Religion: Meaning, Nature, and Role (Essay Example)
Religion is one of the oldest institutions of mankind. Members of almost all cultures, from those hardly using any form of literacy to the most developed modern cultures, practice some form of religion. For that reason, religion can be considered universal and omnipresent. It has been around for centuries, and even ancient human societies were known to have some sort of religious beliefs.
Religion is one of the defining features of society, stemming from a deep human need to put sense into things and explain the unknown. It is an important institution upon which society relies for moral and ethical guidance and organization of normative behavior. It is a cultural system concerned with the spiritual aspect of human existence, and as such deals with all things that are divine or sacred. It involves belief in a higher power or supernatural beings that surpass our ability to comprehend rationally; therefore it provides a link between the humanity and the transcendental or the spiritual world. Religion exerts a significant influence on other institutions of the society as well. It is considered to be extremely powerful, affecting state politics, legislation, and even economics. It is thought to be inherent to human nature which explains its presence from the dawn of humanity. The total number of world's religions exceeds 10000, but the majority of the population is affiliated with one of the most common beliefs: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc.
Definition and origins of the term “religion”:
There is no unique definition of religion. It is a question of human spirituality, of shared belief or faith which transcends the rational comprehension of the world that surrounds us. It is used to explain any phenomena that are hard to grasp with our senses or exceed the current level of knowledge in a society. It is a predominantly social category as it exists in almost all societies and is used to shape the normative behavior of society members.
The word religion which usually stands for the sacred or spiritual facet of the human existence, designating a presence of a bond between humans and a higher being, stems from the Latin religio, the origins of which are not entirely clear. Modern scholars explain the term religion as being derived from the Latin re-ligare which means to reconnect, presumably with a higher power or a supernatural being of some kind. Human practice of religious rituals allows people to bond with powers transcending the mundane which influence human behavior in unexplained ways. Religion involves worship of sacred creatures, supernatural in essence, but it also forms a basis for the development of a sense of obligation to the community, its rulers, and even gods.
The notion of faith is fundamental to all religions. Faith entails placing one's confidence or belief into a particular religious system or accepting divine authority. This acceptance goes beyond simple obedience; it is built on the basis of profound personal appreciation of religious teachings. Faith is what makes humans stand out from all other beings on the planet. It is shared by members of society, yet it is deeply personal and has a unique place in every person's life. It has the power to unite people around a central idea or belief that is common to all.
There have been numerous attempts to define religion, all of which cover certain vital aspects of religion, while an all-encompassing definition seems almost impossible. There has been no consensus on a definition of religion. The existing definitions are either predominantly sociological or philosophical in nature. Religion can be viewed as a belief in supernatural or spiritual beings, or a feeling of being connected to the divine, or as a set of beliefs and practices that members of a culture adhere to, which involves regarding certain creatures as sacred and having extraordinary virtues or powers. It can be considered as means of surpassing the feeling of solitude, by perceiving oneself to be deeply connected with all the others and with the divine. Religious beliefs and practices unite people into a moral community such as the church.
People place their trust into powers greater than their own which are thought to rule and dominate all natural things including human lives. Individuals view their position as inferior to that of a higher being and are overwhelmed with feelings of admiration and respect in the presence of such being or when they feel in touch with a higher presence. These emotions are at the source of all worship and religious devotion.
As an organized system of beliefs and practices, religion provides a link between humans as earthly beings with limited powers and control over their lives and the superior beings with unlimited power and influence. It allows people not only to relate to each other but also to form a connection with a being of supernatural power. Religion covers: a) the domain of emotionally charged beliefs concerning the supernatural which prevail in a cultural group and b) the domain of sacred objects and symbols accompanying these beliefs. Religion can express itself in ritualistic behaviors, sermons, rites of worship, sacrifices offered during religious festivals with participants falling into trance-like states, rituals of initiation, as well as funerals, weddings, and various other aspects of human culture. These practices serve a purpose of establishing a connection to a higher being whose powers are called upon in specific situations humans face in their lives.
