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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

The role of liberal values in secularization

Danilenko Denis Vasilievich

Doctor of Law, Aix-Marseille Universite, France; Editor-in-chief of the jorunals "International Law and International Organizations" and "Law and Politics", Acting Director of the Academic publishing group NOTA BENE - LLC "NB-Media"

115114, Moscow, Paveletskaya nab., 6A, office 211






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Abstract: This article explores the role played by the liberal values within political secularization (secularization of political power), as well as secularization on individual level (erosion of the observation of religious practices, values, and beliefs). The role of socioeconomic and political factors in secularization such as capitalism, advancements of sciences, and Reformation is reconsidered in relation to the role of liberal values. The existing concepts of secularization are reinterpreted to integrate the factor of human rights and liberal values into this process. Historical and philosophical approaches to the subject of the study allow the author to discover substantial contradictions within social assignment of religion and liberal values, and to draw a conclusion that liberal values have played a crucial role in secularization.


secularization, liberalism, fundamental rights and freedoms, right to education, human rights, democracy, capitalism, freedom of religion, religion, law

Almost all modern sociologists believe that religion’s importance is fading within developed countries, that the observation of religious practices, values and beliefs is about to erode within the modern Western world. We could even advance that this affirmation is one of the axioms of the modern social sciences, and is rarely contested. The few voices that do contest such affirmation are mostly from the United States[1], which is perfectly understandable,since the secularization process is slower in the US than it is in Europe. Moreover, such affirmations are more common today than ever before, which could be explained by the fact that the secularization processes in some countries seemed to be slowed down in response to different aspects of globalization: religion represents one of the main instruments that keep the originality of one’s owns culture and traditions, whereas the importance of growth of religious population in Western countries is causedby the high levels of immigration.Nonetheless,we have to be cautious with statistical data that shows a surge of religious practices in some Western countries, since it is more ofa question of cultural identity,rather than a question of faith –the surge of religious practices in the contemporary world is part of the personal and national identity process within a globalized world without well-defined landmarks, or a question of time necessary for the religious immigrant population tointegrate into theWestern societies, which is generally resolved with the change of generations in the immigrant populations.

If the existence ofsecularization is almost uncontested – at least with the developed countries – its interpretations are a different story.There are numerous interpretations of secularization, advanced by sociologists, theologians, philosophers,andpolitical scientist.Almost all of them have contributed to the understanding of the phenomenon, since several different factors have contributed to the erosion of political importance of religion (and the Church),as well as to the secularization on individual level (erosion of observation of religious practices, values, and beliefs) or what we can refer to as secularization of minds.

There are interpretations of secularization that attempt to explain secularization from the institutional position of the Church within a given country, or from the “religious market” point of view. One of such interpretations consists in the view that the effects of religious pluralism create competition among churches and have a positive effect by stimulating the activity of religious organizations competing for public attention. On the contrary, the secularization is more advanced where the competition of religions is almost non-existent, i.e. where a single religion dominates or there is an established national Church, often regulated and subsidized by the government. According to this theory,the Church in absence of competition becomes ineffective and losses its believers, i.e. secularization is most visible in less competitive “religious markets” [2].Francis Fukuyama offers a similar approach and explains the secularization process through strictly institutional arguments. He advances the idea that secularization is promoted within those countries where the Church has an established national character, and on the contrary, hampered in those countries (such as US) where there is no established Church: “What kept alive religious feeling, it would appear, was less the specific doctrine of the church (e.g., Catholic or Protestant), so much as whether the Church was established or voluntary” […] “The reason for this apparent paradox is that when religious identity is mandatory, it often begins to feel like an unwanted burden”[3].These interpretations of secularization have several weaknesses, which have already been revealed by other scientists. First, originally every nation had an established Church, and yet secularization took place anyway,so we have to at least admit that there are some other reasons to explain it. Second, at the same time the secularization continues its progress in countries where there is no state religion, orwhere it is not mandatory (where the religious market is competitive), whichleads us to believe that there are some other explanations for secularization. Finally, considering thefact that originally all countries had an established religion, it is true that within countries where there is not one,the process of secularization has already taken place, and thusit is normal that it is less noticeable than in those countries, where there is an established state religion.

More convincing interpretations of secularization are of political and socio-economic nature.

Émile Durkheim proposed that secularizationis caused by the functional differentiation of the industrialized societies[4]. He pointed out thaturbanization;more voluminous dimension of the contemporary societies; flexibility of the traditions and social practices, made necessary to adapt to the diversity of the circumstances…[5]is what reduced the importance of religion for the society as well as for the individual. In other words, according to Durkheim, different socio-economic factors have made individuals more independent from the society and from different forms of collective practices, including the religious ones. Despite the interesting aspects of this interpretation, itis too vague in our opinion. Indeed, factors advanced as an explanation of the secularization are too manyand E. Durkheim have not developed which role each of them played in secularization process and exactly how they have made such an impact. In our opinion, if we can admit that such factors have played role in deterioration of social capital, it is doubtful that they have played a major role insecularization. Socioeconomic factors that lay at the basis of this interpretation are more prone to explain the individualization or the undermining of the social capital than the secularization, which requires more than that, which is to undermine the religious ethics. In other words, although religion plays a major role within the social capital construct, it is not obvious that the deterioration of the latter would have an effect on the spiritual life of an individual or on his world outlook. At the same time, thefunctional differentiation of the industrialized societies, which for E. Durkheim constitute the basis of the secularization, is inextricably linked with modern ways of capitalist production and accumulation of wealth in the Western societies. As we will later demonstrate (see § 2), an explanation of the secularization on individual level has to be specifically looked for within the economic factors of the formation of industrialized modern societies, and not in the multitude of different factors advanced by different authors supporting this explanation of secularization without distinction of the role of each of them. In other words, if some distinct traits of modern industrialized world have certainly contributed to the secularization of an individual’s mentality, they were not equally effective in this job.

