The American Model of “Secularism” is 18th Century Pre-secularism


In this blog I compare the American model of so-called secularism, as expressed in the First Amendment, with republican secular legislation in two other countries: France and Mexico.

Sommaire en français Dans ce blogue je considère les différences entre le modèle américain de sécularisme et le modèle de laïcité dans deux autres pays : la France et le Mexique.

As explained in my previous blog “The US Constitution is Not Secular,” the First Amendment of the US Constitution does not implement secularism but rather religious neutrality (a.k.a. nonsectarianism) which is a component of secularism but is very incomplete because it lacks the essential secular principle of separation between religions and State. Although Thomas Jefferson interpreted the Amendment as implementing a “wall of separation of church and state” in an 1802 letter to Danbury Baptists, that principle is not encoded in the text of the Amendment.

This exaggerated support for freedom of religion is a threat to other freedoms and constitutes an unwarranted religious privilege.

There is another aspect of the First Amendment to the US Constitution which is problematic: it gives apparently absolute value to freedom of religion. This is excessive. No rights are ever absolute because different people’s rights inevitably come into conflict from time to time. This is precisely what happens in state institutions, where the freedom of public servants must not be absolute because it may conflict with rights of users of public services. This exaggerated support for freedom of religion is a threat to other freedoms and constitutes an unwarranted religious privilege.

In other words, the First Amendment implements an incomplete form of secularism—I would call it pre-secularism or pseudosecularism—and gives exaggerated priority to religious freedom over other freedoms. It was ratified in 1791, over two centuries ago, and is a product of its time. The nonsectarianism which it enacts was certainly very progressive at the time, because most European states were monarchies with an official State religion. However, since then, other countries have done better.


Consider France. Below are a few examples of French legislation.

  • Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, 1789 (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789)
    Article 10: « Nul ne doit être inquiété pour ses opinions, même religieuses, pourvu que leur manifestation ne trouble pas l’ordre public établi par la loi. »
    (“No one may be disturbed because of his/her opinions, even religious, provided that their expression does not trouble public order as established by law.”)
  • Loi de séparation des Églises et de l’État, 1905 (Law of Separation between Churches and the State)
    • Article 1: « La République assure la liberté de conscience. Elle garantit le libre exercice des cultes sous les seules restrictions édictées ci-après dans l’intérêt de l’ordre public. » (“The Republic guarantees freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of religion, subject only to those restrictions enacted below in the interest of public order.”)
    • Article 2: « La République ne reconnaît, ne salarie ni ne subventionne aucun culte.[…] » (“The Republic does not recognize, pay or subsidize any religion.”)
    • Article 28: « Il est interdit, à l’avenir, d’élever ou d’apposer aucun signe ou emblème religieux sur les monuments publics ou en quelque emplacement public que ce soit, à l’exception des édifices servant au culte, des terrains de sépulture dans les cimetières, des monuments funéraires, ainsi que des musées ou expositions. » (“It is forbidden, in the future, to raise or affix any religious symbols or emblems on public monuments or in any public place whatsoever, with the exception of the buildings used for worship, burial grounds in cemeteries, funerary monuments, as well as museums or exhibitions.”)
  • Constitution of 1958 « La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale. » (“France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic.”)
  • Loi n° 83-634 de 1983 sur les droits et obligations des fonctionnaires (“1983 Law on the Rights and Obligations of Public Servants”) « Le fonctionnaire exerce ses fonctions dans le respect du principe de laïcité. » (“The public servant carries out his or her duties in accordance with the principle of secularism.”)

It should be emphasized that although the French words « laïque » and « laïcité » are often translated into English as “secular” and “secularism” respectively, the translation is inaccurate because there is no strict equivalent in English. The French words imply a more complete definition, including the important principle of separation between religions and State, a principle which is often missing when the English words are used. To be more accurate, I would translate « laïcité » into English as “republican secularism.”

A number of observations about the legislation cited above:

  • The 1789 declaration protects freedom of religion, as does the American First Amendment, but puts a reasonable and necessary condition on that freedom. Thus, although contemporary with the First Amendment, the declaration is better because it is more nuanced, avoiding absolutist language.
  • In the 1905 law—which is arguably the most important secular legislation in human history—the separation principle is so central that it is the title. Notice that the word « Églises » is plural, thus implying that all religions are separated from the State.
  • The Constitution of 1958 declares that the republic is « laïque », thus further emphasizing the separation principle.
  • The 1983 law requires that public servants respect the principle of « laïcité ». In practice, this implies, among other things, that they must not display obvious religious symbols.

