What is the Difference Between Sectarian and Secular?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

It would be incorrect to view the terms sectarian and secular as complete opposites. In some cases they can be opposed to each other. However, secular folks may also be sectarian under certain circumstances. Thus these words are semi-related, and may represent opposition or togetherness.

A caste in India might be considered a sect.
A caste in India might be considered a sect.

Sectarian tends to be defined as a particular sect, often religious. For instance, sectarian tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland has resulted in numerous years of not only bad feelings, but also violence. Sectarianism includes the idea that the particular sect to which one belongs is the right and proper one, and that others belonging to other sects, even if they’re still of the same overhead religious group have it completely wrong. Though Protestantism and Catholicism are both Christian, when people believe one sect is better than the other, or that one sect is more right than the other, sectarianism may take over and cause discrimination and violence.

Sectarian does not necessarily refer to sects of a religion (Sunni, Shiite or Protestant, Catholic). It can also refer to sectors within a society or to those who ascribe to non-religious beliefs. For instance groups of atheists might be called a sect, or a caste in India might be considered a sect. This is when the terms sectarian and secular can become interrelated. Secular is defined as not religious, not pertaining to a church, or layperson status within a religion. It is non-religious and you can use the terms sectarian and secular together to suggest a non-religious group or sector. A secular sectarian could be someone who does not ascribe to a particular religion and belongs to a sect of people who share these beliefs.

Furthermore, when religious tension between two groups is particularly high, sectarian and secular may be related to denote that the religious leaders of either group do not condone the actions of laypeople within a sect. A religious leader could denounce violence between two groups as secular sectarianism. This has certainly been the case with many religious leaders in Islam of both Sunni and Shi’a sects.

Though there are some religious leaders who condone and encourage violence between the two sects of Islam, other leaders, Imams, argue against continued sectarian violence and blame this behavior on “secular” or layperson misunderstanding of the Qu’ran. They relate the terms sectarian and secular by suggesting that those who haven’t studied and become religious leaders are secular sectarians who have no right to speak for the religion at large.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


The sectarian violence in Ireland was the design of the British.

Rather than have the population at large fight British troops in Northern Ireland, they devised a plan where one group was aided and the other was ignored. Throw in a little propaganda (via Hitler's creed) and set these two groups at one another's throats. Voila. Sit back and enjoy the carnage.


Ironically, the issues in Ireland have become largely secular. The issues that exist today are largely the result of tensions between the Unionist and Nationalist groups, rather than the falsely correlated Protestant and Catholic groups that exist therein.

How linguistically convoluted!


@Mammmood - I believe that extremism exists across ideological boundaries. Sometimes it’s religious; sometimes it’s secular.

In either case, it may be sectarian or not. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s extremism in either case and I just call a spade a spade.


@everetra - I generally avoid discussions about whether certain acts truly represent Islam or not, since I am not a Muslim.

However, I have known a few Muslims in my life, and none of them were violent; I don’t believe the majority of them are from what I’ve seen.

But I do wish to correct your perception that only religious, sectarian impulses could create conditions fomenting violence. You mention Pakistan. The conflict between India and Pakistan is territorial – it has to do with Kashmir.

Is this strictly religious? I don’t know; if there were no religion, there would still be a dispute over that land. Would it be a secular sectarianism in that case?

At some point you can see we are splitting hairs, but my point is that the underlying motivations are not strictly religious.


I don’t believe that secular Islam has ever produced violence; it is only sectarian religion that could do that, in my opinion, whether you are talking about Islam or any other faith.

Whether you want to argue that the militants do not really speak for Islam or not is largely immaterial to the issue; they have nonetheless seized on decidedly religious, sectarian impulses.

This is true in Iraq, in Afghanistan, Israel, Pakistan and anywhere else where these militants carry on their attacks.

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