Mar 12

The French Revolution and the Impossibility of Religious Neutrality

David Pollock is President of the European Humanist Federation

In a speech praising the march of the secular state, European Humanist Federation president David Pollock pointed to the murderous French Revolution as a glowing example of secularism in action.

A report on the speech was published by the European Humanist Federation on the first of this month, in an article titled, ‘All states in Europe are moving towards secularism.’ The article cited their President saying that all the states of Europe are slowly making progress towards becoming truly ‘secular.’

Unlike many who brandish around the label ‘secular’ as a panacea of all ills, expecting the rest of us to grasp what they mean by such an ambiguous term, President Pollock has done us the courtesy of defining exactly what he means (oh, and he does think it’s a panacea of all ills).

In his speech (which can be read in its entirety here), Pollock said that a secular state is a state that is “neutral as between different religions and beliefs…not taking sides for or against religion or atheism, for or against one belief or another.”  Secularism as such “is the best guarantor we have of freedom of religion or belief.”

While we must appreciate the clear definition, there are two immediate problems that come to mind. The first is a problem of basic logic, the second is a problem of history.

The logical problem is that it is incoherent to speak of government being neutral towards religion and non-religion, or towards belief and non-belief. Frederick Mark Gedicks explained why this was in an article for the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, titled, ‘Religions, Fragmentations, and Doctrinal Limits.’ In the article Mr Gedicks explored the logical impossibility in the very concept of a government adopting a neutral posture towards religion and non-religion. While he was writing in the context of American government, his observations are equally pertinent to the question of secularism in Europe:

I mean, really, what sense can one possibly make of a rule that requires the government to remain neutral between a proposition and its negation? One may agree or disagree about what it could mean to be ‘neutral’ between various religions, but it is at least possible to have a sensible conversation about this. By contrast, there has always been something decidedly weird about the requirement that the government be neutral between religion and nonreligion, or belief and unbelief. Indeed, the requirement seems to constitute empirical proof that even the dumbest things can start to make sense if they’re repeated often enough.

Consider then what government neutrality might mean in the context of professional baseball. It is, of course, completely sensible to require that Congress be neutral between the Red Sox and the Yankees, or that the California Legislature  be neutral between the A’s, the  Angels, the Dodgers, the  Giants, and the Padres, or, indeed, that Congress and all of the state legislatures be neutral with respect to all thirty major league baseball teams. But what could it possibly mean for Congress and the states to be neutral as between baseball  and ‘not-baseball’?

For starters, I suppose, this would mean that baseball could not be treated any differently than not-baseball.  So, Congress could not grant an exemption from the antitrust laws to baseball unless not-baseball got one, too.  It would, therefore, be crucial to ascertain the referent of not-baseball.  Would it be the National Basketball Association? Well, it is clearly not-baseball. The American Ballet Theatre? Also not-baseball. Fly-fishing? Watching public television? Cutting my lawn? All not-baseball. The Southern Cal defensive team against Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl? Still not-baseball (and also not-defense).

Logically, ‘not-baseball’ encompasses everything except ‘baseball.’ Accordingly, neutrality between baseball and not-baseball requires that every activity in the United States be exempted, like baseball, from the anti-trust laws and more generally, that every activity in the United States be treated the same as baseball. Not only is this nonsensical from a policy standpoint, it is nonsensical from any standpoint.

Get the picture? If we are really serious about government being ‘neutral’ with respect to religion and non-religion, then our laws would have to interact with the entire portion of reality that comes under the “not religion” category (from the colour of my shoes down to the screw that popped out of my computer earlier today) in the exact same way that government acts towards religion, even as neutrality with respect to baseball would require that the state interacts with the Dodgers in the exact same way that it interacts with the Yankees (American teams, but I trust you get the picture). Even putting aside the problem that to decide what goes in the non-religion category is first to presuppose certain tacit religious presuppositions, we might ask whether our secularist policy-makers have really given adequate thought to what a consistent application of such neutrality would look like in practice. I think it’s safe to say that they haven’t.

But there is another problem with Pollock’s position, and it revolves around his claim that by (supposedly) not taking sides for or against religion or atheism, one belief or another, a secular state is the best guarantor we have of individual liberty and religious freedom. Putting aside the problem that belief in the fact that the state should not take sides about beliefs is itself a belief and therefore fails to conform to its own criteria (a point that Greg Koukl helpfully reminds us about in his work on The Myth of Moral Neutrality), Pollock’s assertion fails on a purely historical level.

