Secularism | Book Review


There are many ways to understand secularism. In Secularism, Andrew Copson notes that secularism can be understood as a catchall term for “non-religious philosophies, morals, and personal world views” and is thus akin to atheism or humanism (1). It can also be understood as a “political settlement” (xvii) or “approach to the ordering of communities, nations, and states” (1). Though Copson himself is a secularist in the first sense, his book is about secularism in the second sense.

In chapter 1, Copson derives a working definition of secularism from the French scholar Jean Baubérot, who identifies three components:

  • separation of religious institutions from the institutions of the state and no domination of the political sphere by religious institutions;
  • freedom of thought, conscience, and religion for all, with everyone free to change their beliefs and manifest their beliefs within the limits of public order and the rights or others;
  • no state discrimination against anyone on grounds of their religion or non-religious world view, with everyone receiving equal treatment on these grounds (2).

Chapters 2 and 3 provide a thumbnail sketch of the history of secularism in Western and non-Western societies (Turkey and India), respectively.

Chapters 4 and 5 outline the cases for and against secularism, respectively. The case for focuses on secularism as “the best religion-state arrangement to provide freedom, equality, peace, and democracy in a modern society” (47).

The case against notes Christian, Islamist, Hindu, and Communist pushback against the secularist political settlement. If the first three are examples of theocracy, loosely defined, the latter is perhaps an example of a-theocracy. The common types of argument advanced against secularism are (1) “romantic conservatism,” whereby “each person is rooted in a particular society and tradition and is bound to their fellow members of that society by culture” (70); (2) “the myth of neutrality,” which points out that secularism “explicitly favors non-religious ways of reasoning, living, and thinking over religious ones” (73); and (3) “a community of communities,” according to which “it is the group rather than the individual member of society that needs to be treated impartially by the state” (76).

Chapter 6 goes beyond Baubérot’s working definition to limn the conceptual boundaries of secularism by contrasting, among other things, “two types of Western secularism”: (1) “laicism,” which is inherently anticlerical and exemplified by France; and (2) “Judeo-Christian secularism,” which draws on both Christianity and the Enlightenment and is exemplified by the United States (80–81).

And chapter 7 identifies “hard questions” and “conflicts”: the relationship between secularism and democracy, education, blasphemy laws, religious expression (in terms of religious garb and symbols, as well as of conscience), religious diversity, and the challenge of political religion (e.g., Islamism and Hindutva, among others).

An Afterword looks at the future of secularism, concluding that it is “the best way of organizing our common life in a way that is fair to all in the context of diversity” (125).

As a Christian in America, which has no living memory of an established church, I resonated with Copson’s working definition of secularism. What he later calls “Judeo-Christian secularism” is simply the way we have done things for over two centuries. By the same token, I can understand the criticisms of secularism he outlines in chapter 5, insofar as many secularists—including Copson?—seem to argue that secularism as a political settlement ultimately depends on secularism as an ideology. I disagree with that argument because I think it’s false, because I doubt it’s neutral, and because in effect it tends to accord more and more power to the state to the detriment of other forms of power in society.

Regardless, however, Copson’s Secularism is a brief and helpful overview of the subject and well worth reading by the nonreligious and religious alike.

Book Reviewed
Andrew Copson, Secularism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

P.S. If you like my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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