For years, many people in Lebanon have been calling for the secularization of the state. The call was notably prevalent during last year’s October 17th uprising, especially among the youth, while being opposed by other groups, for various reasons.
In Lebanon and around the world, there are many misconceptions that surround secularism, particularly regarding its relation to religion, which makes it a controversial issue that is often misunderstood and misrepresented.
What Does Secularism Mean Exactly?
Secularism is a term originally coined by English writer George Jacob Holyoake in 1851. In Holyoake’s words, it is “a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human.”
Secularism essentially aims to support and protect the freedom and equality of all members of society by promoting the separation between the church and the state, i.e. between religious institutions and state institutions.
This simply means that, in a secular society, the state does not interfere in any way in religious affairs, and, in turn, religion does not interfere in state affairs, without that affecting the right of religion to participate freely in the public sphere.
Does Secularism Mean Atheism?
A common misconception about secularism is that it means atheism, or that only atheists can be secularists; that is completely incorrect. To be a secularist and to be atheist or religious are completely separate matters.
Atheism is generally defined as the absence of belief in the existence of deities, or, in other definitions, a rejection of the belief that deities exist.
On the other hand, secularism makes no claim about the existence of deities – or the lack thereof. It has no connection to this debate.
Holyoake says that secularism “is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it.” The same can be said about Islam or any other religion in the world when it comes to the idea of secularism, which is a political idea rather than a religious one.
A Threat to Religious People?
Another misconception that surrounds secularism is that it poses an existential threat to religion and religious people. However, quite the opposite is, in fact, true.
A truly secularist society guarantees the rights and freedoms of all its members – religious or not – equally.
It protects the right of a religious person to practice his/her belief, while also protecting a non-religious individual’s right to not believe in a religion or practice it.
Similarly, it does not force anyone to adopt a certain religion nor to abandon their faith for any other ideology or doctrine.
In fact, throughout history, prominent religious figures, who were famously ardent about their faith, pushed for secularism to be developed in their countries.
These people, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Mahatma Gandhi, recognized secularism to be the fairest political principle for a free, equal society.
A Bad Example:
Arguments against secularism sometimes include references to the Soviet Union and its infamous discrimination against religion.
Promoters of religion were often threatened and attacked in the Soviet Union; Religious property was confiscated by the state, religion itself was often publicly ridiculed, while atheism was taught in schools and promoted in Soviet society.
And, officially, the Soviet Union was a secular state. However, by discriminating against the religious, it did not abide by the very basic principles of secularism, which, again, entails that the state and religious institutions do not interfere in one another’s affairs.
The same can be said about modern-day China, which is considered to have an established “religion” or doctrine – Marxist atheism, which goes against the principles of secularism for the same reasons a theocracy does.
To reiterate, a secular state cannot have an official religion or doctrine.
A Good Example:
While a large number of countries around the world are self-described secular states without being practically secular, there are ones that are agreed to be truly secular. The majority of European countries fall under this category.
In fact, only 3 of the 27 member countries of the European Union have an official state religion. One good example of a secularist country is Germany, which happens to have a majority Christian population.
What About Secularism in Lebanon?
The Lebanese political system is famously a confessional one that proportionately reserves the highest offices for specific religious communities.
Under this system, the president can only be a Maronite Christian. Similarly, the speaker of parliament is always a Shiite Muslim, the prime is always a Sunni Muslim, and so on.
The parliament is also distributed equally among the two main religions in Lebanon, with 64 seats reserved for Christians and 64 reserved for Muslims and Druze, with each being distributed among the different sects of these religions.
Under a secular system, however, this all would change and religion would no longer be the staple in the distribution of power.
As long as they qualify for the political position, any person of any faith – or lack thereof – would be allowed to hold a high office in a secular Lebanon.
To mention one, an important outcome of secularization in Lebanon would be the removal of religion from personal identification documents.
This would be a crucial step toward a more free and open society that does not discriminate against individuals or groups based on their religion or sect and gives equal opportunities to every citizen, regardless of his or her personal beliefs.