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Secularism and Religion: A Different Perspective



Introduction

The topic of secularism and its relation to religion is highly complex as this particular subject involves a multitude of subtopics and is widely open to a broad range of interpretations and perspectives. The presence of a firmly established separation between religious and political institutions, most often referred to as secularism, being the core element in the structure of liberal-democratic societies. Secularism demonstrates a strong belief in promoting and preserving the liberal principle despite cultural diversification in contemporary societies. A tight interconnectedness of global entities, or a phenomenon called globalization caused the growth of the migration process leading to a rapid increase in the diverse population density and as a consequence, led to the emergence and development of the notion of pluralism that preluded to the spike of debates and discussions in regards to secularism. As per Brendan Sweetman's (2010) description, the challenge of pluralism is rooted in the existence of "competing worldviews" (p.1). The historical background that led to the eruption of the notion is highly essential as the process of secularization and adoption of a secular mode of governance was predominantly derived from the conflictual relationship between Roman Catholicism and the state; however, the core substance that needs to be discerned and highlighted is the central principles of secularism. In other words, prior to attempting to analyze and draw key conclusions, it is important to discuss the main components that are embedded in the term secularism. Secularism, as a term itself, was coined by George Holyoake, an English secularist, cooperator and newspaper editor, who in his book The Principles of Secularism described the secular state as “the policy of life to those who do not accept Theology” (Chapter I). George Holyoake (1871) in Chapter VIII continues to argue that secularism is a solution for those who do not accept the religious bases, who deny them and do not want to be associated with them and think of religion as, Holyoke used Christianity in his work, wrong and unfounded historically. He found that those who reject a religious foundation for life tend to feel more independent and courageous.


A significant part of the doctrine of secularism is its principles and theoretical foundation. The major reason for principles being the core pillar revolves around the fact that exploring and examining the key constituents of the term, would provide a more accurate judgment of its practicality and point out the limitations, fallibility and paradoxicality when it comes to the implementation of secularism in the modern world. The main objective and aim behind this particular paper, as it was mentioned earlier, do not focus on the origins of the term secularism itself, nor does it attempt in conceptualizing and defining the liberal notion from a holistic perceptive. Instead, the paper carries one single idea, which is the examination of the critiques and shortcomings of secularism by applying and comparing the traditional principles of the doctrine to the so-called modern secularist states where secularism is practiced and, to some extent, worshipped by the liberal democrats. The nature of this topic requires the use of multiple case studies of the countries that widely adopted a secular doctrine with the purpose of understanding if the strongly embraced principles of secularism are, indeed, being followed by the states, and to do so, the paper will take a look at the prominent relationship of secularism and religion, specifically the case of Islamic veils - hijabs that are continuously circulating the socio-political spheres of today's world. This brief research aims to conclude if the religious cohort of people is highly undermined and if so, then the causal of the problem either consists within the doctrine of secularism itself or the way it is bent and applied by the countries.


Figure 1: Secularism, a principle fostering social cohesion, peace and freedom (OurWorld, 2019).

Secularism and Intervention into Religious Matters

One of the essential principles of secularism upon which the main and continuous debates and arguments are constructed is the fact that adopting a secular mode of governance alludes to a strict separation of religious and political institutions, to an extent, that it is the obligation of a state to keep the neutrality towards the institutions. A similar pattern of behaviour is also expected from the religious organizations where the theological institutions are to be functioning as independent entities from the socio-political apparatuses of governance. Hence, it is a central point to underline that secularism, as a doctrine adopted by Western countries, does not seek a complete eradication of theology from society. Brendan Sweetman (2010), an Irish philosopher whose works are mostly concentrated on research topics concerning the philosophy of religion and contemporary European philosophy, in his article “Secularism and Religion in Modern Democracies” boldly highlighted that individuals understand the notion of secularism as a view that totally rejects the divine idea and “that religious doctrines are not true” (p.1). This is a highly mistaken assumption as a society that is structured upon secular principles does not necessarily disregard religion as an insignificant part of life. Religion remains an integral part of society as the theological interpretation of life is one way of looking at things of individuals whereas secular argumentation is a different approach. Sweetman (2010) continued to argue that even though one might argue that theological interpretations of certain issues are irrational and illogical, it is also crucial to note that religion possess reasonable and rational explanation for particular aspects of life showing that "religion has a rational side to it, has a long tradition of reason” (p. 2). For religious individuals, religion often serves as the foundation for their sense of morality, as they believe in a higher power that provides top-down rules for human behavior. Conversely, atheists may find it more challenging to establish a moral framework for their actions. Therefore, it is crucial to realize that religious argumentation should not be prohibited or limited in a public sphere as theological foundation is an essential part of some peoples' lives. Gerard Phillips, a Vice-President of the National Secular Society, in his book Introduction to Secularism, endorsed the point made previously by stating that secularism does not deny the idea of God, and a person can claim himself to be “a secularist and hold religious beliefs or… can be a secularist and be an atheist” (p.16). Therefore, the separation of religion and state simply leads to one of the principalities of secularism where the state can not intervene in the matters of theology and vice versa as both worldviews are important in retrospect to one another.

