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Two myths about secularism

By Meg Wallace - posted Monday, 25 October 2010

Myth No. 1: Secularism is anti-religious.

Secularism is a term first coined by George Holyoake in 1846. For him it meant a life-stance without religion, a philosophy. He was adamant that secularism was not anti-religious. Today, the word commonly refers to political secularism. Political secularism means government independent of, and thus separated from, matters pertaining to personal moral life-stances, religious or otherwise; neither favouring nor disfavouring any of them; hearing all but preferring none.

Political secularism allows you to pray where and when you want, to wear what you will, to eat what food you are prescribed by your religion, and to follow the practices of your faith. It also treats those without a recognised religion but with other beliefs or no belief as equally able to live as they will. The state is not concerned with what you believe. The only exception to this rule is that your actions must not endanger the personal security, well-being or human rights of others. The benefits of living in a liberal democracy, then, require reciprocity - a consensus about the rights of everyone based on the fundamental tenets of liberalism, such as individual autonomy, rationality and universality. Our government already represents these values, albeit imperfectly, as we live in a supposed democracy, not a theocracy or an atheist state.


Many religionists do not understand this. Ignoring the fact that their government is already much more secular than religious in its actions, they argue, as did their nineteenth century predecessors (a) that religion is above government and government should recognise that as a fact, or (b) government should continue to endorse or privilege religion on the grounds that religion is the defining characteristic of being human. In reality, this is special pleading from one section of society, prepared to say anything to keep their historical privileges.

But, I consider political secularism, as defined above, should be enshrined in the Constitution. It is a foundational pillar of democracy. Political secularism is the only form of government through which all citizens can equally enjoy the freedom to adopt and practice the belief of their choosing, as, in principle, it treats all beliefs the same.

The fuzziness of secularism surrounding the meaning of how it works can be seen in the many concessions to religion that occur in supposedly secular countries. In Australia, we have prayers in parliaments; Christian crosses in our flags; we have tax exemptions for simply being a religion; Queensland has integrated bible studies in the public school curriculum; it and other states permit religious studies sessions in public schools as if that was a function of government; the federal government pays for the hiring of chaplains in public schools to provide children with ‘religious guidance’.

The fact is that even where governments are nominally secular (as are most of the 191 member states of the UN), political secularism has been weakened by concessions to religious demands, avoiding a clear and consistent approach to the state-religion relationship. Concessions to religion are seen as desirable or even necessary, without consideration of the possibility of religion's creeping penetration of government, to become, effectively, a state within a state, as if that was not a fundamental contradiction of democracy.

Myth No. 2: Secularism prevents discussion of religion in the public sphere.

In a religion the individual gains his or her identity through the group, whose authority is derived from revelation and/or doctrine derived from specified sources. It provides a personal comprehensive moral code for everyday living.


Religious beliefs can be argued for and even pressed in parliament. This is free speech. But when it comes to advocating government policies and legislation that coerce or unduly influence others, we must justify our views with reasons that are acceptable to everyone: that is, respectful of the rights of all. That is not a denial of free speech.

However, those who criticise religious beliefs or activity are attacked as being militant and intolerant. But there is a critical distinction between citizens criticising each others' beliefs and government siding with one side or the other in these philosophical slanging matches.

Views presented in the public sphere may be anti-religious, or favour religion. But the expression of views critical of religion or otherwise, is not what political secularism is about. It is about allowing any beliefs or none the right to have them, no matter how much we may criticise them or consider them wrong.

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About the Author

Meg Wallace is the President of the Rationalist Society of NSW. She is a lawyer and former academic.

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