Secularism: an approach from Human Rights

A paper delivered to a conference of the Law and Religion Scholars Network at Cardiff Law School, 17 May 2011 

The principle of secularism is widely accepted in the European institutions as a condition of freedom of religion or belief and non-discrimination. It is therefore founded squarely on human rights – but it is widely recognised that human rights can and do clash, not least when religion or belief is involved. With the steady fall not only in religious belief but also, little recognised, in its importance even to believers, traditional privileges are increasingly under threat. Religious spokesmen denounce “aggressive secularists” who (they claim) seek to drive them from the public square. In this paper I examine the demands that secularism places on believers (and on unbelievers), arguing that although these are not onerous they can only be settled and defined after careful distinctions have been drawn between different types of space – public, private and virtual – and between the freedoms we should enjoy in our individual capacities and those justifiable when we play other roles.



Denunciations of “aggressive secularism” have become commonplace:

• The Pope on his visit to Britain last year spoke in the same breath of “aggressive forms of secularism” and of the “atheist extremism” of the Nazis.

• Cardinal O’Brien claimed in his Easter sermon last month that “aggressive secularism” was trying “to destroy our Christian heritage and culture” (Guardian 24/4/11)

• Archbishop Sentamu has denounced “an attempt … in the name of tolerance … to remove religion from public life.” (Daily Mail 4/2/10)

• Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey has even demanded “a specialist Panel of Judges [of] proven sensitivity and understanding of religious issues … to hear cases engaging religious rights … [while judges who had made rulings he disliked] “should recuse themselves from further adjudication on such matters…” (intervention in Macfarlane case)

• Even the Church Mouse in his blog has written of “aggressive secularists, who are seeking to impose their agenda on institutions and values which have been held for millennia” and of “the current age of aggressive secularism . . . insisting that religion should be kept out of the public sphere”.

These commentators command acres of newsprint but they are never specific about what they are defending other than some atavistic notion of a Christian Britain. There is no theory, no principle – just a cry of pain.

Take the example of the hotel keepers Peter and Hazell Bull who turned away a gay couple from their hotel. Cardinal O’Brien said they were “prevented from acting in accordance with their beliefs because they were not willing to publicly endorse a particular lifestyle”. No: they were not asked to endorse gay partnerships any more than a greengrocer is asked to endorse Islam when he sells potatoes to a Muslim. They were asked to tolerate the couple and not ostentatiously refuse them the service they provided to everyone else – to recognise plurality and be willing to live with it.

But the Cardinal does not agree. How far does he want to go? He does not say. We are left to speculate: if the hotel business is exempted from equality laws, what about the travel business? Should Stagecoach – part-owned by the reportedly homophobic businessman Brian Souter – be allowed to ban LGBT persons from his buses & trains? – what is the difference?

And what is the difference between religious objections to minority sexualities and religious objections to other races? Was it religious principle that led the Christians in the Dutch Reformed Church in apartheid South Africa to treat blacks as an inferior species – or sheer race prejudice? If people’s baser instincts or culturally induced hatreds can be dressed up as matters of principle, religion or conscience, where shall the world end?

What is clear is that all the cases that have excited protest and publicity involve claims by a group of religious people to be allowed to manifest their beliefs in a way that treats other people unequally, restricting their rights & freedoms, or at least in a way that demands exemption from rules and laws adopted for the good of all.

By contrast the humanists and secularists whom they condemn are overwhelmingly motivated, not by religious prejudice but by a positive desire for equality in an equitable public sphere, and have clearly articulated their position.

In fact, what we see is not aggressive secularists but aggressive sectarians. It is surely time for these belligerent believers to stop shouting and start listening, to stop denouncing others and look to the planks in their own eyes. They would find that the message of thinking secularists is much less hostile to them than they imagine.

