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Secularism and Religionunlocked

Secularism and Religionunlocked

  • Steven KettellSteven KettellDepartment of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick


The boundary between the religious and the secular spheres of life is contested in many parts of the world. From the latter decades of the 20th century, controversies over issues such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, assisted dying, and freedom of speech, as well as clashes around reproductive rights and equality issues, have all featured highly on national political agendas. Set against a backdrop of the “return of religion” to public life, these debates and tensions have given rise to the notion that secularism might be in a state of crisis or moving toward some form of post-secular condition. The term “secularism” is itself also contested. The precise nature of the “secular” and the “religious” spheres of life is subject to interpretation, and secularism in practice can be manifest in a number of ways. This ranges from exclusivist forms of secularism in countries such as the United States and France to inclusive secularism in the case of India. Supporters of a role for religion in public life maintain that religion provides a range of valuable public goods and gives individuals a sense of meaning and identity. Secularists, on the other hand, claim that the separation of church and state provides the best framework for upholding the rights and freedoms of all citizens regardless of their religion or belief.


  • Political Behavior
  • Political Institutions
  • Political Psychology
  • Political Sociology


The boundary between the “religious” and the “secular” spheres of life is contested in many parts of the world. Controversies over issues such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, assisted dying, and freedom of expression, as well as clashes around reproductive rights and equality issues have all, from the latter years of the 20th century, featured highly on national political agendas. Supporters of a role for religion in public life maintain that religion provides a range of valuable public goods and gives individuals a sense of meaning and identity. As such, they argue that efforts to keep religion out of the public sphere are illiberal, intolerant, and undemocratic. Secularists, on the other hand, claim that the separation of church and state provides the best framework for upholding the rights and freedoms of all citizens regardless of their religion or belief.

This article explores the key themes and debates around the concept of secularism. It discusses the so-called return of religion to public life and the notion that these developments might constitute some kind of crisis of secularism or indicate a shift to a post-secular condition. It examines the core conceptual issues and problems in defining the term “secularism” itself. Some of the main arguments that are presented by supporters and critics of secularism in respect to the role that religion should have in the public sphere are explored. Claims that the West is now entering a “post-secular” phase are discussed.

The Return of Religion

The idea of secularization was one of the foundational assumptions of the social sciences. Many scholars believed that as the forces of modernity took hold, religious beliefs and practices would gradually lose social status, relevance, and hold on the lives of adherents. These forces included the rise of scientific rationalism, technological advancements, and the functional differentiation of the state, which, from the 19th century began to assume many of the social roles played by religion in areas such as health and education provision (Norris & Inglehart, 2004). For much of the 20th century these assumptions appeared to be validated. The postwar period was characterized by a progressive secularization of social and cultural life in most Western liberal democratic nations, with declines in all measures of religiosity (including attendance, membership, and beliefs) (Norris & Inglehart, 2004). However, by the turn of the new millennium scholars were becoming ever-more mindful of the fact that, far from disappearing, religious forces remained highly influential in political affairs. Events such as the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the emergence of the Christian Right in the United States, the collapse of state-led atheist regimes in the Soviet Union, and the rise of religious nationalism (as witnessed in countries such as Egypt, Turkey, India, and Pakistan) highlighted the multiplicity of ways in which religion and politics were intertwined. This “return of religion” to public life has raised questions about whether or not secularism is now in a state of crisis or perhaps moving into a “post-secular” phase (on these developments see Beckford, 2012; Casanova, 1994; Hjelm, 2015; Micklethwaite & Wooldridge, 2009).

