Religion, Neutrality, and Secularism

There is a difference between secularism and the ideal neutral state.

The Neutral State

The neutral state protects members of one group from the members of another group.  This is a view based on a state legal philosophy of individual rights.  In a state based on the legal notion of group rights, the neutral state protects one group from the predations of another group–a much harder mission.  For now we defer discussion of the important differences between individual and group rights.  The state is not promoting or enforcing the views of any group except for the fundamental of common sense mutual respect and allowing freedom that does not impinge on the freedom of other individuals or groups.  As such, the neutral state is more concerned with behavior than belief:  non-harmful behavior is allowed regardless of belief; beliefs are allowed–even harmful ones–if no actual harmful behavior ensues.  The state is mute with respect to belief.

Such a neutral state protects the right to practice one’s choice of religion or to practice the choice of no religion.  This is quite different than promoting secularism–indeed, the state does not promote the view that non-religion is preferable to religion overall or to any specific religion.  So, such a neutral state does not promote secularism, which remains to be defined.  But, this neutral state is still abhorrent to religions and groups that are numerically dominant or have pretenses to be universalistic or culturally dominant, or to groups whose grievances they associate with the state itself or the state’s protection of preferential treatment of other groups.

Religious Objection to Neutrality and Confusion with Secularism

Chiefly, some intolerant Christian, Muslim, and Hindu groups (not all groups within these faiths) believe they bring a universal truth that must be adopted by all within their respective societies and, at times, even beyond the boundaries of a particular society.  Thus, they find it abhorrent that a “secular” state–the notion of neutral cannot apply when there is a choice between a universal religious truth and any other alternative,inevitably false doctrine–stands in the way of asserting and extending this truth to subordinate groups (or to members of such groups or members of no group) espousing questionable beliefs.  Such groups claim that the neutral state is, in their view, positively asserting or requiring adoption of religiously antagonistic beliefs such as secularism, rather than merely protecting beliefs of other groups or individuals.  A definition of secularism is now in order before returning to why a truly neutral state might oppose some practices of religious groups even in the face of objections by those religious groups.

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  • Tribal and religious strife, illegitimate rulers, and wars that exacerbate human suffering. Also, examples of reconciliation and Africans beginning to help Africans
  • Rwanda, Burundi, Congo
  • South Africa–progress of post-apartheid society
  • Kenya–why the ethnic/political strife of 2008?
  • Ghana–seems to work without (or with much less) ethnic strife–why?

Middle East

  • Repressive governments, theocracy, and embittered conflict between Israel and Palestinians.


  • Religious, ethnic, language, and racial conflicts in emerging countries and in response to immigration in established countries. Also, examples of reconciliation as in Northern Ireland.
  • Bosnia
  • Denmark
  • Belgium
  • France
  • Germany
  • Turkey and Kurds
  • Cyprus: Turks and Greeks

United States

  • Culture wars, increased linking of religion to government policy, immigration issues, and legacy of racism and increase in identity politics.


  • Government sponsored suppression of religion, long-standing religious and ethnic disputes.


Positive Indications for Tolerance

  • Rule of law (say more–what law?  What makes law good?  Rights and privileges guaranteed to all individuals rather than associated with groups and group affiliation along with individual right to voluntary affiliation with identity-generating groups or institutions.
  • Honest civil service free of corruption
  • Education, especially of women
  • Reduction of ethnic, tribal, and religious hatred and strife
  • Development of local social capital–trust
  • Religiously based commitment to the acceptance and recognition of God’s love for all people.
  • Ordinary people realizing their own hopes and aspirations are shared by others.
  • Guarantees of access to rights, protections, and economic opportunities provided to all regardless of group membership.

Forces Enhancing Tolerance

  • Liberal religion
  • Open, un-intimidated media
  • Ordinary people
  • Mingled experiences with others, intermarriage
  • Debate about society’s goals
  • Independent, un-intimidated judiciary

Forces Against Tolerance

  • Government controlled media
  • Corrupt tribal or ethnically based regimes in multi-ethnic, multi-religion societies
  • Declining economies, poverty
  • Rights, privileges, and property allocated by group identity/affiliation
  • Lack of facts about the situation, beliefs, and values of others
  • Anti-modernism, anti-democracy ideologies
  • Repressive governments
  • Religious teaching that encourages hatred and distrust of other religions
  • Demonization or de-humanization of “other”

Impediments to work that improves tolerance

  • Government corruption
  • Deliberate government manipulation of ethnic rivalries
  • Ethnic, tribal, or religious identity as ultimate goals
  • Small radii of trust
  • Local loyalties maintained by fear of larger events and trends

Possible areas of study

  • Religious studies
  • Cultural history
  • Media studies
  • Specific regional studies with a focus on the early stages of strife
  • Sri Lanka
  • Bosnia
  • Israel 2009
  • Rwanda
  • Failed States (article)

Successful efforts at reconciliation or positive approaches

  • Rwanda
  • South Africa
  • Bangladesh?
  • India


  • Religions with acceptance as a basic principle:  Quakers, B’hai
  • Within less tolerant religions (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity), organizations and leaders that have a more tolerant outlook:


  • What is the positive role of identity in contrast to assertions of identity that foster intolerance?
  • What is the role of memory and when does memory reinforce intolerance conflicts?