The Challenge of Secularism

Secularism is the best and indeed the only reliable protection for freedom of religion or belief. Why? Before answering that question it is necessary to ask what is meant by ‘secularism’ in this claim, for the word has many uses.

Not atheism, certainly, for that is a committed position that rejects religion. No-one wishes to recreate the oppression of the enforced atheism of communist Albania or the state-sponsored atheism of Soviet Russia.

Nor, most definitely, does it mean a secular society – in the sense of a society where most individuals have rejected religion. In such a society the communal institutions and arrangements might be inimical to religious belief, and that would be contrary to secularism as here intended. Such a society – about which there will be divided opinions – may indeed come about, just as ultra-religious societies have come about in history and continue to do so, but that is not the meaning of ‘secularism’ here intended.

Rather, by ‘secularism’ I mean a secular state. It is the institutions, laws and conventions of the state that are in question. Such a state provides a neutral constitution that treats all religions and beliefs fairly and alike. (Be it noted, of course, that ‘beliefs’ in this phrase from human rights law embraces non-religious beliefs and the rejection of beliefs.) The motivation for such neutrality will without doubt be a commitment to human rights and non-discrimination.

This is secularism as a political principle.

Such a state could in theory be made up entirely of religious believers, maybe in a variety of religions, and still be secular. It is not the beliefs of the individual citizens that matter: it is the neutrality of the institutions.

In this sense many religious believers are secularists – for example, there is an organisation in Britain called Muslims for Secular Democracy. In fact, commitment to secularism is independent of belief and (for example) there are atheists and agnostics who do not support secularism because they have too weak a commitment to the human rights of believers: they may wish to exploit unfairly a majority position in a democratic society.

Humanists in general support a secular state. We sometimes call it an ‘open society’ (but still with the emphasis on the institutions, not the inhabitants). We give freedom of religion or belief greater priority and importance than propagation of Humanism – or rather, human rights are a fundamental part of our Humanism because, if this is the only life we have, each of us should have the right to live it as she or he thinks best.

In his book Humanism (1968) H J Blackham (1903-2009) saw creation of the open society as waiting upon “general acceptance of the principle of interdependence for the sake of independence as a corollary of political democracy”. Recognition of the principle of interdependence runs harmoniously with recognition of the human rights of those with whom one differs, maybe profoundly, to live their independent lives.

What does acceptance of a secular state in this sense entail for religious believers and their institutions? Just as for humanists, it means that they have to give freedom of religion or belief a higher priority than propagating their own beliefs – that proselytising has to be done in a way that fully respects the freedom of religion or belief of others and the secular nature of the state. That is all.

In fact, anyone arguing against secularism in this (well established) sense of a political principle is necessarily arguing at least for some belief group to have a privileged position in the state and probably therefore for restrictions on the freedom of religion or belief of others.

Many religious believers do so argue. They usually do so (in their own minds at least) in obedience to a religious imperative. For example, a proselytising religion that sees this life as a preparation for another is inherently inclined to set a lower value on the values of this “vale of tears” than on saving souls for all eternity.

Alternatively, they may argue on the basis of assumed superior insight provided by their religion. In this case they will argue from premises that are contained within religious doctrine, as does the Roman Catholic Church when it uses its own concept of natural law as the basis for seeking to impose its own moral values on society as a whole. The church assumes a particular teleological view of mankind from which it can with circular logic reach conclusions that conform entirely with its own doctrines. It may then, for example, seek to impose by law on all and sundry a narrow interpretation of conscience dependent entirely on Catholic doctrine – for example, in the draft concordat with Slovakia that proposed to guarantee freedom of conscience but only as long as it conformed to Roman Catholic doctrine.(1)  When the Pope says (2) that he supports secularism except in matters of morals, what he means is that he reserves the right to impose his church’s moral standards on everyone.(3)

Similarly, Muslims – or others – whose religion allows no difference between the secular and the religious aspects of life often fail to see the clear distinction made by other people for whom there are many aspects of life that are not dictated by their religious or other beliefs. If the distinction is not made, then religion necessarily has a view on everything and rapidly asserts the need for a theocracy, as in the various ‘Islamic republics’. Human rights count for little in such a system: freedom of religion or belief certainly includes no freedom to renounce Islam, and the externalities of sharia law can soon be imposed on everyone, regardless of their beliefs.

