Secularism raises core questions in all of the humanities, about how we balance freedom of, and from, religion with other rights
Exploring Secularism is a project of the Alberta Humanist Association. The AHA works for the separation of religion and state and equal respect for everyone's human rights so that no one is either advantaged or disadvantaged on account of their beliefs.
What is Secularism?
When secularists talk about secularism, they are talking about a political idea, a way of organizing a state and its society in relation to religion and belief
Secularism is just a framework for society for striving equality in every aspect. Aspects of politics, education, and law, etc.
Secularism is to create a society in which people of all religions or people who don’t belong to any religion can live together peacefully. It says that no one shall be subject to discrimination by any State, institution, group of persons, or person on grounds of religion or other beliefs.
There are three core principles of secularism: institutional separation, freedom of belief, and no discrimination on grounds of religion. These conditions allow for ‘competing concepts of the good life’ to be pursued in society.
Separation of religious institutions from state institutions and a public sphere where religion may participate, but not dominate.
Freedom to practice one's faith or belief without harming others, or to change it or not have one, according to one's own conscience.
Equality so that our religious beliefs or lack of them doesn't put any of us at an advantage or a disadvantage.
Are Secularism And Atheism The Same Thing?
It’s been more than 20 years into the 21st century and there are still people on this planet and in our society who think that Secularism means banning all religions in the country and establishing an atheist regime.
Secularism and atheism are two different ideas, the latter being a denial of the theist claims to the certainty of having access to supernatural knowledge and revealed wisdom, and the former being a political ideology which maintains that the matters of the supernatural and the divine have nothing to do with that of the State, neither does one religion has dominion over the other nor does the state condone any one religion in the public sphere.
Secularism is not atheism, period.
Secularism is also not humanism: Humanism is an ethical philosophy that addresses how to live “the good life” without religion. You can be a humanist, an atheist and a secularist at the same time if you choose, but they are not the same things.
How does Secularism Benefits Everyone?
Secularism means that you have the right to believe whatever you want unless it doesn’t undermine or infringe upon others’ right to do the same. No matter who you are or whatever your set of beliefs, secularism benefits everybody.
It protects my right to be an atheist, but it also protects my parents’ right to be Muslims, and my friend’s right to be a Hindu, and your right to be a Christian or a Buddhist or whatever you might choose to believe in.
And it protects all children’s right to pure scientific education and their right to abstain from pledging allegiance every morning at school to a God they don’t believe in.
Secularism is a means of protecting religion. It prevents, in other words, a religion from being supplanted by coercion by any ideology or set of values and beliefs whatsoever. It is the only way in a society of plural beliefs that a religion can contribute to a social discourse democratically. And in the course of doing this, it means also that atheists, agnostics, and members of other religions are equally protected and empowered. The end result is that a society is freed to evolve naturally, as it were, and to find whatever mixture or equilibrium of religious and nonreligious values may serve to maintain that society in a state of health.
How does Religion In Public Life Under Secularism?
A common charge is that secularism seeks to exclude all religions from having a say in public debates or a place in public life. Not so: as one Scottish Minister wrote in April 2011: “Secularists are those who
believe that no religion should have a privileged place in society, and that while Church leaders have a democratic right to say what they want, there should be no fanfares when they speak. I’m on the secularists’ side on this one.”
How much of a say should any religion have in a secular society? The answer, whatever it might be, is that it should be determined on the same basis as everyone else. That is the notion of a ‘level playing field’ where religious interests, as the philosopher Anthony Grayling has put it, are recast in the
same mould as any other interest group so their influence is proportionate to their representational ‘footprint’.31 This would still result in religions being represented in public life, but on a fairer basis than exists at present.
Open And Closed Secularism?
Religious commentators often talk about two flavours of secularism, Rowan Williams refers to them as ‘programmatic’ and ‘procedural’, and Charles Taylor ‘closed’ and ‘open’. They dislike ‘programmatic’/’closed’ secularisms, by which they mean those where religion is entirely excluded from the ‘public square’ and manifest solely as a private matter.
