Secularism is the process whereby the influence of religion is removed from public life. In the United States, there is a standing principle of a “wall of separation” between church and state, enshrined in the First Amendment. The only real debate regarding secularism is whether there should be freedom of religion or freedom from religion in society.
British writer George Jacob Holyoke first used the term “secularism” in 1851, although it was largely coining a new term for ideas that had existed for centuries. Holyoke, an agnostic, was not critical of religion, but desired a social order separate from religious influence.
Politically, secularism separates religion and government into separate spheres, reducing civic reliance on religious laws as well as protecting the rights of individuals to worship as they please. Modern democracies are held to be secular societies, characterized by the inability of religious leaders to influence policy.
However, many religious conservatives prefer to equate secularism with atheism, a common misconception. Such individuals equate anyone promoting secularism as being anti-religious. The Secular Coalition for America regularly lobbies for the separation of church and state. England’s Leicester Secular Society, founded in 1851, is the world’s oldest secular organization.