As opposed to the spiritual side of religion, which is usually accentuated in its definitions, some theorists consider religion as something not outside our worldly, mundane existence, but merely a means of attaining practical goals. The emphasis is not placed on a belief in a deity but on rituals and behaviors securing obedience and morality. Religious ceremonies are thought to be more important than the faith itself. Although it is conceivable to define religion as a belief in a divine creature, this is not a prerequisite of all religions. Religions without gods are also possible. For example, Buddhism is not centered on the belief in a specific god but rather on the existence of sacred things, or noble truths with practices resulting from them.
Nature of Religion:
Within the realm of the science of sociology, the term religion has a broader meaning than the one that can be found in theological texts. All religions are multifaceted as they encompass different aspects of human existence, such as emotional experiences, thoughts and rational responses towards the unexplained phenomena of life. Religious practices include a physiological as well a psychological component, the physiological pertaining to the act of shutting the eyes, gazing towards the sky or heaven, kneeling in prayer, etc., while the psychological involves feelings of being in touch with a holy spirit, having supernatural sensitivity or conviction. It is a psychological necessity to attempt to gain control over everything happening to us, either directly or vicariously through a supernatural being we choose to place our trust in. People invest their vital energy into this belief which renders them powerless and at the mercy of supernatural power.
All major religions basically cover the same five domains which include:
1. Belief in the existence of forces beyond our world:
- Belief in the existence of forces beyond our world
- Belief in the existence of sanctity
- Practice of religious rituals
- Behaviors regarded as sins
- Promise of salvation.
The belief in the existence of forces superior to our own is intrinsic to every religion. It is assumed that these forces can exert an effect on human beings and rule over things occurring in nature. These superior forces can be attributed to a single god in monotheistic religions or to several gods in polytheistic systems. It is not even necessary to name these supernatural forces. It is possible to view them as manifestations of the power of the universe. Whatever name we choose for them, or form we place them in, they are outside our sensorium and our capability to empirically prove their existence. This is the first component of every religion.
2. Belief in the existence of sanctity:
A number of things are considered sacred or holy in every religion. What gives a particular object or being a sacred quality is how the followers of a religious doctrine view them. They do not hold any sanctity of their own merit; it's the attitude of the masses that makes them holy. Thereby the sanctity of the object is not something that can be perceived through human senses. There are certain holy or sacred elements of religion. These constitute the heart of the religion.
Holy beings or sacred objects are highly symbolic. They represent the world beyond our senses, the invisible and the untouchable, yet powerful and with great influence on our daily lives. In Hinduism, a cow is not worshiped for characteristics inherent to this animal but for the symbolism it has for the believers.
3. Practice of religious rituals:
A religious ritual can be defined as conventional behavior or conduct carried out during specific ceremonies or rites which is prescribed by a certain religion. As a sequence of behaviors, it involves uttering specific words, chanting, singing hymns, wearing ritual clothes, performing ritual gestures, etc. These actions can either be shared with other people or done in solitude, but even then with a sense of belonging and unity with others. Communal fasting in the wake of major religious holidays, carnival festivities or ritualistic slaughter of animals all serve the purpose of relieving social tension and erasing strict social hierarchies, thus allowing all members of the community to feel connected on a deeper level. Failing to adhere to these rituals is not only frowned upon but also considered a sin.
4. Behaviors regarded as sins:
Religion views certain behaviors that are in opposition to the religious code as inherently sinful and induces those manifesting them to feel miserable and guilty and to avoid indulging in them in future. This limits human actions significantly and prevents people from enjoying all the pleasures of life. These sinful behaviors are said to be driven by the unholy, making whoever displays them fall out of God's grace.
5. Promise of salvation:
This is the final component all religions have in common. It is defined as saving of the soul from sin and its effects. The feeling of guilt imposed upon humans by the religious code, and not following it to the letter, can be relieved by practices suggested by the church. Eliminating guilt allows the believers to reenter a harmonic relationship with God, and it usually involves some form of suffering. Christians hope for salvation through life free of sin, after having their mistakes forgiven by means of repentance. They can hope to be saved because this is what God intended for the humankind in spite of its unworthiness. Followers of Hinduism need to resort to asceticism and predetermined forms of worship in order to be saved from sin. Performing one's social duty is another way to achieve this, which also leads to significant spiritual growth.
