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Categorized | Politics, Religion, Society

Rough Notes on Secularism, Democracy and Human Progress, Part 2

In part 1 of this series, we looked at what secularism is. Today we examine the relationship between the church and state in a secular democracy.

Image by Olivander, used under creative commons license.

Secularism and democracy are legacies worth fighting for, because they in union provide the only safe public space whereby people of different outlooks can amicably tackle their differences and pursue shared goals for their common welfare. In what follows, we shall attempt to prove our opening statement by discussing the relationship between secularism, democracy and human progress,

Church-State Relations in Secular States

Not only the non-religious but the organized religious as well have benefited from secularism and democracy. Historically dominant churches have survived and minor sects have flourished – some, to an arguably greater extent than they deserve — owing to liberal policies adopted by secular states that range from neutrality and benign tolerance to outright accommodation of politically significant sects. Whereas, in the past, a single hegemonic church ruled society directly or in partnership with secular overlords, various churches now freely evangelize without fear of prosecution under apostasy and blasphemy laws. These varying policies toward religion attest to the pragmatic concessions that societies had to make to various sects in their arduous and conflict-ridden march towards secularism and democracy.

A few examples would prove the aforementioned fact about church-state relations. The United Kingdom still maintains a national church, although one with a much diminished public role, as part of its bourgeoisie’s concessions to the old aristocracy, which it left ensconced in a constitutional monarchy and a House of Lords. In spite of the rising number of non-religious citizens in Germany, taxpayers subsidize 98% of faith-based social services, which are provided mainly by 2.5 million workers of the Catholic Caritas and the Protestant Diakonisches Werk. Thus, German state subsidies for faith-based social services seem less a function of popular religiosity than of the state’s pragmatic policy of honoring old agreements with the Vatican and the Protestant Churches. (Frerk)

America’s policy toward religion has been more ambivalent than what its secular liberal Constitution suggests. The First Amendment of the Constitution forbade the Congress from enacting “laws either respecting the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, but the U.S. government restricted the meaning of this clause to the establishment of an official national religion and allowed state governments to enact faith-based discriminatory laws against non-Christians until 1868 or three years after the Civil War. It took a century and a half for the U.S. Civil War (1861-65) and the mid-20th civil rights movement to sweep away these faith-based laws along with racial apartheid laws.

However, state support for religious discriminatory laws reemerged with a vengeance under the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and later George Bush Jr. In 2001, George Bush Jr. initiated the outsourcing of social services (that were once provided by the state) to favored church-affiliated organizations or “faith-based initiatives” through executive orders, rule changes, managerial realignment in federal agencies, and other innovative uses of his presidential prerogatives. Among these innovations is the creation of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under the President and linked to sub-offices in 10 government agencies, each with a director and staff empowered to articulate, advance and oversee coordinated efforts to generate financial support for faith-based services.(Farris, et. al.) While the Bush Administration didn’t come up with a comprehensive faith-based legislative package, it crafted laws that permit recipients of government grants to hire only those whose religion and sexual orientation is compatible with the grantee’s mission. In 2004 alone, Bush extended more than $2 billion of tax money to religious organizations. Among the program beneficiaries was right-wing televangelist and 700 Club founder Pat Robertson whose annual revenue from government grants ballooned from $108,000 to $14.4 million in the brief period from 2003-2004. (Sizemore, 2006)

What could we surmise from the above relationship between church and state in secular societies? Much of religion’s resilience arises partly from default on the part of secular states that either make a fetish of faith or deliberately exploit faith for political and pecuniary purposes.

The secular humanist philosopher Austin Dacey has valuable insights on what he discerns as errors in secular thought. One is the Privacy Doctrine, which regards fundamental beliefs about morality as strictly private matters, not to be debated in public or urged on anyone else. The other is the Liberty Doctrine, which supposes that freedom of conscience entails that beliefs should be insulated from criticism and not held to any shared standards of correctness. The prevalence of these doctrines results in “a culture unwilling or unable to sustain a real public conversation about religion, ethics, and values.” A trend contributing to the privacy model of conscience is the commercialization of social and cultural life that tends to reduce the realm of values, ethics, and religion to private possessions and market choices. Traditional faiths, non-denominational religions and New Age occultism compete with one another, offering a buffet of diverse beliefs from which consumers can pick and choose the wisdom that best suits their needs. Ethical and religious questions are not “subjective” and “personal,” but open to rational inquiry and amenable to critical scrutiny by others. Claims of conscience may be introduced into public discourse so long as they are held to the same standards as other political proposals: practicality, rationality, consistency, and legality.

In the final installment of this series, we’ll take a look at how secular democracy affects human progress as well as the conclusions of this series


1) Concordat Watch. “Millions for the bishops: Why the German State pays the wages for the church”

2) Concordat Watch. “”German taxpayers subsidise 98% of faith-based social services”

3) Dacey, Austin and Colin Koproske, “Islam and Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations, Center for Inquiry, September 2008.

4) Dacey, Austin. “The Secular Conscience” Excerpt from The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2008).

5) Frerk, Carsten. “German Taxpayers Subsidize 98% of Faith-Based Social Services”

6) Farris, Anne. R. P. Nathan and D. J. Wright, ”The Expanding Administrative Presidency: George Bush Jr. and Faith-Based Initiatives” The Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, Rockefeller Institute of Government, August 2004.

7) Finkelstein, Norman. “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering”, Nov. 2000,

8) Loll, Anna Catherin and Peter Wensierski, “The Hidden Wealth of the Catholic Church”, Part 1:,1518,700513,00.html; and Part 2:,1518,700513-2,00.html

9) Lendman, Stephen. “On The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe”, Feb. 2007,

10) Paul, Gregory. “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look” Journal of Religion and Society (2005)

11) Paul, Gregory. “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity on Dysfunctional Psychosocial Conditions” Evolutionary Psychology, Volume 7(3). 2009.

12) Sizemore, Bill. “Gaining Faith in Federal Money” The Virginian-Pilot, January 17, 2006

DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.