AFT Bulletin, 2019-08-23

Religious Neutrality is Not Enough

Talk by David Rand at the Rationalist International Conference, Cambridge, UK, 27-28 July 2019

The main thesis of my talk is that secularism is much more than mere religious neutrality, because the concept of separation between State and religions must be added and has implications that go far beyond neutrality.

Secularism is, in my estimation, very poorly understood in the English-speaking world because it is often interpreted as mere religious neutrality. In fact, I would say that secularism is practically unknown in the English-speaking world: many people talk about it a lot, and they even talk about religion-state separation, but that separation concept is rarely applied consistently, I will argue.


Freedom of conscience

A major implication of separation between State and religion is that public services must be neutral both in fact and in appearance and that such religious neutrality must be of the second, strong kind. That is, it is not acceptable to allow religious influence in which all religious participate equally, because that would obviously violate separation. At the same time, the State must not actively promote atheism either, although it must be non-religious and thus functionally and passively atheistic.

For the State to be independent of religion and to show itself to be free of religious influence, both its physical installations and its human agents must be free of religious symbolism. Displaying a religious symbol on the wall of a State building or allowing a State employee to wear a visible religious symbol while on the job are both clear and obvious violations of religion-State separation. In either case, the religious symbol constitutes at the very least passive endorsement by the State of the religion being symbolized. An anti-religious or atheist symbol would also be unacceptable in both situations and for similar reasons.

Religion is, or should be, a private matter. When a religion practices exhibitionism, there is an obvious political purpose, a purpose which has no place in civic institutions.


When the State bans the wearing of religious (or anti-religious) symbols by public servants while on the job, it is saying that it is committed to treating all citizens, all members of the public, equally and fairly, regardless of their religion or lack thereof. The State thus undertakes to respect the freedom of conscience of the users of public services and students in schools.


Republican secularism is currently under great threat from politicised religions, in particular from political Islam, and from the communitarian regressives (who falsely claim to be leftist or progressive) who are the objective allies of political Islam. That threat is obvious in the toxic reaction to Bill 21. But secularism is under great threat in many countries, and in particular in France, the birthplace of the best variant of secularism we have available. Extreme right-wing religious obscurantism and its objective allies would like nothing more than to kill republican secularism at its source.



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