Few modern secularists are seeking that, not least because it would be incompatible with the reasons they want secularism in the first place.
Why do some oppose secularism?
One criticism of secularism is that, far from the neutrality it claims, it actually involves imposing both a European Enlightenment notion of separating private faith from community and public life and a solely rationalist, non-religious worldview on the public realm itself.
These concerns ignore two important facts. Firstly: diversity. Roughly 29% the Canadian population does not identify with a religion. The most recent survey in Canada, conducted in 2018, found that a slim majority of Canadian adults (55%) say they are Christian, including 29% who are Catholic and 18% who are Protestant. In addition, a rising share of Canadians identify with other faiths, including Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism, due in large part to immigration. The 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that these five groups together make up 8% of Canadian adults.
Secondly: democracy. In such a diverse society, arguments and ways of thinking couched in specifically religious terms can be freely used, but they are unlikely to win enough people over to be successful. The ongoing debate about assisted dying is a case in point. Presumably, those opposed to assisted dying include some who sincerely share the Catholic Church’s view that suicide is ‘equally as wrong as murder […and…] is to be considered as a rejection of God’s sovereignty and loving plan.’ But they rarely say that. Instead, the argument focuses on pragmatic concerns about undue pressure on vulnerable people that everyone, not just devout Catholics, can relate to. So far, those arguments have won, despite massive public support for a change in the law.
Critics of secularism also say that neutrality is an impossibility. Public institutions work according to a set of values whether they acknowledge them or not. So when they claim to be neutral with regards to religious or other beliefs, that is a myth at best and a lie at worst. What is really happening is that religious values are being explicitly excluded from the public square while secular ones are allowed to hold sway. So, for instance, the state is not neutral when it promotes equal rights for homosexuals. Rather, it's privileging certain secular values over less permissive religious alternatives. It's true, of course, that many religious people also support gay rights, but they get their way only by the happy accident of being aligned with the secularists.
The 'war on secularism' is a battle over privilege. On one side, secularists – whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist or other – believe in freedom of (and from) religion; that faith is a personal choice and the state should be neutral in such matters. Opposing them, an elitist minority of Christians (primarily) believe that one group – themselves – should enjoy privileges that others do not share.
Just as feminism ultimately benefits men, secularism is the best option for Christians, Muslims and Jews in the long term. Sadly, a self-interested, parasitic elite within the Christian community are prepared to do anything to cling to their own positions of power, even it means misleading and undermining their own flocks.
Claiming to represent 'ordinary' Canadian Christians, the Biblejackers have conjured an imaginary threat – militant secularism and the 'war on Christianity' – in an attempt to corral Christians behind a misleading campaign that fails to serve their best interests.
Secularism does nothing to inhibit people from pursuing competing concepts of the good life. All it does is inhibit one religion or belief imposing itself on the rest in the shared public space.
While secularism implies a reduction in institutional Church power, the separation of religion and state seems not to be a theological problem for Christianity: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God's (Mark 12:17). But Christianity is no longer the only consideration.
Secularism supports "the right to a religious identity", state religion opposes it.
In a secular society, everyone is free to have their own faith and express it as they see fit. State religion imposes one brand of faith, forcing people to participate in its traditions and skewing the political system to give its followers preferential treatment over the rest of the society.
The application of the three principles of secularism would not avoid future disputes about the role of religion and belief in national life. But it would minimize them, and provide the fairest foundation on which to build a peaceful, plural society.
Above all, secularism is fair. It satisfies the demand that we should treat others as we would like to be treated, and sits well with Jesus's instruction to "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's." Secularism allows each of us to have our own religious, spiritual or atheist identity untroubled by the state. That's why we should defend it, and that's why we should be suspicious of the motives of those who attack it, be they atheist, Muslim, Christian, or just a bit confused.