Secularism an atheistical movement which prevailed in England during the sixth decade of the present century to an extent that gained it many followers and excited much attention. Its leading apostle was George J. Holyoake, a friend to Robert Owen and his socialistic views. Holyoake and several like minded associates founded a journal named The Reasoner, in 1846, which speedily became the recognized organ of the modern school of English freethinkers. Its governing principle was atheism, though Holyoake and his friends preferred to designate the tendency they represented as non-theism, inasmuch as they simply refrained from inquiring whether a Deity exist or not. The term Secularism was subsequently applied to the entire movement, whose professed aim was proclaimed to be "to live and die for, the world, and to work for the welfare of men in this world." The ethics of the party — was comprehended in the phrase "present human improvement by present human means," its law had regard simply to the natural, utilitarian, and artistic aspects of life; its object was merely scientific culture and a suitable provision for the things of this life. The leading, and, indeed, the only principle of the morality of this movement is utility and the movement itself may be characterized as a thoroughly consistent utilitarianism, and also as an "atheistical ethics built upon the ruins of religion," since no supernatural element is permitted to exercise any influence whatever over the actions of these worldly moralists.
The dogmatics of Secularism, if the term may be applied to a systematic negation of all positive doctrines, is analogous to its ethics in character. It denies that any competent knowledge concerning the existence of God is possessed by the world: matter, though self existent and eternal, is not God, since it lacks the constituent factors of personality — self consciousness and freewill. Experience teaches that there is no Providence, no Father in heaven. The teleological argument for God's existence is valueless, yielding only a "confused reflection of man's own image:" on the one hand, it leads only to uncertain analogies; on the other, it proves too much, as it becomes necessary, after postulating a most wise Creator of the most wisely arranged creation, to assume a still wiser originator, and so on without end. In this line of argument Holyoake connects himself with the atheistical poet Shelley and the naturalist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and directs his criticism chiefly against Paley's Natural Theology. The secularists assert that nothing is known respecting the world beyond the grave, and that we are therefore not to concern ourselves about its conditions; our moral efforts should be wholly expended upon the present world. "If other worlds exist to which we are removed after this life is over, precisely they who have made it their one business to promote the common welfare of mankind in this world will be best able to enjoy them; if there be no hereafter, men evidently stand in their own light if they omit to enjoy this world." (Comp. Holyoake, The Logic of Death [Lond. 1849]).
It is to be remarked that the relation between Secularism and the Positivism of Comte (q.v.) is such as to warrant the statement that Secularism is merely the French Positivism translated into English.
See Positivismus u. Secularismus, etc., in Neue Evangel. Kirchenzeitung, 1863, Nos. 19 and 20; Buchanan, Faith in God and Modern Atheism Compared (Lond. 1857, 2 vols.; The Theory of Secularism in 2, 223-291, also published separately); Christian Examiner for Nov. 1859. SEE SECULARISTS.