top of page

A Brief Overview of Secularism


One of the leading and everlasting topics within the studies of political science, sociology, theology and perhaps philosophy that is open to a great deal of analysis and interpretation is the role of secularism and religion in the socio-political formation of the country. Secularism is a major topic of study because it is an inseparable part of the socio-political structure of the contemporary period and is continuously and thoroughly analyzed from diverse perspectives, regardless of individuals' social and academic status. In other words, the world has undergone various historical processes leading to significant transformations, abolitions, and establishments, yet the question of religion and its relation with the state and its eventual impact on the population remains one of the most relevant, continuous, and highly debatable themes among state leaders, academics, legislators, clerks, and laypeople. Secularism, in the modern world, is seen as a replacement to religion, which even though is closely linked to political and ideological concerns, is a considered as "an existential threat to rational public order" (Huang, 2022, p. 247). The socio-political condition in the contemporary period can be described as a pluralist system as the modern world is experiencing a spike in diversity meaning that every single society around the globe is becoming highly diversified as a result of continuously emerging and developing notions of coexistence of individuals that are different from one another in multiple ways. With the rapid growth of pluralism around the globe, particularly in the state of Western Europe, the idea of secularism is under a careful consideration and analyses from different perspectives as the immigration of religious groups, one of the examples out of many, in the secularist countries "began to emerge that rejected the dominant model of 'separation of state and religion'" (Gulalp, 2022, p.2).

Although the growth of interconnectedness of people with distinct backgrounds is an indicator of social development of the society and despite its virtuous outcomes, the emergence of new complications that can lead to bigger problems is an inevitable feature of the process. Brendan Sweetman (2010), an Irish philosopher who specializes in the philosophy of religion and contemporary European philosophy, in his article “Secularism and Religion in Modern Democracies” argued that modern democratic societies encounter the issue that he calls “the problem of pluralism” which involves the complication of how to deal with a “number of different, competing, and often conflicting, worldviews or philosophies of life” (p.1). Religion and the doctrine of secularism play an important role in this case since Brendan Sweetman (2010) describes the idea of secularism as a “major cultural player and shaper of modern society” (p.1). Even though secularism is a widely recognized theory that has roots coming from ancient times, the true understanding of its motive and principles is neglected by people, and by the legislators and state head administrations.

Figure 1: Secularism, (Niño Jose Heredia, 2015)

The motive behind this paper is multiplex. The major mission is to have a general and holistic view of the idea of secularism yet also to analyze the concept of it and what secularism entails in it as its primary principles and beliefs. In addition to that, the paper will take a giant leap back in history and trace the roots of secularism and attempt to understand the cause that led to the emergence of this project. Lastly, it will briefly take a theoretical approach in relating secularism to the ideas of freedom and rights.

Conceptualization and History

The adoption of secularism, as one of the main principles of society, is an outcome of the pre-modern set of circumstances. In other words, secularism did not make its appearance as a spontaneous phenomenon that became favorable to certain countries, rather it was the result of historical events that preluded to its acceptance. Various factors explain the emergence of separation of church and state, including denial and apostasy from religious belief, the disregard of religiosity for the purpose of gaining power, and tragic historical processes such as wars, absolute monarchism, and the power-driven nature of the church. The latter is the leading explanation for the rise of secularism. The significant set of occurrences that took place in the past and that can be traced back to the medieval ages eventually became the means of transformation of political, economic and social structures. Historical events have been the leading factors in the formation of today's society as the pre-modern circumstances, which involved a complex interaction of people and complicated, unique, and diverse relationships between states and their populations, have significantly impacted all aspects of life in the contemporary world. Dr. Michael (Muhammad As’ad) Berdine (2013), a former academic at the University of Arizona and a Director of Cambridge Muslim College, in his article “The Importance of History” underlined that the role of history in society is crucial as it provides a fundamental background in regards to “political institutions” (p.3). The case of separation of church and state is one the remarkable topics that come under the category of rich historical background, where the historical events lead to a partial explanation of the development of this specific phenomenon.

