Religious Neutrality Versus Secularism

The difference between religious neutrality and secularism and why the distinction is so important in Quebec and Canada

David Rand


Text of an informal talk presented at the July 14th meetup of LPA-AFT.

Religious Neutrality

  • Neutrality of the state with respect to various religions.
  • “the political philosophy that prohibits the State from favouring one religion or worldview over another.” (Bouchard-Taylor Report)
  • This does not imply neutrality between religion and irreligion.

An example of religious neutrality: the famous “establishment” clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the USA which stipulates that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” On this subject, see my article in Conatus News, 2018-07-10.

Secularism (laïcité)

Secularism is a political programme which is left-wing, universalist, modernist and an expression of the values of the Enlightenment. It is composed of the following four elements:

  1. Equality of persons;
  2. Freedom of conscience;
  3. Separation between religions and the state;
  4. Religious neutrality of the state.

This definition from disparate sources:

  • Daniel Baril
  • Bouchard-Taylor Report
  • Secularism: politics, religion, and freedom, Andrew Copson, Chef exécutif, Humanists UK.

Ironically, Copson does not mention point (4), which is nevertheless at the centre of his vision of secularism. But apart from that anomaly, the three sources are in agreement, which indicates that the definition is probably a reasonably good one.

Everyone except me mentions freedom of religion in point (2). For example, Daniel Baril refers to “protecting freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.” But in my opinion, one should never mention freedom of religion without simultaneously mentioning freedom from religion, i.e. the freedom to have no religion. It is for that reason that I summarize it all under “freedom of conscience” which includes the other freedoms and on which they depend.

Religious Neutrality Without Secularism

  • Religious neutrality, if implemented without secularism, is weak, useless and possibly dangerous.
  • So-called “open” secularism is an example. In practice, open secularism is the negation of secularism. It is the anti-secularism of the XXIst century.
  • Examples:
    1. Quebec’s Bill 62.
    2. The proposal to allow Montreal police to wear the Sikh turban or the hijab.

According to Daniel Baril, religious neutrality implies that the state may display a bias in favour of religions, but only on the condition that no one religion is either excluded or given priority. When it is not part of secularism, the concept of religious neutrality is like an orphan, with little scope. Within the context of secularism, the concept is better expressed by the idea of a state which is independent with respect to religions.

Religious neutrality is to secularism as a half-truth (or, perhaps I should instead say, a quarter-truth) is to truth. Just as an incomplete truth can often be an effective lie, so religious neutrality without the other three aspects of secularism can be worse than neutrality, because, in an effort to offer equal consideration to various religions, one risks ending up granting each religion a large influence on public affairs. Again, paraphrasing Daniel Baril, neutrality without secularism means that the state has no official religion, but it nevertheless maintains significant relations with religions and grants them privileges.


  1. Quebec Bill 62, which claims to be a law about religious neutrality and permits almost all possible religious symbols to be worn by public servants. The only type not permitted is face-coverings, but with exceptions which may not be refused except for reasons of security, identification or communication.
  2. The proposal to allow the wearing of the Sikh turban or the hijab by officers of the Montreal police. This idea, already atrocious, would be an example of religious neutrality if and only if the wearing of religious symbols from all other religions were also permitted, which would make the idea even worse.


  • Multiculturalism.
  • Priority given to ethnoreligious identity, essentialising that affiliation, to the detriment of citizenship.
  • Relgious identity more important than national identity.
  • Negating freedom of conscience.
  • Abandoning universalism.
  • Social fragmentation, ghettoisation, identity politics and ostracisation.
Religious neutrality is closely related to communitarianism, i.e. multiculturalism, in that it sees society as a collection of ethnoreligious communities, […] This fragmented vision of society does not recognize the importance of freedom of conscience and inevitably compromises that freedom […]

Religious neutrality is closely related to communitarianism, i.e. multiculturalism, in that it sees society as a collection of ethnoreligious communities, each community separated from the others and having little contact with the others. This fragmented vision of society does not recognize the importance of freedom of conscience and inevitably compromises that freedom because this vision grants higher priority to one’s community affiliation than to one’s citizenship. The result is that the individual becomes a prisoner of the community into which he or she was born. If the individual leaves that community, he/she loses his/her identity. (And in the case of Islam, to leave one’s community, that is to say, to apostatise, may have much more serious consequences.) Thus, communitarianism corresponds to ghettoisation, identity politics and ostracisation.

The Pseudo-Secularism of John Locke

  • Locke (1689) proposed tolerance for almost all religions (but not Catholics).
  • Resolutely atheophobic: Promises and oaths are of no value for those who do not believe in god.
  • In the XXIst century, his influence persists in the pseudo-secularism known as “open” secularism.

