Home / Comment / Reviews

Who’s afraid of a secular state?

Who’s afraid of a secular state?

Nick Spencer reviews ‘Secularism’ by Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK.

Interested by this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Friends Programme to find out how you can help our work.

As I was writing this essay, the Students’ Union at Balliol College Oxford, banned the Christian Union from “Freshers’ Fair”, the start–of–university jamboree intended to introduce new students to the various societies open to them. Reasoning that “Christianity’s influence on many marginalised communities has been damaging” and that the CU was in danger in “doing harm” to freshers, they wanted the fair “to be a safe and secular space”.

Mercifully and rightly, criticism of this decision was instant, vociferous and universal and the Student Union rapidly changed its mind. It did, however, make my job of working out how to start this essay much easier. After all, it would be hard to devise a story that better illustrated the reasons why so many people see secularism as petty, partisan and dishonest, the invisibility cloak that the anti–religious don when they want to drive faith out of public life while still claiming to act in the name of freedom and tolerance.

In reality, not only is secularism neither petty nor partisan but it can, if handled in the right way, be a genuine contribution to a just and free society. Andrew Copson is Chief Executive of Humanists UK, an organisation that is in ideological lock step with many secularist causes, so it is to his credit that his short introduction, Secularism (2017), eschews polemic and point–scoring. Although undoubtedly a fan, he is not blind to the objections to secularism, which, it seems, are mounting.


Secularism, he acknowledges at the outset, is a slippery beast, or rather an elastic one, stretching between ‘hard and soft’– or ‘programmatic and procedural’, ‘closed and open’, ‘radical and moderate’ – poles. The former seeks to secure an equal playing field by keeping certain players (or at least their views) off the field; the latter aims at the same by allowing (most) players on but insisting they play by the same rules. It is, in effect the difference between French laïcité and the first Amendment to the US Constitution.

The somewhat ironic result of this is that formally non–secular societies, such as some of those with an established church, can end up being more ‘secular’ than ostensibly secular ones, in the sense that they have a better claim to cementing equal treatment and maximal freedom for people and groups of different religious and ideological views. It’s the kind of distinction with which sociologists of religion are familiar: is a Christian someone who calls themselves a Christian, someone who believes in the Creeds, or someone who goes to church? Is a secular society one that calls itself secular or one that achieves (a measure of) the fairness, equality and freedom to which it aspires?

Soviet Russia was a model of de jure secularism, passing in its innocuous sounding and impeccably secular “Decree on the Freedom of Conscience and on Church and Religious Associations” shortly after the Revolution, without ever paying the faintest attention to freedom, conscience or association. By contrast, Denmark, with its long and firmly established church, is a rather better model of a fair society. Which is secular? Or, to take one of Copson’s examples, “a state like Turkey, which declares itself as the constitutional level… may be found to be less secular in practice than a constitutionally Christian state like the UK.” (p.105)

Such a distinction may strike one as special pleading, akin to the Christian apologist who thinks that the Crusaders or Inquisitors were not really Christian, but it is not unreasonable. Soviet secularism, or even the French war on the burkini, no more invalidates secularism than the 1099 sacking of Jerusalem invalidates the message of Christ. Just as bad religion shouldn’t discredit all religion, not should bad or hard secularism undermine secularism.


If such arguments from the worst case against secularism can be dismissed, there are others that emerge in Copson’s book that demand rather more attention. These do not invalidate the ideology but they do pose it serious challenges that merit response if secularism is to achieve what it promises. Three are worth mentioning.

First, for all that people – whether self–identifying as religious or secularists or even both – might insist on possibilities of soft, or procedural, secularism, the fact is that even this variety has a habit of degenerating into the harder one, more intent on controlling religion than being fair to it. Copson rightly cites Baruch Spinoza as an early (if indirect, via Locke) influence of the secular train of thought in the Enlightenment. He doesn’t, however, mention Spinoza’s unfinished and now largely unread Political Treatise, published a few years after his better known Tractatus Theologico–Politicus, which advocates a form of state religion – a simple, universal, philosophical faith teaching salvation through justice and charity – to which all leading figures must belong. Other (non–state) religions were to be permitted “to build as many temples as they please”, but only on the condition that they were small and well–separated.