To be more precise, according to Max Weber the secularization is brought by thedevelopment of capitalism and acquisition of wealth. He points out that wealth raises “temptations to laxity in religious observance”[6] and that “the intensity of the search for Kingdom of God commenced gradually to pass over into sober economic virtue;the religious roots died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness”[7]. He admits that he borrows this idea from another author, namely John Wesley, who also pointsoutthat“wherever riches have increased[…], the essence of religion […]has decreased in the same proportion” [8].Pippa Norris’s and Ronald Inglehart’s theory of the “existential security” seems, at least in part, to adhere to this opinion: “due to the rising levels of human security, the publics of virtually all advanced industrial societies have been moving towards more secular orientations […] modernization (the process of industrialization urbanization, and rising levels of education and wealth) greatly weakens the influence of religion in affluent societies”. Although those opinions have significant differences, what they have in common is the explanation that the material conditions of life of a person influence the degree to which their hearts and minds are open to the religious beliefs, values, and practices. This interpretation of secularization is convincing, but needs some clarifications,especially in order to understand how the new ethics(alternate to religious)werespread ontothe population and what role in this process was played by the democratic organization of political power (§ 2).

It is often proposed that enlightened thinking, developed by Renaissance philosophers and scientists, is a major cause of secularization. It is indeed advanced that “emphasis on the power of reason to discover the truth about humanity and the world […] skepticism […] scientific way of thinking” [9] are obviously opposed to the religious way of thinking. It is true that the scientific explanations of the world, nature and humanity, appealing to the reason, characterized by critical way of thinking and using scientific methods of explanation, could contribute to secularization as alternative – to religious revealed truths – and convincing ways of explanation and of understanding of the world and the nature. It is noteworthy that besides the vague ideas of the influence of functional differentiation upon secularization, Durkheim also advanced that rationalization of the life trough scientific explanations could undermine the revealed interpretations of the Bible. In other words, according to this author the scientific knowledge (as well as other factors) has contributed to creationof an alternative comprehension of the world and develop skepticism as to the existence of God[5]. This interpretation of the religious decline is very convincing in our view, especially when we remember that Church and religious laity considered (and in some cases still considers) Galileo and Darwin as its enemies. Nonetheless, the enlightenment by itself could not play such role in secularization of individual’s spiritual life, which manifested itself with vigor only later. Indeed, originally the ideas of enlightenment were developed and proliferated only among the intellectuals (mostly aristocracy) and could play only confined role in secularization of the masses, thus it could not contribute to secularization of minds of the large and mostly illiterate population. The real influence of the scientific way of thinking and of the alternative worldview on the obliteration of religion could be achieved only when those ideas were spread among the large fringes of the population. This process was achieved in developed countries with the spread of the welfare state or social justice values and especially with the development of one of its major elements – the compulsory and universal secular education. Thus, one of the human rights – right to education – have contributed to the spread of secularization (§ 3).

Despite their limitations, all of the above mentioned ideas have unveiled the political and socioeconomic roots of secularization; but none of them consider liberal values as factor that played a role in this process. Nonetheless, by emphasizing some of the shortcomings of those interpretations of secularization we have already confirmed that at least one of the liberal values (alongside with right to education or principle of equality of rights) played a certain role in secularization – democratic organization of power. Its role has been discovered by some authors and can be demonstrated at various levels of secularization, both political and individual. Jürgen Habermas has already emphasized the role of democracy in political secularization: “…democratic self-empowerment of citizens already strips the legitimation of political power of its metasocial character, in other words, of the reference to the warrant of transcendent authority operating beyond society… In a liberal democracy state’s power has lost its religious aura” [10]. We would develop this point by clarifying what was the exact role of liberal democracy in political secularization (§ 1) as well as what role was played by liberal democracy in the spread of new capitalist ethics, or how it also influenced individual secularization (§ 2).

Finally, another factor of secularization can be also designated as one of the liberal values, but is often not presented as such. It is frequently advanced that Reformation was at the origin of secularization, which we will later discover to be true. But by stating that, we uncover only the root of the phenomena, rather than explain its nature. Indeed, explaining secularization through Reformation would sooner or later bring us to the question of the freedom of thought or even pluralism, which is considered to be the consequence of the confessional split (Reformation) [10], bringing us to one of the modern liberal values (§ 1).