However, despite the clear set definition and explanation of the component of secularism and its relation to religion, the practicality of it highly mismatches the theory. In other words, the application of secularism, as a liberal principle of the so-called modernized, westernized and civilized counties, has demonstrated that the doctrine itself is somewhat contradictory and paradoxical whether it is the nature of the term itself, or the way is it interpreted and implemented. As it was established earlier, ideal or liberal secularism obstructs the power of political authorities by limiting them from interfering “with the belief or disbelief of citizens” (p.3). Various worldwide examples place the term secularism and its essentiality under a big question creating a huge resonance among the policy-makers, defenders of true liberal secularism and simple citizens. India, for instance, as one of the largest democratic societies in the world, fully endorses the idea of a secular state by highlighting its centrality in the country’s constitution. According to Insights Minds Map (n.a), the brief outline paper named “Secularism in India”, underlined the fact that the 42nd amendment of the Indian Constitution among other clauses, such as Articles 25 & 28, clearly identified India as a secular state that recognizes the separation of state and church and religious liberty of every individual, limiting the power of state institutions to interfere into the religious matters of individuals. Even though a constitution, as one of the most powerful legal amendments that define and shapes the nature of a state is endorsing the liberal principle of secularism, in reality, the country’s governing administration is violating its own setup conditions by interfering in the religious matter of minorities groups, which, for instance, can be seen in the case of the Muslim population. Nehaluddin Ahmad and Norulaziemah Binti Haji Zulkiffle (2022), fellows at the Sultan Sharif Ali Islamic University, in the article “Discriminatory Policies and Laws Target Indian Muslim minorities in the Recent Time: A Socio-Legal Study” provided various examples of legal enactments, such as the National Register of Citizens which put at risk Muslim and Hindus of Bengali minorities into a risk by depriving of the nationality and Anti-conversion Laws that allowed the interference in people's religious life by prohibiting individuals from conversion from Hinduism to Islam or Christianity, and other laws that attack the religious minority group. In addition, the Indian government publicly demonstrated the violation of secular principles embedded in the so-called liberal-democratic doctrine by introducing the law CAA in 2019 which is a Citizenship Amendment Act that "claimed to give citizenship to persecuted religious minorities" notably excluding Muslim population (Kadiwal, 2021, p.2). It is an act that postulates that “religion became a basis for granting citizenship—however, it excludes Muslims” (Kadiwal, 2021, p.4). Enacting the law that triggers the religious group and places them in a vulnerable position demonstrates a direct political intervention into the religious matter making Islam exclusive from society thus placing the Muslim population to be “disproportionately affected” (Kadiwal, 2021, p.4).



Figure 2: Members of the All India Muslim Students Federation protest at Delhi University against the hijab ban in educational institutions, on Feb. 8 in New Delhi, India (Hindustan Times, 2022).


Secularism, Religion and Public Arena

One of the significant features of secularism and its shortcoming revolves around the fact that secularism, in a general connotation, refers to a separation of church and state which also means that both of those entities are equal in the public sphere. Hence, a country that functions on a secular doctrine should not exclude religion from the public sphere. Rather, secularism assures that non-religious entities are not in a more dominant or privileged position than religious ones, therefore, religion needs to be considered as a “free and equal participant in political debates” (Kettell, 2019, p. 8). In the contemporary world, it is apparent that secularism most often refers to religion as a belief system that has to remain a private life of every individual. If it is the case and religious reasoning is excluded from the public sphere, then the state does not follow the ideal principle of secularism, which postulates equality among the entities but tries to limit it by restricting the voices of the religious groups within the country. Brendan Sweetman (2010) underlined that even though secularists might find the theological arguments to be scientifically and factually flawed and irrational, it does not mean that secularists should use their argumentation and opinion to obstruct the “religious arguments from influencing public debates” (p. 2). Steven Kettell (2019), a fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, in the article “Secularism and Religion” highlighted that the exclusionist policies in the name of secularism lead individuals with strong theological convictions to put aside their beliefs and “justify themselves in non-theological terms” (p.10). Secularism by its nature separates the church and religion, thus creating equality between religious and non-religious people. By neutralizing the relationship between the state and religion and establishing equality among the religious and non-religious entities, the state assures that religion should exist within the public sphere and be on the same level as other actors.