The extent to which faith is involved in public life goes beyond high-profile political issues and debates (such as same-sex marriage or assisted dying) and can also be seen in the scale of legal regulations and processes concerning religion. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center (2011), for example, found that 59 countries (30% of the world’s total) had specific laws or policies prohibiting blasphemy, apostasy, or defamation of religion, and that 44 of those countries enforced legal punishments for such behaviors that included fines, imprisonment, and even death. Further research by Pew (2015) has noted a considerable increase in government restrictions on religion, with 63% of the world’s population currently living in countries that are classified as having “high” or “very high” levels of restriction. Studies on the relationship between religion and the state have also highlighted a range of institutional and legal interconnections. According to research by Barro and McLeary (2003) 75 countries around the world had an official state religion at the turn of the millennium (40% of the world’s total), and many others had less formalized, but still influential, connections to religious organizations (Kettell, 2014). As Fox (2015) points out, no country in the world has a complete separation of church and state.

Conceptualizing Secularism

Debates around secularism are shaped by questions of conceptual definition. In one respect, the term “secularism” is a relatively easy and straightforward one to define. At its most basic level secularism simply entails a normative commitment to neutrality on the part of the state toward religious affairs, necessitating that the state should neither favor, disfavor, promote, nor discourage any particular religious (or nonreligious) belief and viewpoint over another. In institutional terms this is typically understood as meaning a commitment to upholding the separation of church and state.

Nevertheless, the simplicity of this notion belies more complex undercurrents. The idea of secularism as denoting a fixed, unchanging category of life predicated upon separate and clearly demarcated “secular” and “religious” spheres raises a number of issues. One of these is that the very concept of the “secular” is itself bound up with the binary opposite notion of the “religious.” Both terms emerged in western Europe during the Middle Ages: the term “religion” (deriving from the Latin “religio”) being initially used as a referent to the communal life of Christian monks, the term “secular” (from the Latin “saeculum”) referring to the world beyond these monastic communities. From the outset the two terms were constructed as opposites, with the “secular” being defined primarily in terms of what it was not—in this case: those things, places, and ideas that were distinct from the sphere of religious authority (e.g., see Taylor, 2007).

A related problem is that the concept of “religion” is itself ambiguous and contested. In many ways this too is linked to the historical and geographical context in which the term arose and developed, being used initially to describe a specifically western European form of Christianity. Alongside this, the sheer diversity of religious beliefs and behaviors makes it extremely difficult to produce a coherent and accepted definition of what “religion” actually is. Not all scholars are in agreement on whether religion involves particular types of beliefs, such as the existence of a god or gods (which many folk religions do not possess), certain types of practices, such as membership in a particular institution and attendance at a place of worship (which is far less relevant for religions such as Buddhism and Confucianism), or a commitment to follow a divinely inspired moral code (early hunter-gatherer societies, for example, had typically amoral forms of religion) (on these points see Boyer, 2004).

These conceptual issues have considerable implications. Some scholars have argued that the binary framework of distinct “secular” and “religious” spheres is so historically and culturally specific that the terms cease to have any real meaning outside of this particular, Western-centric context. Applying the terms to non-Western cultures and societies that fail to make such a clear-cut distinction (such as Islamic societies in which religion permeates all aspects of life) is sometimes said to be misleading and inappropriate. Some commentators, such as Timothy Fitzgerald (1987), have subsequently argued that the term “religion” is so problematic that it should be discarded altogether. Others have sought to highlight the ways in which the apparently separate categories of the “secular” and the “religious” are mutually constituted. As Talal Asad (2003) puts it, secularism constructs religion as its “other” in order to create its own sense of internal coherence. This involves imposing a fixed and unchanging concept of “religion” based on supernatural beliefs while presenting secularism as a rational category dealing with the natural world and the social order (on this point also see Mahmood, 2017). Other scholars, such as Charles Taylor (2007), have argued that secularism itself has theological origins and have pointed to the rise of monotheism—and especially the Protestant Reformation—as having paved the way for a progressive diminution in the role of the sacred and the notion of supernatural forces being present in everyday social and cultural life.

