Rationalism and Secularism:Meaning, Concept & Understanding

Dr. Rajendra Kankariya


Rationalism is “any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification”. In more technical terms it is a method or a theory “in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive“. Different degrees of emphasis on this method or theory lead to a range of rationalist standpoints, from the moderate position “that Reason has precedence over other ways of acquiring knowledge” to the radical position that Reason is “the unique path to knowledge”. Given a pre-modern understanding of Reason, “rationalism” is identical to philosophy, the Socratic life of inquiry, or the zetetic interpretation of authority (open to the underlying or essential cause of things as they appear to our sense of certainty). In recent decades, Leo Strauss sought to revive Classical Political Rationalism as a discipline that understands the task of reasoning, not as foundational, but a maieutics. Maieutics is a procedure of pedagogy. It is based on the idea that the truth is latent in the mind of every human being due to his innate Reason but has to be “given birth” by answering questions (or problems) intelligently proposed.  


Since the Enlightenment, rationalism is usually associated with the introduction of mathematical methods into philosophy, as in Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza. This is commonly called continental rationalism, because it was predominant in the continental schools of Europe, whereas in Britain empiricism dominated. 

Rationalism is often contrasted with empiricism. Taken very broadly these views are not actually exclusive, since a philosopher can be both rationalist and empiricist. Taken to extremes the empiricist view holds that all ideas come to us through experience, either through the five external senses or through such inner sensations as pain and pleasure, and thus that knowledge is essentially based on or derived from experience. At issue is the fundamental source of human knowledge, and the proper techniques for verifying what we think we know.  

Proponents of some varieties of rationalism argue that, starting with foundational basic principles, like the axioms of geometry, one could deductively derive the rest of all possible knowledge. The philosophers who held this view most clearly were Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, whose attempts to grapple with the epistemological and metaphysical problems raised by Descartes led to a development of the fundamental approach of rationalism. Both Spinoza and Leibniz asserted that, in principle, all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, could be gained through the use of Reason alone, though they both observed that this was not possible in practice for human beings except in specific areas such as mathematics. On the other hand, Leibniz admitted that “we are all mere Empirics in three fourths of our actions”. Rationalism is predicting and explaining behavior based on logics. 

The distinction between rationalists and empiricists was drawn at a later period, and would not have been recognized by the philosophers involved. Also, the distinction was not as clear-cut as is sometimes suggested; for example, the three main rationalists were all committed to the importance of empirical science, and in many respects the empiricists were closer to Descartes in their methods and metaphysical theories than were Spinoza and Leibniz. 


George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), British writer coined the term “secularism”. Secularism is the concept that government or other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs. 

In one sense, secularism may assert the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, and freedom from the government imposition of religion upon the people, within a state that is neutral on matters of belief, and gives no state privileges or subsidies to religions. In another sense, it refers to the view that human activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be based on evidence and fact unbiased by religious influence. 

 In its most prominent form, secularism is critical of religious orthodoxy and asserts that religion impedes human progress because of its focus on superstition and dogma rather than on Reason and the scientific method. Secularism draws its intellectual roots from Greek and Roman philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius and Epicurus, medieval Muslim polymaths such as Ibn Rushd, Enlightenment thinkers like Denis Diderot, Voltaire, John Locke, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine, and modern freethinkers, agnostics and atheists such as Bertrand Russell and Robert Ingersoll

The purposes and arguments in support of secularism vary widely. In European laicism, it has been argued that secularism is a movement toward modernization, and away from traditional religious values. This type of secularism, on a social or philosophical level, has often occurred while maintaining an official state church or other state support of religion. In the United States, some argue that state secularism has served to a greater extent to protect religion from governmental interference, while secularism on a social level is less prevalent. Within countries as well, differing political movements support secularism for varying reasons.  

