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A secular state is a concept of secularism, whereby a state or country purports to be officially neutral in matters of religion, supporting neither religion nor irreligion. A secular state also claims to treat all its citizens equally regardless of religion, and claims to avoid preferential treatment for a citizen from a particular religion/nonreligion over other religions/nonreligion. Most often it has no state religion or equivalent.

A secular state is defined as protecting freedom of religion as pursued in state secularism. It is also described to be a state that prevents religion from interfering with state affairs, and prevents religion from controlling government or exercising political power. Laws protect each individual including religious minorities from discrimination on the basis of religion.

A secular state is not an atheistic state (e.g. Albaniamarker under Enver Hoxha), in which the state officially opposes all religious beliefs and practices. In some secular states, there can be a huge majority religion in the population (e.g. Thailandmarker, Turkeymarker, etc.) and in others there may be great religious diversity (e.g. Indiamarker, Lebanonmarker, etc). Some may have de facto official religions, in which even though a government doesn't support or deny religion, it may require some members of its government to be a certain religion (e.g. Indonesiamarker, Perumarker).

Secular states become secular either upon establishment of the state or upon secularization of the state (e.g. Francemarker). Movements for laïcité in France and for the separation of church and state in the United States began the evolution of the present secular states. Historically, the process of secularizing states typically involves granting religious freedom, disestablishing state religions, stopping public funds to be used for a religion, freeing the legal system from religious control, opening up the education system, tolerating citizens who change religion, and allowing political leadership to come to power regardless of religious beliefs. Public holidays that were originally religious holidays and other traditions are not necessarily affected, and public institutions become safe from being used and abused by religion.

Not all legally secular states are completely secular in practice. In France for example, many Christian holy days are official holidays for the public administration, and teachers in Catholic schools are salaried by the state . In Indiamarker, the government gives subsidy in airfare for Muslims going on Haj pilgrimage(See Haj subsidy).In 2007, the government had to spend Rs. 47,454 per passenger.

Many states that nowadays are secular in practice may have legal vestiges of an earlier established religion. Secularism also has various guises which may coincide with some degree of official religiosity. Thus, in the Commonwealth Realms, the head of state is required to take the Coronation Oath swearing to uphold the Protestant faith. The United Kingdom also maintains positions in its upper house for 26 senior clergymen of the established Church of England known as the Lords Spiritual (spiritual peers). The reverse progression can also occur, a state can go from being secular to a religious state as in the case of Iranmarker where the secularized state of the Pahlavi dynasts was replaced by the Islamic Republic (list below). Since at one time all states had official religions and the situation has essentially been reversed over the last 250 years, it may be concluded that the global secular trend is toward secularism in the modern period.

Secular states and religious freedom

A secular constitution does not ensure religious freedom. Religious states are "not the only or necessarily the worst violators of religious freedom". Secular states can be as or more repressive than religious states. Indeed, it is both the extremely religious and the extremely secular states which are the most oppressive, and because of this a "secular" state should not be presumed to entail religious freedom or tolerance.

It is not only the communist or former communist countries which engage in the secular repression of religion. Turkey, a secular state which purports to guarantee freedom of conscience, aggressively promotes secularism, favoring secular views over religion and controlling all aspects of religious practice. Mexico, also a secular state, has, especially since it's 1917 Constitution a history of anticlerical religious oppression. Churches could not engage in worship outside of a church building, own property, sue or defend itself in a suit, or engage in education; religious orders were outlawed, priests deprived of political speech and the right to vote. Many of these restrictions were removed, but many remain, including limitations on the rights of freedom of speech.

Secular states run the risk of preferring nonreligion over religion or of establishing a religion of secularism.

With regard to oppression by secular states, scholars have distinguished between what are sometimes called "friendly" and "hostile" separations of church and state.Maier, Hans and Jodi Bruhn Totalitarianism and Political Religions, pp. 109 2004 Routledge The friendly type limits the interference of the church in matters of the state but also limits the interference of the state in church matters. The hostile variety, by contrast, seeks to confine religion purely to the home or church and limits religious education, religious rites of passage and public displays of faith.

The hostile model of militant secularism arose with the French Revolution and is typified in the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish Constitution of 1931. The hostile model exhibited during these events can be seen as approaching the type of political religion seen in totalitarian states.

The French separation of 1905 and the Spanish separation of 1931 have been characterized as the two most hostile of the twentieth century, although the current schemes in those countries are considered generally friendly. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, however, still considers the current scheme a "negative laicite" and wants to develop a "positive laicite" more open to religion. The hostilities of the state toward religion have been seen as a cause of civil war in Spain and Mexico.

The French philosopher and a drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Jacques Maritain, noted the distinction between the models of secularism found in France and in the mid-twentieth century United States. He considered the U.S. model of that time to be more amicable, because it had both "sharp distinction and actual cooperation" between church and state, what he called "an historical treasure", and he admonished the United States: "Please to God that you keep it carefully, and do not let your concept of separation veer round to the European one."

See also


  1. Madeley, John T. S. and Zsolt Enyedi, Church and state in contemporary Europe: the chimera of neutrality, p. , 2003 Routledge
  2. Jean Baubérot The secular principle
  3. Richard Teese, Private Schools in France: Evolution of a System, Comparative Education Review, Vol. 30, No. 2 (May, 1986), pp. 247-259
  5. Coronation Oath
  6. Different types of Lords
  7. Harris Interactive | News Room - Religious views and beliefs vary greatly by country, according to the latest Financial Times/Harris poll
  8. Summary of Findings: A Portrait of "Generation Next"
  9. Secularization and Secularism - History and nature of secularization and secularism till 1914
  10. Marshall, Paul A. Religious freedom in the world, p. 13, 2007 Rowman & Littlefield
  11. Marshall, Paul A. Religious freedom in the world, p. 16, 2007 Rowman & Littlefield
  12. Marshall, Paul A. Religious freedom in the world, p. 14, 2007 Rowman & Littlefield
  13. Op. cit.
  14. Op. cit.
  15. Martinez-Torron, Javier Freedom of religion in the case law of the Spanish Constitutional court, p. 2, Brigham Young University Law Review 2001
  16. Stepan, Alfred, Arguing Comparative Politics, p. 221, Oxford University Press
  17. Beita, Peter B. French President's religious mixing riles critics Christianity Today, Jan. 23, 2008
  18. Payne, Stanley G. , A History of Spain and Portugal, Vol. 2, Ch. 25: The Second Spanish Republic , p. 632, (Print Edition: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973) ( Library of Iberian Resources Online, Accessed July 11, 2009)
  19. Carson, D. A. Christ And Culture Revisited, p. 189, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008

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