Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


Momentarily, secular religion may seem to be paradoxical or even an outright contradiction in terms. Does not secular mean the opposite, or absence, of religion? (Is that, indeed, not confirmed by its incorrigibly adjectival status—even when converted into cultural secularity or ideological secularism? ) Is not the phrase, at best, eschatological: looking forward to the day when, either the whole of "the earth is the Lord's" and there will be "no [need of a] temple in the city [of God]"; or else when religion is abolished and secularity rules the world?

Yet this is based upon, if not an ethnocentric then a "temperocentric" view of religion: that of the "early modern" period. True, secular can be defined with remarkable ease: as the opposite of religion (whatever that is, in any particular situation). Thus religion refers to a whole way of life, in small-scale societies (before that way is spelled out, for voluntary groups, in a religious Rule). Subsequently, in historical societies it refers to that willed program of commitment that is, ideally, expressed in the whole of life. When that program no longer takes the form of a traditional religion (as, for instance, in the case of humanism), then the program itself may be described as a "secular religion."

"Secular religion" is, therefore, a natural way of describing ordinary human life: either as that way of life that is expressed in religion, or as that way of life in which religion is expressed. The conceptual need to reestablish the secular ramifications of what appertains to a religious order, or to a hierarchical church, or to a transcendent sacred, only proves the symbiotic relationship of the religious and the secular. Thus even a "secular" form of religion will still need its "extramural" forms of expression—if it is to be called a religion at all.

The choice of examples of "secular religions" will depend upon the observer's estimate of actors' motivations. The invention, or the use, of religious look-alikes for ends that were authentic to the initiators, as in Comtism or Freemasonry, is one thing. Their use for purposes of manipulation, as in political religions, is another.

Edward I. Bailey


A. Bergesen, The Sacred and the Subversive (Storrs, Conn.: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1984)

A. Bergesen, "Beyond the Dichotomy of Secularity and Religion," Journal of Oriental Studies 26, 1(1987)

J. G. Davies, Every Day God (London: SCM, 1973)

H. Fingarette, Confucius (New York: Harper, 1972)

P. Nathanson, Over the Rainbow (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991)

M. Rousseau and C. Gallagher, Sex Is Holy (Shaftesbury, U.K.: Element, 1986)

H. W. Turner, "A Model for the Structural Analysis of Religions in Relation to the Secular," Cahiers des Religions Africaines 3(1969):173-197

P. C. Vitz, Psychology as Religion (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977)

M. Zeldin, "The Religious Nature of Russian Marxism," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 8(1969):100-111.

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