Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"Secular" and "religious" are not antonymous

Over at Metabelief, Josiah is test-driving a bit of argumentative flair:
There is something that most atheist critiques of religion have failed to internalize. If there is no god, and there never has been, then religious practice is also a secular practice.
In the post comments and at Facebook, he's taking some flak for this bit of rhetoric; "You can't just redefine words to suit your activist aims", the criticism goes. Well, I'd like to don a philological hat here for a moment and point out that the semantic domains of "secular" and "religious." are not mutually exclusive. (As against a pair of words which do exclude one another, e.g. "faith" & "atheism".)

The first definition listed in the OED for "secular" indicates that the meaning of "secular" as "of the world" was used to differentiate monastics who lived "in the world" rather than in seclusion. And the first definition for "religion" gives its meaning as "a state of life bound by religious vows".... it is not until the third definition that any mention of supernaturalism or faith comes appears. (Keeping in mind here that the first definition is not necessarily the primary definition.)

The use of the terms "secular" and "religious" in the ways I describe above is not at all rare in historical sources (You can confirm this for yourself by a quick browse through Google Books). That we tend to use them as opposing terms at the present time, is a contingent happenstance of semantic drift or narrowing.

One textbook case of semantic change via pejoration ("the process by which the meaning of a word becomes negative or less elevated over a period of time") is the drift in meaning of the word "silly" (from Old English s─ôlig). "Silly" originally meant "holy" or "blessed." What kinds of things are holy or blessed? Innocent things. What does innocence usually indicate? That a thing is deserving of sympathy, helpless, or simple. If a thing is simple or helpless, what does this show? That the thing shows a lack of good sense. Linguists who have studied historical texts can find attestations forming a smooth, continuous shift in the meaning of the word "silly", from "holy" through all these variations in meaning, down to the present sense of "showing a lack of good sense, frivolous." Now when you go around declaring theistic churches, clergy, and creeds to be "utterly silly", you can do so with a straight face and the best of intentions.

I don't know if it's been done, but I suspect that a historical study of the words "religious" and "secular" would show a similarly smooth shift in their meaning from broad to more narrow usage. Well, there's no ethical or logical reason we language-users would be barred from pushing things in the other direction. Semantic narrowing can be reversed through semantic broadening. That's not semantic violence, or a reckless disregard for the dictionary -- it's just the way language works. Some of the factors that influence linguistic change are deliberate, and some are unplanned.

Short put: there is no contradiction in saying that "(some) religions are secular" or "(some forms of secularism) are religious." These statements are unconventional, not oxymoronic. Whether such statements or ideas are rhetorically useful, is a separate question. I for one would like to see what Josiah works out.

No comments:

Post a Comment