What Does It Mean to Be a Citizen?   /   Fall 2008   /    Articles

Secularism, Citizenship, and the Public Sphere

Craig Calhoun

The tacit understanding of citizenship in the modern West has been secular. This is so despite the existence of state churches, presidents who pray, and a profound role for religious motivations in major public movements. The specifics of political secularism vary from case to case—separation of church and state in America, fairness in allocation of public support to different religious groups in India, laïcité and the exclusion of religious expression from even nonpolitical public life in France and Turkey.

In general, political secularism hinges on a distinction of public from private and the relegation of religion to the private side of that dichotomy. But of course, political secularism is also influenced by secularism more generally, which has a myriad of meanings from belief that scientific materialism exhausts the explanation of existence to the view that values inhere only in human orientations to the world and not in the world itself to the notion that there is no world of transcendent meaning or eternal time that should orient people in relation to actions in the everyday world. Not least, the notion of secularization as an inevitable long-term cumulative decline in religion has also influenced thinking about religion and citizenship.

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