To recapitulate, religion can be understood as a conventional set of behaviors and practices accompanied by specific worldviews and attitudes that allow humans to establish a relationship with forces beyond our world which play a significant role in our everyday lives and exert an influence on all things in nature.
The role of religion in human life
Religion has always played a very significant role in the society; it is intertwined with almost all aspects of human existence. Being extremely influential, it affects all the major systems that make a society function: its political, educational, economic and even healthcare institutions. It has long been the sole keeper of ethical and moral values providing a code of conduct for everyone to uphold. Even today religion fulfills numerous functions in everyday life of modern humans. Some of them will be discussed here:
1. Religion helps maintain the integrity of society:
Religion was instrumental in the foundation and subsequent development of early civilizations such as the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Chinese, etc. In ancient times, the science was still in its initial phases of development, and many natural phenomena could not be explained. That is where religion found its place, filling in the void left by the lacking scientific clarification of things, and giving them a spiritual or divine origin. Religion gave the members of these early societies bravery to go into battles seemingly protected by gods and fearing nothing. It made them believe that gods would take care of their crops, provide them food and shield them from all harm. Nowadays, religion still has this function because regardless of the advances made in science and technology, man is still left with a lot of puzzles and is not able to understand everything that happens in the world around him. Modern empirical data have been connected with religious explanations, and rather than confusing people, this gave them a much-needed feeling of comfort of safety. People reassured and consoled by religion are much less likely to protest against social injustice or display any other kind of social discontent.
2. Religion contributes to societal cohesion:
Religion can be considered as a cohesive agent bringing people together and helping them sustain the strength and power of the society. It makes people congregate around conventional social norms and moral values. It gives a standard of socially acceptable conduct. Sharing religious beliefs and moral systems makes people feel united and well integrated into the society. Those not adhering to social norms or moral principles dictated by religion will be subjected to sanctions. In this way, religion exerts a function of social control as well.
The sentiment of sharing common values and being equal to everyone else brought on by participation in religious ceremonies makes people feel more dedicated to a social group and more affectionate in its safekeeping. Individuals empathize with other group members; form a social identity along with a personal one, and as a member of a particular society feel different to members of any other societies, social groups, or populations. Unity is sometimes accomplished through religious symbols worshiped by people sharing a religious affiliation. The example of this is the holiness given to a common animal such as a cow in Hindu religion.
3. Religion integrates the social values into a meaningful unity:
Religion forms a basis for social unity. If a society is to function effectively as a cohesive system all its members should adhere to the same moral code and uphold the same moral values. Many social values originated from religion. Religion teaches us to respect our parents and elders, not to lie or steal, to be faithful to our spouses, to be truthful and righteous. Our wishes and desires should be fulfilled in a socially acceptable manner, without inflicting harm or damage on other members of the society. All religions are peaceful and strongly oppose violence; they teach us to be selfless, brave and to sometimes sacrifice our own wellbeing for a greater cause.
4. Religion reinforces social control:
Society exerts control over its members through various institutions, one of which is certainly the church. Religion defines what is moral and what is not, and determines a code of conduct expected of all society members. If anyone fails to adhere to this code, they would be liable to sanctions, not only from the police and other earthly institutions but from the heaven as well. This implies that some behaviors represent crimes against God along with being crimes against society. Religion also sanctions the social class system that exists in some societies. In India, Hinduism supports the strict caste system which mandates interpersonal relations between members of different castes.
5. Religion encourages voluntarism and helps the disadvantaged:
People are driven by their religious beliefs to help those in need and to provide assistance and donate their time or money to the poor, ill, or destitute. Religion teaches us that valuable spiritual goals can be attained by doing good deeds and being kind and compassionate to others, especially those in positions inferior to ours. Thus, religion is instrumental in promoting the well-being of vulnerable groups in the society.
6. The contribution of priests to the society:
In the past, the priests were always among the most educated people in the community. Some of them were trained medical doctors who contributed greatly to the advancement of medicine. Others were talented artists whose works of art can still be seen in churches and temples around the world. Others were responsible for teaching basic literacy and calculus to generations of children who would otherwise be left completely uneducated. Priests advocate for charitable causes, raise funds to build schools, hospitals or housing for the homeless.
