Secularism 101

by | 11 Apr 2014 | 29 comments

What is it, why does it matter and how to address it

Many Christians are unfamiliar with the concept of secularism. They have not had the opportunity to consider the threat it poses for our society – for our children, and for future generations.

This resource is designed to help readers understand what secularism is, recognise the ways it subtly shapes society, realise how it is contrary to God’s will, and discern how we should respond.

Secularism – What is it?

Online dictionaries define secularism as:

1. A system of social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship
2. The view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education

The UK National Secular Society describes it as a principle that involves two basic propositions:

1. The strict separation of the state from religious institutions
2. That people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law

Most descriptions boil down to the basic idea of keeping God out of everyday life.

This means keeping your beliefs (unless it happens to be atheism) out of the public square – which includes public debate, public policy, public institutions (e.g. government and schools), and public spaces (e.g. the workplace).

In other words… it may be OK to believe in God as long as you keep it to yourself and you keep it private. Although people like scientist Richard Dawkins would even argue against this.

There is a ‘softer version’ of secularism which allows for expression of God in public as long as no one religion is given preferential treatment. This is sometimes referred to as ‘inclusive secularism’.

Inclusive secularism could be seen as consistent with Christian faith which holds that God gives people free-will and choice and does not impose belief onto people.

But groups in New Zealand, such as the Rationalist-Humanist Society and the Secular Education Network, are active in pushing for ‘exclusive secularism’, where God and religious faith would be restricted to a ‘private’ activity.

Why does it matter?


There are two ways to look at this…

From God’s perspective,

Christian understanding is that God created everything – life, family, community, government. God is sovereign over everything, and His desire is that He would be honoured and every sphere of life would function in line with His will.

For spheres (e.g. government or education) to operate as if God is irrelevant or to relegate God to the margins or the private sphere, is not giving God the honour He deserves.

From society’s perspective,

  • if God is real and,
  • if God is the source of all justice and goodness and truth and meaning…

then it would be unwise to exclude God from the public sphere.


If God is treated as irrelevant it can only have negative consequences for a society that tries to live that way.

Such a society would eventually see injustice and inequality increase; goodness, respect, and compassion decrease, and standards of truth and morality undermined. It also leads to erosion of freedom of belief and conscience.

Those with eyes to see will observe some of these signs in New Zealand today.

How do we address secularism?

  1. Recognise that ‘exclusive secularism’ is hostility to God and be prepared to engage.
  2. Understand that ‘exclusive secularism’ is a belief system like any other, as are atheism, agnosticism, and rationalist-humanism. There is no more evidence for it being ‘true’ than for Christianity. Whereas there is good reason to argue it has much less.
  3. Understand that public spheres that seek to suppress or exclude Christian or any other religious expression, are actually giving priority to atheism or beliefs that say God is not important in the public realm.This is the myth of ‘secular neutrality’ or the so-called ‘naked public square’ – a public square where beliefs supposedly have no place.
  4. Highlight the unreasonableness of people who oppose any inclusion of Christian faith in public spaces when around half of the people in our country still describe themselves as Christian. Why shouldn’t schools teach the basic ideas of Christianity and the profound impact it has had, and continues to have, in Aotearoa New Zealand?
  5. Recognise that ‘inclusive secularism’, which permits religious ideas and comments, is not a bad thing. It gives everyone freedom to share their real convictions, not just atheists and exclusive secularists.
  6. Work together – connect to New Zealand Christian Network via the web. If you are able, consider supporting the work we do promoting Christian viewpoints in the public square.

Key point:

Everyone has beliefs. A so-called ‘naked public square’ simply advantages some people’s beliefs (a minority) over others.

It is ironic that atheistic belief should be elevated in this way given that it has been consistently shown to produce more authoritarian regimes than almost any other (e.g. most communist dictatorships in the 20th century).

Please note that comments for this post are now closed.

Glyn Carpenter
Author: Glyn Carpenter

Glyn Carpenter was National Director of New Zealand Christian Network from March 2003 to 2017. He attends Northcote Baptist Church in Auckland, is married to Christine (married in 1981), and they have three sons – two working as doctors and one in computer science.

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  1. Ian

    Thank you for this interesting article Glyn. I think Michael’s comments below makes makes sense.

  2. Mark Mitchell

    Hullo Glyn

    i don’t particularly see any merit in your suggestion of “reconciling the ‘Keep Religion Out Of Schools’ campaign and SEN’s activity targeted against the CRE (Christian Religious Education) program, which seeks to educate about Christian faith” as any reconciliation between the two can be likened to attempting to lighting up a room with a dark candle”. The position of the “main-stream” christian viewpoint with respect to CRE in schools is one of respect to all New Zealanders and also honoring the freedom of choice that we are blessed with in this country,
    Anglican Archbishops Moxon & Turei aptly summarized this with their statement of 18 July, 2012, which stated:

    The ecumenical Churches Education Commission offers the Bible in Schools programme, where a school’s board of trustees agrees to provide it. The Anglican Church in this country has long supported the Churches Education Commission, both financially and in principle, and will continue to do so.

