middle classes, but less in Eastern Europe and in the Global South. Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) and most founders of political Zionism were secularists, but many Eastern European Zionists were not. Oriental Jewry was essentially untouched by secularism by 1914, while most Jews worldwide were either indifferent or hostile to Zionism until the 1930s. Among Jews secularism and nationalism were not congruent; many Zionists were not secularists, and many secularists were not Zionists.

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