A further issue to be considered here is that there is no consensus as to what “secularism” actually means. The term was conceived by George Holyoake in the mid-19th century as a way of denoting an ethical framework independent of religion while avoiding the negative connotations that were associated with the term “atheism,” which had long been considered to pose a threat to the social order. Thus, for Holyoake, secularism was defined as “the study of promoting human welfare by material means; measuring human welfare by the utilitarian rule, and making the service of others a duty of life . . . a series of principles intended for the guidance of those who find Theology indefinite, or inadequate, or deem it unreliable” (Holyoake, 1871). Other commentators, however, have described secularism in rather more negative terms. For some, such as Craig Calhoun (2011), secularism is seen as something akin to an ideology, a doctrine, or a political program, often with anti-religious connotations. According to Brett Scharffs (2011), secularism is little more than “a misguided, even dangerous, ideology that may degenerate into its own dystopian fundamentalism” (p. 109).

Varieties of Secularism

In terms of its practical and institutional arrangements, secularism can also be applied in a number of ways. Although the basic premise of secularism refers to the idea of state neutrality in respect to religious issues, the idea of “neutrality” remains open to interpretation. Thus, different forms of secularism can be said to exist along a continuum according to the extent to which the state maintains a distance from religion (a public sphere shorn of religious influence) or supports a position of equity toward religion (providing equal recognition and access for all religions in the public sphere). This distinction is sometimes described as one between “hard” and “soft” or “exclusivist” and “inclusivist” varieties of secularism (e.g., see Kettell, 2015; Kosmin & Keysar, 2009).

The precise form taken by secularism in any given context is shaped by a number of factors. These include a range of social, cultural, and political conditions (such as the composition, forms, and diversity of the religion or religions involved) as well as the specific features of the national and historical circumstances of the country in question. In western Europe the drive for the development of secularism was bound-up with a series of historical processes culminating in the creation of the territorially sovereign state, the rise of nationalism, and the growth of popular sovereignty. Central to much of this were the so-called religious wars from the 15th to the 17th centuries, one effect of which was to create a new set of ideas about the relationship between spiritual and temporal sources of authority (set out in the treaties of Westphalia in 1648) that prohibited rulers from intervening in the internal affairs of other states. Another critical effect was to create a particular view of religion as constituting a threat, or as a problem to be solved (see Taylor, 2007).

Nevertheless, there are significant regional variations. Most western European countries have tended to adopt an accommodating position, involving nuanced, pragmatic, and flexible relationships between the state and religion, and Christianity retains a privileged public role in a number of European states. A good example of this is the case of the United Kingdom. Although the United Kingdom is largely secular at the level of culture and society—the latest figures from British Social Attitudes (2017) have found that 52% of adults now describe themselves as being “non-religious”—it maintains close institutional links to Christianity through the formally established Church of England. The United Kingdom’s reigning monarch is simultaneously the head of the Church, and Anglican bishops continue to hold reserved seats in the upper chamber of the legislature (the House of Lords), a situation that is unique among advanced liberal democracies (Morris, 2009).

The U.K. context is in stark contrast to the situation in France. Here, a popular struggle against the power of an oppressive Catholic Church led (eventually, in the 1905 Law on the Separation of the Churches) to a model of secularism characterized by a public sphere free from any overt displays of religious expression and influence. In this form of secularism, known as laïcité, the French state keeps religion in a position of subordination, providing significant financial support for religious organizations (including the maintenance of churches and funds for religious schools) but reserving the right to intervene in religious affairs in order to uphold the broader values of the republic. In 2004, for example, the French government imposed a ban on displays of religious symbols and items of clothing in public schools (following a high-profile case in which two Muslim schoolgirls were expelled for wearing the hijab) on the grounds that this was needed to ensure that all citizens obtained an equal education without external coercion. A full ban on wearing the Islamic veil (the niqab and the burqa) in public spaces was introduced in 2011 (on secularism in France, see Kuru, 2009).