The opinion that Reformation movement, or Protestantism in particular, has contributed to secularization of society and individual’s spiritual life has serious objections. Firstly, it is hard to accept that Protestantism (or other reformed religion) have some inherent distinctive traits that contributed to secularization of society and individuals’ minds, given the fact that secularization can be observed not only in predominantly Protestant countries or communities, but also in Catholic nations. In other words, there is no such thing as special characteristics of the reformed religions that are especially prone to erosion of observation of religious practices, values, and beliefs. Secondly, if we yet accept that Protestantism has some characteristics that could contribute to the erosion of the religious practices, values, and beliefs, then we would have to admit that it could have such effect only indirectly, because it is difficult to admit that those religions are self-destructive. In other words, the reformed religions have not directly contributed to the secularization at least on the individual level.

At the same time, the Reformation brought some considerable changes from sociopolitical point of view. It is worth remembering that the atrocities of the bloody religious wars (between Catholics and Reformed) forced lay authorities to accept the existence of other denominations on their turf, which undermined the idea of dominant religion of the nation. This move was embodied in French Edict de Nantes (1598) and other Toleration Acts of other European countries. These changes have created conditions for religious pluralism, as well as contributed to the decline of power of the Church as a political institution in general, or secularization form the political point of view. Indeed, those events and subsequent toleration acts laid down the groundwork for modern values, such as: choice, dissention; tolerance; absence of the imposed state religion (or ideology), in other words several aspects of freedom of thought, which were ultimately embodied in fundamental constitutional acts of the XVII-XVIII centuries. This would suggest that the Reformation has greatly contributed to the secularization of political life and created conditions necessary for the individual’s spiritual secularization without exerting direct influence on the erosion of the observation of religious practices, values, and beliefs.

This political secularization was perfectly noticed by Cardinal Richelieu: “Where the interests of the state are concerned, God absolves actions which, if privately committed, would be a crime” [11]. This analysis of Richelieu perfectly describes the liberation of an absolutist era state from domination of religion, and limits this liberation to exclusively political scope by forbidding the individuals to do the same. At the same time, the Cardinal was obviously preoccupied with possible consequences of state’s liberalization from religion on individuals, otherwise he would not emphasize on the private part of this process: individual’s liberation form religious obligations.

Indeed, the direct secularizing effect of the Reformation is mainly political and had no direct and immediate influence on the world outlook and spirituality of individuals. Reformation only created conditions necessary for individual’s spiritual secularization by secularizing public life, allowing many religions or, later, non-religious ideologies. A space of freedom (of thought) was created, in which potentially not only alternative religious axioms were admitted, but, later, even the development of non-religious ethics and non-religious worldviews. As a consequence of this, liberation conditions were created essential for the development of alternatives to the revealed truths, which, among other things, contributed to the development of scientific, rationalized way of thinking, as opposed to the spiritual (revealed) one.

The result of the Reformation has been further advanced by the modern bourgeois revolutions, which have brought the emergence of democratic institutions. It lies not only in decline of political role of religion, but also of the political role of the Church, i.e. in reduction of social control and social influence of the Church, which was undermined as a consequence of the Reformation and completely eclipsed on political arena by the advent of the democratic institutions.

As we have already pointed out, the relations between the lay authorities and the Church have been undermined during absolutism, and Reformation has certainly played a role in this process. The Gallicanism of the XVII century – doctrine that allowed Louis XIV to demand control over some aspects of the French Church – clearly indicates that the temporal authority was now considered superior to the spiritual one. Same is true for the socially important functions, which were originally exercised by the Church: during absolutism lay authorities assumed more and more functions previously exercised by the religious authorities. Wedding celebrations, burying of the deceased, acts of birth and other actions previously conducted by religious institutions were now being done by the lay authorities. Later, such important functions as health services and education, which were previously almost exclusively provided by the Church, were also transferred to the temporal authorities. Michel Foucault perfectly described this phenomenon in his “Surveilleretpunir” [12]. The distinct traits of the Absolutism are: centralization of power, larger and more efficient bureaucracies, monopoly on the use of force, monopoly over the legislation and justice. Clearly, the functions that were previously shared with the Church (and other fringes of the population – nobles for ex.) during the XVII-XVIII centuries were transferred to the monarchs: Church was limited in taxation powers; ecclesiastical courts have been abolished; canonical law played a less important role. This reduction of the Church’s socioeconomic functions by the laic authorities has naturally created a distance between the religious institutions and congregation. The spiritual message conveyed by the Church was eclipsed by the message of lay authorities, which are less likely to integrate religious elements, and directed its actions towards resolution of practical issues of everyday life.

Limitation of the influence of religious institutions upon laity during this era was only aggravated with subsequent advent of democratic institutions. Indeed, if during absolutism the political power of the Church was only reduced and absolute monarchs even accepted to share it with the Church, after the advent of the democratic institutions the necessity of religious institutions in public affairs became obsolete. The role of religious institutions in legitimation of the political power was destroyed when the monarchical God-given right to govern over the nation was replaced by the conception of the nation-given (secular) right to make political decisions. In contrast to the monarchs’ God-given political power, the secularized government had no obligations to respect the domain of religious institutions in the socioeconomic spheres. As a consequence, democratically legitimized political power could occupy all spheres of the politics, and thus not only reduce the political control and social influence of the Church, but completely erase it from the political arena. In other words, with the advent of liberal values such as democratic organization of political power, political secularization have only become more rooted through stripping the Church of its social functions.

