Secularism

Politics, Religion, and Freedom

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Andrew Copson
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2017.
     176 pages.
     $18.96.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198809135.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Andrew Copson’s book Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom is a concise introduction to the concept of secularism. The book begins with a chapter titled “What is Secularism?” which introduces the term and acknowledges its multiple meanings. It clarifies that the book refers to “the most common use of the word: an approach to the ordering of communities, nations, and states” (1). Secularism is defined based on the conceptualization of French scholar Jean Baubérot as separation of state and religion, freedom of conscience and religion for all, and non-discrimination as its three core facets.

The second chapter, “Secularism in Western Societies,” gives a historical analysis of the relationship between state and religion in the West from ancient Greece to the Enlightenment. A considerable portion of the chapter focuses on the evolution of secular ideals like laïcité in France and the establishment clause in the American Constitution. Chapter 3, “Secularism Diversifies” contrasts two exemplar cases from Asia—Turkey and India—that have developed customized versions of secularism as a result of “their own political and religious traditions” (33). Turkey’s liberation from the clutches of the Ottoman Empire and the 1922 revolution lead by Mustafa Kemal transformed it into a laik (secular) society, while India pioneered a distinctive form of secularism in the mid-20th century where the state can intervene in religious matters to reinforce social justice, a provision lauded for sheltering diverse values and beliefs.

The next two chapters are logically connected. Chapter 4 presents “The Case for Secularism,” while chapter 5 offers “The Case against Secularism.” Copson acknowledges that the case for secularism is “cumulative” (65). Thus, a single thread of argument—liberal, religious or pragmatic—cannot convince secularism’s opponents. The case against secularism is more complicated because opposition to secularism is more diverse than the case for secularism in which it dominant support comes from liberal individualism. The most persistent challenge posed to secularism comes from religion. This is evident from the dominance of Islam as the foundational principle of political order in Muslim-majority countries and the discrimination faced by non-Muslims under such regimes. Copson also characterizes atheist communist states as the “mirror image of theocracies” (78) due to their intolerant attitudes. Traditionalists who champion national identity based on ethnicity constitute one camp against secularism. And Copson mentions secularism’s “own children” (83)—that is, liberal thinkers—as some of the most vociferous critics of secularism who declare that state neutrality is a myth.

After discussing the condition of states in the real world, Copson revisits the definition of secularism in chapter 6, “Conceptions of Secularism,” where he claims Baubérot’s characterization of secularism to be an ideal that has never been realized as a political reality. The various contestations around the term secularism are brought to notice. The problem of relying strictly on Western “theorizations and ideological definition” (96), as highlighted by Indian political theorist Rajeev Bhargava, is also given due attention. The chapter also touches upon the nuances of the concept secularism as inscribed in different constitutions around the world. The last and polemic chapter, “Hard Questions and New Conflicts,” paints a realistic picture of the brutal truths of practicing secular democracies. It brings forth the paradox that countries that are not officially secular are more secular than the countries that are officially secular. It mentions incidents posing challenge to secular ideals globally, including fatwas against Sir Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses, violence following the published cartoons of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, mob lynchings in India, and the burkini ban in France, to name a few. Copson concludes the book by proposing secularism as the best possible, if not perfect option for political settlement.

Secularism is a brilliant comprehensive overview of the ‘essentially contested concept’. It covers a vast literature from East to West on the theme, including the jargons involved in global debates. This brief treatise by Andrew Copson’s with its simple language and straightforward exposition is a must read for anyone who wants to grasp the concept of secularism holistically and impartially.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sania Ismailee is a doctoral fellow in Political Philosophy at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Copson is the chief executive of the British Humanist Association, where he was previously Director of Education and Public Affairs; First Vice President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union; and a former Director of the European Humanist Federation. In these capacities he is one of the most experienced and prolific advocates of secularism, its study, and its implementation. For over a decade he has carried out a range of national and international practical secularist policy work and spoken internationally on secularism.

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