7. Religion gives sense to suffering in the world:
Religion comforts individuals in difficult times when they grieve or suffer in any way. It offers hope to those who are upset, sad or in despair reassuring them that everything would eventually work out fine. People's hopes are sometimes shattered by adversities of life, all they had been planning or endeavoring is lost, and they are condemned to a life of suffering and misery. At those times, people turn to religion for consolation and promise of a brighter future, if not in this world than in the afterlife. When a parent loses a child to illness, accident or crime, they are in need of something to alleviate their pain and to help them make sense of what has happened. Religion helps them work through their pain and find meaning in something that seems totally unjust and undeserved. It is faith that allows them to go on in spite of a terrible loss they had endured.
8. Religion boosts self-confidence:
A religious man feels a part of the enormity represented by God; his personality unites with the endless universe becoming enormous, vast and magnificent. As religion teaches that we were created in the image of God, we can hope to be reunited with God in the afterlife which fills us with hope and exaltation.
Apart from all the functions of religion mentioned above, it also regulates matters of marriage and family; it affects politics and issues of governing countries. Some political leaders like the emperors of China and Japan were sanctified; others like the kings reigning in Medieval France were thought to govern by the right invested in them by God. The religion of Brahmanism upholds and protects the caste system in India.
Religious rituals mark all important events of a person's life, including birth, baptism, marriage, death, as well as all the annual festivities such as those celebrating major religious holidays. Consequently, religion is ever present in everyday life, and, as has already been pointed out, it is also deeply involved in the functioning of almost all institutions of a society. Its importance is paramount in all cultures and civilizations. In many parts of the world, it is responsible for providing education, raising funds for worthy causes, and even for backing sovereigns and country leaders in their efforts to guide their nation to prosperity.
Negative aspects of religion:
Besides the positive roles of religion in a community, there are also some downsides to it, which actually have a destructive influence on the society. Numerous authors have pointed to this side of religion, Niccolo Machiavelli, Karl Marx, Richard Dawkins, to name but a few.
1. Religion acts against social change:
Social change is not only inevitable but also essential for the progress of society and religion tends to stand in its way. Change is brought through the uprising of masses, protests against unfavorable laws or politics. They sometimes occur through conflict and violence, but at difficult times this can be the only way to bring about much needed social reforms. Being opposed to conflicts, religion can impede progress and lead to a prolonged status quo situation, which is not in the people's best interest.
2. Religion interferes with the society's adaptation to change:
Religion is based on a set of beliefs, values, and norms derived from holy books which were written a long time ago. Circumstances of life have significantly changed since, but church hangs on to these ancient norms and rules of conduct and is reluctant to embrace change, despite the fact that some of these norms had long lost their relevance and can hardly be seen as appropriate in the changed state of affairs. The position most religious denominations hold on the abortion issue is an example of the inappropriateness of long-standing norms. So is the church's refusal to acknowledge as morally acceptable certain monetary practices like money lending with interest.
3. Religion encourages people to be dependent and over-reliant on it in decision-making:
It sometimes seems like the church pretends to have all the answers to whatever issues people might have. When it comes to modern life, it is actually much more prudent to consult professionals in appropriate fields rather than rely on the opinion of priests who are often not educated in the matter and are certainly less competent than experts.
4. Historically religion has condoned questionable practices:
It can certainly be argued that cannibalism, ritual killing of animals in sacrifice, giving some Indian casts the status of being untouchable, slavery, etc. are not some of religion's finest moments.
5. Religion tolerates exploitation:
In most religions, suffering and oppression are accepted as God's wishes, and the suppressed are persuaded to abide by the existing laws however misfortunate or disadvantageous they might be for them. The reward for obedience is promised in the afterlife. In this way, religion tolerates exploitation of masses and advocates for the maintenance of the socio-economic system that governs the society. The oppressed are stopped in their efforts to stand up for themselves and demand better conditions of life by their religious beliefs and what the church teaches them. The present conditions are upheld, and people's suffering is viewed as fate.
