I am a secular

With relatively little formal organization and a strong tendency toward independent thought, the nonreligious use many different labels to describe themselves. Many of us have adopted more than one label, vary our usage according to the situation, and consciously change our preferences over time. I’m certainly no exception to this pattern. Today, I would like to state that I have decided to adopt secular as my preferred personal label and to explain my reasons by comparing it to terms which I have used previously and which still accurately describe me.

+ general meaning is always understood
– precise meaning is often misunderstood (≠ certainty that gods don’t exist)
– does not communicate whether belief in absence or absence of belief
– says nothing about belief in supernatural in general
– says nothing about whether one is religious or spiritual

+ communicates disbelief in all supernatural without emphasis on gods
– meaning is often misunderstood (≠ nudist, ≠ nature lover, ≠ scientist)
– does not communicate whether belief in absence or absence of belief
– says nothing about whether one is religious or spiritual

+ positive principles are more than rejection of supernaturalism
– positive principles are unremarkable in modern western society
– meaning is often misunderstood (≠ worship humanity, ≠ speciesist)
– often seems like an ideology rather than a simple description
– says nothing about whether one is religious or spiritual

+ communicates an approach to claims rather than a particular belief
– used almost exclusively by atheists, so above distinction is lost
– meaning is generally not understood, requiring explanation
– says nothing about whether one is religious or spiritual

+ meaning is usually understood
+ says nothing about belief or disbelief in anything
+ says that one is neither religious nor spiritual
+ greatest potential as umbrella term
– noun form is currently somewhat awkward

First, I acknowledge that whether a particular feature of a label is considered positive or negative is largely subjective, and thus I only claim to present my own opinion.

Second, I acknowledge that extending the meaning of secular from “not religious” to “neither religious nor spiritual” and using it as a noun rather than merely as an adjective are both somewhat novel, but I contend that these are reasonable extensions without obvious substitutes and that neither is unprecedented. In addition, the noun form can be avoided in most circumstances by using the adjective form instead, for example, by saying, “I’m secular,” just like someone might say, “I’m Hindu” or “I’m Buddhist.”

Third, I strongly prefer not to capitalize the term secular since it indicates the absence of an ideology and capitalizing it would suggest otherwise. Typographical conventions dictate that I nevertheless capitalize it the title, but I have chosen to ignore this rule in this instance—precisely because the title is so prominent—in order to avoid any potential confusion regarding my opinion on this matter.

Fourth, I want to distinguish a secular from a secularist: a secular is one who is neither religious nor spiritual whereas a secularist is one who believes the government should be neutral toward religion. This distinction mirrors the Christian/Christianist and Muslim/Islamist distinctions which have become increasingly familiar. In my estimation, almost all seculars are secularists, but most secularists are not seculars. In contrast, it’s almost impossible to imagine a Christianist who isn’t a Christian or a Islamist who isn’t a Muslim. This clearly speaks to the inherent fairness of secularism.

Fifth, I want to emphasize that I’m not rejecting any of the other labels on my list; I simply think calling myself a secular conveys just the right amount of relevant information when the topic of religion arises and provides me with a clear self-identity without committing me to any particular belief, principle, or ideology.

So until further notice, I am a secular first and foremost. It seems quite appropriate that I have finally landed on the same term that I chose when naming this blog over five years ago and largely for the same reasons!



An Old Friend's Divergent Path

Yesterday I was feeling bored and decided to browse through some old files on my computer from back when I was a devout Catholic and to check out some websites that I used to visit at that time. I had the idea to look up an old online friend of mine, my first online friend in fact, and to see what he’s been up to in the years since we last spoke. It was quite interesting to compare how our paths have diverged.

I first encountered Mr. Mario Derksen of Coral Springs, Florida, on the Prodigy religion message boards sometime around 1994, when my family first got internet access. He was very active in apologetics threads, primarily debating with Protestants, and I soon joined these discussions armed with what I had read in the new catechism. Mario and I became allies on the message boards, and we began to e-mail each other regularly. Mario recommended the first apologetics book I ever read and watching him debate encouraged me to learn more. At some point, Mario set up and operated his own apologetics website where he published and organized his own materials, and I did the same, though on a much smaller scale. We remained in contact for years, but my interest in apologetics ended when my scrupulosity and doubts caused a personal crisis, and we eventually lost touch about ten years ago.

In order to find Mario, I first tried to visit his old website, Catholic Insight, but the domain is no longer registered, and it seems that he has discontinued it rather than simply moved it. I then tried to load an archived copy of the site, but archiving has been disabled. Next, I simply searched for his name. Most of the results are his contributions to various apologetics websites from about a decade ago. For a moment, it seemed that he had just disappeared off the face of the internet. Then I found some information indicating that Mario, who was already an indult Catholic when I knew him, had moved further into religious extremism.

In particular, I read an excerpt of an announcement by Mario from his website that had been posted elsewhere that he had become a sedevacantist, that is, one who denies the validity of the recent popes and claims the papal throne is currently empty. Sedevacantists typically assert that the Catholic Church largely abandoned its infallible claim to exclusivity of salvation during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, making the alleged popes since then heretics. Conclavists move one step further and take it upon themselves to elect a new pope to fill the vacant seat, often from among a small circle of like-minded family and friends. I was disappointed not to find the full text of his announcement, but I noted with interest that he had published it in August 2004, while I was in the midst of my intense deconversion to atheism.

I continued searching for anything from the last seven years. I found more excerpts of and responses to his arguments for sedevacantism from around that time but little else. Finally, I found his website devoted to a hundred-page letter to a bishop regarding an ordination controversy by a Vietnamese sedevacantist bishop in France in 1981. The site includes audio files from a presentation by Mario on the subject given earlier this year, indicating that he has maintained his basic position since 2004. I had been hoping that he had quietly followed the trail of logic out of the church completely like me rather than around and around into ever smaller reactionary circles on its outskirts. Mario is certainly a very intelligent man—I largely agree with his conclusion that the popes changed their teachings on religious liberty during the twentieth century—and I know he could see through the entire ecclesiastical charade if he simply had sufficient motivation. Scrupulosity was an absolute nightmare for me, but I suspect I would still be a Catholic if it hadn’t prompted me to question absolutely everything and everyone and that I wouldn't be nearly as happy as I am today if I hadn't left. Our views could hardly be more different today, but I wish him all the best and hope he's doing well.

At the beginning of his audio presentation on his website about the ordination controversy, Mario mentions three things he shares in common with Benedict XVI. In this spirit, I’d like to mention three things I share in common with Mario: We’re the same age. We both grew up in Florida. And neither of us today thinks that Benedict XVI speaks with any authority.

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