What is the ‘proper’ definition of secularism?

I have a pet peeve. It’s about secularism. Not about secularism itself; secularism is objectively and unambiguously a good thing. No, it’s about all the misinformation and confusion being spread about secularism.

The biggest perpetrator is the media. If there’s a major media outlet reporting on secularism, it’s a pretty safe bet they’re going to get it wrong. But even experts often get it wrong. Of course, that means that regular people are pretty much guaranteed to be confused about secularism.

But why? Why all this confusion? Well, okay, honestly, part of the problem is that secularism is not a “simple” idea. There’s a lot of subtlety and nuance involved. It is very easy to get wrong.

However, the main problem these days is that there are people out there actively trying to undermine and subvert the definition of secularism, so that they can abuse it as cover for oppressing minorities—usually religious minorities.

But this post isn’t about that; I’ve written plenty about that elsewhere. This post is about taking an opportunity to create some clarity about secularism. And to that end, I am going to take advantage of an article that appeared on openDemocracy.

The article is titled “What is the ‘proper’ place of religion?”, and it’s by Thomas Sealy, a research associate at GREASE, an EU-funded project whose full title is “Radicalisation, Secularism and the Governance of Religion: Bringing together European and Asian Perspectives”. So you’d think Sealy has a pretty clear idea of what secularism is. But no. Turns out he is profoundly confused about the idea.

I’m going to use Sealy’s article to point out the main areas of confusion, and attempt to demystify secularism, at least a little bit.

Let’s start with how Sealy defines secularism:

Secularism, long seen as the answer to these anxieties, draws a line between public and private spheres, limiting religion to the private sphere and therefore defining the place of religion.

[A screen capture of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. Overlaid is the text of a quote from the film: ”Impressive. Every word in that sentence was wrong.”]

Wow. If he’s this cavalier with his terminology, it’s no wonder Sealy’s understanding is so muddled.

Okay, let’s start with the terms “public sphere” and “private sphere”. The term “public sphere” goes back to German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who described it as a virtual “space” where people could get together to discuss ideas for the direction society should take. Despite what many people think—including Sealy, apparently—the public sphere is not the government. In fact, in some models, the public sphere is in opposition to the government. For our purposes, we can think of the state, the public sphere, and the private sphere as three distinct spheres—whether and how much they overlap isn’t really important here:

  • The private sphere is where people conduct all of their business that has nothing to do with politics or society in general. That’s mostly the stuff that is “nobody else’s business” except for the participants, but also includes some publicized stuff, like entertainment that isn’t social commentary or cultural criticism.

  • The public sphere is where people get together to discuss and plan what should happen with the society. A free society relies on the open exchange of ideas that can be debated and (possibly) implemented. The public sphere is where that exchange and debate happens.

  • The public authority sphere—which I’ll refer to as the government or state sphere, because while those things are all technically different, the difference is irrelevant here—is where the administration of the society happens. In a properly functioning society, once ideas have been discussed, refined, and approved in the public sphere, they get passed to the government to be implemented. The public sphere is also where the government’s performance and behaviour is evaluated.

So is secularism the idea of that religion should be excluded from the public sphere? No, of course not. That would be absolutely ridiculous.

Sure, there are some anti-religious extremists who want religion completely excised from the public sphere and forced underground. But even they don’t call that “secularism”; they just see it as a “logical” extension to secularism. Even laïcité, which comes up later and which is often mistakenly considered to be an “extreme” form of secularism, doesn’t call for the removal of religion from the public sphere—it merely has a bizarre idea of what removing it from the government means.

No, secularism is not about removing religion from the public sphere. It is about removing religion from the state… from the government sphere. That’s what secularism has always been understood as. The most popular “definition” of secularism (which I’m not really a fan of, but it’s good enough here) makes this clear: it talks about a “separation” of church and state. Of church and state… not church and public sphere.

Enforcing the removal of religion from the public sphere in whole or in part is not secularism any sense, it’s censorship. The public sphere is where the members of society are supposed to be able to get together to freely and openly discuss anything of social relevance. The public sphere is where “freedom of speech” applies. Restricting or banning the discussion of religious ideas from the public sphere isn’t “secularism”; it’s violating freedom of speech, plain and simple. It’s oppression.