Religion has always played a central role in the medieval period. The context of the Roman Catholic Church is a major example of how the church, as a thoroughly organized institution and a religious body of the society, was the central figure in the political context during the Roman Empire. The church in the Roman Empire carried more of a political role rather than purely religious. Jean Carlos Zukowski (2009), a fellow at Andrews University, in his paper “The Role and Status of the Catholic Church in the Church-State Relationship Within the Roman Empire from A.D. 306 to 814” descriptively outlined that during the Roman Empire period, the religious figures who served in churches, such as bishops were politically and economically empowered to the extent that “bishops were more influential than public magistrates” (p.99). He then continued to argue that the members of the ecclesiastical services were there not out of genuine spirituality and religiosity; instead, they accepted to be a part of the church in order to seek “political power or to avoid civic obligations” (p.99). A similar notion of the church's involvement in political affairs existed outside the Roman Empire. During the later part of the Middle Ages, Christianity's influence on the socio-political structures of England and France was significant, to the point where the church was a major decision-maker in the states' war affairs and had a great level of control over society. For instance, Pope Innocent III, the head of Catholic Church, had a great influence on England and France to the level that he had the power to intervene to the ongoing war between King Philip II of France and King John of England and promote big scale wars, such as Crusade. The continuous wars between European kingdoms, facilitated by the church, and the prominent revolutions that came long after the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, such as Protestant Reformation or French Revolution, gave birth to the idea of excluding the church from the political affairs of states.

Figure 2: The Four Western Doctors (Abraham van Diepenbeeck, 1596-1675)

It is important to underline the significance of the Enlightenment era as a pivotal moment in European history that brought a fundamental transformation in the socio-political structure of societies, particularly in terms of the relationship between the state and religion, which had previously been closely intertwined. Enlightenment was not simply a movement during the 17th and 18th century but a process that significantly transformed the world. One of the major developments, that resulted from the scientific, philosophical and political movement, was the marginalization of religion which was observed through the significant decline of the Christian faith in Western Europe, especially in Britain and France. Anna Tomaszewska, in her article "Enlightenment and Secularism. Foreword from the Guest Editor", noted that the relationship between divinity and politics was one of the major topics of debates and discussions among the "intellectuals and leading thinkers" of the Enlightenment era (p.3). She provides an example of one of the prominent enlightenment thinkers and philosophers, Emmanuel Kant, who is considered to be a father of secularism. Kant's argument revolves around the fact that there is a substantial distinction between political and religious claims. Knowledge is the most important factor producing political and legal norms because it is based on objectivity whereas religion rests "on subjectively sufficient grounds" (p.3).

Enlightenment gave bases to the emergence of the idea of secularism as the main justification behind it was the fact that humankind should be grounded on rationality instead of faith. Secularism, hence, is a product of the Enlightenment period where human reasoning, science and the emergence of different ideologies replaced religion as the main grounds for socio-political decisions in society. In the modern world, the secularist idea is a continuous and firm-established matter as the role of religion in societies is highly undermined. Apart from the church being a political and power-driven entity and not a spiritual institution, the religious body created distrust and pushed the states in forming socio-political institutions of governance independent from the religious body, although various understandings of the core reasons for the separation of church and state is a separate topic of analyses. In any case, Gilles Carbonnier (2013), a professor of Development Economics at The Graduate Institute, Geneva, Switzerland, in his book chapter “Religion and Development: Reconsidering Secularism as the Norm” argued that the notion of secularism in the modern Western world emerged as a replacement of religion and became the “rational-legal order under the authority of non-religious social institutions” (p.1-2). The power shift in the case of separation of church and state led to the marginalization of religious perspective in society.

Figure 3: Men of Progress: group portrait of the great American inventors of the Victorian Age, 1862 (Art Images, n.a)

Principles of Secularism

Secularism, as it was mentioned earlier, is widely open to interpretations, and there is no one universal definition of it. Gerard Phillips (2011), Vice-President of the National Secular Society, in his book Introduction to Secularism, underlined that secularism does not have a universally agreed upon concrete meaning and “different people mean different things by it” (p.9). Although with its complication in terms of its accurate interpretation and definition, secularism is widely referred to as an idea of separation of church and state. In this case, the church does not refer solely to Christianity, although the term itself gained its acceptance and wide recognition in Western Christian liberal countries. In reality, the meaning of secularism is bound to a well-established principle which is the exclusion of religion from the public affairs of the state whether it is political, social or economic practices. It mainly disregards religion as a fundamental and primary denominator in legislating and implementing laws and regulations in society. George Jacob Holyoake (1870), an English secularist and a newspaper editor who coined the term secularism in the middle of the 19th century, underlined in his prominent book The Principles of Secularism, that secularism is an idea that replaces the theological understanding of life and entails certain principles that the theology is unable to demonstrate when people find religion to be “indefinite, or inadequate, or deem it unreliable” (Chapter III).