Now I concede that there are some aggressive atheists around: some of the comments on the Guardian’s Comment is Free – Belief website make me cringe. But these do not come from the leaders of secularism; and even the much demonised Richard Dawkins goes in for vigorous debate and advocacy – not the mere denunciation we often hear from the pulpit.

And I concede more importantly that these critics of secularism are only a faction and probably untypical of Christians as a whole – conspiracy theorists seeking to foster a false narrative of persecution in order to motivate the faithful with feelings of outrage.

As Jonathan Bartley of the Christian think tank Ekklesia said (à propos the Nadia Eweida case):

People should be aware that behind many such cases there are groups whose interests are served by stirring up feelings of discrimination or marginalisation amongst Christians. What can appear to be a case of discrimination at first glance is often nothing of the sort. It is often more about Christians attempting to gain special privileges and exemptions.

The fact remains that these carping Christians receive disproportionate publicity for their campaign of distortion. So what is it that they are missing or ignoring? Why are they wrong?


First, we must note that secularism has little if anything to do with secularisation. Secularisation is about becoming secular, about the subordination or rejection of religious values and beliefs in a community. As secularisation advances, you get a secular society.

Secularism is not about a secular society but about a secular state. It is a political philosophy of separation of religion and politics. It is not the same as atheism, pace both the judges in the Lautsi case(1) and the writers of a key paper for the EU-funded Religare project(2).

Secularism indeed is supported by many religious people. It can be advantageously applied in a society made up overwhelmingly of religious believers – consider India and Turkey. Secularism is not hostile to religion. It is respectful of all religions and beliefs. It is a formula for living together harmoniously with people with whom you have profound disagreements in matters of so-called “ultimate beliefs”. It is a formula for a free, open and inclusive society: one (as George Soros said)

based on the recognition that people have divergent views and interests and that nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth.(3)

– or maybe (to put it minimally) that when people start from such different premises and assumptions and use such different ways of deducing conclusions, then noone is in a position to convince everyone else that he possesses the ultimate truth.

Secularism is more or less explicitly endorsed by all the major European institutions, from the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights to the EU and the OSCE (with admirable guidance such as the “Guidelines for Review of Legislation pertaining to Religion or Belief “ and the “Toledo guidelines” on religion in schools). It is in effect the minimum set of rules we need to live together harmoniously.

One could try to justify secularism using Rawles’ veil of ignorance – would you design a society that was Christian through & through if you knew there was a chance you would find yourself living in it as a Hindu or an atheist? But this is somewhat artificial – not a practical way forward & less than persuasive with a self-confident majority.

Human Rights

My approach today is instead through human rights. Human rights discourse has overtaken religious as the lingua franca of debate on social morality. The notion of human rights may be a recent construct historically but it commands understanding and support across the world. It recognises the just interests of all and seeks to reconcile them. Moreover, human rights are increasingly justiciable.

These rights include freedom of religion or belief. It is an unquestionable achievement of the recent past that we have established freedom of religion or belief in Europe and elsewhere. I might observe that this has happened most securely in places where religion has lost power. In some parts of the world merely having the wrong religion, still more apostasy from the dominant religion, entails a risk not just to liberty but to life itself. In Europe, freedom of belief is far from perfectly guaranteed but it is effectively unchallenged as a principle.

Now discrimination may be an excellent quality in the exercise of taste and the arts but when it means inferior treatment of some people for irrelevant reasons it constitutes a wrong to those individuals and potentially to society as a whole, in that its coherence and stability and good functioning are threatened. Human rights do not require all people to be treated the same in all circumstances – but if everyone’s human rights are to be respected then strong reasons are needed for differences of treatment, especially at the hands of the community as a whole as embodied by government and other public authorities.


From this it follows necessarily that the state, the law and the public institutions we all share must be neutral as between different religions and beliefs. On questions of profound disagreement and deep sensitivity where there is no agreed way to establish the truth or falsehood of the claims made variously by Christians, Muslims, atheists and everyone else, it is quite wrong that the state should throw its weight behind any one particular religion or belief.