It is also essential to note that there is an argument revolving around the fact that the term secularism itself is contradictory and paradoxical. If secularism is meant to establish equality among the groups of people within a particular society, then the involvement of religious and non-religious groups in a public sphere should be on an equal level; however, the term secularism itself undermines the religious grounds for giving privilege to non-religious groups in a decision-making realm. Abstracting the political realm from the opinions and contributions of religious organizations, the states create a disparity within the society by considering the opinion of any other parties but religious. Hence, it demonstrates that secularism, instead of providing an equal political arena for people with different political worldviews and keeping the state and religious affairs neutral to one another, prioritizes the non-religious involvement in politics and public affairs. Kettell (2010) argued that it leads to a burden that is falling on “religious but not nonreligious citizens” (p.10).



Figure 3: Protesters at a religious freedom rally on June 8, 2012 in Miami, Florida (Joe Raedle, 2012).

Secularism: Discrimination or Non-Discrimination

One of the attributes of moderate secularism is its role of creating a non-discriminatory environment by neutralizing and separating the church and the state. The strictly established borderline between the state and church, as per the ideal definition and principle of secularism, allows one to avoid the discriminatory actions of religious entities towards non-religious and vice versa. The establishment of the secular mode of state was designed upon granting the people freedom of religion and its practice without the state's or non-religious peoples' intervention. This case is central specifically in the contemporary period due to continuous immigration flows that place people with different philosophical, political and theological worldviews into one pot. Having said that, it is important to shift glance and take a careful look at the practicality of it. The case of France, for instance, is a special one as France remains one the most rigid cases in regard to secularism and its relation with religious minority groups. Hijab, as it was mentioned previously, plays a special role in French society as the country has implemented a variety of enactments targeting not simply religious groups, but especially Muslim women. Jennifer Heider (2012) argued that even though the Law 2004-228, for instance, prohibits all the religious symbols in public schools, in practice, it has severely impacted Muslim students "because it prohibits Muslim schoolgirls from wearing headscarves to school" (p.95). The French government implemented supporting laws, such as banning burqa and other veils in public spaces, that were directed just towards the Muslim population. It created a big resonance as hijab is not simply a religious sign and a expression of belief but an identity that cannot simply be taken out. In addition to that, in various interviews, the French administration has spoken out about hijabs, burqas and its violation of French national identity. As it is a firmly established fact, laïcité or French secularism on a legal and theoretical bases carries a purpose of non-interventionist policies in the "private religious domain coupled with a principle of non-discrimination in the public sphere” (Idriss, 2006, p. 261). In order to avoid discrimination between religious and non-religious and preserve the secular status quo in the country on May 3rd, 2004 French Senate gave final approval for an enactment that would prohibit wearing religious symbols in public places, such as schools (Vaisse, 2004, p.1). It is a valid justification for the country’s policies; however, upon a deep analysis, it becomes different. This step was supposed to demonstrate France’s unwillingness to openly support a particular religion…in the interests of non-discrimination” (Idriss, 2006, p. 261).


However, the crucial point that arises from this issue is that imposing a ban on Islamic veils, which are an integral part of Muslim women's identity, can be seen as a discriminatory action. It becomes contradictory as the law was meant to avoid discrimination, but in reality it creates discrimination towards religious people, especially violating the rights of Muslim women as well as threatening their identity and religious belonging. Jennifer Heider (2012), a fellow at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, in her article underlined that the ban on Islamic dresses for women is itself a form of discrimination. It arises crucial questions, such as whether it is the notion of secularism itself that is contradictory to its nature or whether it is the country that bends the rules of secularism to make it fit into the state agenda and target certain religious groups. Some critics argue that if in a secular and liberal regime, a country possesses the practices of discrimination, then it is “not secularism per se, but rather an improper or inadequate implementation of it” (Gülalp, 2022, p.4).



Figure 4: Legal experts say the religious discrimination bill has the potential to legitimise discrimination against vulnerable groups (Shutterstock, 2021).