6. Religion encourages superstition:
Superstitions originate from the lack of knowledge and incapability to explain everything that occurs in human life. With the advancement of modern science, superstition has become obsolete. However, belief in evil spirits causing illnesses or sickness being a form of punishment from God, are most certainly harmful and dangerous.
7. Religious instigates conflict:
When people identify as members of a particular religious denomination, they tend to view non-members as opponents or enemies. This creates a basis for religiously motivated wars which are still common in this day and age.
8. Religion is wasteful:
It can be argued that spending large amounts of money on building churches and organizing religious festivities is careless in a world in which millions of people are exposed to starvation, lack of medication or access to schools. Religious practices can be deemed as a waste of valuable resources that would be better spent elsewhere.
9. Religion disunites people:
It makes members of specific religious groups consider themselves different from any others, creates a gaping hole between them, which is completely artificial and can lead to crimes being committed by misguided persons seemingly in the name of God.
10. Religion sometimes leads to fanaticism:
Religion tends to prevent people from thinking for themselves and to promote a blind acceptance of religious teaching. This can make susceptible persons become fanatical and obsessed with an issue to the point of perpetrating violent crimes.
11. Religion stands in the way of progress:
Religion makes a point of guarding the traditional ways and refuses to change in spite of new circumstances. Church's first reaction to any suggestion of social change is that of opposition. It is very slow to accept anything new and progressive.
12. Religion impedes scientific development:
Religion is frequently opposed to scientific progress. It sticks to old canons and refuses to accept the advances made by modern science. The church's rejection of the evolution theory is an example of this. Karl Marx was one the strongest critics of religion. He regarded religion as superstition or irrational belief but acknowledged that this belief cannot simply be replaced with a rational one since it is deeply rooted in the fabric of society. He argued that society produces religion to serve its purposes of controlling the masses and keeping them in a submissive position. However, Marx's attitude towards religion is a complex one. At the same time, he views it as a useful instrument for controlling the working classes and as an expression of a rebellion of the oppressed against their suffering.
Both Marx and Feuerbach argued that a man invests powers in God that he previously took from himself. His worship of God feeds of him relinquishing his own strength and placing his belief into an illusionary higher power. Marx considered religion as a form of artificial happiness that is meant to substitute for the lack of actual real-life happiness that could come from prosperity and satisfaction in life. Nevertheless, religion cannot simply be taken away from the masses (especially if the conditions that allowed its persistence for centuries are still in place). The change of conditions is a prerequisite of a change in beliefs.
It is clear that Marx not only criticizes religion but also the society that makes it useful and needed. Criticizing heaven is much less meaningful than criticizing earth. Through his protests made against the church, he actually intended to rebel against the society and politics.
Marx was a great man and a formidable mind that engendered great ideas. An atheist by conviction, he also had a profound sentiment for the human kind, respecting each person's choice of seeking salvation from God. He regarded men as beings of the utmost essence and objected to everything that tended to make them submissive, subordinate, exploited, etc.
Changes in religion over time:
As any living organism, religion must also grow and develop. It cannot remain static in a dynamic world. Development means change, which can sometimes be gradual and extended over a long period of time, but, at other times, it may be quick and abrupt. The most basic principles of religion are resistant to change since changing them would imply altering the very essence of religion. However, change does happen, and it can be classified into three categories: a) simple religions gaining in complexity, b) complex religions being simplified, and c) religions emerging as a mixture of other religions.
When the simplistic tribal religions, characteristic of indigenous populations, come in contact with more complex religious systems, they tend to adopt new elements and become more complex themselves. When, on the other hand, a religion appears excessively complex, expensive or elitist, and therefore out of the grasp of masses, it tends to simplify and take on a form that is more accessible to everyone. Buddhism is an example of a religion that was founded in an effort to simplify Vedic rituals which were too difficult to understand and thus unreachable for the common man. Also, new religions emerge from combining several forms of religion together. Sophism grew from three types of Islam, the Persian, the Zoroastrian and the Arab. Many Indian religions are, in fact, mixtures of previously existing cults.
