Should the principle of separation of Church and State apply to atheist groups?


Auguste Comte, considered the father of Sociology and Positivism, proposed in his “Law of Three Stages” that societal development undergoes three stages: (1) Theological, where nature and the natural phenomena are sought and understood through mythical and supernatural explanations; (2) Metaphysical, where understanding of the origin of nature and the natural phenomena was through abstract and philosophical explanation; and (3) Positivism or Scientific,  where nature and the natural phenomena are explained and understood through scientific methods and means, and invalidated abstract or supernatural concepts as an explanation. For Comte, the third stage is the pinnacle of the development of human society.

This same understanding of human societal development as positivist and humanistic unites a group of people who call themselves variedly as humanists, atheists, agnostics, secularists, freethinkers, non-believers, naturalists, sceptics and non-theists. The more passionate of them are bonded through formal groups like American Atheists, British Humanist Association, International Humanist and Ethical Union and Secular Coalition for America, to name a few. They have created structures to manage, organize, fund and campaign for the propagation of secular-humanistic-atheistic values, ideas and ethics in society.

Many of them, like the British Humanist Association, have developed secular ceremonies for marriage, baptism and funeral as an alternative to churches. Others organize retreat-like camps like the Camp Quest where children are taught of humanist, secularist and freethought ideas.  Some have engaged in militant atheism, like Richard Dawkins who aggressively preach atheism and naturalism in the backdrop of the eventual eradication of religion. Evidently, signs that the theory postulated by Comte one hundred fifty years ago may seem to be dawning.

However, the changes and development in the dynamics on how the varied worldviews of irreligion are providing alternatives against the traditional turf of churches and religion is something that needs to be qualified. It is understood that the formal formation of various movements of irreligion are still in its infancy. But nonetheless, the ideas, beliefs and convictions they are rooting for are clear. Hence, qualifying irreligion in the level of religion is possible, and necessary in the context of liberal, constitutional democracy.

We will qualify irreligion in the level of religion in two ways, first as a worldview and second as an active structured organization motivated and founded on a worldview or a set of worldviews. Then, we will look at how this is a cause for us to re-think and expand the separation of Church and State principle as a democratic ideal in the light of new developments in human society.

Firstly, Worldview has been defined by Leo Apostel and his associates at the Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Studies (CLEA) of Free University of Brussels as “a map that we use to orient and explain, from which we evaluate and act, and put forward prognoses and visions of the future. Hence: (i) orient; (ii) explain; (iii) evaluate; (iv) act and; (v) predict are the basic aspects of a worldview”.  (Apostel, et al. World Views, from fragmentation to integration, 1994) He further elaborated the qualifying of worldviews through seven standards:

  1. A model of the world (What is the nature of the world? How is it structured?)
  2. An explanation model (Why is the world the way it is and not different? Why are we the way we are and not different?)
  3. An evaluation model (Why do we feel in our world the way we feel?)
  4. An action model (How can we and do we have to act and create in this world? How can we influence and transform?)
  5. A rational futurology (What kind of future is ahead of us? And what are the criteria that allow us to choose for the future?)
  6. A model of model construction (How do we have to construct a model of the world such that we can answer the above questions?)
  7. Fragments of worldviews as starting points (What are the partial answers that can be given to the above questions?)

So, in taking this approach, we can surmise that a worldview is a distinct body of knowledge and ideas that take its own approach in answering important human questions and understanding, whether philosophical, scientific, social, political or religious. This separates a mere idea or concept to a worldview. It is in this regard that humanistic-atheistic irreligion is a worldview, as much as various religions are also worldviews. Religion and irreligion are worldviews trying to answer the same questions of life and nature. They are competing to provide answers and truths. Hence, religion and irreligion are worldviews in equal footing.