Secularism and Freedom of Religion, Conscious and Belief

The reason for the adoption of secularism, which is also baldly outlined in the constitutions of the countries, revolves around the separation of two entities from each other with the purpose of creating an equal, free and just society where one group of individuals has no dominant position over another. The key perspective revolves around the fact that secularism, as a prevailing doctrine in modern democratic societies, by its nature provides freedom, equality and justice in society. As it was mentioned by Haldun Gulalp (2020), a secular state is one that structures itself independently from religion, “thereby granting freedom of belief to citizens” (p. 2). The question of freedom, specifically, plays a central role in the case of secularism due to the fact that the majority of debates that erupt in regard to flaws of liberal secularism in Western democracies orbit around the concept of freedom of religion, expression, conscience and belief. Secularism, in an ideal of its meaning and connotation, according to Steven Kettell (2019), ensures human rights and freedoms which also includes the freedom of religion in conjunction with the liberty to worship and practice religion freely. This point is supported along similar lines by Sophie Heine, a fellow at the Université libre de Bruxelles, where she underlined that laïcité, the French secularism, accommodates diversity and “respect freedom of conscience” (p. 176). Hence, secularism provides a ground for every individual whether to believe or not believe, to be religious or not to be, as these criteria go under personal freedom of choice as well.


France, being a staunch proponent of secularism, places certain limitations on the concept of freedom.. It is simple to make an assumption that if a state is following secular principles, then the religious cohorts of people should not feel any form of challenges in respect to their belief as existing in secular societies, states' power in terms of its interventionist policies to the rights and freedoms of individuals are supposed to be limited. Jennifer Heider (2012) noted that as time shows, France is a state that is taking unyielding steps in justifying any sort of treatment “of its minority populations in the name of secularism and assimilation” (p.128). It is predominantly seen in the case of the Muslim population where the laws and enactments are specifically directed at limiting the rights and freedoms of Muslim women. The first point to be made is that French laws in regard to banning religious symbols in the name of secularism are by their nature a paradoxical statement. As it was established earlier, secularism does not endorse state intervention in the matter of religion and individuals' freedoms and rights. By stating that a ban on religious symbols is a form of secularism is a mistaken assumption, as liberal-democratic secularism necessitates a separation between the state and religion, not domination (Gulalp, 2022, p.3). By banning religious signs, the French government violates the traditional principles of a secular mode of governance.

Figure 5: Paris, November 10, 2019. — March against Islamophobia. On the billboards: “Together against Islamophobia” and “Your secularism, our freedom” (Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt, 2019)

The second major point revolves around the fact that the ban on religious symbols is a violation of secular liberal-democratic principles of freedoms and rights. One might argue that wearing a religious garment symbolizes one’s belonging to a religion which is a form of expression and the right of expression in the French constitution is not crystal clear. Secularism Monitoring Centre (n.a) in its report regards to secularism in France underlined that the freedom of religious, consciousness is different from the freedom of expression of belief. The report suggested that “freedom to express religious beliefs, on the other hand, may be limited under conditions established by law” (p.4). Hence, restricting religious symbols is justified even though it is against the nature of secular principles. However, it is important to understand that hijab is not simply an expression of religion, but a freedom of belief and right to a religious identity that is supposed to be protected by secular principles. France by imposing restrictions on Muslim women is violating the secularism principles, as well as, the values of Libera-democracies and various international conventions. Jennifer Heider noted that the ban on Islamic dresses is an “unwarranted restriction of the right to religious freedom under Article 9 of the European Convention” which enforces the right to manifest religious beliefs (p.129).


Lastly, it is crucial to realize that secularism can obscure the real intentions of the states' administrations. In other words, secularism is used as a method of justification for the suppressive actions of the governments towards a particular group of people. In the case of India, for instance, is clearly visible as the secular government means no interaction of theology and state; however, India’s state administration is itself based on the religion of the majority. Laila Kadiwal (2021), in the article “Feminists against Fascism: The Indian Female Muslim Protest in India” noticed that the ruling party of India is itself based on a cultural-religious ideology of Hindutva. She argued that the Bhartiya Janata Party privileges “the politics based on religious… over the constitutional ethics of equality and justice” and it tends to “polarize Hindu and Muslim populations in South Asia” (p. 2). If a country’s sincere intention behind the ban on hijab was to preserve secularity, which is against secularism itself as it was discussed, then the ruling party would not have an affiliation to any religion. Hence, it suggests that policies, such as the hijab ban is directed toward the eradication of a particular religion. Thoughts on the same line can be said about the French case. As a result of thorough analysis from the different perspectives and methods, Sophie Heine (2009) underlined that the term laïcité or secularism, in reality, is a justification for attacking a particular religious group. She concluded that the ban of a religious symbol, especifically an Islamic headscarf, as it was discussed earlier, is predominately done for the purpose of reinforcing and preserving “the unity and identity of the nation” (p. 168).


Figure 6: Liberté, égalité, laïcité! (TRTWorld, n.a).
Concluding Remarks.

