مايو 14, 2024

Human Rights and Secularism

SecularismRediscovery of the World

If tolerance is the legitimate father of Western democracy, then secularism can be considered the contested mother of human rights.  The concept of Aufklärung is elaborated through the discourse between acquired and religious knowledge, between human and divine law.  Man achieves the age of adulthood through a continual act of recreation whereby the world recovers the transparency of its origins.  The relationship between human power and divine nature did not end with Jesus Christ.  Man has reclaimed his position as supreme legislator of the natural world.  The rupture between Man and his own history was the catalyst: “(Man was) the sole actor in the modern age who had the audacity to leave his past, his tradition – one thousand years of Christianity – in the shadows of the Middle Ages, and to define himself as the resurrection, the rebirth of an Antiquity forever lost.”[i]


Life has never been an exact mirror of the history of thought.  The conflict between the Church and the modern State has taken place in such a wide variety of contexts that it is impossible for us to offer a simple explanation of the relationship between human authority and that of religious institutions.  The desecration of public life in France has been the result of an open and sometimes deadly conflict, thus helping to explain the militant and aggressive nature of French secularism today.  This conflict has provided for a French concept of secularism that is at once legal, moral, and philosophical.  Secularism, according to this perspective, is inseparable from human rights, liberty, and equality.  In her report on human rights and secularism, Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux describes the situation in the following terms:

Human rights are the foundation of secularism.  Secularism is not only an anticlerical reaction; it is also a philosophy, a positive philosophy that rests on the pedestal of fundamental Rights.  Human rights refer principally to human dignity, to individual autonomy.  They presuppose a rational being with the capacity of choice and involvement, an individual who exercises free will, a critical mind, and who weighs the pros and the cons before taking a decision and who is willing to compare his convictions and ideas to those of others.[ii]

The concept of French secularism is often defined in direct contrast to the notion of religiousness.  This is due largely to the fact that secularism in French society has come to occupy territory that for centuries had been the sole domain of religion.  The writings of Jean Jaurès illustrate the voluntary spirit that allowed for the transformation of secularism into a profound philosophical doctrine:

What must be safeguarded above all else, that which is the inestimable good that can be achieved by man despite prejudice, adversity, and conflict, is the notion that there is no sacred truth; that is to say, nothing is beyond the reach of human investigation.  There is nothing greater in this world than the sovereign freedom of thought. . .that all truth that does not come from us is a lie; that regardless of our attachments, our critical sense must remain acute and all our assertions and thoughts must be impregnated by a rebellious spirit; it is to say that if God’s ideal were rendered visible, if God himself stood before the masses in physical form, the first obligation of man would be to refuse obedience to him who he considers his equal, not as a master to whom he must submit himself.  Thus are the meaning and the greatness and the beauty of secular teachings in their essence.[iii]

This global dimension of secularism, however, has not ensured unanimous agreement on its meaning.  For example, the German approach to secularism is characterized by a dispassionate pragmatism.  In England, the Anglican Church maintains an official position within State institutions.  For one young nation with a Protestant culture comprised of multiple denominations, human rights arise from “the Creator” and are not considered to be in contention with religious beliefs:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.[iv]

The famous “In God we trust” stamped on the greenback is understood by Americans as the link between the “absolute” State and the religious spirit.

Thus in Western culture, one can see reflected in the rights of Man a gradual separation between that which was considered sacred and the elaboration of the first national, and later universal, human rights.

Universality Enshrined

Universality signifies the sharing among human beings, regardless of their ethical or philosophical values, of a practice or a set of principles.  Torture is universal, as is respect for human dignity.    If we can find defenders of secularism among the great civilizations, then it could be said that the separation of Church and State has never constituted a universal phenomenon.  There is no one concept, definition, or representation of secularism that is common to all secularists.   And rarely does secularism go so far as to constitute a desecration of political life.   Reduced to the separation of Church and State, the link between secularism and democracy, and secularism and human rights remains to be defined.  During the French Revolution, the conflict between the Church and the key figures of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen of 1789 created an enormous tension between human and divine rights.  But human rights are not exclusively the outcome of the French example.  In American literature, the question of conflict between religion and absolute rule is rarely cited.  The Muslim world, for the most part, has not opposed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  The only Muslim state to not vote in favor of the UDHR was Saudi Arabia which, like the (secular, read: anti-religious) former Soviet Union, abstained.

Human rights are not considered a religion, even less an ideology.  Human rights consist of texts and instruments put forward by men and women from different countries, of different colors and religions, at a given moment in the history of humanity.  Fortunately, this ensemble does not represent divine law.  As a result, it is shaped by evolution and remains, by definition, a work in progress.

Religion, however, is another matter entirely.  Its declared universality does not erase the borders established between those who are part of the religious community and those who remain outside it, even if this universality is, at its core, in the service of human dignity.  In this context, the universally recognized human rights are situated beyond religious or philosophical adherence, beyond secularism and religion.  Their elaboration by human beings constitutes the essence of their secularity, but it is the “evocation of the universal” that allows them to remain untainted by dogmatism.

