Religion in society

The EHF promotes the principle of secularism – the principle that, especially in multi-belief societies, the state and its official institutions should be neutral on questions of religion or belief, or (in its stronger form) that the state should be completely separate from religion or belief. A secular state is the best guarantee for freedom of religious belief as well as of atheism and non-religious lifestances. Member organisations of the EHF take different positions as between neutrality and total separation.

Generally speaking, we think that it is vital that freedom of religion and belief be defended, along with all human rights: humanists, atheists and agnostics depend on it just as much as religious believers.  But there are clashes between the (qualified) right to manifest a religion and other rights, such as freedom of expression, and there are serious questions about the extent to which exemptions from laws on equality and non-discrimination should be granted on grounds of religion.


Consultation and dialogue with religious and non-confessional organisations

The EHF holds that public authorities have no concern with religious matters and should observe a clear separation between religion and governance. There is therefore no justification for offering the churches or organisations based on religions or beliefs (including “philosophical and non-confessional organisations” such as the EHF) a special mechanism for consultation and dialogue. All such organisations should instead make use of the same channels as the other non-governmental organisations of civil society. 

  • Citizens and the organisations of civil society have a right to be consulted on significant issues of policy and in general to be heard by the governing authorities;
  • Those authorities should respond by giving weight as appropriate to those responses based on specialist knowledge and expertise and to those appearing to represent the views of large numbers of citizens;
  • The authorities should therefore have regard to the extent to which organisations (including religious organisations) represent their members (as demonstrated by internal democracy or otherwise) and/or society as a whole;
  • All such dialogue and consultation must be open to all, including individual citizens, and must be “transparent” and conducted openly and publicly: both the authorities’ proposals and requests for views and the responses from citizens and organisations must be published, preferably on the Internet.
  • No privilege in such dialogue should be given to churches or other organisations representing religions or beliefs.


Freedom of religion and beliefs needs to be guaranteed in every country by its government and laws. But such a guarantee is put in doubt if the constitution and laws are fundamentally committed to a particular religion or belief. (A Muslim state is a questionable guarantor of the freedom to abandon Islam, a Catholic one is a doubtful defender of the right to live as a gay or to have access to contraception.) A special case of this is when a government makes a treaty with the Holy See – a concordat.

We are opposed to the existence of concordats because they invariably make internal law in a state without any democratic process and without any way of amendment or repeal of that law – in other words, they put the Roman Catholic Church above the law and law-making processes of the nation. 

Many states in Europe have concluded international treaties with the Roman Catholic Church in its incarnation as the Holy See, which anomalously has the status of a nation state in international law. These treaties are generally known as concordats. Extensive information about concordats is available at Concordat Watch.

Although mainly such concordats provide for privileged status for Roman Catholics and their churches and organisations, they sometimes have a wider effect. A proposed concordat with Slovakia caused outrage when it became clear that it would give a meaning to conscientious objection that was based exclusively on Catholic doctrine and that this would be applicable to all citizens, whatever their beliefs. This led to an effective campaign which has so far prevented such a concordat being agreed.


Furthermore, the EHF opposes the status of the Holy See as a nation state and member of the United Nations and other international bodies. It is not a state in any normal sense; it is certainly not a democracy, and exceptionally in Europe it has not signed the European Convention on Human Rights. Watch here the "See change campaign" by Catholics for Choice.


Conscientious objection 

One aspect of the question of religion in society is the increasing and often strident assertion of an unqualified right to conscientious objection on religious grounds to many civic, occupational or other duties or legal restrictions.  

The EHF has adopted a policy on conscientious objection. It says that humanists set a high value on freedom of religion or belief. However, it draws attention to the conditions the European Convention on Human Rights imposes on the right to manifest such beliefs – for example, where that may interfere with the rights and freedoms of other people.

Some claims to conscientious objection do have serious implications for the rights of others – rights that some religious believers have shown a willingness to ignore, as was seen at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in October 2010. The EHF had already drawn attention to this problem – in a speech at our side-meeting at the OSCE human rights conference in 2009, for example.

EHF policy sets out broad guidelines for considering the dilemmas that can arise when claims to conscientious objection clash with other people’s rights, for example, to equality or non-discrimination.