Secular society

In studies of religion, modern Western societies are generally recognized as secular. This is due to the near-complete freedom of religion (one may believe in one religion, many religions or none at all, with little legal or social sanction), as well as the general belief that religion does not ultimately dictate political decisions. Nevertheless, the moral views originating in religious traditions remain politically important in many of these countries, such as Canada, France, Turkey, the United States and others. In some, religious references are considered out-of-place in mainstream politics. For example, among the first to delineate the nature of a secular society, D. L. Munby characterizes a secular society as one which  

  • Refuses to commit itself as a whole to any one view of the nature of the universe and the role of man in it.
  • Is not homogenous, but is pluralistic.
  • Is tolerant. It widens the sphere of private decision-making.
  • While every society must have some common aims, which implies there must be agreed on methods of problem-solving, and a common framework of law; in a secular society these are as limited as possible.
  • Problem solving is approached rationally, through examination of the facts. While the secular society does not set any overall aim, it helps its members realize their aims.
  • Is a society without any official images. Nor is there a common ideal type of behavior with universal application.

 Positive Ideals behind the secular society

  • Deep respect for individuals and the small groups of which they are a part.
  • Equality of all people.
  • Each person should be helped to realize their particular excellence
  • Breaking down of the barriers of class and caste.

 Secularism can also be the social ideology in which religion and supernatural beliefs are not seen as the key to understanding the world and are instead segregated from matters of governance and reasoning. In this sense, secularism can be involved in the promotion of science, Reason, and naturalistic thinking

Secularism can also mean the practice of working to promote any of those three forms of secularism. As such, an advocate of secularism in one sense may not be a secularist in any other sense. Secularism does not necessarily equate to atheism; many secularists are religious, while atheists often accept the influence of religion on government or society. Secularism is an essential component of a secular humanist social and political ideology. Some societies become increasingly secular as the result of social processes, rather than through the actions of a dedicated secular movement; this process is known as secularization

ANS’s View of Rationalism and Secularism

After the explanation of rationalism and secularism in the eyes of various philosophers and thinkers, this is proper place to know what the Maharashtra Andhashradha Nirmulan Samiti (ANS) thinks about rationalism and secularism. 

ANS is indifferent (neutral) about God and Religion. It means that there will be no performance of rituals of God and Religion on the ANS platform. Similarly ANS will not participate into any religious activities. However if any member of the ANS follows his religion, he is free to do so at his individual level. However he is expected to remain away from such religious traditions which lead to exploitation. 

This role of ANS is very much in harmony with the section 25 of the Constitution of India. It states: 

  • Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience, and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.  
  • Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the state from making any law.  
  • Regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice.
  • Providing for social welfare & reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.  

But the mere provision of secularism in the Constitution does not bring the secularism in the state or nation. One cannot depend on the state for the secular social existence, because we have very recently seen the cruelty of religious blindness of the Gujarat state. 

In other words to what we proclaim religion, that religion has to be scrutinized, diagnosed and examined. We have to oppose and drastically say no to the exploitation through religion. But when we are doing this, with those, who always think of practicing morality and ethics, we have to create a dialogue in between person-person, person-society, person-state, state-society. We have to preach the importance of versatile secularism. In other way the movement of secularism has be correlated with the saints’ movement and also with the ideologies of Mahatma Jotirao Phule & Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar who had been inspired by the saints’ movement.  

The real task is that we people have to propagate that religion is nothing else than awakening of rationalism. Search of truth is the purpose of religion and non-violence is the way to achieve it. God-centered religion has to be made human-centered. This journey from God-centered to human-centered religion will make a human materialistic rather than spiritualistic. This role of activist is the real role of rationalization of religion. The role of rationalist man and the role of real religious man are very similar. Both of them are thinking of a moral, ethical and value based society or the nation. It will help in reducing the strength of those who have religious blindness. 

Actually secularism does not mean only the equal sense for all religions or it also does not mean only the separation of politics and religion or secularism is also not pleasing (flattering) the minority and injustice to majority Hindus. Secularism is the provoking thought of what should be the relation in between individual and religion, individual and state, individual and a group and groups of different religions. This thought itself leads to make our own religion very rational and it reduces the unnecessary fear of other’s religion. It is to be understood that the direction of secularism, as spelt out in Constitution of India, is not that of eradication (annihilation) of religion but it is of rationalization of the religion. The secularism is not only the system of explaining the relation between state and religion but secularism is the system of explaining the relation of a man with a man. The need of hour is to explain this emotional meaning of secularism, to rationalize the secularism in this perspective and then and then we will realize its social strength.  

Dr. Rajendra Kankariya