Model Case – Yes, Religion is compatible with Secularism
The line separating secularism and religion is becoming thinner and thinner each day. Justin wondered whether secularism would at one time become a religion or if religions have any meaning in today’s secular life. In a conversation with his friend, Kelly, Justin appeared concerned about the ever-thinning line separating religion and secularism. “Nowadays people live with little regard to religious doctrines, there is increasing pressure for separation of religion from state; moreover, atheism is becoming a common thing, what happened to the times when religion used to be the people’s way of life” Justin wondered and lamented.
Kelly, noting the pessimism in her friend, responded, “it is not like that Justin, religion is still most people’s way of life and atheism is different from secularism in many ways”. She continued, “Secularism, unlike atheism, is a life philosophy, which tries to explain the role that religion plays in governance and public life”. Still unsatisfied, Justin queried “how can secularism be important in public life and yet it cannot explain the origin of life?”
Although secularism cannot explain where life came from, what life means or what people should do with their lives like Christians, Muslims, Judaists or Buddhists do, it nevertheless, explains the role of religion in public life and governance. Secularism, much like any religion, has prohibitions against drinking, smoking, or any unhealthy activities, which are important teachings in many religious faiths.
Intending to learn more, Justin asked again, “If secularism serves to promote religion in governance and in public life, isn’t in itself a religion and how is it different from the other religious faiths?” Kelly responded, “Inasmuch as secularism tries to describe the role of religion in governments and public life, secular doctrines are not religious, hence secularism is different from religion”. “In addition, secularism unlike religion, has no belief in deity and therefore not a religion.”
In most cases, religious beliefs enhance stereotyping and prejudices, which make religion a divisive factor in today’s society. However, secularism is not part of any religion but serves to protect all religions. “In this way, secularism protects people’s right of expressing their religious beliefs publicly”, Kelly, explained. “In other words, she continued, “secularism protects religious symbols; however, it also provides limits; for instance, a judge is not expected to wear a religious outfit while in court.” “Is like secularism protects religion while at the same time controls expression of religion in public life and in governance”, Justin concurred. “This makes religion compatible with secularism”, Kelly concluded.
Justin believes secularism is the same as atheism founded on anti-religious beliefs:
- Stereotyping and prejudices among different religious faiths
- Secularism does not believe in a supreme deity and eternal life
- Protection of freedom of expression and religious symbols
|Belief in a supreme deity||atheism|
|Stereotyping and prejudices||Antireligious|
|Prayer and communication with the gods||Freedom of expression|
|Eternal life||Protects religious symbols|
Contrary Case: No, Religion is not Compatible with Secularism
Grace was convinced that secularism is a religion in itself. She believed that religion is a defined system of beliefs and practices. “Secularism just like religion also is defined by some set of values and beliefs regarding public display of religious symbols and in governance”, she told Mark one evening. Mark had a contrary opinion, “But all religions have gods while secularism does not and therefore, not a religion”.
Grace, unconvinced, explained that most mainstream religious faiths like Buddhism also do not believe in a supernatural being. In addition, she believed that secularism, just like other religions, focuses on moral commandments that would enhance good physical health. Further, she believed, secularism sets limits for public expression of religious faiths in an effort to enhance religious tolerance. It describes the role of religion in governance and public life.
In states that have established one state religion, public expression of faiths and religious symbols are done in accordance with doctrinal teachings of the religion. In secular states, pop-cultural focus defines the public expression of faiths and politics.
From Grace’s reasoning, pop-culture and humanism, which define secular life, are either philosophies or religions that conflict with religious faiths. Pointing to an example of how secularism attempts to limit the public expression of religious faiths, Grace told Mark that religion and secularism are two contrasting doctrines, each with a set of beliefs and principles. In addition, secularism is also faced with certain flaws and problems such as universal acceptance and fundamentalism, which are common problems that face religious faiths.
Secularism attempts to unify religions and establish a common standard for public expression of faith. For example, secularism restricts judges from wearing religious garments when in courts and Muslim women from wearing veils in public. From these common experiences in many countries, Grace believed that secularism is trying to establish itself as a religion competing with religion for converts. In this way, she believed that religion and secularism have many contrasting aspects, which make them incompatible with one another.
