Secularism Is a Civilizing Force for Democratic Societies

Greek ruins

When it comes to secularism, my views have evolved over the years. I used to think of it as little more than church-state activism. It was reactive because it had to be. The separation of church and state was always under threat. Religious extremists sought to destroy it. Defending it required a reactive sort of church-state activism. We'd seek to quell each new threat that popped up and then move along.

I'd later realize that secularism was broader than this. It was also about how governments handle religion. Do they support pluralism or privilege? Does one religious tradition always seem to receive special treatment? How do government officials talk about religion? Do they understand that they aren't supposed to be clergy? Does it seem like they are often trying to persuade us to share their religious beliefs?

I'll add another component to my understanding of secularism today. I suspect it may be the most important one of all. Secularism is a civilizing force in democratic societies. It aims to counter one of the most common sources of bigotry, hate, division, and even violence. That source, as I'm confident you guessed, is none other than religious extremism.

Secularism isn't about convincing people that they shouldn't be religious. It is more about convincing people that they shouldn't be religious in ways that harm others. When it is working, no one religion enjoys a privilege not shared by others. High religiosity is not elevated above low religiosity. Monotheism is not elevated over pantheism or atheism. The playing field is level.

But since much of this runs counter to how humans operate, laws are necessary. Might isn't right, and religious minorities deserve protection. This becomes even more vital when one religion is far more popular than the rest. It is too easy for adherents of that religion to marginalize everyone who doesn't go along. And yes, "religious minorities" also refers to those of us who are not religious.

Allowing the broader society to marginalize religious minorities isn't healthy for anyone. And yet, that's inevitable when secularism is weak. The religious majority will claim superiority. The mistreatment of everyone else soon follows. And they'll be able to find a religious justification for whatever they do that erases any guilt.

This is where some will say that I'm misunderstanding democracy. Some will insist that might does make right. Others will claim that democracy is all about majority rule. Our elections are about majority rule (most of the time). But this can't be an excuse for the majority to subjugate minorities. For a democracy to work, we must all have the same rights. We also need protection to make sure that we can exercise those rights.

Many religious believers are good people. They treat others with kindness, including those who do not share their religious beliefs. How might we explain this? Should we credit their religious beliefs or traditions? That's a hard sell when we'd say the same about people who aren't religious. Maybe we'd be better off saying that both groups contain some good people, regardless of their religious views. And how about the civilizing influence of secularism? That seems relevant too.

What did religions look like before there was any civilizing influence of secularism? Do you suppose there are some good reasons why we refer to those times as the "Dark Ages?" History shows us what people do in the name of religion when there are few secular constraints. It isn't pretty. We shouldn't long for a return to such times.

We don't have to go back that far either. This was one of the many things I took away from my visit to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Free from secular constraints, people will commit unimaginable acts of cruelty. And they'll do so with glee in the name of their religion.

Image by Leonhard Niederwimmer from Pixabay