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I oppose aggressive French secularism

I chanced upon a comment by Ashish Deodhar in which he questioned my opposition to secularism on grounds that it is based on the French Revolution concept of direct opposition to religion.

I wrote some years ago on Shantanu's blog that: "the idea of “secularism” (a French notion based on atheism) is nonsensical, and not a classical liberal idea. It is a non-denominational state that we want, an umpire which permits all religious expression so long as no one is harmed."

To which Ashish Deodhar responded: "And secularism certainly doesn’t equate with, or is based on, atheism as Mr. Sabhlok seems to believe! (in fact, that’s the most outrageous definition of all!)"

I don't read comments on Shantanu's blog – impossible to cope with; and so missed this. To clarify to Ashish, and educate him, I'm publishing this short blog post with relevant references.


The history of the separation of the state and church is very convoluted and difficult to fully unravel and properly attribute. Key among its antecedents is John Locke's Essay Concerning Tolerance (1689), a hundred years before the French Revolution.

In England, the concept of seclarism was – for long – never articulated as such. It was initially more about tolerance. "The term "secularism" was first used by the British writer George Jacob Holyoake in 1851" (Wiki). Holyoake was an atheist.

We keep making convenient interpretations of the word to suit us. But the strong form of secularism is the one practiced in the French Revolution.

During the French Revolution the Church was effectively ABOLISHED.

The programme of dechristianization waged against Catholicism, and eventually against all forms of Christianity, included:[1][2][3]

  • confiscation of church lands, which were to be the security for the new Assignat currency
  • removal of statues, plates and other iconography from places of worship
  • destruction of crosses, bells and other external signs of worship
  • the institution of revolutionary and civic cults, including the Cult of Reason and subsequently the Cult of the Supreme Being,
  • the enactment of a law on October 21, 1793 making all nonjuring priests and all persons who harboured them liable to death on sight.

The climax was reached with the celebration of the Goddess "Reason" in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November 1793.

In July 1790, the National Constituent Assembly published the Civil Constitution of the Clergy that stripped clerics of their special rights — the clergy were to be made employees of the state, elected by their parish or bishopric, and the number of bishoprics was to be reduced — and required all priests and bishops to swear an oath of fidelity to the new order or face dismissal, deportation or death.

In September 1792, the Legislative Assembly legalized divorce, contrary to Catholic doctrine. At the same time, the State took control of the birth, death, and marriage registers away from the Church. An ever increasing view that the Church was a counter-revolutionary force exacerbated the social and economic grievances and violence erupted in towns and cities across France.

Anti-church laws were passed by the Legislative Assembly and its successor, the National Convention, as well as by département councils throughout the country.Anti-clerical parades were held, and the Archbishop of Paris was forced to resign his duties and made to replace his mitre with the red "Cap of Liberty." Street and place names with any sort of religious connotation were changed, such as the town of St. Tropez which became Héraclée. Religious holidays were banned and replaced with holidays to celebrate the harvest and other non-religious symbols. Robespierre and his colleagues decided to supplant both Catholicism and the rival, atheistic Cult of Reason with the Cult of the Supreme Being.

This was basically the extreme form of secularism, in which the state CONTROLS the church.

This extreme form of secularism has origins in atheism, which was promoted for the first time in Western history (outside India – which has always had a LOT of atheistic traditions). See the video below:

Even today, the French tradition does not permit ANY religious intervention in "secular" matters.

For instance: "The law of separation meant strict official neutrality in religious affairs. The French state could not allow any proselytising in public buildings – least of all schools, where the citizens of tomorrow were being taught. The insistence on schools as religion-free zones goes to the heart of the French idea of citizenship."

Do read this BBC report for some enlightenment:

Basically, the concept of secularism (in the French form) is an AGRESSIVELY oppositional concept to the very idea of religion.

I do not agree with this idea in terms of the role a state must play. I believe the state must be non-denominational, and must PROTECT religious freedom, which includes the freedom to oppose other religions.

I believe in FREEDOM OF RELIGION which means people MUST be free to express their religious beliefs in any form or shape they wish SO LONG as they do not harm others.

I (personally) oppopose all religions which I see as political bodies. I believe I must have the freedom to oppose religion, even as the religious must have the freedom to oppose me – and to promote their own religion. (Through debate, of course).

Let us all be free to speak our mind. Let the truth win.

Let the state NOT interfere in any religious matter.

I don't want to be told ANYTHING about God by a bureaucrat. Keep these minions in check. Let them do our bidding, not tell us how to think.