Sealy’s sloppy understanding of these key concepts is really the cause of all his confusion, and his terrible conclusions later. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Having given his “definition” of secularism, Sealy goes on to explain why secularism is supposed to be a good thing:

This is largely because of the perceived need and importance for the ‘neutrality’ of the public sphere and the state, as equally open to all who abide by certain liberal principles, regardless of their religious or non-religious world views.


If we remove “public sphere” from the above, then it all makes a lot more sense. Secularism is good because it leads to the neutrality of the state. It makes the state equally open to all. It does not privilege people of a specific religion; it does not give them more power over the state than others. Likewise, it does not disenfranchise anyone because of their religion (or lack thereof). Everyone has equal control over the state, and the state treats everyone equally—religion is not a factor. That’s secularism. That’s why it’s good.

Frankly, Sealy’s understanding is completely incoherent. Secularism is supposedly the removal in whole or in part of religion from the public sphere, yet it’s also about making the public sphere equally open to all while making people’s religious or non-religious world views irrelevant in public matters. That makes no sense, and Sealy is smart enough to realize it:

In the contemporary context of religious diversity, this neutrality is thought to be more important than ever. Yet, this kind of secular neutrality is not neutral at all and has a real effect on what kinds of reasons, motivations, language and relations are desirable or permitted in the public sphere.

He’s right. Banning religious thought from the public sphere would hamstring the open discussion that’s supposed to underpin a free society. Unfortunately, Sealy assumes the problem lies with secularism, rather than with his own understanding.

And things just go downhill from here, because now we get to the elephant in the room:

In its more insistently assertive form, the line drawn in the name of secularism is sharp and one which squeezes out religion from the public sphere, reducing and limiting it to a matter of private, individual conscience. An example of this is the assertive sense of laïcité

Once someone offers a “definition” of secularism that involves pushing religion out of public sight, their next step is almost always to try to fit laïcité on the same definitional spectrum as a more “extreme”—or insistently assertive—version of secularism. If one ignores the history of laïcité, it can make a kind of sense, I suppose. But of course, the whole thing is based on confusion from the get-go, so any sense it seems to make is only illusory.

In reality, secularism is the removal of religious influence from the state, and laïcité is… well, it’s something else entirely. There is some superficial overlap between secularism and laïcité, if you squint and look only at the effects of application, rather than the underlying reasoning. But the two things are very, very different. Secularism is about keeping the state neutral, whereas laïcité—harking back to its roots in the French revolution—imagines an antagonistic relationship between the state and religion. For example, the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State (Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État)—the original legal foundation of laïcité—banned Catholic ministers from public offices… which hardly counts as “neutrality” by any sane definition of the word.

I’ve written plenty elsewhere about the differences between secularism and laïcité, so I’m not going to bang on about that any further. Suffice it to say that once one properly defines secularism, and uses that definition to exclude things that don’t fit, secularism and laïcité become two completely different things, with only superficial similarities.

Instead, let’s move on to what Sealy thinks “good” secularism looks like:

Other secularisms, such as the forms of moderate secularism of most of the rest of Western Europe, draw a softer line and are more tolerant of religion’s public presence. In many ways religion is not only permitted but also encouraged in the public sphere. This is often through state-religion connections where religious organisations play a significant role in welfare provision in partnership with the state.

Wut? 🤨

Okay, let me try to unpack this (as well as I can, because, frankly, it’s nonsense).

So when secularism is being done correctly, according to Sealy, religion is permitted in the public sphere. Well… yeah. That’s how secularism is supposed to work. Secularism only applies to the state, not the public sphere. Secularism is not censorship. There’s no reason you couldn’t talk about religion, or even proselytize, in a secular country.

But does secularism encourage religion in the public sphere? Well… kinda? Maybe? It depends on how you define “encourage”, and exactly what aspects of religion are being encouraged. I mean, secularism doesn’t discourage religion from the public sphere. Not discouraging something can be considered a form of encouraging it, I suppose. But frankly, secularism says nothing about the place of religion in the public sphere. Secularism is only about the place of religion in the state—in the government sphere: secularism says there is no place for it there. But that’s all it says.

