Secularism and Secular Humanism

Tom Flynn

In this issue’s Research Report, Barry Kosmin—a leading expert on the demography of unbelief and a Council for Secular Humanism board member—shares results from a new study of secularism among today ’s college students. The study, a joint project of Kosmin’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture and the Center for Inquiry, measured attitudes among religious, secular, and so-called spiritual students. (In this study, respondents chose their preferred identifier without defining it; elsewhere, the “spiritual” category has usually included persons who do not identify with organized religion but nonetheless report belief in the supernatural or engage in supposedly mystical practices.)

One of the questions Kosmin ex­plored was this: Among today’s students, what does it mean to be secular—in other words, how do they understand that term? The question is hugely important. Secular has come a long way since its origins in the Latin saeculum, which connoted a fixed and substantial interval of time (similar to century). Later, the word came to denote temporal or earthly matters in contradistinction to the divine, and this is its principal meaning today. The Oxford English Dictionary now defines secular as “belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the church and religion.”* But secular and its cognates have acquired further shades of meaning. In his survey, Kosmin asked students to choose from among five possible meanings for secularism:

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