Similar stories can be told of those countries like France, Turkey and Russia in which secularism took hold and any aspirations (such as they were) to fairness, equality and neutrality rapidly disappeared into more or less oppressive and violent incarnations, religiously–owned land being appropriated, clerics defrocked, religious orders closed, education systems purged, state departments for religion set up, and even state ‘churches’ in the loosest, Spinozan sense of that word, established. Copson refuses to sweep such degeneration under the carpet and thus invites the serious question, how do we prevent such betrayal of ideals. It’s the question that religious states have had to ask themselves repeatedly over the centuries. It’s quite appropriate that secular ones do so too.


Second, and preying on this first objection, is the fact that secularist countries are rarely happy ones; or, more precisely, rarely happy with being secular. The ideological bloodlessness that is its greatest strength is also secularism’s biggest weakness. Fighting for equal fairness for all makes a great street banner. Human nature finds it a harder task. Those of a more naïve humanist bent, whose anthropology recognises only human goodness and dismisses selfishness as skin deep and cultural, often protest at this, but history is not on their side. Humans are tribal animals. They have strong identities. They are not animals instinctively inclined to arbitrate objectively between tribes or to fight for the rights of other tribal members. We can and we do, but it can often feel like hauling yourself up by your moral bootstraps. We are not naturally secular and, as a result, secular societies often struggle with simmering identity issues.

Once again, Copson is commendably honest here. Mustafa Kemal’s efforts to impose laikik on Turkey were constitutionally successful, but as the history of that country in the later 20th century shows, his de–Islamicisation provoking a slow burn reaction among tens of millions of Muslims. The result has been political instability, attempts to reintroduce sharia law, successive military coups to maintain a kind of order, and occasional flirtation with what we might call theocracy.The story of secularism in India is even uglier, the new nation’s determination to preserve a measure of pluralism being subsequently used by Hindu nationalists to generate outrage, garner support, and occasional murder apparent enemies. Bizarre as it may sound, the rise of the impeccably godless Trump in the US can be explained in a similar way, by the sense of alienation that many ‘flyover state’ Christians feel at being labelled and dismissed as ‘flyover state’ Christians. And for all that Islamic terrorism is a threat to all Western European states, there is a widespread sense that France’s laïcité adds particular venom to it there. Pictures of gun–toting gendarmes confronting burkini–wearing bathers on the beach are an ISIS recruiting poster.

To be clear: the arguments against secularism deployed by Turkish AK Party members, Hindu nationalists, American evangelicals, and French Muslims are often bad ones, made by people who are licking wounds. But sometimes they have wounds to lick. Hard secularism treats them like second class citizens, and even soft secularism can run roughshod over deeply–rooted culture, concerns and commitments, and end up feeling like a legally–fortified landgrab by a small, unrepresentative urban elite. The implication is pleasantly ironic: for secularism to be sustainable it has not only to avoid sliding into its hard, programmatic variety, but it must take deliberate and public steps to integrate religious concerns, voices, ideas, commitments and the like into public discourse. To exclude them is to provoke the kind of reaction that is slowly undermining some secular societies.


The third problem is linked to the second but is, in reality, the root of secularism’s problems. In aspiring towards fairness, equality and freedom secularism purports not to take sides, and although this is obviously betrayed by the facts of hard secularism, it seems credible for its softer variety. If you are going to welcome all the players onto the pitch, the argument goes, you need a referee who can apply the rules of the game in a non–partisan way.

The problem is – to pursue what I, at least, find a helpful metaphor – there is no independent Referee’s Association from which we can recruit our secular adjudicator. The only people who can referee are the players themselves. Indeed, they are the only ones who can draft the rules in the first place. This does not mean that the constitutional principle of government impartiality between different religions and worldviews is illusory, or a lie, but it does mean that it is a much more contestable concept than is sometimes imagined.