[…] support for republican secularism is very strong among the French, just as it is among Quebecers.

A recent poll in France found that some 87% of the French approve of the 1905 law. The same poll also found that 75% of French Muslims support the ban on the Islamic veil (of course all religious symbols are banned) worn by public servants and 66% of Muslims oppose any modification of the 1905 law. Thus, support for republican secularism is very strong among the French, just as it is among Quebecers.


As another example, let us consider the Mexican Constitution of 1917.

In the Constitution of 1917, the word „laico” or „laica” is mentioned four times, in articles 30, 40, 115 and 122. The text specifies that public education „se mantendrá por completo ajena a cualquier doctrina religiosa” (“will remain completely alien to any religious doctrine”). In reference to the national government, the Constitution states that it will be „una República representativa, democrática, laica y federal” (“a representative, democratic, secular and federal Republic”). The Constitution further declares that the governments of the various states and of Mexico City will each be „republicano, representativo, democrático, laico” (“republican, representative, democratic, secular”).

It is my understanding that, when used in a political context, the Spanish words „laico” and „laica” have the same meaning as « laïque » in French: that is, republican secularism, including the essential principle of separation between religions and State.

[…] the American model of so-called secularism is an incomplete, somewhat antiquated, 18th century version. […] The ignorance and chauvinism of those who hold dogmatically to the American model are reactionary and regressive.

The bottom line is this: the American model of so-called secularism is an incomplete, somewhat antiquated, 18th century version. It was a step forward at the time. But today, although it obviously remains superior to all forms of theocracy, it is nevertheless inferior to other, more complete forms of secularism. Furthermore, if the American model is falsely vaunted as superior to those others, the result is to impede secularism by holding it back to an outdated version. This is precisely what is happening in reaction to efforts by Quebec to apply secular measures in that province. Currently, Draft Bill 21 proposed by the Quebec government is the target of inflammatory, toxic and even hateful attacks from the mainstream media, and especially English-language media. The ignorance and chauvinism of those who hold dogmatically to the American model are reactionary and regressive. Journalists, politicians and commentators in the Anglo-American world, especially in English Canada and in the USA, need to learn a little humility.

Next blog: La CCDP endosse la maltraitance religieuse des fillettes

4 thoughts on “The American Model of “Secularism” is 18th Century Pre-secularism”

  1. I Find Modern Secularists far more Arrogant. Even in this Article, You Act as if Secularism is Understood as an Unqualified Good, and under the Impression that Everyone Agrees in general with this, and it is only a Question of Supporting The American Model out of cultural Pride and Ignorance, not in Principle. You also mention how it is Better than all forms of Theocracy.

    I Disagree. And I Disagree Knowing You Will invoke The Middle Eastern Theocracies and how Awful they are, and Will Say Christian Theocracies would be the same and point o the supposed Dominionist Christians, or the Christian Nationalists, and how You Will invoke a Mythological Past involving The Dark Ages.

    But, if You Will Hear Me Out, My explanation Will reveal I am neither arguing from Patriotic Pride, nor from a Desire to impose Christian Shariah.

    When People say The Government should not be Neutral to Religion but should instead embrace Secular Values to the exclusion of Religious Values, You Really are just using Sophistry to do the Very Thing Secularism was invented to avoid. You are imposing Beliefs on People.

    After All, the whole Reason Religion was Argued to be best left to The Individual, and Government should be Secular was not due to a Fear of Religion and Theocratic Government, it was due to how Disagreement over Religious Belief was am Source of Division in the 17th Century Protestant Reformation Era, and how Divergent Protestant Beliefs Created a Situation where the English Society had to address how Social Order was to be Formed.

    There is a Reason why Secularism was not Conceived of until The Reformation Era, and tat Reason was not Oppressive Theocratic Governments opposing the Masses.

    When The Governments of Western Europe were all Catholic, with the exception of small communities such as The Waldensese or The Jewish Communities and the Like, the Laws reflected this Homogeny in Cultural Understanding. No One, not even the Jews or Waldensese, actually tried to Alter the System, as they saw no Need provided they were left to themselves.

    I am not saying it was perfect, or that No One was ever Persecuted, but in Our Modern Era, Secularists have also Persecuted Non-Secular People and Continue to, and pretending otherwise is the Problem.

    People such as Yourself have Made Secularism into a Religion. Using a Dictionary Definition to say its not a Religion both ignores the Fact that more than One Definition exists, and I am aware of the Argument and Know, and Ignores the Point being Made.

