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!


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