The eclipse of the Church and religion as political phenomenon was progressive since monarchs’ God-given power needed religion and religious institutions to legitimize their power. The process of replacing the socioeconomic functions of the Church by those of state was gradually accomplished by limitation of the absolute monarchical power and arrival of the democratic institutions, which completely severed the relations with religious institutions and religion itself, and allowed replacing the social institutions of the Church with the secular ones. Indeed, the democratic functions of the modern state, brought about by modern revolutions (French revolution, British Glorious revolution, American Revolutionary War), supposes a complete liberation of the politics from religion and the Church, inasmuch it completely neglects the necessity of any religious legitimation of the political power.

The revolutions of the modern era brought in a new paradigm of power, according to which the political power was no longer divinely legitimized via God-given right, but legitimized via concept of nation. This change was not a slight modification but a complete change of the nature of political power, which meant that legitimation was henceforth completely secularized; any reference to the sacred or spiritual elements were abandoned. At the same time, this change does not mean that religion was overnight erased from the political spectrum and, moreover, that the society and every person taken individually stopped believing in God or reduced their religious practices. What was accomplished by the advent of democratic institutions is that the Church was erased from the political arena and religion could play only an indirect role in politics. The religion was reduced to the private sphere of the individual and was restricted from exerting direct influence upon public affairs.

Once the political power has abandoned any ties to religion, from legitimation standpoint, political power became no longer accountable for its own actions and decisions before God and Church. As a consequence, it could also liberate itself from religious influence from substantial point of view, i.e. it would not have to be guided by religious precepts when making a choice in the decision-making process. But of course, people’s mentality (even of politicians) has not changed overnight, and their actions and decisions continued to be governed by religious beliefs and precepts. But at the same time, their mentality was already affected by the new capitalist ethics, which – as we would see it later on – stands in conflict with religious ethics (see § 2). What was accomplished by the advent of democratic institutions is a liberation of political power from the necessity to stick to the religious precepts in political decision-making process.

While monarchs had to make some concessions to the Church and religion because their power would have to be legitimized by them (Le Sacre), democratically elected assemblies have no such liabilities. In other words, democratically elected assemblies are not obliged to implement religious precepts into their decisions and actions or take into consideration canonical law. As a consequence, any barriers to implement the new ethics into law were removed; the new capitalist ethics that governed peoples life for some time could now take the form of mandatory legal norms; the democratic possibility to implement this new ethics legalized it and exonerated it from the status of sin (see § 2). In sum, the democratic values became an instrument of secularization and implementation of the new capitalist ethics.

This 2-staged liberal secularization of the political – when, in the first place, the political influence of the religion and the political power of the Church was undermined by absolute monarchs as necessary consequence of the Reformation and then, in the second place, the political power of the religiously legitimated absolute monarchs was destroyed by secularly legitimated nation – allowed achieving complete secularization of public affairs. This liberalization of the political space built-up the conditions necessary to govern without any regard for religion and the Church, which allowed the implementation of new, secularized, liberal ethics via democratic legislation.

Freedom of thought as one of the major consequences of the Reformation also created a space of freedom necessary for the development of science and alternative (secular) worldviews. It allowed to challenge not only one revealed truth by another revealed truth, but also opened a space for a challenge of the revealed truth with help of simple reason and scientifically proven truths.

Nonetheless, in the strict sense this was only a political secularization, but not the secularization on the individual level. If it completely changed the nature of political power, on the individual level it played only the role of an instrument of secularization. Indeed, the secularization of the individuals’ minds (i.e. the erosion of the observation of religious practices, values, and beliefs), was only a consequence of those changes: fundamental freedom of thought and citizen’s right to vote have not secularized individuals by themselves, but only served as an instrument to implement the alternative ethics by imposing this new ethics onto a whole nation via democratically made legislation. Indeed, this secularization was only on the political level, and did not invade the private sphere of the individuals at once; only political power was secularized by force (first by monarchs than by democratic institutions) whereas individuals’ were not forced to secularize, but received only the opportunity to have an outlook different from the imposed revealed world and possibility to impose it on the whole nation and every citizen.


The conflict between religion, on one hand, and capitalism and wealth (the accumulation of which was spurred by the new ways of capitalist production) on the other, consists in contradiction between the modern era socioeconomic life conditions and religious precepts. This contradiction over time has greatly contributed to a gradual decline in observation of religious practices, values, and beliefs. In order to reveal the conflict between socioeconomic life conditions under capitalism and religious precepts, we have to define them and reveal their contradictions.

Probably the most significant example of the conflict between religion and modern time commercial practices is usury. It would be instructive to cite some of M. Weber’s thoughts on this topic. “It is striking that the ecclesiastical persecution of usurious lending arose and became ever more intense at the time and virtually as concomitant of the incipient development of actual capitalist form of communication, and particularly as a concomitant of the development of acquisitive capital in transoceanic commerce” [6]. Thus, condemnation of usury became one of the striking expressions of the conflict between religion and commercial activity with progression of capitalism, because the usurious lending coincided precisely with its development. The fact that this conflict resumed in the nineteenth century in abrogation of the usury prohibition by the Church only confirms that the Church have had to accept the new “unethical” socioeconomic reality. Until this abrogation, any businessman lived in a constant contradiction with one of the religious bans. This contradiction between religious rules and the way of doing business could only stimulate the rejection of such rules by the businessmen and as a consequence, contribute to their individual secularization. As Max Weber would put it, “The wide chasm separating the inevitabilities of economic life from the Christian ideal was still frequently felt deeply” [6] and – we can add – contributed to the secularization of at least those who were involved in such business activities.