The second qualification proposed in this essay is that irreligion like religion is active structured organization motivated and founded on a worldview or a set of worldviews. The church is the expressed system and organization of religion. It is the structure of religion that maintains, enriches, promotes and defends its worldview. Similarly, Humanistic-Atheistic-Secularist worldviews are now enriched, propagated and defended through emerging formal structures, which we can call as worldview-structures like the British Humanist Association and American Atheist. One saliency is the fact that worldview-structure is active, that it engages the society to propagate its own worldview. This is an important difference to a passive worldview, which is stuck in the theoretical realm, like, for instance, anarchy.

Moreover, the worldview-structures, including various organized religions, compete in the public arena to push for their own worldview regarding, for instance, the origin of nature. A Hindu, for example, will have a distinct worldview vis-a-vis an Atheist or a Scientologist or even a Communist. Hence, the actual confrontations of different worldviews happen in society through the worldview-structures. Some lobby the government, some do public demonstrations, some are involved in public discourses, while others, in the case of formal churches, propagate their views through their normal church services.

Thus, in light of the progress and development in human social stratification and grouping as motivated by their worldviews, we see a case where direct and indirect imposition of worldview in society and in state to be no longer an exclusive complaint against religion or church; instead it has progressed: irreligious groups are now imposing their worldview as the standard worldview as well. This new reality is what this essay scrutinizes.

The principle of the separation of Church and State in liberal democracy was practically founded on the idea that State will never espouse an established religion. Henceforth, legal frameworks were developed in various liberal democratic countries to uphold this idea. To cite a few, the “free exercise” and “non-establishment” clauses are enshrined in the First Amendment of American Constitution, while Article II, Sec 6 of the Philippine Constitution contain a direct expression of the separation of Church and State.

The motivation is to allow each individual to freely pursue his or her own belief without any prior restraint, fear or threat. It assumes also that the State should remain neutral, while the Church should keep itself mellowed down in relation to core state functions. This environment ideally provides healthy pluralism; no religion is given the privilege in the society.

However, this essay put into question the potency of the principle of the separation of Church and State not just as a political theory, but as a legal doctrine that has clear implications in society, in light of the analysis of the emergence of worldview-structures. In the legal framework of the separation principle, where do you place irreligious organizations, which, like the Church, forward a worldview to the society?

In American Jurisprudence, we find very few cases and citations about irreligion. In Torasco v. Watkins, Justice Hugo Black hinted that Secular Humanism could be considered a religion in the likes of Buddhism and Ethical Culture. However, Peloza v. Capistrano School District establishes that as far as the ‘establishment clause purposes’ in the First Amendment is concerned, Secular Humanism is not a “religion”. Still, in Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia and Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda, the court granted the Ethical and the Humanist organizations tax exemption because they function like a ‘church’.

Clearly, there is a seeming confusion regarding the status of irreligious organizations that promote worldview-structures. Although Justice Black in Torasco v. Watkins rightly identified non-theistic belief systems as akin to religious belief systems, no law qualifies or defines irreligion and non-theism. This lack of qualification represents how liberal democracies have failed to anticipate the rise of these alternative worldview-structures.

Hence, the task at hand is overwhelming. The development worldview-structures has made it a necessity to re-think, and possibly expand, the current principle of separation of Church and State with the view of properly qualify the non-religious and irreligious worldview-structures. The political and legal implications are great. If this is not addressed, certain worldview-structures, like the atheistic-humanistic groups would have immense privileges in forwarding their worldviews to the state, at the expense of religions and churches, which in the current set up are effectively checked. This is fatalistic to the progress of liberal democracy. In the name of preservation of democratic ideals and of freedoms, we should start to re-think now.

Readers may indicate their wish to contribute posts in the blog’s comment section.


4 thoughts on “Should the principle of separation of Church and State apply to atheist groups?”