The progress of societies which evolved from tribal life in isolated and remote areas toward complex urban dwellings in industrialized societies was also accompanied by changes in religious practices and beliefs. In the early times of mankind, the knowledge on natural phenomena was limited, and people were at the mercy of natural forces which ruled their world. Religion was used to explain these natural occurrences and to put some sense into them. As the body of knowledge grew, followed by the availability of scientific explanations, the need for religious ones diminished. Rational interpretations of the matters of the universe gradually took precedence over religious accounts. Furthermore, important social activities that were once confined to churches, such as education, music or art, were gradually moved to non-clerical institutions. Overall, the power of religion seems to subside in the modern era. This phenomenon is sometimes denoted as secularization.
Secularization refers to the loss of religious authority in major aspects of human existence, as well as in governing modern states. It is a consequence of globalization and modernization, and it leads to the loss of attachment to religious norms and values in favor of secular ones. Religious thought loses its importance and is replaced by a more scientific, rational way of looking at things. Religion has apparently become less important in modernized societies of the developed world. Losing ground to science led religion to implement reforms and insist less on its outdated doctrines but maintain its influence on social norms and values. The working class in modern societies is less interested in pleasing God, and more - in achieving a decent quality of life for themselves and their families.
In progression of secularization religious symbols and institutions have become less important worldwide. The emerging of Protestantism in Western Europe brought significant change to Christianity, while in India the process of religious reform and secularization was painstakingly slow, but it gradually influenced all major aspects of social life. With the introduction of legislation regulating social relations, the accessibility of education to wider masses, and development of means of transportation and communication, the Indian society became less ruled by religious doctrines.
It is absolutely certain that the world is moving towards a complete secularization of life. However, religions, especially radical forms thereof, continue to have a significant role in politics and represent a major factor in modern-day conflicts and wars. Terrorism is usually guided by misinterpretations of religion, and wars are still fought in the name of God. Radical Catholicism still exists in South America, militant Islam is responsible for senseless acts of terrorism worldwide, and Sikhism in its fundamentalist form is a significant force to be reckoned with in India.
In view of the religions becoming more and more diversified around the globe, a man's faith converts from being a shared characteristic of all society members into a personal matter which has no significant bearing on social life. Although religion has at times had a role in promoting social change and helping people unite in their struggle against a common enemy, nowadays it loses importance as societies become increasingly secularized.
Secularization represents an in-depth change in society meaning that it no longer identifies with religious norms and values and is governed by civil institutions free from any interference of church. It is a process with a long history during which religion progressively lost cultural and social importance. Encouraging the development of a social order, independent from any religion, does not suggest criticizing religious codes of conduct or rejecting them completely. It merely advocates for civil rules and regulations regardless of their similarity or dissimilarity to religious ones.
In the modern world, religion is confined to religious institutions which are completely separated from state institutions, thus limiting the church's influence on political, economic and cultural issues. Secularization rests upon the development of science and rational thought which replaced superstition and the belief in the supernatural. Clergy is no longer in sole possession of the right to knowledge, and education has become readily available to everyone. Religion turns into something intimate and personal as opposed to a social responsibility that it used to be throughout history. Religious beliefs are considered private and can no longer play a central role in a life of a community or influence the decision-making process.
In the modern industrialized societies, religion occupies a less prominent position compared to the one it had in primitive societies with low levels of rational thought. In a secularized world, most public domains are no longer dominated by religion or its symbols and organizations. Sociologists list three factors as significantly contributing to the process of secularization:
- The emergence of the Protestant religious doctrine which represents a step in the direction of rational, practical thought not guided by emotions,
- The development of modern states with well-structured and organized institutions covering all public domains and
- The progress of science which allowed the knowledge to be more reliant on reason and supported by facts than on faith alone. The advantage of science over religion lies in the possibility to verify its claims as they are subject to empirical substantiation instead of being dogmas, which people are expected to accept without proof. All scientific explanations are preceded by empirical verification which is replicable.
