The New Order of the Ages


Secularism and its variants are terms much bandied about today. This situation poses a number of questions.

First, a definitional question: What are the spheres of secularity and secularism today? Second, has the world has gone further in creating an autonomous existence for the secular?

The terms “secular,” “secularism,” and “secularization” have a range of meanings. The words derive from the Latin, saeculum, which means both “this age” and “this world,” and combines a spatial sense and a temporal sense. In the Middle Ages, “secular” referred to priests who worked out in the world of local parishes, as opposed to priests who took vows of poverty and secluded themselves in monastic communities. These latter priests were called “religious.” During the Reformation, “secularization” denoted the seizure of Catholic ecclesiastical properties by the state and their conversion to non-religious use. In all of these instances, the “secular” indicates a distancing from the sacred, the eternal, and the otherworldly. According to our understanding, “secularity” refers to the individuals and their social and psychological characteristics while “secularism” refers to the realm of social institutions.

With definition in hand, we move to our second question: has the world created a broader space for the secular?

To answer it helps to know a bit of history. Since the 1780s, on the reverse of the U.S. national seal, and since the 1930s, on the reverse of the one-dollar bill, the phrase Novus Ordo Seclorum has appeared. My interpretation of the adoption of that Latin phrase is that the founders of the American Republic viewed the “new order of the ages” quite deliberately as a new era in which the old order of King and Church was to be displaced from authority over public life by a secular republican order.

The two revolutions of the 18th century, the American and the French, produced two intellectual and constitutional traditions of secularism. One, associated with the French Jacobin tradition, was unreservedly antagonistic to religion, and promoted atheism. This situation arose from the historical reality of the revolutionary experience, which involved a joint struggle against depotism and religion, the monarchy, and the Roman Catholic Church. This tradition has only a marginal place in American public life. The reason, of course, is that the United States was heir to the Protestant heritage of the Reformation, whereby religious individualism and autonomy predated any concept of political autonomy. The result was that, since the early republic, Americans adopted a more moderate approach, characterized by indifference towards religion or encouragement of religious pluralism.

Since the end of the 19th century, there has been a growing recognition among students of religion that the theologies and institutions embodying religion have been transformed by the process of secularization. Sociologist Max Weber, described secularization as the “disenchantment of the world”—a characterization of the process of rationalization he adopted from the poet Friedrich Schiller. By this process, Weber sought to capture the psychic and cultural transformation in which magical elements of thought and symbolism are progressively displaced by empiricism and rationality.

In the 20th century, Harvey Cox and Peter Berger further developed theories of secularism and secularization. Cox described secularization as the “deliverance of man ‘first from religious and then from metaphysical control over his reasons and language’… the dispelling of all closed worldviews, the breaking of all supernatural myths and sacred symbols.” On the wider societal level, Berger defined secularization as “the process by which sectors of society are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.”

It is now widely recognized that the process of secularization is dialectic: the more that hearts and minds become “disenchanted,” the more institutions that have specialized in the promotion of the “enchantment” process lose plausibility and authority. The more such institutions lose plausibility and authority, the less psycho-emotional processes of “enchantment” are inculcated in the hearts and minds of individuals. How far the process of secularization has progressed in different societies since the end of the 19th century, whether the process is unidirectional or not, and what its consequences are for social and political organization and human welfare, is the subject of ongoing debate.

Today, most Americans, regardless of whether they are liberal or conservative, Christian or Jew or other, are pluralists. They accept at a fundamental level that law, politics, art, and learning should not be controlled by religious institutions or clergy, but rather have their own traditions, spheres and dynamics. Although there are evident strains, America remains a secular republic.