Same is true for a general religious condemnation of wealth, which is indirectly related to the religious condemnation of greed and luxury. Of course “the ethics of ascethics Protestantism […] is there to prove that there is no direct contradiction between religious precepts and wealth, since […] ascethicsism […] acted powerfully against spontaneous enjoyment of possessions; it restricted consumption, especially of luxuries”[7]. But at the same time, this accumulation of wealth has created conditions necessary for the development of alternate ethics prior to the advent of the Protestantism: reformed religions have merely adapted to the new socioeconomic conditions.

John Wesley has perfectly pointed out the contradiction of wealth and religious precepts when he noticed that “increase in goods […] proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life” [8]. It is true that accumulation of wealth is responsible for the development of such sins (contravening to Christian values) as luxury, greed, or avarice. The accumulation wealth is the cause of the increase of sin in society, which according to Wesley has pushed away the congregation form religion. In other words, the wealth, created by the development of capitalism, has created conditions of life that contravene the religious precepts and as a consequence, created the basis for “[…] economically rationalized (but for this very reason ethically irrational) character of purely commercial relationships” [7]. The conflict between wealth accumulation and religious precepts, as well as the major consequence of this conflict – secularization, was also perfectly revealed by John B. Cobb, who argues that “Western society is organized in the service of wealth. Tracing the victory of wealth over God in the West is an interesting matter”[13].

It is also interesting to observe the point that in contrast to the “old” religions, the modern religions of the Western world (e.g. Protestantism) accepted accumulation of wealth as ethical, while defining restriction of its use for common good rather than irrational impulsive enjoinment of it as unethical. We think that such concessions of the modern reformed religions on this ethical issue were due to the necessity to adapt to the new socioeconomic conditions of the verge of the modern era, nascent at the exact time of their birth. Indeed, it seems quite understandable that the nascent religions of the modern era verge in face of emerging capitalist forms of production were forced to adapt its ethics to the new conditions. Karl Marx has perfectly pointed out this interdependence: “The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labor to the standard of homogeneous human labor – for such a society, Christianity with its cultusof abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion»[14].

We could conclude on this point that “The devout Catholic, as he went about his economic affairs, found himself continually behaving – or on the verge of behaving – in a manner that transgressed papal injunctions. His economic behavior […] could be permissible only on the basis of a lax, probabilistic morality” [7]. There are dual consequences of such conflict. The first one was already mentioned and consists in the necessity of religion to adapt its ethics to the new economic reality (i.e. accept the wealth, while reducing its use only for common good hence the necessity to impose the ascetic way of living). The second one is more interesting for our research because it consist in individual secularization. Indeed, it is hardly conceivable that a man, a businessman in our case, would have to constantly live in sin. This is hardly conceivable even in case of a Catholic businessman, who – contrary to some of his Protestant colleagues – has possibility to have their sins absolved. Indeed, it is hardly conceivable to live in a constant opposition with the imposed ethics even when there is possibility to not compromise one's own salvation. The only way to solve this crisis is to renounce the religious ethics. Again M. Weber puts this idea very clearly: “The ability to free oneself from the common tradition, a sort of liberal enlightenment, seems likely to be the most suitable basis for such a businessman success. And today that is generally precisely the case. […] The people filled with the spirit of capitalism today tend to be indifferent, if not hostile to the Church” [8].

Alternative bourgeois ethics was embodied in liberties and freedoms consolidated in fundamental legislative acts on the verge of modern era. This new ethics was enshrined in fundamental acts that are considered achievement of the bourgeois revolutions (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, Bill of Rights 1689 and others). Although they differ in details from one Western country to another they have a common core of ideas, the essence of which lies in liberation from domination of monarchical absolute power (this is especially evident in the text of the Bill of Rights). In other words, this liberation was not primarily directed against religion, rather against the absolute power of monarchs. Nonetheless, this liberation was mostly expressed in general terms (US’s Declaration Of Independence, French Declaration…) and most powerfully expressed in a formula of article 4 of French Declaration “Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights”. Therefore, the results of bourgeois or independence revolutions, embodied in those acts, lay in creation of a new condition of the individual liberated form any external oppression. The limitations to the rights of the liberated individuals, as given by the French Declaration, are in the rights of other people, rather than general good or (what is more important in our case) religious precepts. Such positions within these texts does not mean that they exclude any possibility of religious or moral limits on individuals’ freedoms, but testify that the authors of those texts were preoccupied by other imperatives than the respect of religious precepts.

If we now consider the essence of these new liberal values and compare them with religious teachings it would become obvious that they contradict each other in nature. If we compare for instance the Ten Commandments and some liberal values we could find that they have major contradictions between them. Ten Commandments as well as other religious teachings and precepts consisting mainly of bans, taboos or prohibitions, whereas liberal values on the contrary, are there to delimit a space for an individual free of any intervention form outside. This major difference in essence could be explained by the difference of their social mission: religion is socio-centered by nature, whereas liberal values are centered on the individual. It is true that most of the religious teachings and precepts are destined to protect the life of people as a whole (Thou shalt not kill; Thou shalt not covet; Thou shalt not steal…) and in accomplishing this mission religion is not preoccupied by individual’s condition but only that of society. On the contrary, the major constitutional acts of the Western countries, created in XVII-XVIII centuries, contain freedoms rather than obligations of the individuals towards other individuals and society as a whole.

