Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Secularism is not anti-religious

A continual theme in much discussion about religion and its role in public life seems to be a misunderstanding of secularism. To many secular seems to mean anti-religion. This is simply not the case, and indeed (liberal) secularism can be a strong guarantor of religious freedom. To help communicate what secularism is and what it is not I have constructed the diagram shown below.

You will note the following (potentially) surprising aspects of what is and is not secularism:
  • not all atheists are secularists;
  • being secular does not mean being against religion;
  • those who are anti-religion aren't secularists, though they may be strategically supporting secularism;
  • secularists also include religious people.
What is secularism? Imagine a society with two religious groups. Group Hats have a strong religious based belief that hats should be worn inside public buildings. Group Heads have a strong religious based belief that hats should not be worn inside public buildings. Both groups feel very strongly about their views, and want it to be universally complied with. There is no middle ground. There is no recourse to reason to decide between the two sides. What is a society to do? The society could abolish public buildings and conduct all public business outside. This isn't very practical in this instance. What could happen is the society comes down on one side or another, perhaps going with the majority of people or with the cultural convention of that society. However if the society rules for hats in public buildings, this suppresses the religious activities of Group Heads (no hats). It may even drive them away from full participation in society, because for them the harm of wearing a hat in a public building outweighs the good from going into public buildings and using the services there. There appears to be little justice and fairness in this situation.

The liberal/secular response to this situation is to rule that there shall be no rules about head-wear in public buildings. To rule one way or another would restrict the religious expression of one set of believers in favour of another. In other scenarios there may be a sound objective response, or reasoned debate, but here there is no middle ground. So, the secular response would be that people can choose to wear hats or not based on their religious conscience. Group Hat can wear hats in public buildings, and Group Heads can go bare headed in public buildings. This does not support religious groups in having their beliefs be universally applied (if this is something they want), but it does protect all religious groups.

There is an important distinction here between having your rights respected, and seeking to impose on others. State neutrality on the question of hats in public buildings respects the rights of both groups.

Historically the rise of secularism can be seen in Europe with the strife and civil war between Catholics and Protestants. In some nations (e.g. the pre-German states and England) the official religion was that of the sovereign. If the religion of the sovereign changed (e.g. someone new takes the throne), then the official religion changed. As a consequence people were persecuted, executed, and tortured for following the 'wrong' religion (e.g. being slow to convert to their new ruler's preferred religion). Clearly this was a ghastly situation, and the ultimate resolution was secularism. Citizens are free to follow the religion of their choice, without fear of persecution from the state. In any state with more than one religious view there will be losers if the state enforces a particular religious view. Secularism is therefore the best protection for the religious (and non religious). If you are in the religious majority, if you have a moral consideration for other people when considering policies that favour your religious beliefs you must also consider whether equivalent state religious policy was being enacted in support of religious views in opposition to your own would be fair and equitable.

Not all atheists are secularists. For a start there are some atheists, presumably mainly those in more liberal societies, who simply don't care about secularism. And then there are those atheists who may be in favour of religious dominance in the public sphere, a classic example being the following quote by Gibbon about the Roman world:
"The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful."
Being secular does not mean being against religion. Imagine you are in the UK and are free to practice your religion more or less how you want. Now consider those states around the world where blasphemy and apostasy (leaving a religion / converting to another) are crimes, and may even be capital crimes. Of the two examples the UK is the most secular, and thus the most tolerant of religions. Secular states do not privilege any one religion or view on religion (e.g. including non-believers), but by doing so it protects religions. Secular liberal states are a guarantor of religious freedom, and a fair way of handling a population with more than one religious view.

Secularism gets a bad reputation because it diminishes the privilege of a particular religion over people who do not belong to it. Secularism oppresses religion in the same way that giving the vote to women oppresses men, and the end of slavery oppressed slave owners.

Those who are anti-religion are not secularists. This one is a bit more tricky. Here by anti-religion I mean those who wish to abolish it, rather than those who simply disagree with it. In a world with multiple religious beliefs those with a different world view are bound to have opposing views, but this doesn't mean that they are antagonistic. Secularism, particularly in a liberal society, protects religion. A state that tries to be neutral on the matter of religious belief protects the believer from being oppressed by the non-believer just as it protects the non-believer from being oppressed by the believer. Those who are anti-religion may in the short term ally themselves with secularism to remove religious privilege, but their long term goals and world view isn't compatible with (liberal) secularism.

Secularists also include religious people. Secularism protects the beliefs of the religious (and non-religious). This surely isn't incompatible with being religious. Many religious people are in favour of secularism because they recognise that it is important to respect the rights of others. Others may be more pragmatic, for example if they are in a minority religion they may recognise or wish for the protection that secularism offers.


  1. Well argued paper. One comment: there is a corresponding group to the anti-theists in the Believers field: the theocrats who insist that western liberal democracies are Christian nations and religion is being driven from the public square. See Sean Faircloth's book for the American situation: Attack of the Theocrats.

  2. The Venn diagram could be improved a little to incorporate that atheists that aren't secularists are anti-theists and that theists who aren't secularists are fundamentalists.

    Also, something that is increasingly common in the guise of "legal pluralism" is an alliance of anti-secular theists of different religions to carve up issues according to their faith (e.g., religious family law)