Lastly, it is crucial to realize that secularism can obscure the real intentions of the states' administrations. In other words, secularism is used as a method of justification for the suppressive actions of the governments towards a particular group of people. In the case of India, for instance, is clearly visible as the secular government means no interaction of theology and state; however, India’s state administration is itself based on the religion of the majority. Laila Kadiwal (2021), in the article “Feminists against Fascism: The Indian Female Muslim Protest in India” noticed that the ruling party of India is itself based on a cultural-religious ideology of Hindutva. She argued that the Bhartiya Janata Party privileges “the politics based on religious… over the constitutional ethics of equality and justice” and it tends to “polarize Hindu and Muslim populations in South Asia” (p. 2). If a country’s sincere intention behind the ban on hijab was to preserve secularity, which is against secularism itself as it was discussed, then the ruling party would not have an affiliation to any religion. Hence, it suggests that policies, such as the hijab ban is directed toward the eradication of a particular religion. Thoughts on the same line can be said about the French case. As a result of thorough analysis from the different perspectives and methods, Sophie Heine (2009) underlined that the term laïcité or secularism, in reality, is a justification for attacking a particular religious group. She concluded that the ban of a religious symbol, specifically an Islamic headscarf, as it was discussed earlier, is predominately done for the purpose of reinforcing and preserving “the unity and identity of the nation” (p. 168).


Secularism can be manipulated as a political tool by various entities. This multifaceted phenomenon is not limited to a simple and generic theoretical connotation of the separation of church and religion, but instead is highly complex when put into practice. The paper demonstrated the shortcomings, contradictions and paradoxes of the liberal principle of secularism. Even though the doctrine itself, in a simple terms, refers to a separation of church and state, in the contemporary world the principle of secularism is highly misused and interpreted in a such way that would benefit the country's domestic agenda. The cases of India and France demonstrated that the traditional secularism with its values and principles, such as freedom of religion, conscience, belief, worship and independence from the state's intervention into the personal and religious matters of individuals, has been abandoned. States, in todays' world use secularism merely for the purpose of justification of their actions in suppressing the religious minority groups. In addition, the contemporary secular policies are directed not just towards the religious groups, such as Muslim women in regards to hijab, but towards the eradication of religion from the public and individuals lives. As Tariq Modood (2021) said, the main prerogative of liberal secularism is to delimit the religion itself from the society. In today's multicultural and diverse societies, religion plays a significant role, and any attempt to suppress it amounts to a direct attack on individuals.


Bibliographical References:

Ahmad, N., & Zulkiffle, N. B. H. (2022). Discriminatory Policies and Laws Target Indian Muslim minorities in the Recent Time: A Socio-Legal Study. Law and Humanities Quarterly Reviews, 1(2), 1-17.


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

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9240275/pdf/fsoc-07-902734.pdf


Heider, J. (2012). UNVEILING THE TRUTH BEHIND THE FRENCH BURQA BAN: THE UNWARRANTED RESTRICTION of THE RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS. Indiana International & Comparative Law Review. 22(1), 93-129. Retrieved from https://journals.iupui.edu/index.php/iiclr/article/view/17670


Heine, S. (2009). The Hijab controversy and French republicanism: Critical analysis and normative propositions. Palgrave Macmillan. French Politics. 7(2), 167-193. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/31953287_The_Hijab_controversy_and_French_republicanism_Critical_analysis_and_normative_propositions


Idriss, M.M. (2006). Laicite and the banning of the ‘hijab’ in France. Legal Studies. 25(2), 260-295. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1748-121X.2005.tb00615.x


Insights Mind maps (n.a). Secularism in India. 1-4. Retrieved from https://www.cvs.edu.in/upload/Secularism-in-India.pdf


Jacob Holyoake, G. (1871). THE PRINCIPLES OF SECULARISM. London: Austin. &, 17. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/36797/36797-h/36797-h.htm#link2HCH0003


Kadiwal, L. (2021). Feminists against Fascism: The Indian Female Muslim Protest in India. Educ. Sci. 11(793), 1-22. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1322918.pdf


Kettell, S. (2019). Secularism and Religion. Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Politics. 1-15. Retrieved from https://oxfordre.com/politics/display/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-898?print=pdf


Moodod, T. (2021). Rethinking Political Secularism: The Multiculturalist Challenge. Pattern of Prejudice, 55(2), 115-124. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/epdf/10.1080/0031322X.2020.1866873?needAccess=true&role=button


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Sweetman, B. (2010). Secularism and Religion in Modern Democracies. E-International Relations, 1-5. Retrieved from https://www.e-ir.info/pdf/4747


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