Grace believes that a religion is defined by a system of beliefs, religious symbols, and practices:
- Many religions have no gods or supernatural being.
- Pop culture and humanism as aspects of secularism.
- Religion and secularism have contrasting doctrines, exhibit fundamentalism, and compete for converts.
|System of believes |
|Pop culture |
Competition for converts
Borderline Case: Yes/No
Jackson had mixed feelings about the whole issue of separating religion from the state. He was of the opinion that religion, being a way of life for most people, should also define how people wish to be governed. However, he noted that there have to be limited to the expression of religious practices and symbols in public. He felt that to promote religious tolerance among the many religious faiths, there has to be some sort of regulation of religions. He admitted that religion and secularism could coexist not as contrasting religions, but as independent philosophies each with its own set of beliefs and practices.
Secularism, just like religion, focuses on good physical health and general well-being. Secularism, for example, discourages unhealthy habits such as smoking or drinking to promote good health. In this aspect, religion and secularism tend to concur. In addition, secularism defines how one should live as a global citizen, free from suppression. Many religious faiths also promote healthy social and spiritual living. In these two aspects, religion and secularism seem to complement each other and thus compatible.
However, in many other aspects, religion and secularism tend to differ. Jackson felt that inasmuch as religion and secularism agree on matters of physical wellbeing, they present two contrasting views. Secularism is a philosophy based on the desire to put in place an autonomous socio-political system independent of religious beliefs. It is also naturalistic and more materialistic as opposed to religion that is based on faith and belief in a supernatural being.
In this way, religion and secularism appear to conflict with each other. In addition, secularism sets limits for public expression of religion; for example, it restricts Muslim women from wearing veils or judges from wearing religious outfits. The rationale is that religious neutrality in public places or in courts is important to promote religious tolerance. However, this appears to conflict with religious faiths because religious teachings advise followers to express their religion publicly. Therefore, by restricting public expression of faith, religion and secularism tend to conflict and therefore incompatible.
In secularism, the disconnection with religion may be mainly opportunistic intended to serve the political class at the expense of the religious beliefs of the citizens of a given country. The secular states tend to focus on wealth and power at the expense of peace, individual rights, and equality. However, secular states also have some level of tolerance and exercise neutrality towards different religious denominations. Nevertheless, such is expected as capitalistic states are mostly interested in labor productivity, not religious beliefs or practices of the citizens.
- Religion and secularism both provide for physical wellbeing and good health and discourage unhealthy habits.
- Secularism promotes tolerance, neutrality, and globalization.
- Secularism is based on naturalistic principles and is more materialistic
- Limitation of public expression of religious symbols conflicts with religious beliefs
|Physical wellbeing |
|Nonaccommodative to dissenting views |
Focus on power and wealth
Invented Case: The liberal democratic state of Mognis
In the seventeenth-century state of Mognis, the majority of the citizens were religious but not orthodox. Nevertheless, religion had a major influence in their everyday life making it difficult for their religion, Hinduism, from the state. Even in their cultural practices involving the various ethnic groups, religious doctrines were important. Secularism lacking atheist notions was also rife in public life. The majority of the people of this country were either Hindu or Bengali.
The country also had many religious communities and indigenous minorities. The ruler of Magnolias at that time wanted to entrench secularism in the constitution despite the majority of the people being highly religious. He reasoned that secularism would allow the citizens to practice their various religious faiths and at the same time protect the interests and the rights of the minority groups. Furthermore, secularism would lead to a more pluralist society accommodating varied religious and cultural aspects. His idea of a secular state involved a value-based secular state that promotes religious equality, individual liberties, and peace.
In this state, after implementing the secular law, people had the right to criticize a particular religion and were at liberty to reject or denounce their religion and adopt a different religion. The state also promoted inter-religious dialogues and deliberations to prevent religious extremism. Individuals were also at liberty to embrace any religious denomination or choose to remain without one. Furthermore, in this state, civil rights were protected including rights to vote or vie for any public office. Discrimination based on religion was not allowed, instead, religious tolerance was encouraged.
