Comparison of English and French Models of Secularism and the Importance of Universalism
Publication Date: 2023-04-15
The following presentation was given by the author at Atheist Days 2023 in Warsaw, Poland, an event organized by the Kazimierz Łyszczyński Foundation in collaboration with the Fundacja Wolność od Religii (Freedom from Religion Foundation).
Comparison of English and French Models of Secularism and the Importance of Universalism.
What is secularism? I suggest a few basic principles that we need to take into account to find a good definition.
- The laws of people must take precedence over laws of god.
- Real world concerns must take priority. Not religious obligations.
- Our common humanity, what we have in common with other humans, must take precedence over our particular identities such as racial identity or religious affiliation or whatever.
In the English speaking world, philosopher John Locke is an important reference for secularism. He promoted a form of weak religious neutrality—that is, neutrality between different religions—in order for them to tolerate each other, but he did not extend that tolerance to Catholics. Furthermore, Locke was very prejudiced against atheists, whom he said could not be trusted. So his religious tolerance was very limited.
In the American Constitution. there is an article which says that there should be no religious test for public office, a good step towards secularism. The First Amendment declares that no law may establish a State religion. However, this does NOT mean separation between religion and State. It also says that no law may prohibit the free exercise of religion. This may sound good, but it is too open-ended, like absolute freedom of religion with no limitation. Freedoms often need to be limited in order to protect others.
In Great Britain. the term secularism was invented by George Jacob Holyoake. Like Locke, he was prejudiced against atheists. His colleague Charles Bradlaugh, founder of the National Secular Society, was a very outspoken atheist and they had serious disagreements on that issue.
In the French speaking world, the French Revolution made major progress towards secularism, with the Declaration of Rights of Man & Citizen. Another Declaration extended those rights to women, but unfortunately was not adopted at the time. The revolutionary government put a stop to financing religion, but in 1801 Napoleon came to power and restored funding to the Catholic Church. That was eventually extended to Protestants and Jews, so at least the extreme religious intolerance of the old French monarchy was not restored.
In French, the word laïcité—or “republican secularism”—is from the ancient Greek word laos meaning the common people, so we see universalism in the origin of that word. In 1905, the Law of Separation between Churches and State, was adopted, probably the most important secular legislation ever. It guaranteed freedom of conscience, which includes freedom of belief, non-belief, thought, political opinion, etc. It also guaranteed free exercise of worship, but stipulated that it can be limited in the interest of public order, as it should be. Another provision of the same law withdraws all public money from religion.
Summing up the two models, we see that there is no separation principle in the English model, but it is declared explicitly in the French law of 1905. The English mentality is to grant privileges for religions, whereas in the French speaking world, religion is not privileged, but placed on the same level as other convictions, such as political and philosophical. The English model, where universalism is not respected and freedom of religion is placed above other freedoms, I do not even call it secularism but rather Lockean “pseudosecularism.” In the French model, freedoms are not always absolute and freedom of conscience is fundamental, as it should be.
One of the requirements for secularism is that religious symbols be banned both on government buildings and on State employees when at work. If civil servants wear symbols on the job, that is a form of proselytism and a violation of professional ethics. Such bans exist in many European and African countries. In France, there is one ban in particular which goes much further than other countries, banning pupils from wearing religious symbols at school. It has been very beneficial for daughters of Muslim parents, greatly improving their academic performance. This is not surprising, as the hijab is a form of religious segregation and very harmful. Imposing the veil on children is child abuse.
Let us compare religious and political expression. In Quebec, in Canada, there is a secularism law, Bill 21, which imposes religious neutrality in the civil service and has met with enormous opposition. There is another law, the Public Service Act, which imposes political neutrality in the civil service, to which no-one objects. Many governments have similar rules imposing political neutrality on civil servants and nobody complains. In Illinois, a recent court decision confirmed that religious gatherings—but not political ones—are exempted from the rule limiting gathering size during the pandemic. In other words, religion gets a free ride. Both the US court and opponents of Quebec’s secularism law grant priority to religious expression over political.
In reality, religious practice should be limited, for example, to protect children from their own parents’ religion. Teaching creationism in schools, denying blood transfusions, depriving children of music, imposing Ramadan or the veil, all these are unacceptable. You may be familiar with Yasmine Mohammed’s book Unveiled in which she talks about being raised in a pious Muslim family and being physically beaten by her stepfather. She complained to authorities and eventually to court, but the judge said, No, we can’t do anything because that’s the way you people discipline children. Thus, a different standard for people from a different religious background.
To conflate race with religion is a major weapon of antisecularists and Islamists. It involves deliberately confusing an innate property, race, with an acquired characteristic. It treats religious affiliation as immutable, as if each person were a prisoner of a religion for life, similar to the Islamic taboo on apostasy. This confusion is a key strategy of Islamists so that they can accuse anyone who criticizes their ideology of racism or Islamophobia. Ironically, if criticizing a religion is racist, then the sacred texts of all three Abrahamic religions are extremely racist because they denigrate other religions.
There has been a flood of hostility towards Quebec’s secularism law. Opponents have implied that it is racist and could even cause genocide—which of course is absurd, because it deals only with religion.
The current so-called “antiracist” movement in fact promotes racism. I call it neoracist. It is anti-universalist and values personal identities, especially racial, above all else. It conflates race and religion, making Muslim a “racial” identity. Neoracism is mainly American in origin and it exports American concerns—with an emphasis on anti-black racism—to other countries where it is not appropriate.
A major problem with neoracism is its monolithic view of each group, failing to consider problems within a group. For example, the greatest persecution of Muslims is not by non-Muslims, but by other Muslims, because of Islamic dogma. Neoracists are blind to racism of one European group against another. They and their Islamist allies deny the fact of anti-French bigotry, rooted in British colonialism. They even promote such bigotry in order to fight secularism.
Thus, there are three approaches to racism. Classical racism considers Europe to be the wellspring of all civilization. Neoracism considers Europe to be the source of all evil. Both are Eurocentric. Then there is authentic antiracism which is universalist and considers race to be only one of many attributes of each individual, much less important than our common humanity.
Several criteria can be used to distinguish secularists from antisecularists. Antisecularists give religious rules priority over civil law. Applying that criterion, there are several Canadian organizations which hypocritically claim to be secular but are in fact antisecular because they oppose secularism in the very place, Quebec, where it is making the most progress.
We can now define secularism clearly, with four points:
- It guarantees equality, including male/female equality
- It protects freedom of conscience
- It imposes religious neutrality of the State, and
- It imposes separation between religion and State.
To conclude, universalism is a major Enlightenment value which we must defend.
- Freedom of conscience is fundamental.
- Secularism must include the separation principle.
- Political Islam is an extreme right-wing movement allied with neoracism.
- To criminalize apostasy as Islam does is barbaric.
- Children have no religion. It is unacceptable to identify children with the religion of their parents. Let them grow up and choose when they become adults.
Finally, some suggested reading on universalism:
Thank you for your attention!
The above presentation is also available as a PDF document.