A similar type of secularism to that practiced in France is also found in Turkey. Secularism here was introduced by the first president of the republic, the nationalist ruler Kemal Ataturk, who in 1923 established secularism as part of a project of modernization. The explicit aim in this context was to transform Turkey into a “Western style” state, and to create a public sphere that was free from religious influence. Set against the historical backdrop of the Ottoman Empire, in which religion had been a dominant social and political force, the Turkish secular arrangements included a variety of constitutionally enshrined controls and restrictions on religious practices, particularly involving the role of religion in the public arena (such as bans on displays of religious symbols and clothing in state buildings). Religious instruction and education in Turkey is also sanctioned by a state-controlled Directorate of Religious Affairs (Kuru, 2009).

Another form of hard, or exclusivist, secularism was developed in the United States. In contrast to French secularism (based on historic opposition to a powerful church), and Turkish secularism (used as a symbol of modernity), secularism in the United States was driven by high levels of religious pluralism and diversity. For many settlers fleeing religious conflict and persecution in western Europe, the American colonies were considered an attractive destination precisely because they would provide a greater degree of religious freedom. Yet in a significant number of cases, high levels of religious zeal in settler communities led to new forms of persecution, restrictions on religious liberty, and growing tensions between competing religious groups. One of the clearest illustrations of this is the case of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in which citizens not conforming to the religious edicts of the dominant Puritan sect were persecuted, imprisoned, and in some cases even killed. Religious tests and qualifications for public office were also common and are still retained by a number of states today, despite being formally unconstitutional. Article 19 of the Constitution of the State of Arkansas, for instance, declares that: “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.” Article 14 of the Constitution of the State of Mississippi holds that: “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state” (on these points see Jacoby, 2004).

Faced with a growing need to secure peaceful coexistence between competing religious groups, the newly independent American states enshrined constitutional provisions for maintaining an exclusivist secular system. A key step in this direction was section 16 of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, overseen by Thomas Jefferson, which stated that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” Following this, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (ratified in 1791) provided the keystone for the new secular arrangements, declaring that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This amendment prohibited the federal government from privileging any particular religion and supported the strict legal separation of church and state throughout the land. Although individual citizens remain free to express themselves and to use religion language and arguments in the public sphere, the United States (unlike France and Turkey) is constitutionally prohibited from intervening in religious affairs, and is thus unable to lend its support, or declare its opposition, to any particular religious (or nonreligious) worldview.

This constitutional separation of church and state in the United States has set the framework for a series of legal battles over the role of religion in the public sphere, leading to a number of high-profile court cases around the use of religious symbols and ceremonies in state buildings, land, and offices. Key examples here include cases brought by secularist campaign groups opposed to the displaying of a cross-shaped section of steel found in the wreckage of the World Trade Center in the partially state-funded National September 11 Memorial and Museum (a case that was eventually lost in 2013), opposition to the displaying of Christian nativity scenes in public parks, opposition to the exhibition and distribution of religious material in public schools (a case in 2012 saw a teenage atheist, Jessica Ahlquist, successfully file a lawsuit for the removal of a religious prayer banner), and opposition to displays of the Ten Commandments around courthouses (in 2011 an Ohio appeals court ordered Judge James DeWeese to remove a poster of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom, following a similar case involving the same judge in 2000). Long-standing (and as-yet unsuccessful) campaigns for removing the phrase “Under God” from the pledge of allegiance and “In God We Trust” from the U.S. currency (both formally introduced during the 1950s at the height of the Cold War against communism) are good illustrations of these campaign measures as well.

The kind of exclusivist secularism found in France, Turkey, and the United States can also assume more authoritarian and illiberal forms. The rise of communism during the 20th century saw states such as the Soviet Union and China enforce official scientific materialist doctrines for the state-led promotion of atheism and pursue an overtly anti-religious agenda, leading to significant restrictions on religious freedom. The rise of authoritarian forms of secularism was further shaped by the experiences of imperialism and decolonization. In countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, and prerevolutionary Iran, for example, postcolonial nationalist regimes established authoritarian state structures that were often hostile to religious groups, viewing them as potential competitors for political power. In some cases, such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood (which was founded in Egypt in 1928), religious movements critical of the ruling regimes were banned and driven underground. While many secularists reject the idea that such political regimes warrant the label “secular,” because they fail to adhere to the principle of neutrality in religious affairs, critics of secularism often view the authoritarian turn as being implicit in the very notion of exclusivist secularism (on these themes, see Beattie, 2008; Mahmood, 2016; Woodhead, 2013).