One of the major principles that are critical to mention is that by adopting secularism as organizing the country's doctrine, the state has no right to politically or financially influence any religious organizations and the religious figures have no right of interfering in the affairs of the state. The state and religion become two separate and highly independent entities. In addition, the separation of church and religion does not mean a division between the institutions and physical religious body in the direct sense of it as the case of Roman Catholicism has shown that the Roman Empire was greatly impacted by the physical existence of Catholic Church itself where the bishops and pope were residing. It is crucial to understand, that secularism entails in it a principle where the state has no right to implement any laws that are based upon religious justification as the connection and non-separation of religion and state can be expressed through symbols, such as "form of state policies that support a particular religion” (Bhargava, 2009, p.5-6). In addition, state leaders, as per secular-based norms, are obliged to abstain from implementing any laws and enactments that can trigger religious groups as it goes against what secularism stands for. Furthermore, secularism, in its ideal form, does not take any particular sides. To be more precise, a state, that identifies itself as a secular one, does not possess a favorable group of people meaning that a non-believer cohort of people is preferable and valuable and possesses more rights and freedoms than the believer group of people. Hence, a state, from the secularist perspective, permits the existence of both worldviews without choosing one over another. By granting the right to chose, comes under the individual freedom of religion as the faith that people chose to exercise is their liberty. Political secularism, as it was mentioned, refers to the fact that states by default obliged to offer religious rights and freedoms and democracy to people on an individual bases, even though the religious organizations possess no authority over the institutions of governance. This applicability of this principle in real life is under a big question as many states as well as international declarations argue that religious freedom exists with certain limitations that are prescribed "in the interest of public safety" (Durham, 2011, p. 11).

Figure 4: Freedom of Religion newspaper headline on a copy of the US Constitution with gavel (DenverCatholic, n.a)

One of the major confusions concerning secularism, identified by academics in the areas of philosophy and sociology, is that secularism excludes the role of religion from society. In reality, a secular state, in its ideal meaning, is a society that endorses disengagement of the political affairs of the country and the religious body to make the two entities separate and undependable from each other. When Protestants in America were challenging the authority of Catholicism, it did not mean that their grievances were directed towards elimination of religion from the society. Rather, Protestants were willing to perceive their religious freedom by endorsing the separation of church and state, and by church they meant a specific religion. By an attempt to exclude the religion and its influence in public sphere, as Philip Hamburger noted in his work "Separation of Church and State A Theologically Liberal, Anti-Catholic, and American Principle", Protestants saw secularism as an opportunity to "their citizenship, their religion, and their liberty in terms of their individualism and independence" (p.4).

From the theoretical understanding, religious organizations do not possess a direct influence on the decision-making processes implemented in the institutions of governance as the separation of politics and religion is the main principle of secularism. Rajeev Bhargava (2009), an Indian political theorist, in the paper “Political Secularism: Why It Is Needed and What Can Be Learnt From Its Indian Version”, underlined that the political institutions possess a role of maintaining peace and order, where the function of the church, meaning religion, is “to secure salvation, primarily a spiritual concern” (p.4). Although both of the entities carry different functions, both of them recognize each other.

Figure 5: The Protestant Reformation created a rift in the Christian faith (Emilie Delperee, n.a).

Moreover, the idea of secularism is highly related to the concept of freedom. First of all, there is a widely recognized argument that the Western liberal democracies that adopted secularism also endorse individual rights and freedoms. The argued revolves around the fact that secularism does not necessarily mean the guarantee of freedoms and rights, as the concept of freedom, rights and democracy is a separate matter that is either pursued or not pursued by the society and the state. In a current political environment, the understanding of secularism revolves around the fact that there is no religious authority over the institutions that produce laws and regulations; however, it is crucial to highlight that by this assumption, the so-called secular states do not underline their implemented secularism “does not give automatic priority to religious freedoms, conscious, toleration or democracy” (Moodod, 2021, p.120). Gerard Phillips (2011), in his book Introduction to Secularism, argued that secularism in the case of the UK, for instance, is associated with the values that the Western European democratic countries preach. He underlined that apart from adopting the secular based norms, the countries also practice individuals rights and freedoms including “…equality before the law; a focus on the rights of individuals rather than groups or beliefs, political freedoms such as freedom of speech, thought…” (p. 9). However, it is crucial to realize that the term secularism is itself a concept that automatically offers freedoms in different aspects of life. A secular state means the separation of religion and state and, as was mentioned earlier, secularism does not refer to suppression of religion.

