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Does Secularism Imply Religious Neutrality?

Rand, David

This article appeared in number 168 of Humanist Perspectives and is the English translation of "La laïcité implique-t-elle la neutralité religieuse ?" which originally appeared in number 13 of Cité laïque.



When dealing with the subject of secularism, it is often said that the secular State must be neutral with regard to religion. But this concept of neutrality is often poorly formulated and incorrectly interpreted.

The secular State must of course present a neutral face towards the citizens whom it serves. For example, the public school system and health network must be neutral with respect to clients of these services. This neutrality manifests itself in various ways, in particular by the fact that the State generally is -- and indeed should be -- unaware of whatever religious allegiances such clients may have.

However, the secular State must not remain neutral in the operation of its institutions. Indeed, it must reject any and all supernatural or pseudoscientific hypotheses, as well as all religious dogma, in its institutional decision-making. For example, dogmas must not be taught as facts in the public school system, and medical care and procedures must be consistent with solid scientific knowledge.

Thus, the secular State is neutral with regard to religious diversity: no privileges for Catholics, nor for Jews, Scientologists, Buddhists, Raëlians, Anglicans, or any other religious group. On the other hand, the secular State is certainly not neutral when faced with a choice between supernatural religion on the one hand and natural reality on the other: if faced with such a dichotomy, secularism opts for reality.

A few examples: A creationist (i.e. a scriptural literalist who denies the evolution of species) would not be an appropriate candidate for director of a public institution responsible for awarding research grants in the biological sciences. Similarly, an individual who believes that AIDS is a plague sent by "God" to punish homosexuals would not be a good candidate for the administration of a public institution which performs or manages medical research. Finally, a less hypothetical example: A theistic philosopher who upholds the importance of religion in the public sphere and who is extremely reluctant to admit the possibility of morality without god would be a rather dubious person to choose as copresident of a parliamentary commission whose mandate includes the maintenance of Church/State separation.

A poor understanding of the neutrality of the secular State is responsible for a number of questionable assertions commonly put forward on the subject of secularism. If, instead of neutrality in the face of religious diversity, we accept that the secular State must show itself to be completely neutral with respect to religious phenomena in general, then this leads to several highly dubious conclusions which are at best half-truths, if not completely false.


Assertion: "Secularism is not antireligious."

It is true that the secular State is not antireligious towards its citizens. However, the decision to exclude supernatural and pseudoscientific hypotheses from the functioning of its institutions is founded on a rejection of religion as a basis of knowledge. Thus secularism has an undeniable antireligious aspect. Furthermore, without that orientation, how could one justify the exclusion of religious principles from the operations of the State?

Without its antireligious aspect, secularism would inevitably be truncated and weakened, with the risk that it degenerate into American-style pseudo-secularism, or what is sometimes called "open" secularism. The all-important separation between religions and the State would be compromised by religious influence over public affairs, where the influence of each religious sect would be proportional to its demographic weight in the population.

Finally, it is important to point out that, even with this limited antireligious aspect, secularism nevertheless remains less antireligious than other approaches, including religions themselves. Indeed, so-called "open" secularism favours majority religions to the detriment of marginal religions, whereas theocracy opposes all religions other than the State religion. By respecting freedom of conscience, secularism turns out to be the form of government which is the least antireligious.

Assertion: "Secularism is respectful of religious beliefs."

This is false. The secular State cannot respect beliefs. On the contrary, its mandate is to respect and to enforce respect for freedom of conscience, including freedom of belief and freedom from belief. This distinction between belief and freedom of belief is crucial. As for the diversity of religious beliefs, the secular State rejects them all in the operation of its institutions.

Assertion: "The secular State is not qualified to make decisions on religious issues."

This assertion is simplistic, even false. In fact, the secular State has a duty to use all reasonable means at its disposal to acquire whatever expertise is necessary in order to distinguish the rational from the irrational and science from pseudoscience. Now it is true that the State cannot make pronouncements about the relative merits of two competing supernatural belief systems. It cannot say, for example, that Christianity is superior or inferior to Scientology or Islam. However, it must take a stand against supernatural beliefs by rejecting them all in the functioning of its institutions.

Assertion: "Secularism has nothing to do with atheism."

This is completely false and indeed absurd. Firstly, as guarantor of freedom of conscience, the secular State has a duty to ensure freedom from religion, i.e. the right to be a non-believer, to be an atheist. Secondly, the secularist requirement to keep supernatural and religious principles out of public institutions is based on the observation that these principles are both dangerous and non-universal. The secular State does not promote atheism, but it is atheistic in the sense that it is constituted according to principles and values which are material, human and independent of all baseless ideology. In other words, the secular State is based on values which are as universal as possible. The concept of god is completely absent. These secular values are atheistic.

Assertion: "State atheism is contrary to secularism."

This assertion is based on a tendentious interpretation of the expression "State atheism", an interpretation which assumes that an atheistic State would endanger the freedom of conscience of believers. But in fact there are an infinite number of ways to make a godless State. The Soviet State and the secular State are two examples of this, but with enormous differences between them. The former did indeed endanger the freedom of believers (and everyone else), whereas the latter adopts protection of this freedom as one of its essential founding principles.

As we saw in the previous section, the secular State is indeed atheistic, but passively so, so to speak, without imposing atheism on its citizens. The secular State permits and protects freedom of belief and religious practice both in the private sphere and in public as well, but outside public institutions. On the other hand, it does not allow this practice to hinder the rights of other citizens, including their right not to have a religion imposed on them.

An Honest Approach

To defend and promote secularism, it is important to avoid a simplistic interpretation of religious neutrality which would reduce the role of the State to a useless relativism. To exaggerate neutrality and ignore the antireligious aspect of secularism would be opportunistic, and, above all, ineffectual. Religious authorities have a vested interest in promoting the prejudice that religious belief is necessary for the "spiritual" health of human beings and of society. The visibility of atheists is thus important to counter antisecular religious propaganda.

Atheism and secularism are obviously distinct concepts, but they are not mutually independent. Far from being incompatible with secularism, non-belief, atheism and antireligious criticism are essential aspects of it. Secularism may be seen as a sort of contract or alliance between non-believers on the one hand, and believers who accept that the State should be established on universal non-religious principles. To support such a program (and in particular to become a member of the MLQ), it is certainly not necessary to be an atheist. But many of us are, and to try to hide this fact is useless and ineffectual, and only gives ammunition to our adversaries.