On the opposite side of the spectrum is the inclusivist model of secularism found in India. In a similar fashion to the development of secularism in the United States, secularism in India was adopted as a means of dealing with the social dilemmas linked to high levels of religious pluralism and diversity. That said, in contrast to the U.S. model, which requires the state to maintain a clear legal distance from religion, the chief characteristic of the Indian version of secularism is that it upholds a notion of neutrality in which all religions are permitted equal access to, and a role in, the public sphere. In this context the state maintains a position of “principled distance,” intervening only to ensure that the overall balance of social values is maintained (see Bhargava, 2006, 2010). At the same time, however, secularism in India also remains a contested issue, and since the rise to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, growing concerns have been voiced about the role played by religion in India’s public life.

Supporters and Critics

Debates around the merits or otherwise of a role for religion in the public sphere tend to be polarized between supporters of a secular (usually exclusivist) state, who favor a public sphere free from religious influence, and those who argue that religion should play an active role in public life. Although there are varied arguments on both sides of this debate, the key claims tend to focus on a number of core themes. Arguments in favor of secularism center on claims that a secular state offers the best mechanism for guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of all citizens irrespective of their religion or belief. In contrast, arguments in favor of a role for religion in the public sphere are typically based upon the claim that religion provides a public good, and that denying religion a role in the public square is illiberal, undemocratic, and an infringement on religious freedoms.

The Case for Secularism

At its most elementary level, secularism is nothing more than the separation of church and state. This entails a commitment to a principle of neutrality by the state toward matters involving religion in public life. Thus, the state cannot favor or disfavor any particular religion or belief over another. But the principle of neutrality and the scope of the public sphere can be understood in very different ways. Many secularists understand the separation of church and state to mean that religion should exist on the same plane as all other political actors—that it should not be permitted a privileged role in public life but should otherwise be a free and equal participant in political debates. Others, however, take a more restrictive approach. Many supporters of exclusivist secularism frequently contend that, in diverse and pluralistic societies where citizens hold a variety of competing and sometimes incompatible worldviews—or what John Rawls (1971) termed “irreconcilable comprehensive doctrines”—actors making arguments in the public sphere should adopt a secular form of language and reasoning—a framework commonly described as “public reason.” From this perspective, arguments deployed by proponents of comprehensive doctrines (such as religious beliefs and worldviews) are said to be truly intelligible only to members of the particular group or community involved and will not therefore be universally accessible to all citizens. In contrast, the use of public reason—a set of criteria for concepts and language that the vast majority of reasonable citizens can understand and agree on—is said to be necessary for facilitating the kind of deliberative engagement and free exchange of ideas that a democratic society needs in order to function effectively. As such, secularists often maintain that religious (i.e., theologically based) forms of reasoning should be considered illegitimate for use in the public sphere or should be permissible only to the extent that secular (public reason) arguments are later forthcoming. Debates about the scope of the public sphere criteria, however, remain ongoing. Some secularists argue that public reason should be applied only to legislative and constitutional issues, but others maintain that the principle should be extended to embrace a conception of the public sphere that includes all matters of public discourse and political decision-making between citizens (on these issues see, e.g., Habermas, 2006; Quong, 2004; Rawls, 1997; Sajo, 2009).

A related argument that is often made in support of exclusivist secularism is that a secular state is a necessary condition for ensuring human rights and freedoms, including the freedom of religion. The central claim here is that secularism has a double-sided quality: simultaneously protecting the state from religion but also protecting religion from the state. So, citizens cannot be subjected to, or forced to abide by, religious imperatives, dictates, or laws. And by the same token, religious citizens themselves (at least in the private sphere) are free from interference from state officials, and thus have the freedom to worship and practice religion freely.