Under this model, religion and secularism had mutual exclusion with the religious and political institutions having a clear line of separation. In this sense, Mognolis was not a religious state but all religions were privatized as a way of promoting democratic development. At the same time, the state was not anti-religious but undertook to protect religious liberty and equality among all citizens.
Mongolia supported individual liberties, religious equality, and peace, which represents a perfect way secularism can be implemented in a dominantly religious country:
- No religion was a state religion but all religions were equal.
- Individual rights and rights of citizens were recognized irrespective of their religious beliefs or practices.
- The secular law promoted inter-religious dialogue and religious tolerance an important element of peace.
|Religious doctrines in people’s lives |
Minority religious beliefs
|Inter-religious dialogue |
Individual liberties of the citizens
Equality irrespective of religious beliefs
Social Context: Politicians and religious leader’s role in Secular states
Politicians and religious leaders
Secularism is highly contested particularly by the religious leaders. Most religious leaders are opposed to secularism terming it incompatible with the religious beliefs of the majority. For instance, opposition to secularism in India was mostly from the academic and religious leaders who argued that secularism in itself as a concept was seriously flawed. According to religious leaders, secularism was a form of flawed modernization, which demanded the removal of religious practices from public life. They further argued that secularism underestimated the importance of religion in people’s lives and challenged the fundamental framework of secularism.
Politicians on the other hand, when criticizing secularism, focus on two fundamental issues. Firstly, both secularism and religion are important in most countries because politicians in most states cannot justify their political decisions by entirely relying on their religious beliefs. Secondly, citizens cannot make their decisions by relying exclusively on secular considerations but have to invoke religious reasons. In addition, most decisions including secular or public decisions are based on religious rationale. Political decisions and their justifications also rely mostly on the religious rationale.
Religious leaders argue that by discouraging public expression of faith or religious practices in a secular state, secularism becomes hostile to religion. Other religious clerics argue that secularism purports to promote inter-religious harmony while at the same time attempting to establish itself as a central doctrine for public life. Others claim that the secular law does not recognize community rights and therefore cannot adequately protect religious minority groups from discrimination.
In the implementation of secular law, clerics and politicians play a vital role in adopting an appropriate model of secularism that can accommodate religion.
- Most political decisions are based on religious rationale even in secular states and therefore dialogue between political leaders and clerics is important
- Religion can only become compatible with religion when religious establishments and secular organizations thrive independently
- Secular decisions are based on religious reasons, which shows that religion and secularism are interdependent
|Justifying political decisions |
Justification of public decisions
Public expression of faith
Minority religious groups
|Inter-religious harmony |
Central doctrine for public life
The basis for public decisions
Results in Language
- Individual rights.
- Basis for political and public decisions.
- Religious tolerance.
Religion has a major influence on people’s daily lives. Most political decisions affecting public lives usually have a religious rationale. Religion also protects the individual rights of the citizens by teaching equality among all people. Religious doctrines offer guidance on how people should conduct themselves in public and encourages them to be tolerant of each other’s beliefs thus promoting peaceful co-existence.
- Inter-religious harmony.
- Democratic development.
- Economic development.
Secularism acts as a central doctrine that promotes inter-religious harmony among religions. In addition, secular organizations including civil societies contribute to democratic development by protecting minority religious groups. Secular organizations are driven by wealth creation not religious beliefs; therefore, they contribute to the economic development of a country particularly when implemented at the policy level.
Yes, Secularism is compatible with religion. Secularism encourages inter-religious harmony and promotes religious tolerance among different religions. Secularism protects the individual rights of the minority religious groups allowing them to exercise their faith freely. Secularism provides for equality among the citizens by acting as a basis for public and political decisions.
After reading the notes that I have compiled, I am still strongly convinced that secularism is compatible with religion. Considering that theocratic states often turn out to abuse individual rights and deter democratic development, does secularism provide an alternative to religious states? Indeed secularism provides a clear separation between religion and the state, which promotes democratic development. Furthermore, in a multi-religious state, secularism promotes equality among all the religious groups including the minorities, which promotes peaceful co-existence.
Is secularism alone in states effective?