Although the philosophy of religion stands in opposition of the liberal one, it does not mean that the liberal values are in complete opposition of the religious. Moreover, sometimes they mimic religious precepts: prohibition to kill that we can find in Ten Commandments was simply replicated by the secular legislators. Nonetheless, the difference in the paradigm of liberal values and religious precepts is obvious: liberal values have secured a space of freedom for the individual, which became the principle of the politics, whereas religious precepts mostly imposed obligations. If the moral obligations have not disappeared and secular legislator is there to implement them they are no longer based on religious precepts: as we pointed out previously (§ 1) democratic concept of power excluded any legitimation of the power over the nation with the concept of God and could therefore seek moral values outside the religious precepts. We can again appeal to the Article 4 of the French Declaration to find an example of secular moral obligations that limit individual’s freedom: “… borders… of Liberty are those …which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights.”

The consequences of two majors shifts in this era – emphasis on the freedom of the individual and secularization of the political power (§ 1) – created conditions necessary for gradual integration of the new bourgeois ethics as a principle of life of every individual. If it is true that originally only a slight minority of the population, namely bourgeoisie, lived in constant sin. This could be one of the explanations for the slowness of integration of this new ethics into the mentality of the masses, and therefore explain the slowdown in the secularization process. Nevertheless, with the modern bourgeois revolutions, and especially with the nascence of the democratic government, this bourgeoisie received an instrument, which permitted imposing this ethics to all members of the society. Indeed, the fact that the new capitalist ethics were common only among the concerned, namely businessmen, the bourgeois revolutions (French Revolution and British Glorious Revolution) allowed imposing this ethics upon the entire nation via democratic legislation that was no longer enacted by the monarchs, but by the nation and mainly – at this point in the modern development – by assemblies constituted by dominant economic class of the society. At this stage of the development of democratic institutions the right to vote was indeed limited to the wealthy fringes of the population (régime électoral censitaire, Klassenwahlrecht), which explains that the legislation at this era was directed mostly at implementation of their ethics and protection of their interests (property protection laws for example). Due to the new instrument (democratically elected assemblies) the bourgeoisie could impose the alternate ethics upon the life of all citizens and not only that of bourgeoisie. A noteworthy remark of K. Marx, who – without emphasizing the attention on the role of the democratic institutions in this process – perfectly revealed that this ethics was spread onto the whole nation (every citizen): “…bourgeois economy … promulgate the doctrine that accumulation of capital is the first duty of every citizen…” [14]


During absolutism the Church have been gradually stripped of political power and social influence. As we have pointed out (§ 1) this process began with the Reformation, which resulted in blood, and as a consequence the necessity of the lay authorities (monarchs) to put an end to the situation where religion dictates the policies inside the nations as well between them. In other words, the religious wars made it clear that religion and the Church could not play any important role in political life, and political secularization was the answer. As a result, the role of the Church in political life has diminished, the notion of state religion has been abandoned, and the freedom of religion and belief was established. This was the beginning of political secularization, which – if we recall – have not contributed directly to the secularization of people’s minds, and resumed mostly in diminishing role of the Church and religion on the political but not on individual level. But this was the basis of the secularization on the individual level.

Social control and influence of the Church were diminished as socioeconomic role of the state grew, which can be seen on the example of education. In most of the Western countries the secularization of education was initiated in the second half of the XIX century and continued throughout the XX century. The process of educational secularization was gradual, and in some Western countries it is still an ongoing process. But the most important steps in secularization of education were accomplished at the beginning of this process by what we can call an institutional secularization of education – foundation of schools and their running by the government or municipal authorities, and what we can call as ideological secularization of education – education strictly in government ran schools became secular (teaching of catechism was progressively abandoned by secular schools). This example of replacement of the Church’s functions by the laic government institutions, as well as multiplication of state’s socioeconomic functions, has naturally created a distance between the religious institutions (as well as religion) and the population. The religious message conveyed by the church was eclipsed by the secular message of the lay authorities, which was less likely to integrate religious elements, and concentrated on resolving practical issues of the everyday life. Religious institutions have been naturally limited in influence upon people’s world outlook.

It is worth pointing out that secular education plays a crucial role in the secularization of people’s minds. Indeed, education has significant influence upon the formation of people’s worldviews, since it is being imparted onto those most susceptible to the influence and least prepared to be critical in regard to the offered truths about the basic questions of nature. The crucial role of early education (such as preschool and grade school) does not have to be proven, since it is directed towards individuals who have yet to form a worldview. Indeed, public education is considered to be a replacement of the educative role of the family, which was originally burdened with the obligation to educate one’s own children and considered as “the most important agency in passing on knowledge, skills, and moral values from one generation to the next” [16]. In other words, preschool and primary education are not only the instrument of imparting knowledge, but also an instrument of replacement of the most influential element of transmission of moral values – family. We can even say that it is an instrument of indoctrination of child with a certain world outlook.

It is evident that the progressive secularization of education replaced religious instructions, which tend to offer revealed truths about nature, by scientifically proven understanding of nature, and to form a new individual world outlook. Secularization of education coupled with its compulsory nature has created a conflict between religious people – forced to attend compulsory secular schools – and secular education indoctrinating understanding of nature contradictory to the revealed truths.