Haldun Gülalp, a fellow at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, in his paper, underlined that adopting secularism means granting the individuals right and freedom to believe and not believe because secularism is a project that guarantees “freedom and equality for citizens, and aims to ensure it by rendering the state neutral in this realm” (p. 2). Hence, if a state chooses secularism as a way of governance, then it is obliged to create a political environment where the individuals fully possess the right to choose, the right to exercise their beliefs, freedom of expression and the right to individual identity. These norms are inherently embedded in secularism as secularism itself is a liberal principle. The period of Enlightenment, as an intellectual movement based on reasoning and scientific developments, led to a major shift between faith and state and the emergence of secular thinkers. The relation between secularism and freedom was also one of the central topic of John Locke, a prominent English philosopher during the Enlightenment period whose works are the bases of today's Western liberal democracies. The possession of freedom is inherently embedded into human beings and apart from a freedom of life, liberty and private property, John Locke emphasized in his works the "liberty to believe and worship as they think fit" (Heyman, 2018, p.747). The concept of freedom of belief and worships is essential for human beings as it is what they are. The religious liberty is not restricted and limited even if the policies of the country are secular. A matter that concerns the individual is his privacy and the right to belief and worship is inherent in individuals. Hence, the country's designed and implemented laws and regulations should not have any impact on the religious aspect of the society and as Locke argued that the sate is limited to "any power over religious matters" (Heyman, 2018, p.748).

Figure 6: Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason (Joseph T. Stuart, 2020)
Concluding Thoughts

The topic of secularism in the fields of political science, sociology and philosophy is highly crucial. Secularism is one of the main principles and norms that Western European liberal countries implement, abide by and preach. Secularism evolved from the ancient Roman Times, and in the contemporary world, it withholds a firm position as one of the central projects in societies. The paper took a theoretical approach and briefly discussed the nature of secular doctrine. Apart from the holistic conceptualization of the term, it was crucial to examine its historical emergence and development as well as what principles and norms secularism brings about. However, it is crucial to note that secularism, like any other important theme in politics concerning the construction of a country's socio-political formation, is a topic that involves shortcomings and requires a thorough and deep examination from a critical point of view. It becomes a significant matter to examine if the traditional concept of secularism is still applicable and valid in the contemporary period due to a globalized world that results in high levels of immigration? Every corner of the globe, especially Western European countries, is experiencing massive influx of people with diverse backgrounds including religious one; however, the remaining questions is if today's secular countries abide by the true principles of secularism and how does secularism need to be reapplied in order not to limit or oppress one's beliefs and freedoms?

Bibliographical References:

2Berdine, D. (2013). The Importance of History. Cambridge Muslim College,7, 1-4. Retrieved from

Durham, C. (2011). Religious Freedom in a Worldwide Setting: Comparative Reflections. Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, 1-22. Retrieved from

Gulalp, H. (2022). Secularism as a Project of Free and Equal Citizenship: Reflections on the Turkish Case. Frontiers in Sociology,7, 1. Retrieved from

Hamburger, Philip. (2002). Separation of Church and State: A Theologically Liberal, Anti-Catholic, and American Principle. University of Chicago Law Occasional Paper, 43, 1-53. Retrieved from

Heyman, S.J. (2018). The Light of Nature: John Locke, Natural Rights, and the Origins of American Religious Liberty. Marquette Law Review, 101(3), 707-769. Retrieved from

Huang, K. (2022). Rethinking the Role of Secularism in the Discipline of IR and the Chinese Experience. Atlantis press, 664, 247-253.

Jacob Holyoake, G. (1871). THE PRINCIPLES OF SECULARISM. London: Austin. &, 17. Retrieved from

Moodod, T. (2021). Rethinking Political Secularism: The Multiculturalist Challenge. Pattern of Prejudice, 55(2), 115-124. Retrieved from

Phillips, G. (2011). INTRODUCTION TO SECULARISM. [Https://]. London: National Secular Society. Retrieved 2009.

Sweetman, B. (2010). Secularism and Religion in Modern Democracies. E-International Relations, 1-5. Retrieved from

Tomaszewska, A. (2017). Enlightenment and Secularism. Foreword from the Guest Editor. Diametros, 54, 1-6. Retrieved from

Zukowski, J. C. (2009). The Role and Status of the Catholic Church in the Church-State Relationship Within the Roman Empire from A.D. 306 to 814. Digital Commons @ Andrews University, 1-332. Retrieved from

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Kanan Babazade

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page