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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12 thoughts on “I oppose aggressive French secularism
  1. Abhishek

    Indian borrowed concept of secularism must be replaced with these two tenets of सर्वधर्म संभव and वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम.

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    As far as the state is concerned, I think we should just stick with the phrase “non-denominational”. सर्वधर्म संभव may imply an active role of the state in religion.

    The principles you’ve suggested are good, but these are for us to decide. The state has no business telling us even these ideas. It must let us debate religious ideas on our own, as citizens. It must not comment on our views.


  3. Ashish Deodhar


    I must say I am surprised that you thought it important to address such a petty issue after over 2 years raised by such a petty person as myself! Wonder what led you to take so much of your precious time out of your obviously hectic schedule to write this blog post.

    But now that you oblige me to respond, I think you’ve wasted your time on barking up the wrong tree. I never intended to enter an academic debate over Atheism and French Revolution and Secularism. So to that end, this whole thesis you’ve put together is useless.

    You quote me selectively so here I offer my quote in entirety:

    “Secularism has unfortunately been misunderstood, often deliberately, in our country. You are right that none of our political parties are secular and never intend to be.

    Secularism doesn’t mean minority-appeasement as most of the left-wing parties seem to believe. Secularism doesn’t mean majority-bashing as most of the right-wing parties seem to believe. And secularism certainly doesn’t equate with, or is based on, atheism as Mr. Sabhlok seems to believe! (in fact, that’s the most outrageous definition of all!)

    Secularism also isn’t the same as ‘sarva dharma samabhav’ as most of the Indian population seems to believe.

    In its origins, secularism is simply a separation of church and state i.e. religion should not interfere with affairs of the state. But of course, that concept has evolved over the years – in scope, not in spirit.

    The British National Secular Society offers a very succinct definition of contemporary understanding of secularism. It goes thus – “Secularism, like democracy, involves treating people as individuals, not as members of a group.”

    So not only does it mean separation between religion and state, it also means no special treatment, favourable or otherwise, of religiously identifiable groups.

    Don’t discard it as a “western” concept with no relevance to India. If anything, it has more relevance to such a diverse country as India than to any other country – where we have numerous identifiable groups, not only on religious lines but also on caste, linguistic, and cultural lines.

    So of course, it means insistence on UCC but I go even further than that – no government concessions to religious institutions, no subsidies for pilgrimages, and no reservations for religiously identifiable groups.

    Having said that, the critics of the pseudo-secular parties in India are just as communal. They too have their vote banks and their interest too lies in power. Besides this communal politics hasn’t done anything positive to our country over all these years. That should give us a lot to think.”

    The discussion about how secularism came into being is quite redundant. Concepts evolve. Thinking evolves.

    The concept of secularism has evolved since the French revolution days. Read the modern day definition of secularism by The British National Secular Society that I offered above for your enlightenment!

    “The British National Secular Society offers a very succinct definition of contemporary understanding of secularism. It goes thus – “Secularism, like democracy, involves treating people as individuals, not as members of a group.”

    So not only does it mean separation between religion and state, it also means no special treatment, favourable or otherwise, of religiously identifiable groups.

    It has nothing to do with atheism, as you could see.

    There is no point in wasting our time in going a few centuries back in history and argue over something that’s clearly pointless. That’s quite like being ‘lakeer ke fakir’. Missing the woods for the trees!

    I hope that helps.


  4. Sanjeev Sabhlok


    You are using definitions of secularism that are direclty influenced by the French! Please note your assertion that UCC is needed in India.

    I totally oppose UCC. I don’t see ANY role for the state in matters of family law and other religious matters.

    What you are applying is your conception of secularism without pausing to think about the underlying liberties involved.

    Secularism in your definition gives bureaucrats a role in matters that are none of their business, and impinges on liberty. UCC is a violation of liberty, as I’ve shown clearly in BFN.

    The sepration of state and church is not the goal of life. The conception of liberty is. And that the state is our SERVANT. It can’t tell us how we manage our family or inheritance. It must OBEY our decisions in this regard.

    To that extent I oppose the use of the word secularism, which is an interventionist word and gives the state power to dabble in matters which are purely personal (and to some, religious).

    The other point: “no government concessions to religious institutions, no subsidies for pilgrimages, and no reservations for religiously identifiable groups” is correct. It is the natural implication of the government being our servant, and being NON-DENOMINATIONAL. That means it can’t use our money to fund other people’s religous beliefs. Let those who believe in such things do so on their own.

    The use of the word secularism is problematic. Even you have been tripped up (by demanding UCC). I suggest banning its use (given its super-interventionist origins), and using the phrase “non-denominational state” in its place.