At the same time, secularists claim that religious organizations enjoy certain privileges that are often unfair and unjustified because they are not open and freely available to all citizens regardless of their beliefs. Thus, even in largely secularized societies, such as the United Kingdom, religious organizations are granted benefits that are not available to other social groups, such as trade unions or nonreligious charities, giving them a position in public life that can even, in some instances, influence public policy decisions. Such privileges in the case of the United Kingdom include the involvement of religious authorities in the upper legislature (allowing them to vote on policy decisions, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage), a prominent role the education system (allowing them to discriminate against children on the basis of their ascribed religion in the case of faith schools), and a variety of exemptions for religious groups on issues relating to tax and legal regulations (such as employment law and the provision of public services). One contentious issue for secular campaigners in the United States is the fact that many religious organizations are able to register as charities, allowing them to claim billions of dollars of public subsidy (Cragun, Yeager, & Vega, 2012). In Germany, the state automatically deducts a “church tax” from registered members of many religious denominations as part of its public subsidies for religion unless members expressly opt out (and in so doing risk losing access to religious services). Similar taxes are in place in several other European countries, including Austria, Italy, and Finland. In short, the overall argument from secularist campaigners is that religious views and organizations have enjoyed an excessively privileged and protected status for too long, and that they are no more deserving of special treatment than any other sectional interest group.

Evidence exists to support the view that secularism offers a way of increasing human rights and freedoms. For instance, research conducted by Kettell (2014) has found that countries with a state religion possess substantially lower levels of political rights and civil liberties than countries that do not possess a state religion. Political rights (such as free and fair elections, nondiscriminatory voter registration, and transparency of vote counting) were 27% worse in countries with a state religion, and civil liberties (including freedom of expression, belief, and association) were 37% lower. At the same time, countries with a state religion were found to have far higher (146%) levels of government regulation of religion (which is perhaps unsurprising, given that regulating religion is one of the reasons for having a state religion in the first instance), but also to have much higher (41%) levels of social regulation of religion (defined as the extent to which society itself seeks to impose restrictions or conformity of religious beliefs and practices), and 68% higher levels of religious persecution than countries without a state religion.

For these reasons, secularism has a broad-based appeal to both religious and nonreligious citizens alike. Indeed, while secularism is often presented by its critics as being anti-religious, its application in highly religious societies, such as the United States and India, shows this not to be the case. That said, some secularists do highlight the various ways in which religion can act as a negative social force. Key arguments here include the role of religion in cases of violence and conflict (including religiously inspired terrorism and intercommunal violence, but also cases of personal violence such as the parental withholding of medical treatment for children on religious grounds); instances of discrimination on issues of gender, sexual orientation, and reproductive rights (such as access to contraceptive healthcare and abortion); the role of religion in education systems (for instance, seeking to ban or distort discussion of scientific topics in the classroom, such as evolution), and high-profile cases of the abuse of religious power (such as the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church).

Secularists who take this position often maintain that religious beliefs are especially pernicious in this respect, precisely because they are grounded in grand cosmic claims about the nature of reality, the afterlife, and moral endeavor. This, it is argued, creates a prime source of social “othering,” generating strong in- and out-group dynamics and mentalities that can lead to prejudice, intolerance, distrust, and violence. On this basis, it is argued that giving religion a role in public life opens the way to all manner of unwelcome sectarian and social divisions. In addition to these points, advocates of secularism sometimes also maintain that religion is not required for moral or ethical behavior, and that secular groups and societies can be just as effective (if not, in some cases, more so) at engendering trust and social cohesion as religious communities. Research by Zuckerman (2008), for instance, has found that secular societies tend to score better on a range of social indicators, such as levels of social inequality, family breakdown, violent crime, juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, and happiness, than religious societies.