A secular state is often disconnected from religion including disconnection between religious and secular institutions. Secular states do not support the establishment of religious institutions and can even withdraw certain privileges accorded to religions. Furthermore, secular states do not recognize any particular religion and therefore give no grants to religious institutions. In this way, democratic development, individual rights, and religious freedom are hampered in secular states
Is the separation of the state from religion worthy than the union of the state and religion?
Indeed the separation of the state from religion is more beneficial than an alliance between the state and religion. States with an alliance with the major religions usually experience connection at the policy level. The policies affect the minority religious groups and may hamper economic and democratic development. Whenever a dominant religion is firmly established within a state, persecution of the minority groups is common.
Secularism refers to the ideology that particular practices and organizations should exist independently of religion. Essentially, secularism supports political decisions based on evidence and logic rather than religious doctrines. Most arguments in favor of secularism claim that secularism is a movement towards modernization, a break from religion. Secularism is deeply rooted in the doctrine of religious tolerance.
In this respect, secularism establishes a clear separation between the church and politics, and by so doing, secularism promotes religious freedom. Modern secularism arose in the seventeenth century as a solution to political problems and religious wars in Europe by establishing a political ideology independent of the religious doctrines (Larmore, 1996, p.71). Secularism provides the best socio-political arrangement that allows individual freedoms and religious practices to thrive.
Secularism as a Religion
Secularism aims at removing religion from the public domain and offering a solution to solving interreligious strife. Secularism shapes the various aspects of religion including religious practices and beliefs. It supports mutual dependence between religious beliefs and political power (Perry, 1991, p.156). In addition, secularism is usually neutral to any political ethic. Without secularism, the dominant religion in a country enjoys immense privileges while the minority religious groups face discrimination (Mohsin, 1999, p.29).). Among the important doctrines of secularism is that it advocates for the complete separation of the church from the state. In addition, the doctrine grants religious freedom and influences public religious practices.
To promote religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue, secularism forces religious groups or extremists to comply with a liberal democratic rule. Secularism allows an individual to evaluate and examine particular religious doctrines and beliefs before making a free choice regarding his/her religion (Sheth, & Gurpreet, 1997, p.115). Religious groups demand minimal intervention by the state on their practices and beliefs.
Therefore, secularism, which claims neutrality to all religions and the rest of the society, provides an ideal environment for these religions to thrive. The increased demand for noninterference made by religious groups is based on the argument that the law forces religious groups to comply with certain provisions contrary to their religious beliefs or the law prevents them from exercising their religious practices.
Contrary to the belief that secularism does not protect religious minorities, a practice that is widely regulated can be permitted in a minority group because of the significance it has to the members of the religious group (Tambiah, 1998, p.98). Minority religious groups usually claim non-interference but sometimes require special assistance to acquire certain privileges enjoyed by the other groups (Madan, 1998, p.67).
Some secular states are guided by values such as religious equality, peace, and liberty to all citizens. Weithman (1997) notes, in these value-based states, individuals have the right to criticize any religion and can freely embrace any religion or remain without any religion (p.45). In addition, these states protect individual rights to vote in an election or contest in any public office without discrimination based on one’s religion.
Despite most religious groups demanding non-interference in their religious practices by the state, they need assistance to acquire certain privileges. Secularism promotes religious tolerance, religious freedom, and individual rights, which are the fundamental principles of any democracy. Secularism also protects the minority groups from discrimination by allowing free exercising of their faith. More importantly, secularism, through the principle of equal distance, ensures there is no state religion, which contributes to religious harmony and peace. In addition, secularism contributes to the separation of the state from religion as compared to theocratic nations, which is important for democratic development. By protecting individual rights and religious practices, secularism is compatible with religion.
Larmore, C. (1996). The Morals of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Madan, T. (1998). Secularism in its place. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Mohsin, A. (1999). National Security and the Minorities: The Bangladesh case. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Perry, J. (1991). Love & Power: The Role of Religion and Morality in American Politics, New York: Oxford University Press.
Sheth, D., & Gurpreet, M. (1997) Minority Identities and the Nation-State, New Delhi: Oxford: University Press.
Tambiah, S. (1998). Secularism and Its Critics. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Weithman, P. (1997). Religion and Contemporary Liberalism. Notre Dame: University Of Notre Dame Press.