This neutrality is what we mean by secularism. Secularism asks for equal treatment of everyone regardless of religion or belief unless in the face of compelling reasons. It provides a foundation for living together despite our differences. Anyone who opposes secularism (in this sense) is demanding that one belief group be privileged over the rest.

Now there is a common riposte to this: that neutrality is impossible, that a secular state in fact imposes liberal, secular values on everyone – as, for example, in the lamentable intervention in the Lautsi case of a group of law professors organised by the Becket Fund: “An empty wall in an Italian classroom is no more neutral—indeed, it is far less so—than is a wall with a crucifix upon it”(4).

This is mere nonsensical playing with words. Laws, government and institutions that do not impose or assume any religion or belief on the part of any individual citizen leave the individual free to hold any religion or belief or none. Is it dictatorial to remove chains from contented prisoners? They need not leave their cells if they prefer to stay. By contrast, those who reject secularism seek to fit everyone with their own style of shackles. This is not an enhancement of the freedom of the dominant religious group but a curtailment of the freedom of all the minorities.

In fact, secularism is the best possible guarantor of freedom of religion or belief for everyone. It may in our imperfect world not be attractive from time to time to the majority in any community – but majority support does not guarantee virtue, and democracy is not simply a matter of majority rule, or else the Athenians would never have had to despatch a second trireme racing to overtake the first on its way to Mytilene.

Historically, we have moved from religious alliances of nations trying to impose their beliefs on the whole world, to the Westfalian settlement whereby kings and princes imposed their beliefs on their own people, and then slowly as democracy took over to majorities imposing conformity on the rest of society.

That was the pattern in my youth. In those days received Christian values included:

• condemnation of single mothers and spurning of their bastard offspring

• banning of abortion and treating contraception as a dirty secret

• censorship of books, plays & films for blasphemy and alleged indecency

• persecution and criminalisation of homosexuals – evangelical Christians are still demanding this in Uganda

• opposition to divorce, let alone re-marriage – in Malta today the Catholic Church is committing huge resources to defeat a referendum on introducing divorce

• and denunciation of those who “live in sin” – I wonder, did the Head of the Church of England or her archbishop say anything about this to Prince William before his wedding?

Even in today’s secular Britain relics of that past age survive in, for example, the law on assisted dying & euthanasia, and attempts are still made to resurrect aspects of it. By and large, however, under pressure from humanist thinking and secular values substantial freedom of religion or belief has been established in most countries in Europe – including freedom from religion and from legal enforcement of religious morality.

Religion not a social glue

Attempts are, however, still occasionally made to promote the idea of Christianity binding Britain, indeed the whole of Europe together. Our shared inheritance and history, it is said, are those of a Christian continent, our culture and values are Christian. But these claims are matters of dispute, as was seen when it was proposed to insert them in the preamble of the putative European constitution. We share a history in which Christianity played a large part – but it may still divide rather than unite. Our culture, our values are in part Christian, but they also have other roots: in the classical world, in Enlightenment thinking, in our common humanity. And church power has produced alienation just as free thinking has produced rejection of Christian belief.

Polls and surveys provide the evidence of the extent to which religion – and in particular the Christian churches – are now rejected not only in Britain but throughout Europe. First there are those that demonstrate how many people in Europe have rejected religious belief. The EU’s Eurobarometer survey found in 2005 that in its then 25 member states only 52% of people claimed to believe in God while 18% rejected outright even the idea of ‘some sort of spirit or life force’(5). Similar results are found by both popular and academic surveys(6). Other studies show how limited is the knowledge of self-proclaimed believers of their alleged religion – an ignorance that undermines the claims of churches to represent those who have actually created – or drifted into – their own eclectic and often shallow beliefs.

More significant are those surveys that demonstrate people’s attitude towards religion and the churches regardless of their personal beliefs. For example, in 2007 Eurobarometer found that 46% thought religion had too important a place in society(7), a result similar to that in a UK Ipsos MORI poll in 2006 which found that 42% of people in Britain thought that Government “paid too much attention to religious leaders”(8).