    If a school’s boards of trustees, which is the parents’ elected representative body, wants to offer this spirituality and values approach to the Bible outside of the school day, it has always seemed to us to be desirable to do so – and a perfectly reasonable provision in a democracy and in terms of Tomorrows’ Schools. There are, in fact, many boards who choose not to offer Bible in Schools – and many boards who do believe it is appropriate. Furthermore, even where a school does host this programme, pupils do not have to attend this part of the day.

    This is long-standing agreement which honours the freedom of choice we enjoy in this country, as well as the right of parents to influence their children’s spiritual and moral development. We honour the work of the hundreds of volunteers who continue, in a loving, sensitive and non-manipulative way, to offer access, when asked, to this heritage in our schools.
    ++ David Moxon, Archbishop of the New Zealand dioceses.
    ++ Brown Turei, Pihopa of Aotearoa

    • Glyn Carpenter

      Hello Mark – I agree with what you’ve written here, but don’t understand your point about my comment to do with ‘reconciling’ the views. Feel free to clarify or elaborate.

  3. Susan Gill

    I think the use of respectful language is foundational to robust and useful discussion.

  4. Michael Ryan

    Good article. We need more exposure of the secular agenda in New Zealand.

    Funny how secularists say “There probably is no God, don’t let religion divide us, Lets enjoy life together”.

    But to have any certainty that there is no God, you would 1) have to be omniscient (know everything) and 2) omnipresent (be everywhere).

    Which is actually 2 characteristics of God himself. I.e. To have any certainty that there isn’t a God, you would have to be God yourself.

    If you think you are God, I believe that is the first ingredient to form a cult. So what we are potentially dealing with is a government sponsored cult.


  5. Greg

    Stop acting like you care about other religions, everyone can see it’s just a tactic to make you look more modern, when really you’re just outdated. We don’t want you interfering with our children’s education.

    • Glyn Carpenter

      Hello Greg – as someone actively involved in NZ’s interfaith dialogue groups, and representing a network that has made media releases in support of other faith groups (e.g. Muslims when mosques were attached, Jews when the graves were desecrated in Wellington) – I don’t understand your point.

  6. Sam Harris

    Hi there, as a maths Christian and a maths teacher at a public school, I find that cartoon appalling. Miracles are the suspension of the natural order of things by God. Mathematics is a description of the natural world around us. No miracle required. Please refrain from using logical fallacies to prove our point, it makes us all look dumb.

    a concerned educator.

    • Glyn Carpenter

      Hello – thanks for your comment. It was certainly not our intention to offend people by this cartoon. The point of the cartoon was to illustrate the ease with which people can say “I don’t believe that – therefore you can’t teach it to me”, even when there may be good reason for teaching it anyway.
      E.g. this year (2014) marks 200 years since the Christian message was first preached in Aotearoa New Zealand (Christmas Day 1814). Within 40 years, the spread of the Christian faith – for the most part by Maori themselves – had all but ended tribal warfare, cannibalism, slavery, and utu. This is not to shy away from the many injustices that occurred as well, in some cases aided by church support or silence. But isn’t it reasonable that the stories that have had such a beneficial impact on society in our history, not be taught in our day?

  7. Matt

    So not believing in santaclaus is a belief system too, then?

  8. Mark

    Atheism isn’t really a belief. It’s a world view based on evidence, not the superstitions of iron-age shepherds and fishermen.

    • Glyn Carpenter

      The first definition of atheism in my dictionary is “the doctrine or belief that there is no god”.

      • Lightweight

        A christian dictionary, then, perhaps.

        • Glyn Carpenter

          Check out

          • Lightweight

            By definition, from the Greek, a-theism means “without belief in god”. By stating it’s “the belief that there is no god”, you’re putting atheists in the same indefensible position in which you yourself are: an unsupportable belief completely devoid of objectively verifyable evidence.

  9. Lightweight

    As it happens, Glyn, atheism is, by definition, the lack of belief, so referring to it as the “atheist belief” is logically analogous to the “transparent colour” or “bald hairstyle”. Your rhetoric will far more compelling when you don’t make basic semantic errors.

    • Glyn Carpenter

      see previous comment to Mark. Other definitions include “disbelief” or “rejection of belief”. These are of course also belief positions.

  10. Joshua Harvie

    There are a few things I’d like to add my thoughts on here. We should have religious in schools. Everyone should have a good understanding of the role religion has played in history and the many applications it has (both beneficial and detrimental) to the lives of its devotees. Because religion plays such a major part in the cultures of people pretty much equally, even if many households or even countries are no longer expressly religious themselves, a widespread study of theology is a good way to understand the cultures, thought processes and etiquette of our fellow human beings all over the world.

    This is not what we have presently. What we have is the teaching of… well, not even Christianity, broadly speaking. We have, by and large, the teaching of a few particular approaches to Protestant Christianity at the expense of everything else. If Christianity represents a part of the attitudes of the country then we are dealing with a part of a part of a part. This is nowhere near broad enough to prepare kids today for the increasingly globalised environment we are heading towards. What we need to do is treat all religions with equal dignity and respect, no good saying “here’s what Muslim’s believe, but they’ve got a big surprise coming for them when the good lord returns”.

