Get access

Is Secularism Neutral?


  • Rex Ahdar

    1. Faculty of Law, University of Otago, New Zealand
    Search for more papers by this author
    • My thanks to Ian Leigh, Erich Kolig, Thomas Cleary and two anonymous referees for their helpful comments. This is a revised version of a paper presented at the International Religious Liberty Association, 13th Meeting of Experts, University of Sydney, Faculty of Law, August 23, 2011.


This article argues that secularism is not neutral. Secularization is a process, the secular state is a structure, whereas secularism is a political philosophy. Secularism takes two main forms: first, a “benevolent” secularism that endeavours to treat all religious and nonreligious belief systems even-handedly, and, second, a “hostile” kind that privileges unbelief and excludes religion from the public sphere. I analyze the European Court of Human Rights decision in Lautsi v Italy, which illustrates these types. The article concludes that secularism as a political philosophy cannot be neutral, and the secular state is not neutral in its effects, standpoint, governing assumptions or treatment of religious truth claims.