The Case Against Secularism

Critics of exclusivist secularism commonly argue that the public reason criteria advocated by thinkers such as Rawls is unfairly restrictive, and that the public sphere should be open and accessible to religious views and arguments. One key claim here is that it is unreasonable (if not practically impossible) to expect citizens for whom religion forms an intrinsic part of their identity to exclude religious beliefs and motivations from political debates. According to its critics, this requirement violates the moral agency of religious citizens, forcing them to act in an inauthentic manner by requiring them to put their deeply held convictions and real motivations to one side and instead justify themselves in non-theological terms. As such, excluding religion from the public sphere is said to impose an unreasonable burden on citizens with religious beliefs because the need to translate arguments into public reason is distributed unequally, falling as it does on religious but not nonreligious citizens. Accordingly, some, such as the German social theorist Jurgen Habermas, have called for a broader “multi-dimensional concept of reason” and maintain that nonreligious citizens need to be more open and respectful of religious claims and ideas so that citizens can work together to find ways of reaching a “rationally motivated agreement” (Habermas, 2006; also see Asad, 2003; Wolterstorff, 2010).

In a similar fashion, critics of exclusivist secularism also argue that religious discourses or worldviews are no different from (and are therefore just as valid as) political worldviews or ideological perspectives such as “liberalism,” “socialism,” and “conservatism.” As such, prohibiting the use of religious arguments in the public domain is said to be profoundly illiberal and undemocratic, raising a barrier to the free flow of ideas within society. An exclusivist form of secularism is also said to contain intrinsic dangers, because suppressing people’s identities in such a fashion risks creating pressures that might lead to growing resentment, potentially driving otherwise-moderate people of faith into more extremist positions (see Stepan, 2000; Wolterstorff, 2010).

A related claim here is that religious views warrant a space in the public sphere because they are able to make a valuable contribution in terms of promoting positive social values. At the core of this argument is the notion that religion contains a moral dimension with the potential to benefit public discourse, such as highlighting issues of injustice, poverty, social inequality, and exclusion. Religion, in this sense, is considered to be a substantial public good, a repository of values and morality that can be drawn on for the benefit of all citizens. Commonly cited historical examples of this include the role of religious organizations in opposing slavery; their role in developing the civil rights movement in the United States; and the role of the Catholic church in opposing, and ultimately helping to bring down, the communist regimes of the Soviet bloc. Aligned with this is the popular assertion that religion offers a unique and beneficial source of social capital, helping to produce the “social glue” of public trust, cooperation, and cohesion that a democratic society needs in order to function effectively. A key argument in this regard is that religious citizens are more likely to become engaged in charitable activities, such as volunteering and making donations to good causes, than nonreligious citizens. This assumption has underpinned a range of public policy measures, including the promotion of faith-based initiatives in the United States and the attempt to foster a “Big Society” agenda in the United Kingdom based on allowing religious groups to assume a greater role in the delivery of welfare and public services (on these issues, see Smidt, 2003).

Another common argument put forward by critics of secularism is the claim that the idea of “neutrality” on which secular states are based is a myth. Instead, critics maintain that the relationship between religion and the public sphere will always reflect underlying power relations within a society, promoting and upholding certain values and interests rather than others. From this perspective, the idea of the supposedly neutral secular state is said to reflect a historically specific, Western bias that is rooted in certain ideas about the nature of politics and particular assumptions about the (privatized) character of religion. This, according to Modood (2010), views religion as a source of conflict and social tensions and is hostile to non-Christian forms of religion (typically Islam) that are unable or unwilling to confine themselves to the private sphere.

Related to this argument is the view that the concept of “reason” that has dominated secular Western thought since the time of the Enlightenment is itself problematic. A central point here is that, like the concept of “religion” itself, the claims of secular reason—such as the view that human beings have certain inalienable rights (for example, the right to life, liberty, property, and suchlike)—are also founded on unprovable, nonverifiable assumptions. Moreover, the idea of reason (and secularism itself) is said to suffer from the problem of “incompleteness,” being unable in and of itself to provide a basis for deriving a moral framework for human life and society. Without religion as an objective moral anchor, reason, it is said, will descend into a crass individualism, moral relativism, and an impoverished public discourse (on this see Kettell, 2009).

