We often hear the term secularism nowadays, but it’s possible that many people take its meaning for granted and fail to appreciated the profundity of the word. The social theorist Harriet Martineau wrote, “The adoption of the term Secularism is justified by its including a large number of persons who are not Atheists, and uniting them for action which has Secularism for its object, and not Atheism. On this ground, and because, by the adoption of a new term, a vast amount of impediment from prejudice is got rid of, the use of the name Secularism is found advantageous.”
An online dictionary has the following definitions of secularism:
1. a view that religion and religious considerations should be ignored or excluded from social and political matters.
2. an ethical system asserting that moral judgments should be made without reference to religious doctrine, as reward or punishment in an afterlife.
The first definition maintains the separation of religion from State and society; the second asserts the separation of religion from morality. But as secularism aims to remove religion from our interactions with fellow human beings, it also proposes to replace it with reason and the test of human experience. The English secularist George Jacob Holyoake defined secularism as “a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life.”
On issues involving sex and relationships like the RH Bill, divorce, and same-sex marriage, secularism examines the discussions and points out that religious arguments, particularly those that are based on supposed divine revelation, are not accepted in public discourse. Secularism does not tell religion to shut up; it merely asks religion, when speaking outside the four walls of the church, to speak in a language everyone in a pluralistic society can understand. Dogmas are applicable only to the members of a particular sect since no single church holds a doctrine uncontested by other faiths. Thus, secularism asks religion to defend its moral and truth claims in public with rational explanations and testable evidence.
Secularism does not intend to wipe out religion; it merely asserts that “religion ought never to be anything but a private affair” and not to influence public policy. Secularism envisions a society where toleration exists, meaning there is “conditional acceptance of or non-interference with beliefs, actions or practices that one considers to be wrong but still “tolerable” such that they should not be prohibited or constrained.” By toleration, secularism does not expect religion to abandon its sacred beliefs or embrace the diverging philosophies of other schools of thought; rather, it simply asks religion to acknowledge the diversity of beliefs and not necessarily to agree with the opposing beliefs themselves.
In the general concept of toleration,
“it is essential…that the tolerated beliefs or practices are considered to be objectionable and in an important sense wrong or bad. If this objection component is missing, we do not speak of “toleration” but of “indifference” or “affirmation.”“
This objection component is clearly manifested in a 1990 statement of the CBCP on the matter of family planning:
“The Church reiterates its objections to contraception and sterilization and expresses its reservations about the moral acceptability of certain aspects of the Program. But in a pluralistic society and recognizing the freedom of those who disagree with Church principles, the Church respects the government’s toleration of other means that the conscience of others may not object to and that the law on abortion does not forbid. Nonetheless, the Church seeks a greater emphasis on natural family planning as consistent with moral teachings and religious beliefs.”
While it is commendable that “the Church respects the government’s toleration,” technically the government is not being tolerant because in the first place it does not share the Church’s objection component, which is religious in nature, towards contraception. As such, what is expected of the government is not toleration but affirmation of modern family planning methods that are effective, safe, and legal. Moreover, secularism calls on the government to be indifferent towards the doctrines of religions especially since they are in conflict with one another. For example, in the following chart which lists the religious acceptability of certain acts ranging from 1 (condemned) to 5 (totally acceptable), only Roman Catholicism condemns birth control (7th line) while other religions accept it.
1 = “condemned” 2 = “morally unacceptable in most cases” 3 = “neutral” or “no clear position” 4 = “morally acceptable in most cases” 5 = “blessed” or “totally acceptable” [source]
With such conflicting religious teachings, it is just appropriate that the government is mandated by no less than the Constitution to give no reverence to any single religion. And while secularism rejects religious claims of divine revelation, it “offers the guidance of observation, investigation, and experience. Instead of taking authority for truth, it takes truth for authority.”
At this point it is necessary to reiterate that secularism is not the same as atheism. While atheism rejects the idea of God and denies his existence, secularism merely points out that “no sacred scripture or ancient church can be made a basis of belief, for the obvious reason that their claims always need to be proved, and cannot without absurdity be assumed.” Moreover, Secularism goes beyond the rejection of unproven religious claims. In English Secularism, Holyoake wrote,
“The Secularist, is without presumption of an infallible creed, is without the timorous indefiniteness of a creedless believer… The Secularist has a creed as definite as science, and as flexible as progress, increasing as the horizon of truth is enlarged… All believe that God, if he exists, is the God of the honest, and that he respects conscience more than creeds, for all free thinkers have died in this faith.“
We at Filipino Freethinkers aim to promote secularism as a means of improving every Filipino’s quality of life, wishing for everyone to live lives free of ignorance and oppression – in a society where they are able to act and think for themselves, and in a country where religion and governance are clearly and permanently separated. And as we are composed of nonbelievers and progressive believers, we have no consensus on the question of the existence of God. What we do agree about, however, is that all religious authority is self-appointed because God, if he exists, never personally endorsed any religion. Thus, being freethinkers – and secularists – we rely on reason and science to chart morality and uplift humanity.