Though there are exceptions we could point to, broadly speaking it has been those nations which vigorously affirmed their Christian heritage that have most successfully safe-guarded personal liberties, including the freedom of other religions to practice their faiths. This is a point that even David Cameron was bound to acknowledge in the remarks he made in a speech on the King James’ Bible:

The alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option. You can’t fight something with nothing. Because if we don’t stand for something, we can’t stand against anything…. The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country…. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every faith and none. And I believe we should all stand up and defend them. Those who oppose this usually make the case for secular neutrality. They argue that by saying we are a Christian country and standing up for Christian values we are somehow doing down other faiths. And that the only way not to offend people is not to pass judgement on their behaviour. I think these arguments are profoundly wrong…. those who say being a Christian country is doing down other faiths simply don’t understand that it is easier for people to believe and practise other faiths when Britain has confidence in its Christian identity. Many people tell me it is much easier to be Jewish or Muslim here in Britain than it is in a secular country like France. Why? Because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too.

The key point here is that “it is easier for people to believe and practise other faiths when Britain has confidence in its Christian identity.” This point was developed in scholarly depth by historian John Coffey for his 2003 Jubilee Centre report ‘The myth of secular tolerance.

Coffey showed convincingly that modern notions like tolerance and liberty are not modern notions at all, but arise directly out of the Christian roots of our society. By contrast, he shows that those nations which have attempted to be completely secular (for example, revolutionary France) have usually come down as the enemies of freedom. Coffey concluded his excellent article with the following remark:

The myth of secular tolerance is seriously flawed. There is no good reason to suppose that secular people are immune from the temptation to suppress or silence ‘the other’. Indeed, in practice secularists have often been highly intolerant. Moreover, although the church has sometimes turned aside from the way of Christ by resorting to persecution, the Christian Gospel was one of the principal sources of the rise of religious toleration. The myth of secular tolerance offers a convenient excuse for ignoring the truth claims of Jesus, and it provides a useful propaganda tool for those who wish to discredit the church and marginalise the Christian voice in contemporary debate.


This important historical point is being completely overlooked by David Pollock and his fellow secularists at the European Humanist Federation. One of the most revealing aspects of Mr Pollock’s speech was actually his appeal to history. Consider the following statement from near the beginning of his talk:

From the time of the Westphalian settlement, when states stopped trying to impose their religion on other states in the wars of religion and decided instead that cuius regio, eius religio, governments have taken sides on what religion their citizens should follow and have only slowly come to concede individual liberty.

I don’t dispute Mr Pollock’s claim that government should not take sides on what religion their citizens should follow. Nor do I know any Christian thinker who seriously believes that the government should coerce people to follow the Christian faith. However, the subtext to Pollock’s argument is interesting because it reinforces the standard redemption narrative of the modern state. It is a redemption narrative which goes something like this: throughout the history of the world, the alliance of religion and politics has been the cause of numerous wars and acts of violence. Following the close of the 30 Years War in the 17th century and then the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the Modern West has been struggling to build a foundation of peace based on the separation of religion and politics. This struggle has culminated in the salvation wrought by the modern state.

We find this myth all over the place. Charles Kimball’s reflected it in his book When Religion Becomes Evil when he wrote, “It is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.”

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee echoed this myth when she wrote in the Guardian that “The horrible history of Christianity shows that whenever religion grabs temporal power it turns lethal. Those who believe theirs is the only way, truth and light will kill to create their heavens on earth if they get the chance.”

The reality is that this common idea that religion causes violence (an idea on which the redemptive motifs of the modern state presuppose) hinges on a basic category confusion. In an article for the ‘Harvard Divinity School titled ‘Does Religion Cause Violence?‘, William Cavanaugh showed convincingly that in order for the notion that religion is a chief cause of violence to carry any weight, we would first need to coherently distinguish religion from other possible causes of violence. But can we even do this without serious anachronism? “The problem” Cavanaugh writes, “is that religion was not considered something separable from such political institutions until the modern era, and then primarily in the West. What sense could be made of separating out Egyptian or Roman “religion” from the Egyptian or Roman “state”? Is Aztec “politics” to blame for their bloody human sacrifices, or is Aztec “religion” to blame?” Cavanaugh continues, drawing on the work of Canadian scholar of comparative religions, Wilfred Cantwell Smith:

As Wilfred Cantwell Smith showed in his landmark 1962 book, The Meaning and End of Religion, “religion” as a discrete category of human activity separable from “culture,” “politics,” and other areas of life is an invention of the modern West. In the course of a detailed historical study of the concept “religion,” Smith was compelled to conclude that in premodern Europe there was no significant concept equivalent to what we think of as “religion,” and furthermore there is no “closely equivalent concept in any culture that has not been influenced by the modern West.”


