The extent of religion's involvement in social and political affairs has always been a subject of debate. This issue existed in the history as well as in the contemporary discussions. Politics, being a major social element of humanity, is often regarded as out of the scope of religious teachings. This article provides a brief history of the idea of secularism that sees religion as separable from politics and, under the modern connotations, claims to promote a certain 'social pluralistic harmony’.
One of the most significant intellectual, social and political transformations that changed the course of the history of humanity was The Renaissance followed by the Enlightenment. The most important notion carried by the spread of the Enlightenment philosophy was the idea of separation of religion from politics, and, under the label of humanism, to replace the central role of religion in the society by that of reason and rationality (Spiro, 2017). Contrary to the popular view, however, many historians believe that, instead of being something novel, this social change was merely a revival and practical implementation of the ancient European schools of thought.
"The main emphasis of humanism was secular education using Greek and Latin classics, rather than medieval sources.” (Fieser, 2012)
Inevitably, then, the source of the secular thought has to be fundamentally sought in the ancient Greek and other European philosophies while investigating the Enlightenment thinkers, who were responsible for perfecting and modernizing these ancient ideas, only secondarily.
Amongst the most popular names in the origination of the secular thought is that of Epicurus, who influenced a great number of people in his time as well as a great number of 'Epicureans' as the post Enlightenment era including Thomas Jefferson, to perceive religion as an impractical and an apolitical participant of the society, thus removing religion from its centricity in the policy-based affairs (Hiram, 2012).
Epicurus had a theory about living the most pleasurable life as the ultimate objective of existence and had proposed four remedies against sorts of problems, two of which were atheistic. His aggressively anti-religious ideas had an evident influence on all of the Enlightenment thinkers to the extent that even Darwin's theory of natural selection found its basis in Epicurean thought (Crespo, 2013). Similarly a significant amount of Descartes work is said to have owed a great deal of resemblance to the work of the Greeks (Dickey, 2016). Similar to the other thinkers who made the core of the Enlightenment movement, Epicurus, too, found reason and logic as the only sources of happiness, and held reason as nemesis with religion or the concept of God. It can be claimed, therefore, that his stance of secularism was basically a direct confrontation with God instead of being a compromised solution for a more tolerant human life, as proposed by the more recent secularists.
The second biggest name in classical secularism is that of Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher, the joint 16th emperor of the Roman Empire and a possessor of a significantly negative attitude towards the Christians (Lorenzen, 2009 & Gibbon, 2008). Little is known about his works specifically related to secularism but at least the idea of a modern tolerant society of all religions co-existing in a pluralistic environment, excepting only those that are politically influencing, is traceable to Marcus' attitude towards all religions versus his attitude towards Christianity. As Lorenzen (2009) notes,
”He (Marcus) was a pagan and he was tolerant of different religious faiths. He believed that Christianity was immoral but basically harmless. However, he also would not intervene and stop a Christian persecution unless the Christian recanted." (Lorenzen, 2009). Similarly, Aristotle too, developing upon his denunciation of religion, backed secularism as a progress towards civilization (Makolkin, 2015)
It might be inferred that secularism of the ancient times was synonymous with animosity towards religion, lack of practical faith or even atheism, while in the Enlightenment era, such a thought became more suppressed, at least on the surface, apparently making secularism something differently definable than a mere antagonism towards religion or God.
Spiro, K. (2017) The Enlightenment: The Age of Reason gave Jews civil rights, but its emphasis on a Godless society was bound to backfire. Retrieved from: http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/the_enlightenment/
Fieser, J. (2012). The History of Philosophy: A Short Survey. Retrieved from: https://www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class/110/6-renaissance.htm
Hiram (2012). Epicureanism: a Secular Doctrine for Happiness. Retrieved from: http://atheistnexus.org/m/discussion?id=2182797%3ATopic%3A2129481
Crespo, H. (2013). That old time secularism. Society of Friends of Epicurus Journal, 2, pp. 1-5.
Dickey, M. F. (2016) Philosophical Foundations of the Enlightenment. Retrieved from: http://rebirthofreason.com/Articles/dickeymf/Philosophical_Foundations_of_the_Enlightenment.shtml
Lorenzen, M. (2009) Marcus Aurelius: The Philosopher-Emperor of Rome, Retrieved from: http://www.information-literacy.net/2009/05/marcus-aurelius-philosopher-emperor-of.html?m=1
Gibbon, E. (2008) History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Retrieved from: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/732/732-h/732-h.htm
Makolkin, A. (2015) Aristotle’s Views on Religion and his Idea of Secularism Electronic Journal for Philosophy 2015, Vol. 22(2) 71–79. Retrieved from: http://www.easybib.com/reference/guide/apa/journal