There are some rules of the secular game that all “reasonable people”, to use a familiar phrase, can, should and do agree on. Religious people (or, for that matter, non–religious ones) shouldn’t have preferential treatment when it comes to the taxes they pay, or their ability to access public services, or some other obvious matter of public justice. However, what that means in practice is far from settled (or even settle–able).

Some anti–religious secularists would claim that it means that religious groups shouldn’t be able to set up and run schools that draw on public money. Other, more religiously–minded secularists would disagree, saying that (a) a fair and free society must strive to enable parents to educate their children as they think best, as long as that right isn’t confined to only religious people; that (b) religious people pay their taxes like the non–religious – public money is the public’s money – and so barring them from accessing public funds is discriminatory; and in any case (c) a functioning state actively needs to work with activist civil society groups in this way, rather than pretending it can do it all itself (a variety of the argument that a secular state finds it difficult to generate the moral activism that regenerates society). In short, arriving at a secular settlement actually only kicks the can further down the road, inviting the question: what kind of secular settlement?

This is seen in certainly inherently ethical – indeed inherently metaphysical – issues on which a state, whether secular or not, cannot but take a stance. For example, what form of personal union between adults should states recognise? Historically, in the UK, marriage was lifelong, monogamous union between one man and one woman. A decade or so ago, that was supplemented by civil partnerships so that state could recognise the union between two people of the same sex but mark it out a different from marriage. Then, a few years later, it introduced the right of same sex couples to enter into a marriage union. Each of these positions contains a view of what form(s) of union it is proper for a state to recognise, views that were often aired in more intelligent (if less noticed) debates around the time of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013. There was and is no neutral position here.

The debate can be extended. If uncoerced agency – “I choose this freely” – is the deciding factor in which personal unions the state does or does not recognise, why limit such recognition to two people. Why deny the rights of the so–called polyamorous who deny that relational exclusivity is necessary for recognising a union? Why, indeed, not extend the right to polygamous arrangements, such as are permitted in certain interpretations of Islamic law, whereby a man may marry up to four wives?

Speaking personally, I can think of various reasons to deny these extensions of recognition, but my views inevitably draw on my anthropological, and beneath it, theological and metaphysical commitments. Similarly, the state cannot decide on these matters from a position of metaphysical neutrality can. Impartiality is not an option. Nor is falling back on “personal choice”, the device that has been used to cut ethical Gordian knots – or rather avoid ethical debates – all too often in the last half–century. The ‘personal choice is sufficient’ argument itself carries with it oodles of anthropological and metaphysical commitments, pertaining to moral subjectivity, human dignity, and so forth – most of which are not very convincing when read, or pressed, too hard. The secular state, like the humans that inhabit it, is condemned to operate in a contentious ethical landscape, however much it pretends to have transcended it.


Lots of people are afraid of the secular state. Certain crimes of history, and certain pettinesses of the present, show they have reason to be so. Secularism can be a subterfuge, its cause not aided by being most often found on the same lips that dismiss religious commitment as inherently stupid or dangerous.

But this, to return to an earlier point, is to less the bad dictate the good. Adhering to soft secularism, with all the caveats above noted, can be a step in the right direction but only a step. The end of the journey is not in sight, and there are good reasons to believe, with our growing pluralism, deep diversity and the hint of incommensurability hovering in the background, it never will be.

It is to Andrew Copson’s credit that his short book refuses to circumvent these big issues but rather brings them blinking out into the light and enables readers to understand better and think more clearly about them. It is undoubtedly the author’s hope – and by and large this reviewer’s too – that by the end of the book readers will look more positively on secularism. But that would mark not the end of a debate, but the start of a new one. Secularism yes. But what kind?

‘Secularism’ (2017) by Andrew Copson is published by OUP

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos | @TheosNick

 Image by aga7ta available under licence from

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Nick Spencer

Posted 16 October 2017



See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.