And here’s where Sealy’s example of “religiously-literate secularism” gets bizarre. Because apparently, a state is using “religiously-literate secularism” when it is using religious organizations to provide social services. Huh? So… what happens if the state isn’t failing in its basic responsibilities and provides all necessary social services itself, so it doesn’t need any religious organizations to help the needy? Is that state… not secular? Or, is its secularism “religiously illiterate”? And what if a state finds that the organizations that provide the best social assistance programs are all non-religious organizations? Should it… I dunno… throw a few religious organizations into the mix anyway just so it can be described as a “religiously-literate secular” state?

And frankly… I think Sealy has his head way up his ass here; he really seems to have no grip on how messy reality is on these issues. The examples he gives are churches in Germany and faith-based organisations in the UK. Okay… but Sealy doesn’t seem to realize that what he’s actually talking about are a handful of religions—and possibly only one—that are getting benefits, power, and privilege by virtue of their government-provided work. The religion(s) that can manage—by virtue of its size or resources—to provide social welfare programs not only gets money from the government—which, even as it’s being spent on the program will always provide ancillary benefits for the organization—it also gets free access to vulnerable populations they can hold under their thumb (using the victims’ need for the social assistance offered by the program) while they proselytize to and attempt to convert them. And they get free positive publicity too. All these benefits come only to those religions large and powerful enough to outbid other religions and secular organizations for providing some service. Those religions that can’t (for example, because they’re too small, too new, or too disliked by society) or won’t (for example, because they have a theological objection to working with the government) work in a state–religion connection simply won’t get the benefits.

The litany of problems that come along with a government working with faith-based organizations is colossal, and it blows my mind that Sealy doesn’t even so much as try to hand-wave them away. Is he really unaware of what happens when you hand social services over to religious groups? Has he never heard of them refusing to provide essential services they object to for religious reasons (that’s a UK faith-based organization example right there for ya, Sealy!), or forcing people to perform religious rituals to get the social assistance, or creating bizarre rules and restrictions on the services they provide based on theological “reasoning”?

You may think I’m being unfair to Sealy. To you I submit this: When he finally sat down to think of what the possible downsides of a partnership between a government and religious organizations for providing social services might be… this is what he came up with. I’ve added some highlighting because it’s easy to miss the wackiness here:

Yet, although the line is softer, there is still a line between public and private and how religion straddles this line. An example of what I am thinking about here can be seen expressed in reservations about these kinds of state-religion partnerships (by political theologians, for instance). This caution revolves around how, as a result of this role as service providers, religious groups can become shorn of the specific religious motivations which mean they act in the public good in the first place. That is, they are seen merely in terms of public utility, as a repository of useful resources, but the deeper and specifically religious convictions that motivate them are forced to the side lines and even masked in order to comply with certain ‘secular’ and ‘neutral’ conditions.

What can go wrong if we let religious groups handle social services, Mr. Sealy? Well, the religious group might forget about their religious shit, and instead focus on acting in the public good. Yeah. Seriously. That’s what he thinks of when he reaches for the potential hazards of handing welfare services over to religious groups. They might actually make helping people their priority.

Here’s the thing. Thomas Sealy is not an idiot. I think he has his head way up his ass on certain aspects of this topic, but I don’t think he’s constitutionally incapable of understanding, if only he straightened out his thinking. He’s just very confused because of his careless definitions. He actually does get secularism… he just fails to recognize it as secularism. This is what he describes as the ideal when everything is working as it should:

We might say that the secular state in this sense is interested in religion as far as it can serve the state’s purposes, providing services for its citizens that it is unable or unwilling to provide itself. It is not, however, interested in the religious reasons and motivations orienting these groups, and a deeper engagement at this level is either not sought or perhaps deliberately avoided.

Yes! Exactly! A secular state in this sense… is a secular state. That’s how it should be.

He also recognizes that secularism was originally championed by the religious. It’s obviously bad for a religion if the government is entangled with, controlled by, or favouring another religion… but it’s also bad for a religion if the government is controlled by that same religion. It’s not easy to criticize the government’s tax policy when the government has a divine mandate. Protesting becomes a sin. That’s not a good situation to be in. That’s why it’s bad for government to become entangled with religion, even when it’s your own religion. Religious people get that; the smart ones, anyway.

So what Sealy has effectively done is built a straw man “secularism” based on his poor grasp of the terminology, torn it down, and then offered a “better” idea that he calls “religiously literate secularism”… but which the rest of us just call secularism.

