Secularism explained

Secularism explained

Equal treatment and freedom of belief for all.

Secularism is a political idea concerned with the best way to govern religiously pluralist societies.

The model of secularism we advocate for defends the civil liberties of all, whatever your personal beliefs.

The principles of secularism which protect and underpin liberal democracy and many of the freedoms we enjoy are:

  • Equality so that our religious beliefs or lack of them doesn't put any of us at an advantage or a disadvantage.

  • Freedom to practise one's religion or belief without harming others, or to change it or not have one, according to one's own conscience.

  • Separation of religious institutions from state institutions and a public sphere where religion may participate, but not dominate.

Separation of church and state

The separation of religion and state is a key principle of secularism. It ensures the independence and autonomy of religious institutions from government influence and vice versa. It removes any formal connection between religious organisations and the state's political affairs, preventing the establishment of an official state religion.

In the United Kingdom there are officially two state recognised Christian denominations – the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The King is both head of state and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. There is no established church in Northern Ireland or Wales. But the 26 unelected bishops of the Church of England who sit in the House of Lords influence laws that affect the whole of the UK.

Christianity is one major influence among many that shape our current ways of life. The UK today is a nation of many denominations and religions. Large sectors of the population do not hold, or practise, religious beliefs.

If we were to become a truly a secular democracy, political structures would reflect the reality of modern Britain by separating religion from the state.

Secularism protects freedom of religion or belief for all

Secularism safeguards freedom of religion or belief and ensures that the government does not favour any particular religion or impose religion on its citizens.

A secular state seeks to ensure and protect freedom of belief and practice for all citizens. Secularists want freedoms of thought and conscience to apply equally to all – religious believers and nonreligious alike.

Secularism seeks to defend the absolute freedom of religious and other belief, and protect the right to manifest religious belief insofar as it does not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others. Secularism ensures that the right of individuals to freedom of religion is always balanced by the right to be free from religion.

Secularism is about democracy and fairness

In a secular democracy all citizens are equal before the law and parliament. No religious affiliation gives advantages or disadvantages and religious believers are citizens with the same rights and obligations as anyone else.

Secularism champions the principle of one law for all and universal human rights above religious demands. It upholds equality laws that protect women, LGBT people and minorities from religious discrimination. These equality laws ensure that the nonreligious and religiously unconcerned have the same rights as those who identify with a religious or philosophical belief.

Secularism isn't atheism

Atheism is the absence of belief in gods. Secularism simply provides a framework for a democratic society. Atheists have an obvious interest in supporting secularism, but secularism itself does not seek to challenge the tenets of any religion or belief, neither does it seek to impose atheism on anyone.

Secularism provides a vital framework for ensuring equality, freedom and fairness throughout society – in politics, education, the law and elsewhere – for religious believers and the nonreligious alike.

Secularism protects free speech and expression

Religious people have the right to express their beliefs publicly but so do those who oppose or question those beliefs. Religious beliefs, ideas and organisations must not enjoy privileged protection from the right to freedom of expression. In a democracy, all ideas and beliefs must be open to discussion. Individuals have rights; ideas do not.

Equal access to public services

We all share hospitals, schools, the police and the services of local authorities. It is essential that these public services are secular at the point of use, so no-one is disadvantaged or denied access on grounds of religious belief or non-belief. All state-funded schools should be fully inclusive and secular in character, with children being educated together regardless of their parents' religious beliefs. When a public body grants a contract for the provision of services to an organisation affiliated to a particular religion or belief, such services should be delivered neutrally, without discrimination and with no attempt to promote the ideas of that faith group.

Secularism fosters a society where individuals are free to practise their religions and to express their beliefs freely, but where no single religion dominates or influences the decisions and policies of the government. It is the best chance we have to create a society in which people of all religions or none can live together fairly and peacefully.

While you're here

Increasing public awareness of secularism and countering misconceptions and misrepresentations is an important part of our work. You can support this work by becoming a member today.