Both the Catholics and Muslims who behave in the ways instanced above are acting in conformity with what they see as religious dictates – as are other believers who adopt similar positions that place religious considerations above human rights. These others may not be so extreme, but they include anyone who opposes secularism in the sense defined.

Our challenge to them(4) is simply that they admit that this is their position. Claims from such believers that they respect human rights and freedom of religion or belief are at best self-delusion, at worst hypocritical window-dressing. They – in particular, their leaders – in fact assert a right to impose their own beliefs on all and sundry. Such a right can be justified only in terms of their own religious beliefs. When they use positions of power or influence to exercise such a ‘right’, they restrict other people’s freedom – not just religious freedom but often much wider freedoms: to speak their minds, to dress as they wish, to express their sexuality, and so on.

And the first to suffer from such doctrinaire religion are usually large numbers of their own co-religionists, namely all whose beliefs and values diverge from the strict orthodox line – or comply with an alternative orthodoxy, as with the often bloody struggle between sunni and shi’ite Muslims. Implicit obedience and subservience to religious commands is demanded by leaders who either do not recognise the degree of dissent in their own ranks or else are well aware but choose to disregard it – as with the Roman Catholic church and its doctrines on contraception and abortion.

What we demand is that such religious leaders recognise the truth of their position. Having perhaps inherited a historically privileged position (as with established churches) and being deeply committed to their own beliefs, this may not be easy. They face a choice: they can put their own religious doctrines ahead of everyone else’s freedom or they can recognise that they live in a world where people hold to a bewildering variety of religious and other beliefs and that, however deep their own beliefs, they cannot objectively justify a superior position of power for themselves. (Even by its own standards, the Catholic Church must recognise that its moral example is to say the least tarnished, prompting some scepticism about its right to dictate to others.)

How much of a compromise does this require on the part of these doctrinaire leaders, whether of a religion or a non-religious belief? – the latter rarely, however, since such beliefs are rarely either doctrinaire or strongly organised. It requires that they recognise the legitimacy of other beliefs and moral positions and that in an open society legal or institutional privileges for their own belief system cannot be justified. This will call in question, for example, public subsidies to churches (such as the huge payments that are common across Europe), positions of power in the legislature (such as the twenty-six seats in the UK Parliament occupied ex officio by Church of England bishops), historical privilege in the education system (whereby religious instruction is built into the general curriculum or religious schools are paid for out of general taxes) or in public media (such as the dominance of Christianity in some countries’ public broadcasting systems – for example, the BBC).

But it does not mean that the churches or other religious (or humanist) voices will be silenced or excluded from the public arena. Far from it. The human right of freedom of speech applies to all, and their voices will be heard in proportion to their volume and their persuasiveness. And in an open society, the government should listen to all, lend weight to different voices in proportion to the wisdom and expertise they appear to embody and/or to the democratic following they command, and finally make decisions on its own responsibility and on secular, not religious, grounds. So, for religious leaders as for all others it means that if their voice does not convince, they have to allow that their views will not – and should not – prevail.

If this requires a compromise of some religious demands in order to live in peace and concord with the rest of society, they can surely – like so many of their fellow believers – find elsewhere in their beliefs justification for respecting the independence of others who disagree with them, recognising that people are interdependent and that the ‘golden rule’ of reciprocal respect is a justification for refraining from relentless attempts to impose their own values on those who do not share them.


16 June 2009, revised January 2013




Note 1. Concordats are international treaties between the pretend-state of the Holy See and another state and as such are immune from democratic control or amendment.

Note 2. Often, but for example in an audience with San Martino’s new ambassador to the Holy See on 13 November 2008: “healthy secularity [implies that] each temporal reality abides by its specific norms, which should not, nevertheless, forget fundamental ethical forms, the bases of which are found in the very nature of man.”

Note 3. And of course he does so, as with the Holy See’s vigorous opposition to family planning and even to use of condoms to protect against HIV – opposition, too often effective, asserted through its place in the UN and its diplomatic links with governments – the results of which overwhelmingly affect non-Catholics in the third world rather than members of the Church.

Note 4. Let me repeat in parenthesis so to avoid misunderstanding that I am not referring to all believers: there are many religious people – but less frequently religious institutions – who genuinely support freedom of religion or belief and a secular state. And I repeat that some non-religious people show no respect for these principles.