Not only that, but religion is not seen as important even by believers. Half of us may in some sense believe in God and even more have a cultural affiliation to Christianity but Eurobarometer found that, when asked to pick up to three from a list of twelve ‘values’, people in Europe twice placed religion last: only 7% chose it as important to them personally and only 3% saw it as a value representative of the EU.(9)

It is plain therefore that Christianity cannot provide the binding factor for 21st century societies. It is insufficient merely to recognise this fact: it is necessary also to examine the consequences of such a fall from grace. Noone of course has any intention of challenging the religious freedom of believers – or the freedom of the churches to manifest collectively the beliefs of their adherents and to preach their faith to the world.

But the churches have inherited from the days of their past dominance, when it was at least arguable that they did provide the glue to hold society together, numerous privileges that, now religion is no longer a binding factor but one that tends to divide, must be called in question. The most egregious such privilege is probably the 26 seats in Parliament reserved for Church of England bishops, but there are many others that are probably more serious in their practical effects, including the strong tendency of politicians, at least in public, to show unquestioning deference to religious institutions as authorities on morality and as arbiters of social policy.

Today religion is no longer a social glue – or to be more accurate, it binds only a part of society together and tends to alienate much of the rest. Both these tendencies – to bind and to alienate – need to be taken into account in considering its place in society. Together, indeed, by binding co-religionists together and alienating those of other beliefs, these effects of religion can become socially divisive to a serious extent, so that people live segregated lives with little knowledge and correspondingly much misunderstanding and suspicion of people of other beliefs. The dangers are vividly illustrated in Northern Ireland, where despite the end of violence the two communities remain almost as far apart as ever. This is multiculturalism on the way to social disintegration, and provides a strong prudential argument, separate from the compelling human rights arguments, against outsourcing public services to religious organisations.

Human Rights as a binding factor

If not Christianity, then what can bind us together? Let us start from the values to which the people of Europe give their highest levels of support as personal and as European values. These were, according to the Eurobarometer survey already cited, human rights, democracy, peace, and the rule of law. After these came respect for other cultures, solidarity, support for others, equality, respect for human life, and tolerance. Here without doubt is what now binds Europe together – our new social glue.

These are essentially humanist values. They are not unproblematic, but they all bend towards freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination. Sadly, they are not accepted without qualification by the churches – or by the non-Christian religions. Some churchmen indeed express serious doubts about human rights: they are, for example, presumably numbered among “all the secular experiments in polity in the world” that according to according to Bishop Nazir-Ali last month have invariably “not resulted in freedom, but in totalitarianism”.(10)

The origin of such doubts lies in the problem that different human rights can conflict with each other – as, for example, with some religious doctrines and the equality and rights of women and of LGBT people – and that this raises legitimate questions about whether limits on the manifestation of religion or belief may be justified, entailing some modification of past practice.

The Public Square

But human rights are of advantage to all minorities, including Christians. Objectors often allege that secularists wish to drive the religious from the public square. Not so. How could we, when atheism or Humanism are no less ‘religions or beliefs’ in law than Islam or Christianity? If Christians were banned from the public square, so would be Humanists and atheists.

What, rather, secularists do say is that in debates on public policy purely religious arguments should carry no weight. In a Voltaire-like defence of freedom of expression, we absolutely do not wish to suppress or forbid such arguments being voiced – but we do say that by convention they should count for nothing in the minds of politicians and decision-makers, and therefore it would be better if they were not voiced at all. By all means let the religious argue against (say) assisted dying with warnings of a slippery slope – an argument we can all understand and assess (and most of us probably reject) – but if they argue that life is the gift of God and that it is not for us to take it away, then in the process of public decision-making their words should be ignored. Such an argument cannot be legitimately admitted in a society where there are so many competing beliefs that reject its very premises. If the courts refuse to be drawn in to adjudicating on religious issues for lack of any foundation for decision, then how can Parliament and government do better? Let the religious abide by their religion’s injunctions, let them draw their motivation from it, let them encourage each other by citing its doctrines, but let them in the public square speak in a language everyone can understand. Similarly, no atheist should expect any attention to arguments premised on the non-existence of God.

