While religion is the belief in a spiritual higher power (usually God) and atheism is a belief that such powers do not exist, secularism is a lack of belief one way or the other. Secular people neither practice nor discourage religion—rather, they simply do not consider it. A secular country, then, would be one in which the majority of people have neither a belief nor a disbelief in religion. Similarly, a secular country or state is one that is officially neutral with regard to religion. Secular countries neither support nor discourage religion or irreligion, neither discriminate against nor favor individuals or groups based upon their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), and decline to specify an official national faith. The governments of secular states do not interfere with religion or religious activities, and faith plays no role in law and policy-making decisions. As of early 2022, there were 96 secular countries around the world—although some are admittedly less secular than others.
Although the term "secular" technically indicates neutral non-religion, it is often also equated with anti-religious movements such as anticlericalism, atheism, naturalism, and the banishment of religious symbols from the public sphere. This nebulous definition is likely influenced by the fact that there exist three different forms of secularism, which are outlined by philosopher Charles Taylor in his book The Secular Age. In the first form of secularism, the public may freely practice any religion but the government and its affiliates are forbidden from highlighting religion in any way. The second form is one in which a majority of the population itself declines to practice a religion. Finally, the third form of secularism is one in which all belief or non-belief systems are equally accepted and no single worldview is favored over the others.
These different forms of secularism have led to a varied range of valid definitions regarding what constitutes a secular country. The most commonly used definition of a secular country is one in which the majority of people are either atheist or unconcerned with religion. However, the original definition—a country in which most people eschew religion, which was given above—also applies. A country whose government is devoted to secularism even if its people favor one religion over another can be considered a secular country. So can a country in which both the government and the people accept all forms of belief and non-belief equally.
State secularism is a term that describes a country whose policies and actions are based upon a separation of church and state. Secular countries remove ties between government and a state religion, replace laws that are based on scripture rather than the collective good, and eliminate religious discrimination or favoritism. Secular states can utilize any form of government, from democracies to absolute monarchies. Modern democracies are generally considered to be at least fundamentally secular due to their focus upon freedom of religion and the fact that religious leaders lack the authority to make political decisions. Conversely, many Muslim countries are decidedly non-secular and base their legal systems on Islamic law, derived from the Quran and the Islamic prophet Muhammad's teachings.
It is believed that most societies become increasingly secular as a result of economic growth, social development, and advancments in areas such as jobs and education rather than through a dedicated movement for secularism. However, becoming a truly secular state can be a challenging task. For example, many countries officially declare themselves secular, but also uphold faith-based legislation or include references to religion in their national anthems, flags, or other official materials.
France, Mexico, South Korea, and Turkey are all considered "constitutionally secular," although their implementation of secularism varies. For example, India's interpretation of secularism allows state involvement in religions, while France's definition of secularism (termed laïcité) does not. France has a long history of secularization, which is rooted in the French Revolution. While secularism is a core concept in Article 1 of the French Constitution, stating that France is a secular state, this declaration did not prevent the state from involving the church in government. Since 1905, however, several policies have been implemented to further establish and enshrine secularism.
The United States is a secular country in theory, but it falls short in actual practice. The U.S. is a self-described secular state and is often considered to be constitutionally secular. The U.S. Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Additionally, keeping with the lack of an established state religion, Article Six of the U.S. Constitution states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
On the other hand, many official U.S. materials still include clear references to religion. The Pledge of Allegiance includes the line "one nation under God," which is undeniably non-secular. Also, the phrase "In God We Trust" appears on all United States currency (both coins and paper bills) and became the official United States motto in 1956. While religious references such as these are common in many countries, their presence inspires understandable debate about the separation of church and state, as well as whether the U.S. is truly devoted to secularism.
|Norway||62%||10.1%||Mostly||Church largely detached from government in 2017, though king must still be a member|
|Israel||58%||65%||3.1%||No||Secularism difficult to ascertain, as many religious symbols and habits (kosher food, menorahs, star of David) are also cultural symbols here.|
|Canada||57%||53%||23.7%||Mostly||Constitution still recognizes sovereignty of God|
|Ireland||56%||51%||6.2%||Mostly||Constitution has many references to God, but also establishes freedom of religion|
|Finland||55%||42%||17.6%||Mostly||Claims secularism, but certain churches collect church tax through government|
|United States||39%||39%||16.4%||Mostly||Many Christian references and symbols thoughout government, but religions freedom is maintained|
|Argentina||34%||20%||12.2%||Mostly||Constitution designates national church, but no preference is shown in everyday life.|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||22%||32%||2.5%||No|
|Bangladesh||19%||5%||0.1%||Mostly||Constitution endorses both secularism and Islam, but secularism is prominent in everyday life.|
|Brazil||17%||18%||7.9%||Yes||Religious symbols still common in state architecture|
|Armenia||6%||5%||1.3%||Mostly||Constitution designates national church|
|Papua New Guinea||5%||4%||0.1%||No|
|Switzerland||58%||11.9%||Mostly||Constitution references God, but also establishes freedom of religion|
|El Salvador||No||Constitution claims secularism, but also designates official church and gives it legal preference|
|Republic of the Congo||Yes|
|Central African Republic||Yes|
|Georgia||7%||0.7%||Mostly||Constitution declares freedom of religion, but also designates official church and includes reference to God|
|Kiribati||Mostly||Constitution references God, but also establishes freedom of religion|
|Nauru||No||Constitution references God, but also establishes freedom of religion|
China is currently considered to be the most secular country in the world with 90% of its citizens claiming they are non-religious.