The conflict between compulsory lay education and religion has many appearances in contemporary Western countries. One of them is the 1972 decision of the US Supreme Court Wisconsin v. Yoder, where it was ruled that the state compulsory education law is unconstitutional for Amish defendants, whose children had completed 8 years of school, because the law infringed upon their right to free exercise of religion. Same is true for the rejection of Darwinism by the religious people supporting creationist ideas, which is indoctrinated upon almost any attendant of the secular schools.

The real impact of secular education upon individuals’ spiritual secularization was accomplished not only through the simple effect of secularization of education, but is also by the compulsory nature (universalization) of secular education. To produce such effect, the laic education has to become universal in order to disperse secular, scientifically proven truths over the masses. This process was not homogenous in different Western countries and has undergone several stages of integration of the population into the education system: the population of towns and municipalities were first to integrate into the public secular schools, whereas in rural areas the universalization of education experienced some lag; in some of the countries integration of girls into the education system took place much later; other discriminations on the basis of wealth also hampered the process of universalization of secular education by hindering admission of children of poor families who could not pay tuition.

The universalization of secular education has taken place in the Western countries in the second half of the XIX century. It was accomplished under the humanistic intention to provide equality between different strata of population (social justice), which was resumed in most of the Western countries at the brink of the XIX and XX centuries in legislative enshrinement of citizens’ right to primary education. The universal education was indeed proclaimed by the founder of the universal French education system (Jules Ferry) as one of the fundamental human values (namely the right to equal treatment), and is considered the “equality right” to education (“Egalitéd’ éducation”). Equality of education conceived by the end of the XIX century as a civil right to have equal access to the public services (including the education system) allowed for a progressive integration of all strata of the population into the education system, which in the end allowed the indoctrination of an alternative (rational) worldview onto large strata of the population (or even the entire nation). In other words, if secularization of the individuals’ minds was accomplished via indoctrination into the alternate worldview, it was achieved through the human rights (right to education) or one of the liberal values (equality).

We can conclude on this point that two major changes in the education systems of the Western countries sparked the secularization on individual level: secularization of the education and extension of the secular education to all fringes of the population (universal (or compulsory) primary education). If the first allowed replacing the indoctrination of the revealed religious truths (catechism) by scientifically proven ones, impose rational and critical way of thinking and to eliminate any influence of the Church and religion upon the child’s unprepared, virgin – and therefore susceptible to indoctrination – worldview, the second one struck the coup de grace on the faith. In other words, it was not only the lay character of the education that is responsible for the spread of secularization, but also its universal (mandatory) character. Vice versa, it is not a mandatory education by itself that had the secularizing effect upon the individual. Indeed, mandatory education can be observed in several Western countries since early modern times (Scottish School Establishment Act of 1616). But until the late XIX century the education in those schools was almost completely religious and supervised by the Church. In other words, the universality of the education is not by factor of secularization in itself. It is indeed due to the concomitance of two factors – universality of education, and its secularized character, bothof which have contributed to the massive secularization of minds.Moreover, in practice the education became really mandatory only when all fringes of the population where obliged to attend public schools, meaning only in the XIX century, when education became a right of every citizen.

In the end, the point advanced here is that it is not the science development by itself and the Enlightenment authors’ ideas by themselves that contributed to the secularization of minds as some usually think[9], but the distribution of these ideas onto the masses that was accomplished thanks to the citizens’ fundamental right to education (or liberal value of equality of rights). This process was achieved in the Western countries with the foundation of lay universal (compulsory) primary education system only on the verge of the XIX-XX centuries, when lay education permitted imposingthe new worldview, alternate to the revealed truth onto the masses. This could explain why the most important wave of secularization has taken place in the Western countries only in XX century.

We should not though undermine the significance of the role played by the advancement of science in this process. It soon appeared that science is a major threat to the religion, which (unlike Capitalism) could be easily counteracted. Church’s Indexes Librorum Prohibitorum (lists of forbidden books) – an instrument of censorship directed mostly against the Scientifics’ “heresies” (such as Kepler’s, Newton’s, Kant’s and others) are to prove this affirmation. But theadvancement of science concerned only the tiny fringes of the population – the vast majority of the illiterate population had no access to knowledge. Even the Gutenberg invention has not changed this course of events since most of the books printed until XIX century were mostly religious books and literacy progressed very slowly. In other words, it isevident that it was not the development of sciences alonethat has caused the declineof faith.Such effect was rather produced by their spread onto masses.

Although today public education covers many different areas (economic, political, civic), originally public education was directed at “teaching common moral and political values…” and to create “…equality of opportunity”. The first of these goals was originally inherent only for the new world countries (such as US for example), where population was composed of immigrants, which have different moral values and where compulsory education was primarily used for social integration purposes. On the contrary, the second original goal of the compulsory education had a universal character and could serve as an explanation for the original goals of the public compulsory education of any nation. This original universal goal of public compulsory education is a humanistic value of social justice and equality of rights and opportunities for each citizen. Although the primordial objective of today’s education system is to prepare a workforce compatible with the needs of the global economy, the original goal of the compulsory education is reinforced even today by the sublimation of the compulsory education into the fundamental human right (Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). As a result, preoccupations of the humanistic nature (equality of rights and opportunities, human development and social justice) that brought up the idea of universal compulsory education contributed to the secularization process.


