Secularism is the belief that, especially in multi-belief societies, the state and its official institutions should be neutral on the question of religion or belief, or (in its stronger form) that the state should be completely separate from religion or belief.
It is a vital element in Humanism and only thus can it provide equal freedom for all minorities.
The European Court of Human Rights has endorsed this principle: in its own words, it “has frequently emphasised the State’s role as the neutral and impartial organiser of the exercise of various religions, faiths and beliefs, and stated that this role is conducive to public order, religious harmony and tolerance in a democratic society. It also considers that the State’s duty of neutrality and impartiality is incompatible with any power on the State’s part to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs and that it requires the State to ensure mutual tolerance between opposing groups” (Refah Partisi et al. v. Turkey).
Secularism requires that civil society find a common ethic, acceptable to all its members. It is the opposite of theocracy and rejects not just the establishment of a specific sect or denomination as the official religion of the state but also legal or other official discrimination in favour of religion at large or any particular religious group. Thus supra-national, national and local government and public institutions – public hospitals, schools, broadcasting etc – should remain even-handed towards all different belief systems and the organisations and groups (churches etc) that embody and represent them.
A secular or laïque society is not an anti-religious one. Rather, it is one where fundamental beliefs that we disagree about – beliefs that provide strong motivation to some but mean little or nothing to those who do not hold them – are left aside in public debate about communal decisions. The religious may find inspiration in their beliefs, but public debate should be conducted in terms we can all understand and based on principles we can all agree about. Only such a society can truly respect freedom of religion or belief.
There are many references to secularism on this website: the most significant extended treatment is The Humanist View of Society and in particular the section “Religion in society“.
In practical terms, the EHF fought a long but ultimately unsuccessful battle for secularism in the EU in resisting church privileges and in particular "Article 17".
Different countries in Europe have different histories, different institutions, different assumptions. The outlook and beliefs of non-religious people are naturally subject to these variations.
In countries where the church remains very strong there is more emphasis on rejection of religion and its claims. In others, where rejection of religious belief is more common, there is more emphasis on a positive philosophy of Humanism.
In countries with a ‘pillar’ constitution (where the state recognises and subsidises the institutions of the principal religions and beliefs, sometimes including Humanism, roughly in proportion to their numbers) state neutrality in matters of religion and belief is seen as sufficient; in others, the need for a total separation of church and state is high on the agenda.
Despite these differences, we are united in the vision of the society we defend. The websites of our Member Organisations offer much detailed information about the philosophy and history of Humanism and secularism (laicité), as does the website of the worldwide organisation, the International Humanist and Ethical Union.