Now this is very far from aggressive secularism. In fact it is a comfortable regime for the religious. They have long recognised indeed that they cannot persuade by religion alone and need to introduce a parade of prudential arguments if they are to succeed. Look at the debate over abortion. It is clear that the anti-choice lobby is not principally motivated by considerations of (for example) the alleged mental health effects on women. They are with few exceptions actually seeking as part of what they see as their Christian duty to prevent people who want them from having abortions.

Secularism would not interfere with this – though anti-choice campaigners who sailed under false prudential colours could expect broadsides designed to expose their true motivations. That is part of the hurly burly of democracy.

The religious complain that discounting religious arguments in public debate amounts to a privatisation of religion. In a sense it does – but not in a sense about which they can legitimately complain. It requires that religious injunctions about the governance of society(11) are addressed only to those who share their premises. But what it demands from believers is not that they should cease manifesting their religion in public, nor that they should deny their motivation in their public-spirited work, still less that they should cease from engagement in public life, only that they respect the rights of others in society. It is at root a demand for decent behaviour, for reciprocity and a degree of humility, but it bears most sharply on the politicians and decision-makers, from whom it demands new conventions of behaviour.

Practical effects: spaces, roles and functions

Now the practical effects of these arguments need to be worked out in many contexts, and in a paper to the Religare project(12) I have looked at some of these – conscientious objection, the workplace, the family, state subsidies and so on. Others include religious speech, including the non-verbal freedom of expression involved in wearing religious symbols or clothing, and accommodation of requests for special treatment for religious reasons – Muslim prayers during working hours, for example. To deal with these we need careful analysis embarked on calmly in a spirit of cooperation, not fiery rhetoric from pulpits, literal or figurative. For example, we need to look at the role or function of the persons concerned and at different types of public space. Only then can we sensibly examine questions of religious exceptionialism in a secular state.

Take first the notion of the public square. Spaces – public and otherwise – can be categorised in many ways, but the distinctions that I suggest are relevant are those between:

(a) one’s own private space – typically one’s home;

(b) other people’s private space visited at one’s free will – e.g., other people’s homes, premises of organisations (including religious bodies);

(c) other people’s private space visited under some compulsion – such as places of employment or commercial premises;

(d) public space in the sense of the street, public parks and squares & other such spaces; and

(e) the public space of official institutions – courts, schools, Parliament, etc – and the figurative public spaces of, say, public service broadcasting and in which statutory public services are delivered.

Roles also need to be distinguished. An individual acting as a private citizen may get onto a soapbox and proclaim the Gospel or, according to taste, the invasion of earth by Xenu 75 million years ago as recounted by L Ron Hubbard. But the same freedom is not appropriate when the individual is acting as an employee, because he has assigned his time to his employer for reward, still less if he is representing his employer to third parties. And if the individual is a public employee in a secular state his freedoms may be yet more curtailed. This applies not least to teachers in the public school system, to holders of public office and to everyone involved in front-line delivery of general public services paid for by public funds, though usually only “during office hours”.(13)

Now the ardent Christian or Muslim or soapbox atheist may find this difficult, but he should regard it as one more consideration in his choice of a career. Just so in the days of capital punishment judges with personal objections to the death penalty had to decide either nevertheless to impose it as being part of the law of the land or to direct their careers into areas of the law where the question did not arise.

So my thesis is that everyone of good will should support secularism as the best defence not only of the rights of minorities but also of freedom of religion or belief. For any victory by one religious faction in imposing its values by force – force, that is, of law, or of intimidation, or exaction of deference or exercise of inherited privilege – is a defeat of the freedom of religion or belief of all other groups.

