In the public debate, the secular State is sometimes misrepresented as being in contradiction with fundamental rights, especially religious freedom. On the contrary, we think that secularism fosters social cohesiveness, civil peace and fundamental freedoms for all.

Secularism, in its strictest meaning of separation of the spiritual and temporal domains, has several consequences, which are beneficial to individuals as well as to society as a whole.

First, secularism contributes to society’s cohesiveness. It creates a public arena for a political debate based on everyone’s equal citizenship, i.e. belonging to the political community with equal rights and dignity, independently of any particular belonging to a specific community or group. It boosts social cohesiveness because, in the political sphere, people are primarily recognised as citizens, and not as members of a distinctive group. It leads to political equality and creates the conditions for inclusive democratic politics. The democratic political order, set up by all citizens, stands above any particular religious law.

Second, as in a secular political order, no religious organisation is recognised by the State or has an organic link with it (as for example in the USA or France), equality of all religions is ensured. No religion stands above the others, thus guaranteeing an impartial playing field and an equal understanding of religious freedom for all religions, irrespectively of factors such as the size of their presence in the country. As the historical example of France shows, this is beneficial even for the former official religion because links with the State usually come along with State control and an unhealthy mix of temporal and spiritual domains that in the long term undermines the specificity of the religious message. Churches benefit from greater freedom in comparison with situations where a concordat or a state religion is present. Secularism is inherently liberal as the State pulls out of the spiritual sphere. However, the main benefit of State neutrality on religious affairs lays in the equality of all persons and in social cohesiveness: as no religion or doctrine stands above the others in the legal order, all citizens are equal, irrespectively of their religious affiliation. The Equality and inclusion of all citizens fosters social cohesion.

Last but not least, the separation of the temporal and spiritual domains is a crucial guarantee for the respect of fundamental rights for all. All citizens are recognized as equal, believers (in any religion) and non-believers; it goes hand in hand with a strong defence of fundamental rights for all.

Freedom of speech is crucial to an open, democratic society. It includes the right to religious worship and even to proselytism, but also the acceptation by Churches of freedom of speech for all, including the freedom to criticize and even mock dogmas or objects of worship, as well as the fundamental right of all persons to change or leave the religion in which they were brought up. The right to change or leave one’s religion is of the utmost importance and should be clearly recognized, as many religions seek to actively prevent it or even criminalise it, even though it is a right recognised by European and international human rights law. Indeed, non-believers and apostates are persecuted in many parts of the world in the name of religion. Moreover, many people face criminal lawsuits in many countries, even within the European Union (Poland, for example), threats, or even murder, because of their critical stance towards religion, the most heinous recent example being the murders of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh and of the Charlie Hebdo journalists.

A strong secularist approach also effectively protects the rights of the weakest members of society. Indeed, secularism focuses on individuals and not communities. Close-knit religious communities may be a source of oppression for some of their members, in particular women, children and LGBT persons. Greater recognition of groups and communities often leads to situations where, within the community, the stronger may oppress the weaker in application of religious rules allowing or even prescribing serious breaches of basic fundamental rights, in particular, the right to bodily integrity (example of female genital mutilation), the denial of sexual and reproductive rights, or of the right to education. Secularism first recognizes the individual as a citizen, not as a member of a specific community. As such, a secular state must fight breaches of fundamental rights committed by communities in the name of religion or of authoritarian doctrines. It ensures freedom to all members of society, even against their religious community if needed.

Secularism guarantees the freedom and equality of all religions and beliefs, within the limits set by the need to respect the rights of others. It also ensures authentic equality and freedom of all citizens, irrespective of their metaphysical views, in a truly democratic political debate, clearly separated from theological influence. It establishes the framework in which citizens can freely build their own society, in the here and now.

President of the European Humanist Federation.