When I was a missionary for the Mormon Church in Argentina, I often (everyday) would go house to house in residential neighborhoods looking for possible candidates who might be interested in hearing our gospel message.
If we were invited into anyone’s home to give our message, we would talk in what I call “religious talk”. That would include themes like heaven, hell, priesthood, prophets, tithing, repentance, sin, god, Jesus, temple marriage, etc.
However, as soon as my fellow missionary and I would leave, we ceased talking about those themes, and, instead, started talking about what we usually talked about: sports, food, girlfriends, after mission college, distance to be traveled on foot and bike. I came to refer to that kind of talk as “secular talk” – talk that was just plain old talk.
With this kind of secular talk, I could have been conversing with anyone – a catholic, a a Buddhist, an atheist, a person from some far away tribe along the Nile River, none of whom had probably ever heard of Mormonism.
Years later, when I returned to South America as a mission president, I noticed that missionaries did the same thing I did when I was a missionary. They talked religious talk when they were directly working with potential converts, otherwise, they talked secular talk.
I encouraged my missionaries to speak in the language of the gospel (religious talk) at all times, not just when they were with investigators. One day during this period, I was conducting my monthly interviews with each missionary. I asked one of the missionaries if he was talking in the language of the gospel all the time. His response was surprising and informative. “President, if I talked like that all the time, my companion and I would run out of things to talk about after thirty minutes.”
I thanked him for his feedback, and from that point, I stopped bringing up the idea of always talking in the language of the gospel.
After that I began to entertain the idea that maybe secular talk was a foundational talking manner for all humans. Maybe we can’t not speak that way. Maybe we are all born to speak that way most all the time, no matter from which culture or century we originate.
For example, when I have communicated with Bedouins ( desert tribes of the Middle East), we talk to each other and understand each other ( plus interpreters if needed) in the same way as when I’ve talked to Chinese workers in Central China. We are able to understand one another at a basic level of everyday discourse, that discourse being secular discourse.
From these experiences, I started believing that our brains are structured in such a way that “secular speak” is what the brain is built to speak. Linguist Noam Chomsky calls it Universal Grammar. He points out that at age two, children have an innate ability to construct simple sentences in the same way. They instinctively know the construction of a subject, verb and object arrangement, e. g., “I want candy”. Later they LEARN adjectives, adverbs e. g., ” I want red (adjective) candy now (adverb)”. In other words, basic sentence structure is innate. After that, additional vocabulary is learned.
People in specialized professions have more vocabulary, but use the same language structure that the rest of us use. In other words, secular speak or Universal Grammar is the language of all humans, thus it is much older and fundamental to our existence than the additional vocabulary we learn according to the particular culture and circumstances in which we are either raised or trained.
If we were able to go back two hundred thousand years ago and meet the first homo sapiens, we probably would be able to understand one another, based on our common inborn ability to construct a sentence.
We are a species which probably cannot survive without our ability to understand one another. I follow Darwin in thinking this way. Everything about us has been honed and adjusted in order to survive the conditions of our planet’s environment. We may have additional vocabulary that we think differentiates us, but specialized vocabulary is easily stripped away when the need exists to communicate one to the other for survival’s sake.
Now the question is: will we be able, if the time ever comes, to strip away marginal vocabularies that we think makes us distinct from everyone else, and instead draw upon our fundamental ability to speak in a common way, and consider that the great achievement of our lives?
Before you answer that question, I want to clear up one misconception about the term SECULAR. Secular does not mean the absence of religion, as I thought, when I was a mission president and a missionary. Secular is a neutral zone, free of all specialization, even in a religious context. Secular is how we transact the affairs of mankind without reference to one another’s particular biases.
To me, In the end, we are all secularists, especially when it comes to using the common universal language that promotes the common bonds of peace and survival.