In recent years, many critics have complained about what they see as a militant, radical, intolerant, and illiberal form of secularism that is determined to marginalize religion and force it out of public life. Some of the most high-profile assertions here have come from the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, warned on several occasions that a radical and aggressive secularism was gaining ground in the United States and Europe, and that this development posed a grave threat to freedom of expression as well as traditional social values. In the United Kingdom the claim that religion is being driven out of public life has led to a number of high-profile court cases. In 2012, four such cases involving alleged discrimination on religious grounds were taken to the European Court of Human Rights. Three of the cases were rejected, while the fourth (involving the case of an airline employee who wanted to wear a cross at work) was upheld, requiring that the uniform of the airline be amended to allow for reasonable accommodation (a change that the airline had already undertaken) (on the idea of “militant secularism” see Kettell, 2015).

The Future of Secularism

While these arguments about the merits or otherwise of secularism are well rehearsed, a relatively new feature of the debate is the view that Western democratic societies are now becoming increasingly “post-secular.” The “return of religion,” the endurance of religious communities, and the growth of religious influence in public life are said to have challenged the underlying assumptions on which secularism is based. As Habermas (2008) puts it: “Today, public consciousness in Europe can be described in terms of a ‘post-secular society’ to the extent that at present it still has to adjust itself to the continued existence of religious communities in an increasingly secularised environment” (p. 19). According to some scholars, these pressures are an indication that secularism itself is under strain or even experiencing some form of crisis. As Saba Mahmood (2009) writes: “What was once a latent schism between religious and secular worldviews has now become an incommensurable divide” (p. 836).

Although the exact contours and features of this new global landscape remain to be seen, a central claim is that the public reassertion of religion poses a significant problem for exclusivist models of secularism. One of the main dilemmas that now confronts secular Western societies is how to balance a commitment to neutrality in respect to religion with growing levels of religious pluralism, diversity, and assertiveness that are being driven by the increasingly interconnected and globalized nature of the modern world. The challenges posed to secular societies are becoming manifest in a number of ways. In the United States, the Christian Right, in close alliance with President Donald Trump, are actively pursuing an agenda of trying to undermine LGBT rights, restrict women’s access to reproductive healthcare, and push for greater religious influence in social and political life; in Turkey, secularism faces an attack by the governing regime of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been seen by many commentators as pursuing an Islamist agenda (including the promotion of creationism in schools) that has gradually eroded the principle of state neutrality (e.g., see Kaya, 2015); and in India, the rise of Hindu nationalism fostered by the rule of the BJP has led to growing incidents of religiously fueled violence against members of minority faiths.

Debates around “post-secularism,” however, are also problematic. There is, as yet, no consensus among scholars as to what the concept itself actually means: whether it indicates some kind of reversion to traditional forms of religion, some kind of new coexistence between religious and secular worldviews, or a change in the form of religion itself as well as its relationship to the public sphere. Moreover, not all commentators are convinced that the idea of the “post-secular” is a useful or meaningful reflection of contemporary developments (see Beckford, 2012). Indeed, for some, claims about a return of religion are themselves called into question. Scholars such as Norris and Inglehart (2004) maintain that processes of secularization are continuing to unfold and that religion is continuing to decline in places where the forces of modernity hold sway. A key development in the United States, often held up as an example of the way in which religion can thrive in a technologically advanced society, has been a significant growth in the religiously unaffiliated (the so-called nones) since the late 20th century (Voas & Chaves, 2016). From this perspective, the notion of a “return of religion” and the growing assertiveness of religion in public life is seen as something of a rear-guard action by religious groups feeling the pressure of sustained decline and is not therefore interpreted as a sign that the institutional architecture of secularism is destined to come crashing down anytime soon.


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