Secularism in Europe

(Based on part of a talk given many times between 2007 and 2013)

Words and Concepts

George Bernard Shaw may(1) (or may not) have originated the observation that America and Britain are two countries divided by a common language but when humanists from Britain and elsewhere in Europe get together the dangers of being divided by similar words and concepts bulk large.  Easy assumptions of shared views soon collapse – words mean different things and concepts and presumptions among our colleagues differ wildly.

As to words, Humanism in English now primarily refers to our positive non-religious lifestance, and the churches struggle to regain any ownership of the idea – ‘Christianity is the true Humanism – Humanism with added God’.  But in France humanisme and in Italy umanismo is still a broad concept close to humanitarianism crossed with Renaissance learning, and it is claimed by the churches.  Not only that, but our colleagues in those countries are highly suspicious of the notion of a non-religious belief or ‘lifestance’: it is seen as a betrayal of their rejection of religion.

When it comes to concepts, the scope for confusion is even greater.  Even in English, there is great confusion over the various ‘secular’ words and a parallel confusion of ideas.  ‘Secular’ may mean simply non-religious in the sense of ‘pertaining to ordinary life’ – after all, the mediaeval church had secular brothers.  But it is often used as the equivalent of atheist or non-religious and linked pejoratively by church leaders to a shallow consumerist attitude to life.  Then there is confusion between ‘secularisation’ – the process of society becoming less religious – and ‘secularism’ which is most appropriately used for the political philosophy of separation of church and state – but are ‘secularists’ opponents of religion or supporters, personally religious or not, of separation of church and state?

But if you try to compare ‘secularism’ with the French concept of laïcité with its deep roots in peculiarly French history, the scope for misunderstanding multiplies hugely.  And even the meaning of separation of church and state is rife with confusion.

It is not just that our words are slippery: as suggested above,  in the world of ‘organised non-religion’ in Europe our views and beliefs differ confusingly.  To risk a broad generalisation, there is a division between the Catholic south and the Protestant north.  In Italy, France and Spain, for example, the emphasis is understandably anti-clerical – on challenging the institutional domination of the Roman Catholic church and its interference in secular concerns.  By contrast, in northern Europe not only has the Reformation resulted in a multiplicity of Christian denominations with no single dominant church, but the Protestant emphasis on individual conscience has allowed the concept of a non-religious lifestance as an alternative to religion to emerge – specifically, the non-religious belief of Humanism.

State Support of Religion

But even in the Protestant parts of Europe our attitudes are in part determined by our different histories and in particular the wide variety of State policies towards religion.  In Britain we have difficulty in realising that across Europe state financial support of religion is the rule rather than the exception.  When so many people do not realise that even here where one in three schools is run by the churches virtually the total cost is met by the taxpayer this is not perhaps surprising.

State support can take different forms.  Least alien to humanists in Britain is that the state may pay for services rendered, since increasingly in the UK public services are contracted out to charities or other providers, often religious.  But elsewhere it may happen on such a huge scale that it becomes different in kind: in Germany, for example, the Roman Catholic church receives about €10 billion a year for running hospitals, schools and the like, giving it immense power in society.

Elsewhere the state may collect donations from church members – a ‘church tax’ that is nominally voluntary but whose payment is enforced through the income tax system.  In Germany, where the church tax yields another €10 billion, scandals and a decline in religiosity have led large numbers of people to opt out of the tax, as they are entitled to do – but the Roman Catholic church makes payment of the tax a condition of church membership and is playing hardball: no tax, no communion, no church funeral.  After all, if the church was left to its own devices instead of having the government collect their ‘voluntary’ donations for them, it would never be able to extract so much cash from its members.

Most alien to a British viewpoint are the straight hand-outs of government money that are widespread elsewhere in Europe.  Denmark’s established church, as well as getting a church tax from its members, receives Government grants worth about €100mn. pa.  In Finland the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland gets 1.63% of the proceeds of corporation tax, worth €100 million a year.  Greece pays for the training, salaries and pensions of Greek Orthodox clergy and for their church buildings.  In Italy 0.8% of income tax goes to registered religions or to the state as nominated by each individual taxpayer – but 60% of taxpayers indicate no preference and their tax is divided up in the proportions indicated by the 40% who do.  The Roman Catholic Church ensures that its members nominate it and as a result receives 87% of this slice of income tax.  The Italian Unione degli Atei e degli Agnostici Razionalisti has estimated that the church collects €6 billion a year from the Italian government – despite the fact that its constitution declares Italy a secular state!   In only a handful of countries is any support given to humanist or secularist bodies, as described below.


Anyone who has looked at what establishment really means in England will know that it is a complex matter.  The European picture adds even more complexity.  For example, in England we have establishment without financial support; in Norway you find establishment plus financial support; in Finland there are 2 established churches, supported by church taxes; in Sweden the church was disestablished in 2000; while Spain under Article 16(3) of its constitution has ‘no State religion’ – but under the same Article ‘[t]he public authorities shall take into account the religious beliefs of Spanish society and maintain the appropriate relations of cooperation with the Catholic Church and other denominations’.  In Romania freedom of belief is guaranteed – but the Government spends more on new churches for the Romanian Orthodox church than it does on schools.