The details of how it should work need to be sorted out. Sometimes the price the rest of society has to pay for accommodation of some religious practice by a minority will be outweighed by the value of that minority’s freedom to manifest their belief, but sometimes it will be the other way round. An approach through human rights will give more weight to children’s rights than has typically been the case in the past.

Secularism and Religious Privilege

The introduction of secularism will not be painless for those who are so used to privilege that they can no longer recognise it for what it is – as with those who

• denounce the BBC despite their near monopoly of its religious broadcasting.

• demand the preservation of 26 seats in Parliament for their church – and their church alone

• defend imposition of daily acts of worship on all state schools

• expect RE to be uncritical and to ignore non-religious beliefs as it still largely does

• see nothing odd in the taxpayer financing virtually 100% schools in which the law allows them to promote their own variety of religious belief without interference, even to children of those who do not share that belief

• sought and now defend laws that allow them when delivering public services under contract to public authorities to discriminate on grounds of religion or even of sexual orientation in their delivery and in their employment practices, even towards staff transferred to them from the public sector.

I cannot – no-one can – compel respect of other people’s human rights – no more from Christians seeking to impose on society values and practices it has long grown out of (if it truly ever had them), than from that fringe of Muslims who seek to construct an Islamist caliphate in Britain.

But the law may compel their conformity to behaviour that is outwardly respectful of the rights of others, just as it compelled racist landlords to take down their notices No Jews, No Blacks, No Irish.

And in discussion I can try to compel them to be honest about what they seek and defend – privilege for themselves and relegation of others to a subordinate position – so that the scales fall from their eyes and the eyes of others.

At least the Pope was honest when he recently criticised “countries which accord great importance to pluralism and tolerance” because the result of moves towards equality and non-discrimination was that religion was “increasingly being marginalized”.(14)

If that is the result of tolerance and decent behaviour towards our fellow citizens, then let the Pope mourn while I rejoice, but at least let us not allow the pope the logic of his critique, which would be the reconstruction of a mediaeval theocracy.


13 May 2011


Note 1: It is deplorable that the Grand Chamber treats “secularism” as if it meant “atheism”: “the supporters of secularism are able to lay claim to views attaining the “level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” required for them to be considered “convictions” within the meaning of Articles 9 of the Convention and 2 of Protocol No. 1. . .“ – para. 58.

Note 2: Silvio Ferrari and Sabrina Pastorelli: The Public Space. The Formal and Substantive Neutrality of the Public Sphere, who muddle “secular” and “secularism” and at footnote 1 say “assuming secularism is not a religion in itself (which in some ways is a debatable issue” – perpetuating the unnecessary confusion they should be clarifying: see

Note 3: George Soros: appendix to The Bubble of American Supremacy – Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004.

Note 4: See, accessed 9 January 2011.

Note 5: Eurobarometer special survey: Social values, Science and Technology (European Commission, June 2005) available at – accessed 18 October 2010.

Note 6: For a summary of academic surveys see Phil Zuckerman: ‘Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns’ in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin, Cambridge University Press, 2007; ISBN 978-0-521-60367-6.

Note 7: Eurobarometer 66: Public Opinion in the European Union (European Commission, September 2007) available at – accessed 18 October 2010.

Note 8: – accessed 23 November 2010.

Note 9:  Eurobarometer loc. cit.

Note 10: See

Note 11: But not, of course, legitimate proselytisation – something outside the scope of this paper but plainly a manifestation of religion or belief guaranteed by human rights laws.

Note 12: See, submitted on behalf of the European Humanist Federation.

Note 13: The writers of the Religare paper cited at footnote 2 distinguish a third factor, function, by which they refer to public services, but in my analysis I think this is covered by the intersection of space and role.

Note 14: Address to the diplomatic corps, 10 January 2011, available at (accessed 10 January 2011).