Secular Society: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

In almost any society there exists religious ideas and political ideas. Some societies choose to link religion and politics, while others have chosen to separate the two authorities. This lesson discusses what a secular society is, and what provisions it makes for both the government and organized religion.


In a secular society, the powers of the church and the state are separate. Basically, this means that the state's governing cannot be the result of the policies and beliefs of any organized religion and that no religious leader has automatic political authority. It also means that no person has to answer to any governmental authority for his or her religion. For example, you can run for a political office no matter what your religious beliefs are.

In the world today, many societies have at least some degree of secularity. In the United States, there is no state sanctioned church (meaning no church receives funding or endorsement from the government), and there are no automatic dual religious and political roles (meaning that no elected official automatically gains any role as a religious leader and vice versa).

Currently, many people are expressing distaste for the U.S.'s relatively high degree of secularity, saying that they believe that American values should reflect their religious beliefs. Other people point out that not all religious beliefs are the same. They feel that secularity is a founding virtue of this country and should not be changed. No matter what the current trends say however, the idea of secularity is not new. Modern ideas about the separation between church and state go back to before the founding of the United States, and both religious and non-religious people developed and implemented secularity in this country as a response to a certain set of problems.

Modern Context of Secularity

Many of the modern ideas about a secular society were born as a result of the violence of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The Reformation is generally dated to 1517, when the friar Martin Luther nailed The Ninety-Five Theses to a Roman Catholic church in Germany. The document served primarily as a protest to key points in the Catholic doctrine. Luther's rebellion gained attention, and other people who wanted religious reform, such as John Calvin and Henry VIII of England, began to take action. Thus, the Protestant Reformation began. The Reformation gave rise to Protestantism, and conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics, who saw the Reformation as heresy, was inevitable.

Martin Luther touched off the Reformation when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church.

Because religion and politics were intertwined in European countries at this time, the conflicts became political as well as religious, and a lot of blood was shed. The final death toll from these various conflicts is difficult to estimate. In a single example, Germany is said to have lost forty percent of its population from the Thirty Years' War alone. The German example is a relevant one, as the war started over Catholic and Protestant differences but eventually became a full-blown armed conflict among the nations of Europe. This conflict involved most of the major countries in Europe, including France, Poland, England, Germany, and many more.

Etching of The Hanging (La Pendaison) from the Great Miseries of War (Les Grandes Miseres de la guerre) by Jacques Callot. Considered by many to be the first antiwar art piece in European art, the series portrays the bloodshed of civilians during the Thirty Years War.

The lesson learned from these events was that when religious leaders have power over the government, unforeseen consequences can arise. Prior to the Reformation, most Western governments were conceived of as being merely worldly institutions and therefore belonging under the authority of the Catholic Church. State power was used to enforce the will of the Church, and heretics could be put to death for believing unpopular ideas.

The violence of the Reformation led people of both religious and non-religious beliefs to seek to limit the authority of religious officials over official government functions. This was not an attempt to reject religion in general, but a recognition that government authority should not come from the Church. It was believed that government and religion had different goals, and they should be able to pursue them independent of one another.

The movement toward secularism did not happen all at once, as the authority of the church was an old idea. It took many years and many different events to change these ideas. In fact, nations with democratic governments still struggle with secularity today. As discussed, many people in the United States still believe that governmental policy should reflect particular religious beliefs.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account