John Locke, in “A Letter Concerning Toleration” (1689), proposed a society and a government which would tolerate almost all religions (but not Catholics) but which would absolutely not tolerate atheists. Locke mistrusted Catholics because of their allegiance to a foreign power, the papacy, but his mistrust of atheists was much deeper. According to Locke, belief in god was absolutely necessary in order for “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society,” to hold.

[…] in the English-speaking world, atheists and others who claim to promote secularism remain greatly influenced by Locke’s vision.

His programme is basically a form of religious neutrality. In the present day, in the English-speaking world, atheists and others who claim to promote secularism remain greatly influenced by Locke’s vision. All they do is set aside Locke’s atheophobia and then complete his programme by adding atheists, but as a community, as if atheists were just another religious community. The result is still communitarian and identitarian..

I refer to this as Lockean secularism or, more accurately, Lockean pseudo-secularism in order to distinguish it from true secularism (laïcité) which is republican and universalist.

The Dubious Concept of “Diversity”

  • A favourite mantra of partisans of multiculturalism.
  • Approximate synonym: “Inclusivity”
  • “Diversity” is not an argument in favour of secularism; it is only an argument for religious neutrality.
  • Multiculturalism is a monoculture.

You all know the drill. So-called diversity has become a mantra of multiculturalism and, in particular, of Canadian propaganda. Our national bimbo and prime minister, Justin Trudeau, vaunts the merits of diversity as an absolute virtue and he repeats the term ad nauseum.

Diversity (and its approximate synonym: “inclusivity”) is also a favourite theme of those who promote Lockean pseudo-secularism because the latter expresses very well the mentality of multiculturalism. Pseudo-secularists refer to diversity as a way of explaining the need for their pseudo-secularism, i.e. the requirement, in their opinion, that all communities be represented. But by doing so, pseudo-secularists betray secularism.

Diversity is not an argument for secularism […]

But their view is false. The secular state has no duty to represent all ethnoreligious communities. On the contrary, it must serve all citizens without regard to their religion or their affiliations. Diversity is not an argument for secularism, although the partisans of the Lockean view use this argument frequently. Even in a monolithic, uni-religious society with a tendency towards theocracy, secularism is needed—and indeed one could argue that secularism is even more necessary in a homogeneous society than in a diverse one, because religious power in a homogeneous society is generally more concentrated and hence more dangerous. In general, secularism is beneficial for social progress whether a society is homogeneous or heterogeneous.

In reality, this much vaunted “diversity” is not diverse at all, because any diversity of ideas is rejected. And even at the cultural level, cultures are isolated from one another, like ghettos, and do not enrich each other mutually. Multiculturalism is a monoculture. Anyone who fails to accept complacently the ideology of multiculturalism, anyone who dares to question it, is vilified, accused of xenophobia, racism or worse.

Would a Secular State Be Antireligious?

  • Neither yes nor no! First of all, what does “antireligious” mean?
  • Antireligious behaviour may be harmless, or draconian, or somewhere between these two extremes.
  • Secularism is based on the observation that religion and politics do not go together well.
  • This antireligious aspect of secularism is limited and disciplined.

Neither yes nor no! The question is badly formulated because, first of all, it is important to define just what is meant by the adjective “antireligious.” Antireligious actions can vary enormously, from harmless acts such as criticizing irrational dogma, all the way to draconian forms of persecution such as criminalisation, as well as anything and everything that might fall between these two extremes. If we do not carefully specify what we mean, if we do not indicate where on this wide spectrum of possibilities our actions are to be placed, then any antireligious sentiment which we may express may be misinterpreted, perhaps given an interpretation much stronger than we intended.

Secularism is based on the observation that religion is dangerous whenever it obtains political power. Religion and politics make a very bad combination.

Secularism is based on the observation that religion is dangerous whenever it obtains political power. Religion and politics make a very bad combination. It is especially important that politician refrain from basing legislation on religious beliefs. Two notorious examples illustrate this well: abortion and homosexuality. It would be unacceptable for a legislator to attempt to criminalise one or the other of these two behaviours under the pretext that it is contrary to the will of “God.” Law-makers must furnish real, non-religious arguments for their proposed laws.

The greatest threat to freedom of conscience is religion. The greatest threat to freedom of religion is religion itself. Hence the need for a state which is completely autonomous and independent of religions.

A secular state would not be actively antireligious, and certainly not in the draconian manner described above, but its raison d’être is an observation about the danger which religion represents, and therefore secularism is based on a limited and disciplined antireligious stance.

