I consider myself as secular; at the same time I consider myself also religious. Is this a contradiction in terms? Some do in fact consider this to be a contradiction. I don’t quite agree with them. Before reaching some sort of conclusion we necessarily have to define what secular and secularism is all about. Various people attempted to define it. While many have exaggerated in defining it others have a more balanced understanding of the term.
The terms secularism, secularization and similar terms are not always clear cut both in their meaning and goal. According to Charles Taylor secularisation has two meanings: a) the decline of religious belief and practice; b) the retreat of religion from the public space. I tend to agree with this yet not so much so as being a definition of the term but rather in what it results in.
One of the biggest debates on how we should understand secularization today revolves around whether the state should be free from religions or whether it should promote freedom of religions. The most vigorous tendency today, seems to take the first as being the ideal of secularisation. While some describe secularism by neatly holding that it is a separation between state and church like the Americans United for Separation of Church and State and mainstream Catholic Social Teaching, others like Hitchens, Dawkins and the National Secular Society in the UK tend to consider the fulfillment of secularism being reached by the eradication and the disestablishment of anything that is religious at least from the public sphere, sometimes also in the private sphere.
Yet as Jacques Berlinerblau, associate professor at Georgetown University puts it in his book How to be Secular, equating secularism with atheism and being a-religious is not only against the spirit of secularism but also damaging to secularism itself. Still some hold that in order for the state to be secular and therefore for persons to be considered secular, the state and thus the person has to remove any religious element from the equation. I think that this attitude is fundamentalist in nature.
From a human rights perspective this not only goes against the letter but also against the spirit of the various international declarations on human rights, namely the UN Declaration on Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms, and the European Convention on Human Rights. While emphasising the freedom of conscience and religion of the individual – here alluding to the private sphere – these declarations which are secular in nature, give importance to the freedom of publicly manifesting one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
The latter is not simply a question of not being persecuted if you adhere to any particular religion or simply being allowed to speak out your beliefs. It goes further than that. Freedom also entails in it a question of choice and the opportunity to freely be able to make such choice. Both to be a believer as well as being a non-believer. This is how a secular state should be.
This approach clearly understands secularism as being freedom of religions rather than freedom from religion. Freedom at the end of the day is not simply being free of doing what one has the right to do but having a choice and the possibility to exercise such right.