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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: September 2014

4 - Comparative Secularisms and the Politics of Modernity


In mid-nineteenth-century england, George Holyoake coined the term ‘secularism’ to name an orientation to life designed to attract both theists and atheists under its banner. Impatient with positions defined in opposition to traditional Christian belief, such as atheist, infidel, or dissenter, Holyoake dreamed of a new formation, rallying around the ‘work of human improvement’, that would not be splintered by these older divisions. He sought a positive philosophy, one that was not parasitic on what was being rejected. His 1854 Principles of Secularism aspired to give voice to such an alternate vision. Its signature features were its appeal to reason, nature and experience and its passionate commitment to the amelioration of human life. Although clearly differing from forms of traditional Christianity that invoked clerical or scriptural authorities or focused on supernatural means and otherworldly ends, secularism, as Holyoake fashioned it, was not the antithesis of religion or one side of a religion–secularism binary. It was a canopy large enough to house some forms of religion as it excluded others. Its relative capaciousness was one of its defining virtues.

For Holyoake a strategic advantage of his newly coined label was the way it riffed on the term ‘secular’ in the Western Christian imaginary. Within a Christian theological framework the secular identifies the temporal and worldly in distinction from, though in relationship to, the eternal and spiritual. By appropriating a term ‘found and respected in the dictionaries of opponents’ Holyoake hoped to underscore the shared resonances.