All political authors have asserted that the goal of any political society is happiness for the people. This happiness does not only mean complete satisfaction of the citizens’ human needs, but rather Liberty on all forms, and in the first place freedom of conscience, that is freedom to belief in any deity or in none.

Rituals were born, and then dogmas and eventually a clergy who has become more and more the obliged intermediary between men and the supposed God or Gods.

Priests, seers, shamans and other religious dignitaries have been mixed up with the political rulers (whether royal, imperial, oligarchic or aristocratic); each of them finding the justification of its own power in each other’s position and function.

In other words, the clergy has tried to exercise an authority over men and women, controlling their economic, social moral and sexual behaviour. It has succeeded particularly since it sets the rules of life in society and at the same time relies on the ruling political power to repress the deviants.


In this regard, monarchies by divine right were the obligees of the Churches that have supposedly granted to them a worldly power under the pretext of a divine will or unction. At the same time, those monarchies have become their secular arm in repression against heresies (sometimes, in contradiction with the worldly power itself, as in the examples of King Philip IV the Fair of France or King Henry VIII of England or Emperor Henry IV kneeling at Canossa).

In the same manner, dictatorships, and particularly those in the twentieth century, have taken advantage of the support of the Churches and notably the Roman Catholic Church.

So what is the problem?

In an attempt to solve it, we shall review in the first place why separation is necessary; then two emblematical examples: France and the United States.

Eventually we shall raise the question whether separation does exist across the world.

The only problem comes from the will of religions, all religions, to impose on everyone their behaviours and beliefs, in violation of the rights of individuals.

Religions want to run everything in the polity because they propose complete judicial, political, and religious systems; those systems, authoritarian by nature, are contrary to Human Rights.

This conflict between civilian and religious powers comes to us directly from the thoughts of Grecian philosophers 500 years before Common Era.

Obviously, individual freedom should be achieved through separation of churches and the states.

Was that a new idea?

Separation is altogether an old idea and a modern requirement which comes from the citizens’ opposition to the frenzied desire of religions to amalgamate the spiritual with the worldly.

Two emblematical examples: France and the United States

Choosing those two countries as an example is a perfect illustration of the problematics of separation.

The former, France, has achieved separation in order to push aside religions from the political arena according to the principle: religions in their places of worship and the State in another different place. The latter, the United States of America, did it to prevent the State from interfering in religious affairs.

In France the essential decision was made in the eighteenth century. Exposing the claims of the Catholic Church to insure or guide the political power, the philosophers of the Enlightenment have opened the gate for what was to become secularism.

This divorce in development was to be established during the French Revolution in legal documents:

  • Decree of Ventose 3, Year III: “The Republic does not salary any religion”. It only took up again the words of Article 254 of the Constitution of Fructidor 5, Year III (August 22, 1795): “No one can be prevented to exercise the cult he has chosen. No one can be forced to contribute to the spending of a cult. The Republic does not salary any.”
  • Law of Vendemiaire 7, Year IV: prohibition of external demonstration of religions.

In the spirit, it was already the 1905 law of separation of Churches and the State.

Separation of the Church and the State was part of the Republicans’ “Belleville Program” and the Paris Commune was to decide the separation of the Church and the State, on April 3, 1871.

“Considering that the first of the principles of the French Republic is Liberty; considering that Freedom of conscience is the first liberty; considering that the budget for cults is contrary to the principle because it imposes the citizens against their faith; considering in fact that the clergy has been the accomplice of the crimes of kingship against Liberty; Decrees: the Church is separate from the state. The budget for cults is abolished”.

On September 4, 1905, Emile Combes declared that the Law of separation was inescapable. The bill was presented on February 9, 1905 and it was definitely passed on December 9, 1905. It established two essential principles:

Article 1: “The Republic safeguards freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of cults…”

Article 2: “The Republic does not recognize, or salary, or subsidize any religion…”

Separation was therefore achieved. But the Republic has never been completely secular:

• Because parts of the national territory have never enjoyed separation of religions and the state: Alsace-Moselle, French Guyana, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.

• Because the development of regulations has always been toward a weakening of secular provisions.

Thus, the Council of State, an institution established by Napoleon I, has recently ruled against the Separation Law, notably in the field of public funding of religions. An important struggle is going to be waged in France on that issue to maintain secularism on its legal foundations.

The problem is not for us freedom of thought, the real problem is the strict maintaining of Article 2 of the 1905 Law: “The Republic does not recognize, or salary, or subsidize any religion”. And this is the issue on which the onslaught against the principle of separation is waged.

As for us, secularists, the question has never been to attack religious beliefs but to confine them in the private sphere. Everyone is free to believe or not to believe, we stand for the absolute respect of freedom of conscience. That is the meaning of our stand against the law prohibiting the wearing of the burka in the streets. Streets are not public institutions like public services. Everyone should be granted the right to move around with a free choice of articles of clothing.

As for separation, the United States of America have followed a different path because concerning this relatively new country, the aim was; since its birth, to protect religions from the State.

It appears that the USA has been developing in a complex religious universe. A superficial review shows that the life of this nation is bathed in religion.

The 1787 Constitution does not mention God and if there is a reference to the Creator who would be like the Great Architect of the Universe, in the Declaration of Independence, this concept comes from the Enlightenment, undoubtedly. As no one knows who this Creator is, everyone can imagine Him according to their views, which obviously leads to freedom of conscience.

James Burgh wrote: “The leaders have no religious requirements that should be respected”.

Jefferson and Madison affirmed freedom of conscience and neutrality of the State toward religions. The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits an establishment of religion and guarantees religious freedom. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”…

This was the result of a balance between the will of the citizens and the political power. No one wanted the Federal Government interfere in religious affairs. Neither did the Federal Government. Thus was born Jefferson’s expression of “building a wall of separation between Church and State” in 1802, in a famous letter to the Danbury Baptist in Connecticut.

In 1947, Judge Black of the Supreme Court stated: “This wall will be maintained high and impenetrable”.

Now, listen to our friend Robert Boston, an advocate of separation of religions and the state, who declared at the IRELP international colloquium held in Paris on December 10, 2010:

“This has always offended some Americans. They attacked the Constitution after it was ratified, and they attacked the Bill of Rights 10 years later in the same manner. Their belief was that our nation could not survive if we did not base our government explicitly on Christianity. […]

“In the modern era, forces that seek to link their religion to the government are most active during periods of great social change…. America was becoming culturally (if not legally) more secular. The number of Americans who said they attend church regularly dropped. People began to explore spirituality outside of the confines of the churches. More and more people announced public skepticism of organized religion.

All of this greatly troubled the Religious Right – and their reaction was once again to attack the secular foundations of our country.

If the Religious Right has its way, part of the agenda will also be moral in nature… the Religious Right has its eye on several issues.

They would like to change our nation in the following ways: public schools, gay rights, abortion and reproductive rights, tax and funding for religious institutions and schools, social safety, symbols of union of church and state.

They want the Ten Commandments, which they regard as the source of all law, posted in courthouses, schools and government buildings. They seek to have the cross, the preeminent symbol of Christianity, erected in public places. The purpose of this is to create the impression, the American Constitution notwithstanding, that Christianity is the de facto religion of America and those who do not agree with it should accept their place as second-class citizens”.

I wish to end that chapter because I know that our friends Bobbie Kirkhart, former President of Atheist Alliance and David Silverman, National President of American Atheists, are present and will considerably enrich those few remarks.

I greet them and thank them for their contributions.

2005-2011: Is separation achieving progress in the world?

What about separation since our World Congress of Atheists and Free Thinkers, founding the ILCAFT, held at Paris, on July 4, 2005, on Independence Day?

Concerning theocratic states, we find Iran.

In the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Chapter 1, Article 12 and following, it is provided that “the official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelver Ja’fari school, and this principle will remain eternally immutable. Other Islamic schools, including the Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali, and Zaydi, are to be accorded full respect…” (Article 13) “Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education”.

Article 23 adds: “The investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief”.

However and notably in Articles 24, 26, 27, 28, it is provided that publications and the press have freedom of expression except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam which are determined by the law…

This is a completely religious state in which the citizens’ liberty is limited by the absolute obedience to the criteria of Islam.

With a few exceptions, the situation can be estimated approximately as identical in Greece and Poland.

The Orthodox Church is all-powerful in Greece. It enjoys a kind of extraterritoriality at Mount Athos and until recently religion was mentioned on Identity Cards.

The situation is noticeably identical in Poland where the Catholic Church is still willing to intervene in the government affairs as well as in the public field and to govern the citizens’ private lives. Now, we can see the resolute efforts of a number of Rationalists’ and Free Thinkers’ organisations to put an end to this oppression.

Let’s also mention Saudi Arabia, Sudan and probably Afghanistan, as far as we can currently estimate the situation.

In Lebanon, on two occasions on February 27 then on March 6, 2011, thousands of people marched in Beyrout. “Secularism is the solution” could be seen on a large banner in the demonstration organised by the campaign “to overthraw the religious regime in Lebanon” lauched by “forces and groups of youth and activists”, according to their press release.

Let’s remind that the Lebanese system is a complexe mixture of sharing out the power, based on community quota. Hence, the President has to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni, the Speaker of the Parliament a Shiite, and so on…

“We do not want religion to interfere in politics; we want separation of religion and the state” one demonstrator explained.

The second category concerns the states that, although they are not constitutionally in a regime of separation, are witnessing increasing secularization.

Venezuela whose constitution is not secular but it tends toward a neutral system of education without religious influence. In July 2010, President Chavez asked for a review of the Concordat with the Vatican.

Ecuador has adopted a new constitution where the word “secular” can be found twice but refers to God and Pachamama, the Mother-Earth. The influence of the Catholic Church and evangelical sects is still strong.

Peru could be in an intermediary situation since the 1979 constitution recommends separation and yet it is not currently implemented.

Chile is witnessing a movement toward separation successfully thwarted until now by the Catholic Church, which recently demanded that the former officers convinced for violating human rights be pardoned.

On November 27, 2010, Iceland elected a Constituent Assembly designed to reform the country. Besides nationalisation and separation of powers, a strong lobby is pressuring for separation of religions and the state.

Due to the decline of Christianity in Australia and New Zealand, both countries are heading toward advanced secularism which has raised the issue in the political arena of separation of Religions and the State in constitutional, financial and symbolical issues.

Our friends of the ANZSA, particularly our comrad Max Wallace, are making every effort on that issue.

In Spain, the Second Republic had adopted a secular constitution, in 1931.

After the end of Franco’s dictatorship, the Monarchy has allowed the Catholic Church, all-powerful during forty years, to maintain considerable privileges, such as tax exemptions, payment of church ministers, and education. The Spanish state has signed a Concordat with the Catholic Church as well as an agreement with representatives of Islam. After all, laws on homosexual marriage, contraception and abortion have been passed, which are opposed to dogmas of both religions.

Great Britain has a regime of a state religion accompanied with genuine tolerance toward other religions.

In an interview with our review La Raison (issue n°550, April 2010) on the occasion of the Pope’s visit in September 2010, Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, reminded different aspcts of the struggle for disestablishing the Church of England: “The abolition of the blasphemy laws was an immense success for the NSS. Those laws protected the very doctrine of the Anglican Church and when they were abolished (in May, 2008, after more than 140 years of existence) – we made another step forward toward our final goal which is the disestablishment of Church of England. (…)”

But still today, recent debates concerning a potential reform of the House of Lords (presently, 26 English bishops are still full right Members of Westminster) prove that things are not easy…

On September 28, 2010, on the occasion of the historical visit of Pope Benedict XVI in Britain, about 20,000 people marched in London, against the public funding of the visit.

Commenting the important success of the protest, Terry Sanderson declared: “Undoubtedly, this day is a landmark for the secularist movement in Britain. (…) Let’s hope that the anger that we have seen today will be translated in an increased and stronger secularist movement and that the Government will see that any attempt to forcibly impose religion in our lives will be firmly opposed.”

– The Republic of Ireland, still under the sway of the clerical Constitution of 1937, written jointly by Archbishop McQuaid and Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, has recently witnessed a political and moral upheaval: the scandal of child sexual abuse by priests and the crisis of the Catholic hierarchy.

The issue of “ending the special relationship between the Church and the State”, to take up again the very words of TD Liz O’Donnell in Dáil Éireann in 2005, and “a campaign for a secular constitution which would represent the pluralist character of society”, as Labour Party Senator Ivana Bacik put it before the Atheist Ireland association in July 2010, is clearly raised.

Belgium has made attempts to ensure internal peace through a system called “pillars”.

Six religions are recognized and treated equally, concerning the granted benefits: payment by the State of wages, pensions and housing of the priests, maintenance of religious buildings, chaplaincy, religious education on the curriculum, broadcasting of religious ceremonies on the radio and television. We should add that Belgian secular organisations also receive government subsidies.

– Quebec, a province within the Canadian Federal State, has witnessed an increased and continued secularisation since the late 1960s and the “Quiet Revolution”, which has damaged the major remnants of the social, moral and clerical order of the corporatist regime called “the Big Darkness”. For ten years, thought the resolute efforts of associations such as MLQ, very important secular gains were registered, accelerating the secularisation of the Province.

Whereas the clerics demand, in the name of the sacrosanct principles of multiculturalism, “reasonable accommodations” to the intangible principle of secularism, thousands of ctizens publicly took a stand for “a secularist and pluralist Quebec” in the spring of 2010.

Argentina enjoys freedom of religions in a fluctuating situation. President Menem collaborated with the Catholic Church. Kirchner, the present President holds himself aloof from the Church while still remunerating the seminarists.

Finally, a few countries enjoy a climate of great religious freedom which the advocates of the socalled “open secularism” would like to make one believe of a separation that is not named: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

On Sweden, let’s quote «Atlas des Religions», a staunch Catholic review:

“However, the Swedish process is not complete since the King and the Queen still have to embrace the Lutheran religion and the Law still clearly provides that the Swedish Church, with all the attributes and the responsibility of its temples and property, must be Evangelical Lutheran, include all the territory and remain democratic, which means that elections are held to appoint its representatives”.

In Norway, until recently paragraph II of the Constitution provided that the Evangelical Lutheran Church was established as the official Church of the Norwegian State. The compromise on which the seven political parties of the Storing have agreed provides that this section of the Constitution should be read now: “The basic values of our nation are our Christian and Humanist legacy”. The reform of the Constitution is scheduled in 2012.

In the last category, there are constitutionally secular states.

Presently India enjoys separation. But the state supports some religions according to the political trends of those in office, trying to outbid one another.

In 2009, Bolivia adopted a secular constitution with more than 60% of favourable votes

“The French National Federation of the Free Thought greets the Republic of Bolivia with a sense of excitement a sense of excitement because this new Constitution separates Religions and the State and therefore Bolivia will be the first state in South America to adopt Secularism in its Constitution, since Mexico belongs to North America. Bolivia opens the road for all the peoples of Latin America.

(…)We have to bear in mind the weight of this measure in a continent which has been dominated by the Roman Catholic Church since 1492”.

In the same manner, Portugal has had a secular constitution since 1911, when the monarchy collapsed. Salazar’s corporatist dictatorship signed a Concordat with the Vatican, in 1940 and gave back its constitutional position of state religion to Catholicism in 1951.

In 1976, the Constituent Assembly adopted a Constitution, which even in a limited manner, enshrined in its articles the land reform, public, compulsory, and secular education, separation of religions and the State…

Article 41 of the Portuguese Constitution safeguarded “inviolable freedom of conscience, religion and worship” assuring that “the Churches and other religious communities are separate from the State and free for their own organisation”.

– Mexico: On July 4, 2005, in his report called “Balance sheet of the struggle for the separation of Churches and the State” at the World Congress of Atheists and Free Thinkers Christian Eyschen remarked:

“In the 19th century, this country was under a Concordat with the Vatican. The Roman Catholic clergy had very large land properties and controlled the government and local administrations. But in 1856, the Federalist Party seized power. They proceeded to an important land reform, and Church properties (one third of arable land) were given to the farmers. Religious congregations were banned, religious buildings were nationalized, and there was a breaking off with the Vatican.

On September 14, 1874, the strict and firm separation between the Church and the State was passed. Civil authorities were prohibited to take part in religious ceremony. Priests were not allowed to wear their cassocks outside religious buildings. Monasteries were banned. Like in France some years late, the separation was supported by a very deep popular movement that has been living up to now, even if it is put to question in a very important manner”.

In 2010, a reform was passed in Parliament to maintain the secular character of the Mexican state.

Let’s review the case of Turkey. Typically, the will for secularisation has come from above, promoted by Mustapha Kemal called Atatürk, and supported by a relatively popular mobilisation. After seizing power, Ataturk drove away the European colonizers. He founded what was called “the Modern Republic”. He abolished the caliphate and led Turkey on the road toward separation of the religious sphere and the state.

Public education was deeply secularised. Nowadays, religious signs and symbols are still prohibited. In this movement of secularisation, Islam was no longer considered as a “state religion” in 1928. In its 1931 manifesto, his People’s Republican Party declared: “Religious ideas belonging to the field of individual opinion, the Party thinks that the exclusion of religious concepts from the state affairs and political life is the main factor which can assure the success of our nation on its road toward progress”. Clearly, we see that this is still a burning issue in the country and the subject of all the debates and all the stakes.

– In the USSR, in 1917, the Bolcheviks implemented a great land reform to give the land to the farmers and as a consequence they nationalised the Church properties. They secularised the state, the administration, the civil registry. The Orthodox Church was dispossessed of all its privileges. The Act of January 23, 1918 decreted and organised the separation.

The Church did not accept and, once again, linked its fate to the Old Regime. The Church suffered serious damage as a consequence. But with Stalin, repression became the rule for the whole society, including the clergy. Until 1941, when the Stalinist dictatorship married the popes. After the collapse of the USSR, the Church managed to maintain its privileges, in violation of the 1918 law of separation.

Among secular states and / or enjoying provisions for separation, we can also mention:

  • Nepal in 2008.
  • In January 2010, Angola proclaimed the separation of religions and the state in Article 10 of its new constitution. Mali is said to enjoy the same kind of provision.
  • Two cantons in Switerland –Neuchatel, 1941, Geneva, 1881-, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Uzbekistan in 1992, the Philippines in 1987 [1899].
  • In South America, we can also find Columbia which has very recently deemed as contrary to the constitution the establishment of a sanctuary-city.


Following this review, indeed uncompleted and too short, we can draw a few conclusions.

Separation is a political action. It is an action of liberty which corresponds to the people’s consent to a will of complete independence of the State concerning religions.

It may occur when the weight of the Churches is heavy. When it is lighter, like in Scandinavian countries, we can see some informal separation as long as the population neglects the religious phenomenon which becomes a simple personal reference.

It is a fragile action because the Churches have never accepted to lose their influence over civil society. They have always kept trying to regain their hold over the citizens; and their onslaught is constant. In this regard, the example of France is a good illustration.

It is an action all the more fragile that the political leaders put their influence at the service of a calling into question of separation.

The Churches “accept secularism”… in the sense of tolerance in their favour, i.e. of their reintroduction in the public arena, and that is particularly noticeable within the European institutions of Brussels.

The struggle for absolute freedom of conscience is the struggle for complete political and economic emancipation of humankind.

Separation is not anti-religious in itself, but it is necessarily anti-clerical.

Finally, there cannot be genuine democracy without real secularism.

That is the reason why the foundation of IAFT can only contribute to reinforce separation wherever it exists and establish it wherever it does not exist.

Thank you for your attention.