    You talk about Secular Values, for example.

    Well, what, exactly, are those Secular Values? I am not asking what they are in a Literal but Rhetorical Sense, though exactly what they are may need to be discussed.

    The Real Point I am making is, if We don’t use what You call Pre-Secularism, if Secularism is not Neutrality toward Religion but is instead the Embracing a specific set of Beliefs and Values, then You have basically Created the same Situation that Would exist if e decided to make Our Constitutions explicitly Catholic or Explicitly Methodist or Explicitly Evangelical Christian. You are Favouring One set of Beliefs and Values over all others and imposing it as the Standard which directs the others.

    I see no Reason why I should be Allowed Religious Freedom, but only so Long as My Religious Freedom does not conflict with the Higher Secular Beliefs of The Law. I see No Reason why The Secular Values spoken of should Be the Values that are Ultimately given preference should any conflict emerge between My Religious Activity and them.

    The distinction between Secularism as a Philosophy and a Religion is Purely Semantic at this Point.

    Functionally, You Still want to Tell Me My Religious Freedom is Limited by the Secular Principles We are all made to Comply with.

    Given that Steven Pinker and Sam Harris and other strident supporters of Secularism are also seen as Secular, not Religious, it also opens the possibility of some very uncomfortable outcomes, given all Laws, like any other Human Enterprise, Will be subject to Interpretation.

    After all, The Soviet Union enshrined Secularism and a Separation of Religion and State in their Constitution, and The USSR also guaranteed Religious Freedom provided it did not conflict with The Secular and Marxist Principles of The State, and the way this was Understood in Practice was to allow The Government to Expropriate Church lands, Execute the Obstinately Religious or send them to Gulags, to declare Religion a Mental Illness, to bar The Religious from Public Service or from Legislative Positions, to Bar them from University Education , to restrict them from Public Life, and to ensure they were given less access to Governmental Aid.

    This was just as much the result of Secularism as any positive examples You Think of, and given how Dan Barker and His Freedom From religion Foundation want to pressure Hotels to remove Bibles, and other similar campaigns, it would not be hard to se a World in which Lip Service is given to Religious Freedom, but in which the Educational System and Public Service divisions of Government are used to promote a specifically Secular Humanist understanding of the World, and to silence any disagreement .

    The idea that Secularism will ensure Freedom is rather obviously false, given it has not done so in the Past.

    Even if not taken to this extreme, the mere fact that You do want to Impose a Secular Value System is in itself an Imposition of a Belief System on others.

    The only Justification used to do is is, look b=how bad Theocracy is, and an implicit understanding that We Should be Secular simply because We should be.

    But there Really is no Reason to Think Secularism is better than a Religious Based Legal System. Scare talk of Theocracy oppressing us and contrasting that to supposed Secular Freedom is simplistic. Especially since again, there is no Reason to Think Secularism automatically leads to Freedom, and in Actual History those “Theocracies” were not as oppressive as they are said to have been in Popular Mythology.

    If the only difference is One has a belief in a god in it and the other doesn’t, its not enough to Think Secularism is somehow better.

    The World is more complex than that, and acting as if “Government should be Secular, a Theocracy is Tyranny” is simply True and that merely having a Secular Government and Society leads to certain Good Results is Nieve and Shortsighted, and has become today too much of an Ideological Dogma that turns into the Oppression it pretends to Solve, and uses the Secularism is the opposite of Religion Definition Game to Hide the Reality.

    1. Wow, what a tedious and confusing diatribe. You do not even mention the principle of religion-State separation, except to associate it with the Soviet Union in order to besmirch it.

      The reason I say that the American example is not true secularism is because the principle of separation is not implemented in the US Constitution. Separation is necessary in order to prevent religious ideologies from exercising political influence.

  2. Religious Ideology Will Always exert influence on Politics. Secularism is a Religion. I also failed to Mention the Separation of Religion and State simply because it is not a Tenable concept, and I did not refer to it in terms of The Soviet Union to besmirch it. I did so because what You Think of as Self Evident Obvious Truth is simply a Cultural Paradigm that developed owing to a specific History and Development. Also, what I Wrote was not a Diatribe, and You should focus on the Actual Points I made, not on Personal Attacks.

    1. No one knows how long religious ideology will continue to pollute politics. But as long as it continues, it will largely be because of anti-secular obscurantists like you who promote religious influence as if it were inevitable and harmless.

      Religions attempt to impose their moral codes on laws and governments. But religious moral codes are in general immoral because they are not based on reality. We have a duty to oppose such religious mythology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *