Comparative Secularisms and the Politics of Modernity: An Introduction

  • Linell E. Cady
  • Elizabeth Shakman Hurd


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.1 He needed 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 it clearly differed 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 capaciousness was one of its defining virtues.


National Identity Religious Tradition Religious Minority Religious Pluralism Political Liberty 
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© Linell E. Cady and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Linell E. Cady
  • Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

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