This sense of caution was built into article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

This philosophical “neutrality” endows human rights with universality.  Mention is made neither of Creator nor nature; the accent is placed, rather, on liberty and equality.  Neither secularists nor the religious wield a monopoly on human rights.  History teaches us that the fundamental basis of the rights of the individual as well as the obstacles to the exercise of those rights is not systematically the work of one camp against another.  The mystical unity of humanity in Jesus Christ renders possible the conception of a history that fully encompasses all of humanity.  And it is written in the Koran that Allah honored Bani Adam (human beings), Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Secular Power and Human Rights

Reducing secularism to a simple separation of Church and State removes the moral and humanistic protection inherent in the concept.  Such a separation does not signify, in and of itself, the respect for human rights or democratic values.  Ataturk constructed an authoritarian secular state and Hitler showed us that racism and a secular state could coexist in Nazism.  Stalin eliminated all those who refused to obey the totalitarian system installed under the single-party rule of the USSR.  Ben Ali, Assad, and Saddam Hussein induced a sense of rejection and disgust toward the principles that were lost in this reductionist and institutionalized conception.

To accept a negative image of secularism is just as dangerous an approach as to reduce Catholicism to the Inquisition.  Secularism is an historical process rooted in Western civilization.  Peoples of many non-Western countries and cultures find secularism to be a useful tool in making sense of the structures in which they live. It may also be the only means of coping with the diversity thrust upon us by the post-colonial reconstruction of the nation-state.  India provides an interesting example, far removed from Europe, of the cohabitation of a Muslim president, a Sikh prime minister, and a predominantly Hindu populace.  But it remains important, in our opinion, to take a closer look at the example of France, the avant-garde of secularism in Europe.

The law of 1905 that governs the separation of Church and State is the result of 116 years of conflict between the State and the Catholic Church.  This law establishes the basic structure of French secularism:

. . .freedom of conscience and religion; free organization of Churches; non-recognition and legal equality of aforementioned; free and public expression of religious beliefs. To this is added secularism of institutions, notably that of schools and of educational instruction.

Nevertheless, the religious neutrality of the public domain remains formal in nature.  If there no longer exists official religion, traces of the public role historically played by religion in France remain.  This is particularly evident in the calendar to which the Third Republic even added Easter Monday and the Monday of the Pentecost to the four “mandatory” Catholic holidays: Christmas, Ascension Day, Assumption Day, and All Saints’ Day, all declared holidays in 1802.  Thus France has not cut itself off from its religious roots, but from other religions – Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.  These believers do not see their holy days taken into consideration except in rare cases, such as that of public employees and students who can request special authorization to observe “un-official” religious holidays.  We are currently facing an unspoken agreement that is being articulated in different terms depending on whether it is addressed to a minority religion (such as Judaism in its early days) or to a religious community in the process of construction (see Islam and the Muslim community of today).  Some may be surprised, for example, to see so many Saints in the Paris metro – this in the same country that does not allow a grown woman in working in the public service to choose her own outfit.  Secularism is also a political affair.  To that end, the secular spirit must remain everywhere relative if it is to minimize the tendency of exclusion and maintain a focus on the respect for human rights.

It can be said that we have entered a period of crisis concerning human rights.  Despite progress in the areas of jurisprudence, theory and reflection, and denunciation, major work remains to be done to address the problem of impunity: to bring human rights violators to justice and to prevent certain States from opting out of international human rights norms.  In order to truly speak of human rights for all, we must move away from a Western conceptualization of those rights and toward one with greater global reach and relevancy. For its part, secularism is experiencing a crisis of identity.  Now more than ever there is a need emphasize the inseparable link between secularism and human rights and to openly oppose authoritarian secularism.  The European Secularist movement recalls this inseparable complementarity:

Secularism is at once an ethic and an ensemble of legal rules relating to the functioning of the State and public utilities, including National Education.  The values of ethical secularism include freedom of thought, independence of spirit, respect for difference, and tolerance to the extent that it is reciprocal and unrestrained.[v]

This text was originally presented at a symposium entitled Culture and Secularism in the Arab World held at the Arab Cultural Center in Brussels on 16 October 2004.

[i] Kostas Papaioannou, The Consecration of History (La consécration de l’histoire) ed. Champ Libre (1983), 161.

[ii] For a variety of subjects viewed from a secular perspective, see Secularism from A to Z (La laïcité de A à Z),http://www.ulb.ac.be/cal/Qld.html.

[iii] Jean Jaurès, “Speech before the Chamber of Deputies” (Discours à la chambre des Députés), 18 February 1895.

[iv] The Declaration of Independence, Action of Second Continental Congress, July 4, 1776.

[v] See www.europe-et-laicite.org.

Translated from French by Morgan Wolfe