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Secularism is not atheism

By Max Wallace - posted Monday, 10 November 2008

Secularism is a form of government where a nation opts for an identity that is neither religious nor anti-religious, but simply neutral. Neutrality means government disassociation from religion or non-belief. Religionists equate neutrality with hostility to religion and imply that secularism is a variation on the theme of atheism.

An atheist form of government can be hostile to religion. The USSR saw religion as a form of false belief and part of the cultural apparatus of the ruling class. It seized church property, jailed and even executed clerics, and put strict controls on religious practice including a ban on religious education in schools. If religion is tolerated at all in an atheist form of government there will be a strict separation and distrust between church and state.

Outside North Korea, and possibly Cuba, there are no governments that could be characterised as atheist. China and Vietnam come close but allow some religion.


Theocracy is the direct opposite of atheist government. In this case the state identifies with a religion. There is little tolerance of other forms of belief. Belief in another religion or non-belief may attract a death penalty. Apostasy, i.e. a decision to leave the religion, can also attract the death penalty.

There is no separation of church and state. The divine word, the source of all law, comes from a book, and there is usually one ruler who has authority to interpret and apply law and may delegate authority to other clerics in order to do so.

Women are in the control of men. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution the wearing of a black veil became compulsory for women there. But not all theocracies are so hard line. If you are a citizen of the Vatican and you decide to give up your Catholic belief and leave, you won’t be executed but you will face eternal damnation.

The defining characteristic of secular government is separation of church and state. What distinguishes secular government from atheist government is that where atheist government barely tolerates religion, if at all, secular governments agree to freedom of religion. That is, unlike North Korea and the Vatican which are not democracies, secular governments are democracies which respect a citizen’s right to believe whatever they want and usually practice those beliefs, so long as that practice does not entail breaking the law.

There are many variations on the theme of secular government with widely varying degrees of constitutional separation of church and/or mosque and state. Some of these in alphabetical order are: Angola, Brazil; France; Gabon; Guinea-Bissau; Hungary; Latvia; Liberia; Macedonia; Mexico; Mongolia; Mozambique; Philippines; Portugal; Turkey; USA.

In the United States, those members of Congress who choose to swear on the Bible rather than affirm once elected, swear on the Bible to uphold the Constitution. They do not swear on the Constitution to uphold the Bible. There is no mention of God in the US Constitution and there is little Federal funding of religious schools.


So despite the fact that about 20 per cent of Americans are evangelical Christians, over 70 per cent believe in creationism rather than evolution, and George Bush has in the last eight years all but totally compromised separation by various policies, the government is still, at this point in time, nominally secular, thanks to court rulings that have upheld the constitution against attacks by militant Christians. The defeat of the attempt to impose creationism in the guise of intelligent design on the curriculum of state schools was the most recent important example.

Notice all the countries not on the list above concerning constitutional separation of church and state. Among the absentees are Australia and New Zealand which are constitutional monarchies, not republics.

Given our two countries have not formally separated church and state it’s fair to say that we are formally theocratic in our style of government rather than secular.

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About the Author

Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.

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