There is an observable difference between the nature ofreligion and liberal values. Whereas religion is by nature socio-centric –i.e. designed for the preservation of normal communal life without regard to individuals’ rights and liberties – liberal values are centered on the individual, protection of his/herrights and freedoms as opposed to any external intervention (of state, society, orother individuals).

This does not mean that this contradiction is absolute. Indeed, religion does not suppose an absolute restriction of individuals’ freedoms as well as liberal values don’t mean absolute liberty of the individual.Moreover, secular liberal ethics have even borrowed a lot of religious precepts necessary to correct functioning of communal life by secularizing them via democratically founded law.In its turn,religion was forced to adapt to the new secular ethics, which we can see in the example of some ethical positions of the modern reformed religions.

But still, these new secular ethicsare not centered on the society,as it is the case with religion; the individual became the measure of what is morally right or wrong, and not the society or common good. As the Article 4 of the French Declaration clearly put it, the limits of the liberty of the individual are not to be found in any abstract social good, but in rights and liberties of other members of society.

This difference between religious and secular ethics has created tensions between them. Examples of those tensions – or even conflicts, we could say – are many, and they are perceptible even today. Indeed, the positions of the Church and secular legislator on such ethical issues as same sex marriage, euthanasia, abortion and others are so opposite, that it is obvious that they proceed from different ethical approaches. The position of the first is based on the individuals’ liberty, whereas the second is based on religious socio-centric precepts.

The rootsof modern secular ethics are to be found in socioeconomic transformation (capitalism and consequently – wealth accumulation), which occurred on the brink of the modern era, as well as in sociopolitical consequences of the Reformation (freedom of thought and reduced role of religion and Church in political life). If, at first glance, only the latter factor could explain the secularizationvia liberal values (freedom of thought), purely socioeconomic transformations (capitalism), in the end,has also been manifested in liberal values.Thebourgeoisethics – as a result of the modern era revolutions – have been enshrinedin fundamental constitutional acts of the modern era, which govern all aspects of political, social as well as economic life. If it is true that liberal values – as the result of the bourgeois revolutions – were directed in the first place against absolute monarchs and not against religion (or the Church) per se, one has to keep in mindthat they are expressed and perceived as a prohibition against any intervention (of state, society, or other individuals…) in individuals’ freedom; i.e. religious precepts, alongside with decisions of government bodies or other individuals actions are not excluded from the list of prohibited as harmful to individual’s freedom.

Knowing that secular ethics on some level contradict the religious, we could assume thatsublimation of theliberal values as the main basis of the socioeconomic and political life could only spur up to secularization. Thus, although the contradiction between secular and religious ethics partly takes its roots from modern life socioeconomic conditions, and not in liberal values strictosensu, the new ethics could take over the old one once the new ethics became the principal guideline for the socioeconomic and political life; i.e. once it was embodied as the main principle of the socioeconomic and political life.This means that liberal values, or precisely theirascension to the status of guidelines for socioeconomic and political life, have strongly contributed to the secularization process. A special role (we can even say “the major” role) has been played in this process by one of the main liberal values – democratic organization of political power, which strongly contributed to the spread of the new ethics and as a consequence,played the role of the major instrument of secularization.

Inasmuch as liberal values are at the basis of the socioeconomic and political life of the modern times,it is not surprising that secularization hasbeen particularly advanced in this period of human history. This process was long and unidirectional (although with some inhibitions and even backsliding); secularization of the state, society and individuals was a gradual process.

Political secularization is at the basis of this process: first the confessional split, then the advent of democratic institutions allowed to completely cut all ties betweenpublic political life on one hand, and Church and religion on the other. Events such as Reformation and bourgeois revolutions – that resulted in the advent of fundamental liberal values (freedom of thought and democratically founded political power) – have played a major role in secularization of the political power,as well as secularization on the individual level. First of all, the freedom of thought opened the doors to the development of alternative ethics (both, religious and secular), since the confessional split consumed the idea of the imposed state religion. Secondly, it allowed to erase the religious factor form the political decision making process, liberating the law form the necessity to integrate religious precepts (or Church’s doctrines). Finally, it allowed the incarnation of the new ethics– via secular, democratically created,law – intoone that is imperative for the entire nation and every citizen.

We can also admit that freedom of thought played its major role in modern development of sciences as well,or at least created the conditions necessary for their development. But regardless of what role the freedom of thought played in development of sciences, another liberal value has played a role in the spread of scientifically proven truths onto the masses and as a consequence,played a role in secularization: equality with regards to education (universal right to education). Indeed, it is almost uncontested that scientific explanations are alternative to the religious (revealed) ones, and even opposed (Darwinism) to them. Therefore, it would be correct to assume that development of the sciences has contributed to the erosion of religious beliefs, values and even the observation of religious practices (secularization on individual level). Nonetheless – as we have pointed out – the access to scientific knowledge, which indoctrinated people’s minds with an alternative to the religious truths worldview, for a long time was reserved exclusively for the elites. It is only with the advent of secular general (universal) education system– or with the advent of the human right to education – that this alternative worldview could be indoctrinated onto the masses. This is another example of the contribution of the liberal values and human rights to the process of secularization.

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