As to the term of secularization, it can be used in slightly varied meanings. The first one entails the process of making the institutions in the sphere of economics and politics independent from religious influences. Religion is reserved for one's personal life and has no bearing on one's public life, nor is it considered admissible outside religious institutions or the privacy of one's home. The other meaning implies the state is giving no preferential treatment to any particular religion. The freedom to practice any religion is a constitutional right in many countries, and an attitude of benevolence towards all religious denominations is cultivated ensuring the impartiality of the state in the matters of the church. Equal consideration of all religions is guaranteed. Religion cannot be imposed by the government, nor can anyone be persecuted for practicing a particular religion.
Traditional religion is a belief that prevailed for centuries, insisting on the belief in a higher power or supernatural forces which seemingly governed the lives of humans. Strict followers of this doctrine still refuse to make any compromises to bring their religion closer to modern people or to modify their value system to comply with that of a secular society. However, the numbers of these so-called religious traditionalists are decreasing. The religious viewpoints are losing supporters as people are becoming increasingly practical in their lives which no longer have a place for religious doctrines in them.
Secularism implies a practice of non-interference of religious institutions in public life, including its cultural, social, economic and political domain. Regarding politics, secularism denotes moving towards the separation of church and state, making governments free of any influence of religion. Laws that were previously grounded in sacred books are replaced by civil laws which make no room whatsoever for discrimination based on religion. Law protects the rights of people belonging to minority nations or faiths. The relationship between church and state can also be of the kind where the state closely monitors and regulates all church activities, as is the case in France. In fact, some countries are considered to be secular by the constitution, which includes the United States, France, South Korea, Mexico, and Turkey. Their political systems differ significantly with secularity being the common denominator.
Secular societies enforce some positive ideas which include:
- The guarantee of equality of all people,
- The same respect for all people regardless of any religious or other groups they may be a part of,
- The opportunity provided for everyone to excel in a particular area they might be interested in, and
- The removal of all obstacles imposed by the previously existing systems of caste or class.
Secular ethics pay no attention to religious aspects of morality and cannot be equated with atheist moral codes. Secularism does not imply agreement with anti-religious movements; it just frees the state from church interference. It is always preferred that politicians enter the decision-making process free of prejudice, not guided by religious convictions and free to decide based on reason. Controversial issues like abortion, contraception, sex education or gay marriage are increasingly being dealt with by secularist institutions.
Elements of religion which have proven to be detrimental for human existence, such as superstitions or blind faith, are gradually abandoned, and religions are being transformed in a way to comply with modern views free from dogmas and irrational beliefs. Objects and beings previously regarded as being sacred or holy cease to have a sacred meaning. In the process of desacralization, religious structures, including churches and monasteries, are given another purpose, such as being used for schools, hospices or as housing for the poor and homeless.
Our conscience and way of thinking are also becoming secularized. Religious interpretations of everyday occurrences are removed from our lives. Our world is not viewed as being controlled by supernatural forces anymore. We take control over our lives without depending on God to save us from harm. We rely on science and laws of physics rather than metaphysical explanations. Magic and mystery have no place in the lives of adults.
The concept of secularism has often been misused and misunderstood. It was mistakenly equated with communist ideology and the abandonment of all moral rules and ethics. In fact, secularism and atheism are two entirely different notions. Advocates of the separation between church and state are not necessarily atheists, nor do they abandon religious affiliations. It just means that public affairs are not governed by church authorities, but by elected representatives in appropriate institutions.
Secularization can be regarded as a crucial element of transformation of traditional societies into modern ones. It is a progressive process which is intended to bring more equality into communities that were previously divided on religious grounds and governed by mostly outdated religious codes. It is a product of industrialization and modernization but can also be understood as an agent of social change. Secularism has strong opposition in groups of Christian fundamentalists as well as Islamic fundamentalists which try to impose religious laws to communities, in which they have significant support as well as radical sanctions for those who break these laws. The rise in support for such groups is perhaps due to the perceived lack of morality present in modern societies. However, returning to archaic ways of life is not a generally accepted option, since progress can move in one direction only, and that is the direction forward. Moral and ethical codes originating from religion hold some valuable lessons for the modern man and secular societies should try to incorporate them into the modern lifestyle.