3 Definitions of Secular and Why They Matter for Our Mission

From: Trevin Wax’s blog Kingdom People at The Gospel Coalition. Posted with permission.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has been praised for its thorough analysis of how we arrived at the “secular” moment in which we live, a world where the biggest shift is not simply in what human beings believe or disbelieve, but what is believable.

Before reading this book, I considered “secular” as a synonym for “non-spiritual” and used the term as an antonym for “sacred” or as an adjective to describe an increasingly non-religious Western world. Taylor’s work challenged me on the meaning of “secular” by offering three reference points for secularity, showing how the term can take on different meanings.

1. “Secular” – The Classic Definition

“Secular” isn’t a word that suddenly appeared the first time religious belief was challenged. Hundreds of years ago, in a time when religion touched every part of life, when all public space was considered “religious” at least in some sense, the word “secular” referred to the earthly activities that were not considered sacred. The spiritual work of prayer, fasting, and Scripture meditation was largely the work of the priestly class, while the “secular” work of farming, distribution, industrial efforts, and domestic chores belonged to the common people.

Fulfilling “secular” work said nothing of your belief or disbelief in God. The vast majority of people were religious, even though their daily roles and responsibilities were separate from the “sacred” activities of religious leaders. According to this definition, the majority of religious people busied themselves with secular tasks. 

2. Secularism – A Prescription for Non-Religious Neutrality

The second definition shows up after the Enlightenment. It refers to public spaces being “emptied of God, or of any reference to ultimate reality” (2).

To be a secular school, for example, means no religious viewpoint is adopted or promoted. A secular government seeks to remain neutral on matters of religion.

People who consider themselves “secular” by this definition are not religious people distinguishing their tasks from the “sacred” (as in the classic definition). Instead, they are usually referring to their lack of religious affiliation or beliefs.

In this sense, secular moves from being an adjective that distinguishes it from the sacred and becomes an –ism, a philosophy that sees humanity on an upward journey that entails the shedding of religious beliefs and practices in favor of a universal neutrality. According to this definition, secular people have abandoned or at least marginalized their religious beliefs.

3. Secularity – An Age in Which Belief is One Option Among Many

The third definition of secular is what Taylor uses to describe Western nations today, and it focuses on “the conditions of belief” (3). He explains:

“The shift to secularity in this sense consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”

This is a rejection of the idea in the second definition that “science refutes and hence crowds out religious belief” (4). Instead, it is a description of the age in which we find ourselves, an age in which many people believe in God, often with passionate fervor, but not because the conditions of society lend themselves to faith or transcendence. Belief is no longer the option, as was the case in ancient times. It is now one of many options, and this change has opened the door for people to live without any reference to something higher or more transcendent than their own human flourishing.

In the secular age that Taylor describes, all beliefs are contestable. This is a shift from the sacred/secular split in the pre-modern era, and it better captures the reality of our situation than the prescriptive model of the second definition. According to this third definition, religious and non-religious people alike aresecular because they inhabit an era in which faith is one of many options.


Why is it important to distinguish between these three ways of defining “secular?” Taylor believes it matters for us historically and philosophically. If we assume the posture of definition #2, then we will misread the historical events that blazed the path toward the era described in definition #3, which will lead to further confusion regarding the era in which we live.

I agree with Taylor that it matters historically and philosophically, but I also think it matters for evangelicals missiologically. Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me from Taylor’s book is this: Our missional engagement will suffer if we see ourselves in a battle between “religion” and “secularity.”

If we think of “secular” in terms of the second definition, we’re likely to adopt an adversarial posture that pits science versus belief, or secularism versus religiosity.

Consider the theme running through last decade’s popular television series, Lost, which pit the “man of faith” (Locke) against the “man of science” (Jack). Or the stridency of the new atheists and their belief (yes, belief!) that the world is progressing beyond religious superstition into a more peaceful, prosperous world founded on empirical data.

Taylor’s distinction matters because the moment we begin to argue against “secularism” in the general sense, we have adopted “prescriptive secularism” as our definition and we begin acting out the script the anti-religious would expect from someone “of faith.”

Instead, the better way forward is to recognize that we are all secular in the third sense. We inhabit a secular world in which even the most committed rationalists may confess a longing for transcendence, a sense of loss, even though it is difficult to articulate. Meanwhile, the most committed believers are aware that being “of no faith” is a legitimate option in society and, as a result, they may wrestle with doubts their forefathers would have never entertained.

In a secular age, we are all more likely to doubt our beliefs; the faithful will question truths once taken for granted, and the faithless may doubt their doubts because of a sense that something of significance is beyond us and beyond our definitions of human flourishing, to break in and give us meaning.

According to the second definition, the “faith option” is less and less available to us because of science’s triumph. If we go after this view of secularism with guns blazing, we put people in the situation where they feel they must choose either science or faith, and such a false dichotomy flattens both science and faith, ignoring the faith-based assumptions at the root of all scientific inquiry and ignoring the objective, historical elements at the heart of some faiths (particularly, Christianity).

Taylor’s third definition better explains a world that is as religiously fervent as ever, yet within a different frame – one in which we often expect people to choose not to believe, or confess they find believing to be difficult. Arguing against “secularity” would be like medieval people arguing against the medieval age.

We are all secular in Taylor’s third sense; the question is, what does mission look like in the age in which we find ourselves?

Topics: Christianity & Culture, Common Good

About the Author

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources.