Historically, the word secular was not related or linked to religion, but was a freestanding term in Latin which would relate to any mundane endeavour. However, the term, saecula saeculorum (saeculōrum being the genitive plural of saeculum) as found in the New Testament in the Vulgate translation (circa 410) of the original Koine Greek phrase εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων (eis toùs aionas ton aiṓnōn), e.g. at Galatians 1:5, was used in the early Christian church (and is still used today), in the doxologies, to denote the coming and going of the ages, the grant of eternal life, and the long duration of created things from their beginning to forever and ever.
The idea of a dichotomy between religion and the secular originated in the European Enlightenment. Furthermore, since religion and secular are both Western concepts that were formed under the influence of Christian theology, other cultures do not necessarily have words or concepts that resemble or are equivalent to them.
In many cultures, "little conceptual or practical distinction is made between 'natural' and 'supernatural' phenomena" and the very notions of religious and nonreligious dissolve into unimportance, nonexistence, or unawareness, especially since people have beliefs in other supernatural or spiritual things irrespective of belief in God or gods.
Conceptions of what is and what is not religion vary in contemporary East Asia as well. The shared term for "irreligion" or "no religion" (無宗教, Chinese pron. wú zōngjiào, Japanese pron. mu shūkyō) with which the majority of East Asian populations identify themselves implies non-membership in one of the institutional religions (such as Buddhism and Christianity) but not necessarily non-belief in traditional folk religions collectively represented by Chinese Shendao (shén dào) and Japanese Shinto (both meaning "ways of gods").[a]
In modern Japan, religion has negative connotation since it is associated with foreign belief systems so many identify as "nonreligious" (mushukyo), but this does not mean they have a complete rejection or absence of beliefs and rituals relating to supernatural, metaphysical, or spiritual things. In the Meiji era, the Japanese government consciously excluded Shinto from the category of religion in order to enforce State Shinto while asserting their state followed American-mandated requirements for freedom of religion; this has fed into the contemporary Japanese experience of "secularity" as well as the government's regulation of religious beliefs and institutions from the Meiji era into the present day.
One can regard eating and bathing as examples of secular activities, because there may not be anything inherently religious about them. Nevertheless, some religious traditions see both eating and bathing as sacraments, therefore making them religious activities within those world views. Saying a prayer derived from religious text or doctrine, worshipping through the context of a religion, performing corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and attending a religious seminary school or monastery are examples of religious (non-secular) activities.
The "secular" is experienced in diverse ways ranging from separation of religion and state to being anti-religion or even pro-religion, depending on the culture. For example, the United States has both separation of church and state and pro-religiosity in various forms such as protection of religious freedoms; France has separation of church and state (and Revolutionary France was strongly anti-religious); the Soviet Union was anti-religion; in India, people feel comfortable identifying as secular while participating in religion; and in Japan, since the concept of "religion" is not indigenous to Japan, people state they have no religion while doing what appears to be religion to Western eyes.
A related term, secularism, involves the principle that government institutions and their representatives should remain separate from religious institutions, their beliefs, and their dignitaries. Many businesses and corporations, and some governments operate on secular lines. This stands in contrast to theocracy, government with deity as its highest authority.
Secular and secularity derive from the Latin word saeculum which meant "of a generation, belonging to an age" or denoted a period of about one hundred years. In the ancient world, saeculum was not defined in contrast to any sacred concerns and had a freestanding usage in Latin. It was in Christian Latin of medieval times, that saeculum was used for distinguishing this temporal age of the world from the eternal realm of God. The Christian doctrine that God exists outside time led medieval Western culture to use secular to indicate separation from specifically religious affairs and involvement in temporal ones.
This does not necessarily imply hostility to God or religion, though some use the term this way (see "secularism", below); Martin Luther used to speak of "secular work" as a vocation from God for most Christians. According to cultural anthropologists such as Jack David Eller, secularity is best understood, not as being "anti-religious", but as being "religiously neutral" since many activities in religious bodies are secular themselves and most versions of secularity do not lead to irreligiosity.
According to the anthropologist Jack David Eller's review of secularity, he observes that secularization is very diverse and can vary by degree and kind. He notes the sociologist Peter Glasner's ten institutional, normative, or cognitive processes for secularization as:
- Decline – the reduction in quantitative measures of religious identification and participation, such as lower church attendance/membership or decreased profession of belief
- Routinization – "settling" or institutionalizing through integration into the society and often compromise with the society, which tends to occur when the religion becomes large and is therefore one mark of success as a religion, although it is less intense and distinct than in its early formative "cultish" or new-religious-movement stage
- Differentiation – a redefined place or relation to society, perhaps accepting its status as one religion in a plural religious field or morphing into a more "generic" and therefore mass-appeal religion.
- Disengagement – the detachment of certain facets of social life from religion
- Transformation – change over time (Glasner cites [Max] Weber's analysis of Protestantism as a transformation of Christianity for a new social milieu)
- Generalization – a particular kind of change in which it becomes less specific, more abstract, and therefore more inclusive, like the supposed "civil religion" in the United States; it moderates its more controversial and potentially divisive claims and practices
- Desacralization – the evacuation of "supernatural" beings and forces from the material world, leaving culture and rationality to guide humans instead
- Segmentation – the development of specialized religious institutions, which take their place beside other specialized social institutions
- Secularization – the processes of urbanization, industrialization, rationalization, bureaucratization, and cultural/religious pluralism through which society moves away from the "sacred" and toward the "profane"
- Secularism – the only form that leads to outright rejection of religion, amounting to atheism
Examples of secular used in this way include:
All of the state universities in the United States are secular organizations (especially because of the combined effect of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution) while some private universities are connected with the Christian or Jewish religions such as Boston College, Emory University, the University of Notre Dame, Wheaton College and Yeshiva College. Other universities started as being religiously affiliated but have become more secular as time went on such as Harvard University and Yale University. The public university systems of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Colombia, India, and Japan are also secular, although some government-funded primary and secondary schools may be religiously aligned in some countries. Exactly what is meant by religious affiliation is a complex and contested issue since the ways in which religious identity is framed is not consistent across different religious and cultural traditions.[page needed]
無宗教 mushūkyō, "no religion", in Japanese language and mindset identifies those people who do not belong to organised religion. To the Japanese, the term "religion" or "faith" means organised religions on the model of Christianity, that is a religion with specific doctrines and requirement for church membership. So, when asked "what is their religion", most of the Japanese answer that they "do not belong to any religion". Japanese frequently identify as "nonreligious" to express a normative religious outlook that rejects deviant religious behavior and extraordinary religious identity. According to NHK studies, those Japanese who identify with mushūkyō and therefore do not belong to any organised religion, actually take part in the folk ritual dimension of Shinto. Ama Toshimaru in Nihonjin wa naze mushukyo na no ka ("Why are the Japanese non-religious?") of 1996, explains that people who do not belong to organised religions but regularly pray and make offerings to ancestors and protective deities at private altars or Shinto shrines will identify themselves as mushukyo. Ama designates "natural religion" what NHK studies define as "folk religion", and other scholars have named "Nipponism" (Nipponkyō) or "common religion".