In some countries a religious organisation cannot have legal personality – i.e. exist as a legal entity, able to hold property and sign contracts – until it has been registered.  That is very different from Britain where religious bodies can be formed as readily as any other voluntary organisation.  Registration can be a simple administrative arrangement, often opening the way to privileges such as entrée into schools to give religious instruction.  But it can be an oppressive interference with freedom of religion or belief, being available only subject to exacting conditions – a minimum numbers of followers or minimum length of time in operation.  Hungary’s authoritarian and nationalist government has recently brought in a restrictive new law that de-registered all but 14 religious denominations and set high hurdles to re-registration.

Often registration involves a hierarchy of levels and privileges.  Romania has a three levels of recognition, each with specific rights and obligations: ‘cults’ receive financial support, ‘religious associations’ have fewer privileges while ‘religious groups’ have no tax exemptions or support.


But even among states which are secular there is a significant division.  This emerges when we look at the question of what we mean by the political idea of secularism – i.e. where it concerns the relations of church and state.  What emerges is the difference between separation of church & state and neutrality of the state as to religion or belief.  Both are found in European states with secular constitutions.

The French claim to have achieved a total separation of church and state with their 1905 law of separation, much celebrated by French secularists and freethinkers.  But as a result of the Roman Catholic Church’s clever manoeuvring, the state was left with ownership of all its churches that then existed and has ever since maintained them free of charge for use by the Church – equivalent to an annual €100m subsidy.   Free municipal housing for priests amounts to another annual handout of well over €50 mn.  (Not only that but since the 1950s the state has provided generous grant funding to private religious schools.)

But laïcité should not be underestimated – we may find it odd that French freethinkers in Libre Pensée go so far as to deplore any government that includes churches along with secular NGOs and the public in its consultations, but the culture of separation is so entrenched that bans on the hijab in schools and the burka in all public places have in fact been accepted with very little fuss.

France is the only state with such an entrenched system of separation.  The alternative is neutrality.  Under this the state treats all religions even-handedly, remaining neutral but still providing funds to the main ‘religion or belief’ bodies to provide services to the public – including  functions that usually belong to the state as well as straightforward religious worship and preaching.  This arrangement is popularly known as a pillar constitution.

It is found in Norway, Belgium and some states in Germany, where the government recognises the main belief groups – including the humanists – and pays them subsidies.  The Netherlands has a decaying pillar system but religion there has declined so far that it is inclining towards separatism.  Still the government finances services provided by the main belief groups, including the humanists.  The humanist organisations in the Netherlands do not receive any direct subsidies but at public expense they

● run some social services and community development,
● have chaplains in the Armed services and hospitals,
● run a university to train people to be humanist workers,
● have a professional archive centre, and
● dispense €70 or €80 m a year in overseas aid.

However the result is that they are thoroughly incorporated into the state, where the churches remain the major players, and they have largely lost any wish to engage critically with religion.

Similarly in Belgium, the laïques won a political battle in 1993 for equal recognition with the churches and other religions.  The result is that the two Belgian humanist organisations – one French, one Dutch speaking – have official recognition and (unlike in the Netherlands) direct government funding that provides premises and staff in every town, and radio and TV studios to produce programmes that are broadcast routinely on the national networks.  But the Government also pays for all the Roman Catholic priests and their churches – and the division of funding in Belgium is 85.8% to the Catholics and 8.0% to the humanists.  (For the rest, 2.5% goes to the Protestant churches, 2.1% to the Muslims, and the last 1.6% is shared by the Jews and the Orthodox and Anglican churches.)  The ‘division of the spoils’ in Norway and the relevant states of Germany is similar.

This sort of arrangement is open in my eyes to severe criticism.  It gives overwhelming importance to religion or belief as a key personal characteristic – whereas we know that religion is a pretty unimportant factor in most people’s self-identification.

It assigns people to a very limited number of groups, which does not recognise the complexity of beliefs, and obliges them to act through these groups if they wish to pursue the devolved activities – because they have the money and recognition.

And it therefore provides a life-support system for moribund churches long after their true support has – or would have – waned, as it has in the UK.  This is especially true where the ‘pillars’ carry over into religious education in schools: for example, in Belgium, parents have to opt for either an Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or humanist education for their children.  However, it is comfortable for the humanist organisations in those countries, which as a result are far better resourced than those elsewhere.

Despite this huge institutional and financial support for religion in most countries, Europe is increasingly secular in its outlook.  For example, the EU’s Eurobarometer survey found in 2005 that in its then 25 member states only 52% of people believed in God while 18% rejected  outright even the idea of ‘some sort of spirit or life force’.(2)  In 2007 Eurobarometer found that 46% thought religion had too important a place in society.(3)  In 2010, when asked to pick up to three from a list of twelve ‘values’, people in Europe placed religion last: only 6% chose it as important to them personally.(4)  And the same survey showed that only 40% ‘tend to trust’ religious institutions while 50% tend not to trust them.

One is forced to wonder for how long the edifice of state support and subsidy can last – but sadly to conclude that the record of the churches in politics, be the state secular or not, suggests that it may survive for many years yet.



Note 1: Or may not: it has been attributed both to him and to Oscar Wilde but appears in the published works of neither.

Note 2: Eurobarometer special survey: Social values, Science and Technology (June 2005) –

Note 3: Eurobarometer 66: Public Opinion in the European Union (September 2007) –

Note 4: Eurobarometer 74 – Autumn 2010 –