  1. You seem to be writing from a USA perspective, but in Europe there is no doubt at all among the humanist / secularist community that the principle of separation (or in its weaker form neutrality) applies equally to all ‘religions or beliefs’ – a phrase which in European jurisprudence embraces not only atheism and non-religious lifestances such as Humanism but even indifference (see Kokkinakis v Greece: (1994) 17 EHRR 397, para 31). We want no privilege for ourselves any more than for churches or other religious institutions, and the European Humanist Federation fought a long but unsuccessful battle against such privileges for itself as well as religion in the European Union – what became Article 17 TFEU under the Lisbon Treaty – see

    The principle is not ultimately about religion but about the impossibility even in theory of a court or government deciding rationally between contending views, and about respecting individual freedoms in a multi-belief community.

    However, I must warn you – perhaps unnecessarily but I have in mind your references to the British Humanist Association’s ceremonies – against equating Humanism in other than legal terms with religions. Humanist organisations – unlike the positivists of Conte’s brief flowering – do not have liturgies or rituals. Our ceremonies are created individually for our clients to mark key events such as marriages or deaths. Plainly they call on a store of suitable thoughts, music, quotations and so on, but there is no question of orthodoxy or conformity.

    This is because Humanism is not a doctrine or ready-made belief system. Rather, ‘humanist’ is a label that may be applied post facto to a person or set of ideas that share sufficiently in a given range of beliefs and attitudes, any or all of which may be disputed by some of those who call themselves humanists – ideas such as naturalism, the intrinsic moral capacity of humans, a commitment (in its place) to reason, and so on. Humanism may not answer some of the standards you suggest for ‘world views’ – for some purposes, a long list may be useful but a simpler test would be needed in other (e.g., legal) contexts, such as this, which draws on phrases and concepts in European jurisprudence: “A collective belief that attains a sufficient level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and that relates the nature of life and the world to morality, values and/or the way its believers should live” (see

  2. Hi Mr. Pollock. Thank you for the EU and Humanist perspective. EU perspective is definitely worth of study.

    First of, I want to clarify that I didn’t equate irreligious groups to the church/religion in terms of having doctrines or clergies, because they are really not. The comparison was rather made as both religion and irreligion are “worldviews” and both have formal structures which I called “worldview-structures”. In that much broader view, they are equally pushing actively their stances in society or state. Hence, the need to re-think and expand the principle, in order to check and respond to this recent development.

    And I actually agree to what you said …

    “The principle is not ultimately about religion but about the impossibility even in theory of a court or government deciding rationally between contending views, and about respecting individual freedoms in a multi-belief community.”

    And to add to that, the principle is deterring not really the beliefs, ideas and worldviews ,but the “organized structures” like church from hijacking the state to impose its belief. However, in the current set up, the principle is only largely assuming that it is the church that has to be “separated”. It is impotent to address the emergence of irreligious groups,who now actively push for their worldview to the society and state.

    The various EU jurisprudence and laws are mainly to protect the the free exercise of the worldviews of the irreligious groups,but has no safeguards when they start to ‘impose” their worldview to the state.

    In many ways yes, some churches have special place in many EU states because of the socio-cultural and historical devt they had, but that shouldn’t be used as argument to excuse in broadening our application of the principle towards the irreligious groups. Evidently, as EU history continue to unfolds this special place of churches are disappearing, and with this, the irreligious groups should also be willing to be placed in the same path.

    Thank you.

  3. Well done and aptly timed article. “If this is not addressed, certain worldview-structures, like the atheistic-humanistic groups would have immense privileges in forwarding their worldviews to the state, at the expense of religions and churches, which in the current set up are effectively checked. This is fatalistic to the progress of liberal democracy.”–this statement needs a bigger audience.

    Of course this principle applies to atheist groups, as there can be no true neutrality if only one side is allowed to participate. As our society evolves and irreligions are more widely seen for what they are this principle will achieve the neutrality it intended from the beginning.

    I liken it all to CNN and FOX news. Both propogate a viewpoint. However, the absence of one without the other does not bring neutrality. It’s only when the conservative spin of FOX collides with the liberal bent of CNN that we obtain “fair and balanced” information. = )

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