  5. Raj

    You confuse a pogrom after the French Revolution with secularism. Big difference. Legalizing divorce may be against catholic doctrine. However how does it prevent a catholic from practicing their religion. If they don’t believe in divorce. Then don’t get one. Simple.

  6. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    The point I’m making is simple. There are two positions a state can take:

    a) Non-denominational. This is a NON-INTERVENTIONIST position which does not purport to have bureaucrats tell us how we should live our lives. We can do whatever we wish, and practice any faith, so long as we don’t harm others. The state, in such a model, DOES specify harm. It says that thou shall not do this (or that).  But thereafter doesn’t distinguish why you caused that harm (because of a religious belief or otherwise). This comes from the negative liberty concept.

    b) Secular. This state is INTERVENTIONIST and aggressive. It demands the right to tell people what is GOOD for them. It comes from the positive liberty concept, which is consistent and compatible with socialism (in the economic sphere). Such a state will directly dabble in marriage or other personal affairs and presume a right to “permit’ divorce, fiddle with inheritance laws, or such things.

    The Indian tradition is tolerant and consistent with (a). The original British tradition (Locke) is also consistent with (a).

    The French tradition is consistent with (b). The French tradition has HEAVILY influenced India’s constitution (Preamble). 

    I oppose the French interenveitionst tradition. This tradition bans hijab/other religious dress in schools. I TOTALLY oppose this kind of social engineering by the state.


  7. Raj

    I live in America. The state is not-interventionist in the least. You practice what u feel. However there is a common law which all people need to follow. Your religion ends where my freedom begins. And of course the state has to protect that line. The french follow a similar practice.

    The Indian tradition is far from tolerant and non-interventionist. Rather it is more tolerant of those who wish to abuse their religious privileges. Take for example the endless blaring of religious songs on loud speakers, the endless temples in the middle of the road, the endless exceptions for religion.

    India is one of the most stifling places when it comes to religious liberties and tolerances of others right to be free from your religion. The endless laws, endless regulations.

  8. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    I’m not a specialist in American law and in the end I don’t really care what Americans do since I disagree with a good number of their practices and laws.

    I’m merely referring to the two CONCEPTS about the role of state and religion. One is laissez faire. One is statist. The Indian “secular” concept as commonly understood (which also demands “UCC”) is extremely interventionist.

    I totally disagree with the role of a politician or bureaucrat in deciding what people can wear or not wear. That is an absurd reduction in liberties. France is a terrrible example in this field. We must reject it outright.

    Now for the other issue re: loudspeakers, etc. I fully agree that these are bad ideas, but they are bad BECAUSE we don’t follow the rule of law and are not strictly non-denominational. In such cases we’d have noise laws which can’t be violated on ANY pretext. But these laws would be determined objectively through a cost-benefit test, not applying ANY other consideration to the question. We are talking about HARM here. That’s where laws are needed.

    I’m not advocating a free for all. I’m advocating a set of laws in which the only focus is to protect our liberty subject to our not harming others. HARM must be prohibited. Nothing else. This idea is not interventionst. It is defensive. It is based on negative liberty.


  9. Raj

    Good to know that you disagree with a lot of American laws and practices. However you may be disappointed to find out that plenty of Indians have no problems with their laws and desire to move here.

    You are contradicting your self. In your prior post you stated” The Indian tradition is tolerant and consistent with (a).” – NON INTERVENTIONIST. Now you claim it to be “extremely interventionist”. Which is it.

    The state of secularism in India is a joke. Every temple has rules by the govt. The state plays a major role in religion and infact divides people by religion. And yet somehow it claims to be secular. Not true the least.

    What u don’t distinguish is that freedom of religion means the state has to enforce laws that support my freedom from your religion. There is far more freedom of religion in France and America than in India, a country in which for every thing there is a law to restrict rather than to empower

  10. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    The Indian tradition is NOT the Nehruvian distortion of the past 65 years. It is, instead, the tradition of tolerance that goes back at least 5000 years. I hope you are reading my other works, since you seem to think I’m promoting the RUBBISH that currently happens in India. I’m its staunchest critic. 


  11. Raj

    The tolerance that you speak of does not exist. And yet you compare it wih what actually exists in France and America. Thats like comparing reality with utopia. Not exactly an apt comparison.

  12. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    I invite you to read the chapter on tolerance in DOF ( to appreciate the STRONG form of tolerance that has been characteristic of the Indian tradition for 5000 years. To deny its existence would mean denying historical fact.

    Re: tolerance today, I’ve pointed out that it is diminishing. That makes it all the more important to remind Indians about their superior history of tolerance, unparalleled by any other nation on earth.


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