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We live in a world in which ideas, institutions, art styles, and formulae for production and living, circulate among societies and civilizations which are very different in their historical roots and traditional forms. Parliamentary democracy spread outward from England, among other countries, to India. And the practice of non-violent civil disobedience spread from its origins in Gandhi’s practice, to many other places, including Martin Luther King’s civil rights movements, to Manila in 1983, and eventually to the velvet and orange revolutions of our time.
But these ideas and forms don’t just change place as solid blocks; they are also modified, reinterpreted, given a new spin and meaning in each transfer. This can lead to tremendous confusion when we try to follow these shifts and understand them. One possible course of confusion comes from taking the word too seriously: the name may be the same, but the reality will often be different.
This is evident in the word “secular”. We think of “secularization” as a process that can occur anywhere (and for some people, is occurring everywhere). And we think of secularist régimes as options for any country, whether they are adopted or not. And certainly, these words crop up everywhere. But do they really mean the same thing? Are there not, rather, subtle differences, which can bedevil cross-cultural discussions of these matters?

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