    Theology isn’t just what you take away from a holy text, it’s what you add to it too. The most even way I can see of studying religion is to look at the texts and the history together as a primary study whilst discussing a range of theologies as a secondary study. An example that could be used off the top of my head is: “Here’s what the Gospels say about Jesus, here’s what the Qur’an says about Jesus, what are the similarities, what are the differences? What did Jews expect out of a Messiah at the time? In what ways did Jesus accomplish this and in what ways did he fall short of these Jewish expectations? What about the many other people who were proclaimed, or proclaimed themselves Messiah at the time?” This treats three faiths with equal dignity by sticking to things that can be verified by the texts by reading them while not hinging on theology yet leading to an open honest discussion of comparative theology. As a result this is respectful to the backgrounds of the students and their families whilst giving the opportunity to discuss these with their families or community religious leaders, hopefully leading to a closer relationship to the religion of THEIR choice, not their teachers.

    Keen to hear everybodies thoughts on this.

    • Glyn Carpenter

      Thanks Joshua – I really appreciate this balanced and thoughtful post. There are some points I’d debate (e.g. “What we have [now] is the teaching of… well, not even Christianity, broadly speaking. We have, by and large, the teaching of a few particular approaches to Protestant Christianity at the expense of everything else”), but I think a better forum for doing that might be a proper discussion, perhaps hosted jointly by SEN and ourselves. We’d be very happy to participate if SEN is interested.

      • Yalcin

        Sorry, how was @Joshua’s post balanced? It just says that there should be religious education in schools (NOT secularism) and that one should likely choose from one of the 3 major religions.

        If I have a belief and wish to impart it to my children, it is MY responsibility. Not the government or the educational system.

        • Glyn Carpenter

          Thanks for your comment. We had a lot of feedback on this article – much of it repeating what others said – hence the reason we didn’t post all of the comments online.
          We ALL live by beliefs. Those who believe in secularism (whichever version you want to take) are working very hard to impose that belief position onto children through NZ state schools and other areas of the public square while pretending that ‘secularism’ somehow does not involve matters of belief. It’s reminiscent of ‘the emperor has got no clothes’.

        • Joshua Harvie

          Cheers for the feedback, as stated I think that there is a sense of value in studying religion in terms of understanding culture. So can music or literature (and really, that’s a major reason why we teach literature in schools anyway, reading Dostoevsky won’t exactly impart practical skills), although religion tends to get the job done a lot quicker. I could have chosen another example (the effects of the anthropocentric view of monotheism in contrast with the more balanced role of humanity in the ecosystem in certain Eastern traditions, however I’m still happy with my example demonstrating a way of approaching the topic in detail whilst avoiding drawing into making theological assessment.



  11. Andrew McPherson

    Maths is not a religion. It is a science & as such, maths is correct regardless of what you believe.
    Your promotion of such idiocy in the image above about maths is a contribution to the decay of society.

    • Glyn Carpenter

      Thanks – Please see response elsewhere to similar comment.

  12. John Murphy

    The New Zealand association of rationalists and humanists aim and objectives include advocating and “open and secular society”, and we have never advocated ‘exclusive secularism’ as proposed in this article.
    The statements in this post appear to be a form of hate speech, by misrepresenting the objectives of the NZARH and the secular education network, stigmatizing the non-religious, and actively inviting others to hold atheists in contempt, and fight them.
    John Murphy
    President NZARH

    • Glyn Carpenter

      Hello John – thanks for this comment. See my response to Dean Jones below. Very happy to dialogue.

  13. Dean Jones

    Hi all, I will set aside much of what is expressed here, other than to say that as a member of the Secular Education Network, I can assure you that exclusive secularism coupled with an atheist world-view is not what is promoted. There are many members of SEN who are Christian, Muslim, Hindu…etc. This is because the common goal (arguably our ONLY goal) is to promote a form of ‘inclusive secularism’.

    We welcome the teaching of religion in schools in a comparative, descriptive framework that educates children about all religious belief systems.

    • Glyn Carpenter

      Hello Dean – thanks for your comment. It seems we are starting from different ideas on what is meant by ‘inclusive secularism’. I note you say that SEN promotes a ‘form’ of inclusive secularism (quotes mine). There are some challenges in reconciling the ‘Keep Religion Out Of Schools’ campaign and SEN’s activity targeted against the CRE (Christian Religious Education) program, which seeks to educate about Christian faith, with what WE understand by ‘inclusive secularism’.
      However, it is not our intention to misrepresent SEN. If you are interested, let’s meet up. If our description of SEN is incorrect, we will certainly amend the resource.

  14. Aaron

    I find your lack of understanding of the matter disturbing. Stop spreading this nonsensical garbage. This propaganda only stands to push back years of work for equality for everyone. As Christians you are free to believe in your faith, just as Buddhists, Muslims, Atheists, and all other religions are entitled to. It just so happens to stand that the point where everyone is equal is the separation of state and religion. While the government acts in the best interests of its people you are free to teach your kids whatever you want. It isn’t imposing your rights, or anyone elses. Its the way society needs it to be.

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