Let’s actually help him out. Let’s throw out his malfunctioning terminology, and use the correct, established, common terminology, and let’s see if that gets us to where he thinks we should be.

First, let’s use the well-established definitions of “public sphere”, “private sphere”, and “public authority sphere”. I’ve already explained those above; there’s no need to repeat them.

Now armed with an understanding of the sociopolitical landscape, let’s clarify what secularism is. Secularism is the idea that the state/government must be completely religiously neutral:

  • The government must not be influenced by any religion or religious ideas.
  • The government must not take any position on religious claims or beliefs.
  • The government must not favour or hinder any religion or religious ideas or practices without a valid secular (that is, not supported by religious arguments or claims) reason.

Notably, secularism applies only to the government. It does not apply to the public sphere (and certainly not to the private sphere). A secular state does not require any “line” be drawn between which religious ideas may be discussed publicly and which may not. It does not require any censorship of religious ideas at all, or any restrictions on religious practice.

(Though, in practice, a real-world secular state may censor several religious ideas and ban several religious practices… but it would always and only do so for secular reasons. To us an example that Sealy mentioned, consider the case of ritual slaughter: A secular state could ban ritual slaughter based on animal cruelty concerns.)

This means that religions can influence the state… but only indirectly. For example, a religious group may start a public debate about vegan diets, which it requires for religious reasons. The religious group may make up the majority of the population, or they may convince a majority with their arguments or their passion. Either way, the government may then decide to pass a bill requiring that all restaurants offer vegan options. But! What happened in that case is not that the government was swayed by a theological argument; it was swayed by popular demand—by raw numbers. A secular government wouldn’t care or acknowledge that the underlying motivation for the popular demand was religious. It would care only that:

  • a majority wants it; and
  • it doesn’t violate any other laws, or any fundamental rights or freedoms.

That, I think, is what a true “religiously-literate” secularism looks like.

(Note also that nothing in this definition implies banning burkinis or otherwise regulating what people wear.)

And yeah, there would be space for religious organizations working as third-party service providers. I mean… we would need to have a serious talk about all the problems that come with allowing religious groups to provide social services. But assuming those could be worked out (😲 holy hand-wave!), then, yeah, any organization that can provide needed services could be contracted to do so. Their religiosity shouldn’t be a factor.

What about the problems Sealy mentioned about anxieties and “extreme” forms of secularism that ban Muslim clothing and otherwise inhibit diversity and violate the spirit of multiculturalism? Well, none of that has anything to do with secularism in the first place. It’s just straight-up bigotry and good ol’ intolerance… which we’re all well used to. The fact that it’s being spun as “secularism” does not make it true. A clear understanding of secularism reveals this, and in doing so strips away the faux respectability that the bigotry is using to disguise itself… making it easy to recognize for what it is, and easy to counter.

In other words, the problems Sealy is fretting over simply… evaporate… once you define secularism correctly.

(Well, okay, they don’t simply evaporate. They’re still there. But once they can’t pass themselves off as “secularism” any more, they lose pretty much all of their power. Once something is exposed as naked bigotry, it’s a lot harder to find open support for it.)

Isn’t that amazing? Just by insisting on the proper definitions, we’ve pretty much solved all of Sealy’s concerns, and given him what he wanted: a “religiously literate” societal concept that works with multiculturalism and tolerates diversity.

Hell, we can even answer his question: “What is the ‘proper’ place of religion?” Answer: Wherever the fuck it wants to be… just not in the government. (And any half-decent government will ensure it isn’t all up in the business of those who don’t want it to be.)

I chose to pick on Sealy in this piece because he’s supposed to have some kind of expertise, yet he’s just as confused about what secularism is as anyone. But Sealy isn’t the problem. The confusion is. And he is far from the only one who has fallen victim to confusion about secularism.

As I just demonstrated, once you clear up the confusion, you get something that makes everyone happy. That’s secularism. There aren’t many ideas about how to run a society that are almost entirely beneficial to everyone, with few or no caveats, but secularism is one of them.

And that’s why secularism should be defended. That’s why it’s important to call out attempts to hijack secularism for racism or intolerance. That’s why it’s important to force clarity into the discussion, so bigots cannot hide behind vagueness to claim secularism for their purposes.

Once secularism is understood clearly, and by its correct definition, it stands for itself. All we need to do is insist on that clarity.

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