In terms of its etymology, the term secularism goes back to the Latin expression saeculum (= age). The term gained significance at the moment in which Christianity came to view itself as the history of salvation, thus distinguishing itself from the history of the world: the saeculum. In some religions, such as Hinduism, nature and the course of time were still experienced as dimensions of the immediate presence of the Divine; Christianity emphasised rather the absolute difference between God, on the one hand, and world and history on the other. While this had the effect of removing God from these areas (= secularising them), as a non-divine reality, these areas were also released into a worldly independence of their own. This intellectual-historical process, with all of the political, social, and practical consequences it entails, is referred to as ‘secularisation’ in a very general sense. It is not only recognised by Christianity but in fact was a main consequence of the Christian understanding of world and God. In a more narrow sense, ‘secularism’ refers to political and ideological currents that lie beyond all religion and that call for liberation of all areas of political and social life from religious powers and influences of all types. This form of secularism came about in the wake of the European Enlightenment and ultimately led to secularisation as the abolition of Church privileges and the expropriation of assets and property of the Churches. The separation of religion and state presupposed by secularism has been welcomed and called for from a Christian point of view since the 20th century. The individual’s freedom of choice of faith that is presupposed by the Christian faith is only possible under the condition that there is no such thing as a state religion. State secularity thus becomes a precondition for freedom of religion which, particularly under the current conditions of religious pluralism in society, has become indispensable to political cohabitation by members of different religions. Still, secularism can fulfil this function, constitutive even for religion itself, only if it does not narrow into an absolutist ideology and instead grants and opens up for all religions the freedom that is constitutive for secularism itself.
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