If it is true that our contemporary notion of ‘religion’ is a comparatively recent phenomenon, then we should be cautious about imposing it retroactively onto the past when claiming that throughout history ‘religion’ functioned as a chief cause of violence.

But let’s continue unpacking Mr. Pollock’s speech:

That slow progress, marked by significant events such as the English civil war, the American declaration of independence and the French revolution, led by stages, via finally the collective determination to allow no repeat of Nazism, to the European Convention on Human Rights and religious freedom.

But no state has fully followed through the implications of individual freedom of religion or belief.

It is especially curious to see Pollock invoking the example of the French Revolution as being among the seminal developments leading up to the freedom that modern Europeans supposedly enjoy today. (One might also want to quibble with his inclusion of the English civil war, which resulted in a theocracy of radical Puritans that hardly led to more religious freedom for the people of Britain but less. Heck, they couldn’t even cook plumb puddings on Christmas day without getting into trouble with the police!) Let’s do a reality check about the French revolution. This was a time when there was a deliberate de-Christianization policy that included

  • The implementation of a new calendar to replace the Christian one. The calendar, which was adopted in 1793 and used for the next 12 years, employed a ten day week (in a 10 day week, no one could ever know which day was Sunday) and had 1792 (the year Louis XVI was taken into custody) as year 1. This was known as ‘the year of liberty.’
  • The dispossession, deportation and brutal martyrdom of thousands of clergy
  • Christians being denied freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of thought if it contravened the secular humanist ideology of the revolution.
  • The criminalization of all religious education
  • The elimination of all Christian symbols from the public sphere, including removing the word ‘saint’ from street names and destroying or defacing churches and religious monuments
  • The replacing of Christian holidays and symbols with civic and revolutionary cults like the ‘Cult of Reason’ and ‘Cult of the Supreme Being.’ A statue to the goddess Reason was even erected and worshiped in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November 1793.

This does not even include the more ubiquitous effects of the French Revolution. Indeed, as I point out in my forthcoming book Saints and Scoundrels, “The French Revolution left a legacy of civil war and international conflict in its wake that would last for the next twenty-five years,”

Given the legacy of totalitarianism, intolerance and thought control associated with the French Revolution, we might well ask why the president of the European Humanist Federation is appealing to revolutionary France as being seminal to the European Convention on Human Rights and religious freedom. At first I thought maybe he meant that the “slow progress” he is after occurred as a result of Europeans trying to avoid the errors of the French Revolution. Alas, no, that is not what he means. Just to be clear, let’s carefully review his words:

That slow progress, marked by significant events such as the English civil war, the American declaration of independence and the French revolution, led by stages, via finally the collective determination to allow no repeat of Nazism, to the European Convention on Human Rights and religious freedom.

But no state has fully followed through the implications of individual freedom of religion or belief.

Maybe Mr Pollock’s appeal to the French revolution wasn’t a mistake. Maybe that’s precisely the point. Perhaps Pollock would like to see some measure of de-Christianization policies occurring within contemporary Europe. Reading a bit further in his speech it seems that this is exactly what he wants. For example, he pointed out that a particular threat to European secularism was the fact that the Roman Catholic church enjoys a 88% hold in Croatia or the Eastern Orthodox church to which 76% of Bulgarians belong. The thrust of his argument was breathtakingly simple: secularism is good, but if churches are too strong then this represents a threat to secularism; therefore, it is bad for churches to be too strong.


Despite setbacks such as European churches being too strong, Pollock takes heart from the fact that Europe is becoming more secular. But what does this secularity look like in practice? Here’s a few examples for starters, taken from an article we ran in the Christian Voice newsletter back in December of last year:

  • Bishop of Chester: questioned over his views on homosexuality by Cheshire police in November 2003 after he said that psychiatrists could help homosexuals to re-orientate themselves. The Crown Prosecution Service eventually dropped the case saying the Bishop had committed no crime.
  • Lynette Burrows: author who was interviewed by the police in December 2005 after she expressed disapproval of homosexual adoption on a talk show. The policewoman who talked to Mrs Burrows said that a ‘homophobic incident’ had been reported against her and that it would be kept on record by the police.
  • Joe and Heather Roberts: a couple who were interrogated by Lancashire police in December 2005 after complaining to their local council in Fleetwood (Wyre Borough Council) about council tax money being spent on promoting gay rights. Both the Police and the council at the time refused to admit they were wrong. After the threat of legal action, the Council and the Police apologised to the Roberts and settled out of court.
  • John Mitchell: Scottish fireman who refused to march at a gay pride (Pride Scotia) event along with several other firemen in 2006. He won a legal battle with his employer, the Strathclyde Fire And Rescue Service, for unfair punishment. The case against him and the other fireman involved was overturned at an industrial tribunal. The fire service admitted not taking into account his religious beliefs. Mr Mitchell received damages and an apology from the fire service.
  • Stephen Green: Arrested and detained in police station for handing out evangelistic tracts at a gay pride festival in Cardiff. Police said the arrest, which occurred in September 2006, was because the tracts Mr Green was distributing contained Bible verses about homosexuality.
  • Samantha Devine: Catholic schoolgirl banned from wearing a crucifix to school on health and safety grounds. On 12 January 2007 she vowed to defy the cross ban that had been issued by the Robert Napier School in Gillingham, Kent, even if it meant that she would be expelled from school. Students from other religions were allowed to wear symbols of their faith.
  • Gary McFarlane: Christian counsellor sacked from his job with Relate in 2008 because he confided that he would not be comfortable counselling homosexual couples about sexual problems. Relate conceded that they were wrong to sack Mr McFarlane without giving him notice, but he still didn‘t get his job back and the Tribunal ruling did not go in his favour.
  • Iris Robinson: Wife of Irish First Minister Peter Robinson investigated by the Serious Crimes Branch of the PSNI (Northern Ireland Police Force) for speaking out against homosexuality in June 2008.
  • Caroline Petrie: Nurse from Weston Super Mare suspended in December 2008 after offering to pray for the person she was caring for. The suspension was removed after a storm of protest.
  • Pilgrim Homes: had £13,000 of funding removed by Brighton Council in December 2008 because the home refused to ask its elderly Christian residents every three months if they were homosexual. Funding was only restored when Pilgrim Homes promised to ask the residents about their sexual orientation on admission.
  • The Earl of Devon (Hugh Courtenay): Had his licence to hold wedding ceremonies at Powderham Castle near Exeter revoked by Devon County Council in January 2009. The justification for removing his licence was that the Earl’s Christian beliefs prevented him from allowing civil partnership ceremonies to be held on his property.
  • Julia Robinson: Head of Meersbrook Bank Community Primary School in Sheffield was accused of being a racist by some of the parents of the school, because she objected to Muslim-only assemblies. As a result she was forced to resign from her job at the school in February 2009
  • Jasmine and Jennie Cain: Jasmine, 5, was reprimanded in February 2009 for explaining to a classmate that Jesus saves people from hell. Her mother, Jennie, was then suspended from her job at the school and threatened with the sack after the school discovered she had emailed a prayer request about the matter to friends.
  • Lilian Ladele: Christian Registrar who faced the sack because she asked if she could be exempt from registering civil partnership. Even though she won the case against Islington Council, the Employment Appeal Tribunal overturned the case and ruled against her.
  • Unnamed Foster Mother: struck off the foster care register when a 16-year-old Muslim girl she was caring for converted of her own free will to Christianity. This foster mother had successfully fostered 80 children during her career.
  • Adrian Smith: housing manager who was demoted for not backing same-sex marriage. Smith, a practising Christian, has had his pay slashed in 2011 because he said on his private Facebook page that allowing gay weddings in churches was ‘an equality too far’.
  • British Catholic adoption agencies: closed down by the ‘sexual orientation regulations’ for refusing to place children with homosexual couples.
  • Peter and Hazelmary Bull: hoteliars who were sued using Government money after refusing to offer a double bed to a homosexual couple in 2011.

So much for the liberating influence of secularism!

If David Pollock wishes to stand by his words, let him do so in public, as I now officially challenge him to a written debate to be published on our respective websites. The debate will address the following proposition: Nations flourish better when they are governed secularism rather than religion. Pollock can defend the affirmative and I will argue for the negative.


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1 comment

5 pings

  1. lovemydesignergenes

    ,,,and we did not hear from the aristocrats, their wives, their kids…who were beheaded in the so called “Enlightenment”.

    How do people still call that period “The Enlightenment
    …..when there were mass murders of a group of people…most…simply murdered because they happened to be members of that group…!

    The Guillotine is the Ultimate “No Tolerance” policy…which “cuts” only one way.

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