To summarize, in order to protect everyone’s freedom of conscience, including that of non-believers as well as believers, public institutions must be independent of all religion.

Would a Secular State Be Atheistic?

  • Neither yes nor no! First of all, what would an atheistic state be?
  • Secularism and atheism, despite their differences, have in common the non-recognition of divine authority.
  • Atheism is a personal stance. Secularism is a societal programme.
  • State atheism is used as a foil, a contrast, masking an atheophobic attitude, while rarely if ever defining the term.

Secularism and atheism are distinct concepts, of course. Nevertheless, they have one major aspect in common: the non-recognition of divine authority. The atheists founds his or her personal morality, just as the secular states bases its legislation, on real, human considerations, independent of any supernatural consideration. The difference is that atheism is a personal stance, whereas secularism is a societal project. The secular states does not discriminate against believers or non-believers.

Secularism and atheism are distinct concepts, of course. Nevertheless, they have one major aspect in common: the non-recognition of divine authority.

The old prejudice which associates atheism with moral degradation, an unfortunately widespread notion known as atheophobia, must be denounced because it is utterly unfounded, and, in particular because the enemies of secularism spread it, for reasons of narrow self-interest.

The concept of state atheism is almost never well defined by those who refer to it. The concept is used as a form of contrast—and an object of fear—as in declarations such as, “Secularism is not state atheism.” The reference to state atheism often hides an atheophobic attitute; that is, the speaker implicitly supposes that such a state would be incapable of respecting freedom of conscience since they consider atheism to be dangerous in and of itself. Atheophobia among secular activists is a form of hypocrisy.

The solution: Avoid the expression “state atheism” (or, at least, define it clearly) and be honest about what secularism and atheism have in common as well as their differences.

Back to First Principles: How to Respond Ethically to Religions

  • Should we oppose supernatural religions because they are dangerous?
  • Should we oppose supernatural religions because they are false?
  • Falsity is the initial problem. It is because religions are false that they are dangerous!

We have the ethical duty to be moderately antireligious because religions are false and, being false, are therefore dangerous. Furthermore, the vast majority of religious believers become so by indoctrination during their childhood, while they are still immature and unable to evaluate religions dogma in an enlightened way. Religions and supernatural beliefs are very harmful, both for individuals and for humanity in general. We must fight against this scourge, but in a disciplined manner, that is to say, in a manner which respects everyone’s fundamental freedoms, in particular freedom of conscience. That discipline is called secularism.

Conclusion: Secularism is Enough, Provided That We Remain Honest

  • I oppose the idea that secularism is only a first step to complete before embarking upon an atheistic programme which would go further.
  • Promoting secularism is enough, provided that we work for true secularism and do so honestly, without indulging in dubious, unfair marketing ploys which use “state atheism” or “antireligious state” as contrasting foils.

Among some secular activists, even those who promote republican, universalist, non-communitarian secularism, we often hear declarations such as “We are not antireligious” or “We are not atheists” as if secularism had absolutely nothing to do with either antireligion or atheism, as if being openly antireligious or atheist constituted a danger for the freedom of conscience of other persons. That is a falsehood. On the contrary, reasoned criticism of religions allows us to reach a better understanding the necessity of secularism. Furthermore, fighting for greater visibility for atheists and for atheism weakens atheophobia and helps to protect everyone’s freedom of conscience, because each of us is an atheist with respect to the gods of others.

the correct solution is to promote secularism, true secularism, unencumbered by dubious and dishonest marketing tactics […]

On the other hand, among atheist activists I have heard the idea that secularism is just a first stage and that after secularism is completed, we will embark upon a more extensive atheistic programme. In other words, secularism, according to this view, although beneficial and necessary, is inadequate. I reject this idea. In my opinion, the correct solution is to promote secularism, true secularism, unencumbered by dubious and dishonest marketing tactics such as those described in the previous paragraph. Tactics which may have some effectiveness in the short term, but which in the long term are harmful and prevent us from reaching our goal.

Furthermore, if we adopt a two-stage approach, the first stage runs the risk of degenerating into a weakened form of secularism, even “open” secularism, under the pretext that whatever may be missing from stage one can be made up for in stage two. No thank you! We must have the honesty to make our demands known now, that is, a complete solution to the problem.

In fact, I find that these two errors—(1) stifling antireligious or atheist discourse during the fight for secularism, and (2) secretly planning a second stage after secularism—go together. They are just two sides of the same dishonest coin.

A frank and honest approach to secularism is already a major programme, a long-term project. In my opinion, this approach is the only one possible and necessary in order to resolve the societal problems caused by religions.


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