Increasingly, limitations can be witnessed in the free expression of the Christian faith and its general acceptation in Western society. Examples hereof are the discussions about parental rights, the Lautsi case, the refusal to allow Dutch municipal employees to refrain from performing homosexual marriages, hate speech legislation and anti-discrimination laws.
The source of these limitations seems to be a radical form of secular humanism, based on the conviction that religion and faith should not have any influence on society. This conviction is often accompanied by intolerance towards Christians. There is also a great tension between fundamental rights. Some expressions of secular humanism in practice seem to restrict fundamental freedoms such as freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of contract and the right to conscious objection. This phenomenon is what we refer to as “secular intolerance.”
In spite of the fact religious freedom in the West is formally guaranteed, the rights of Christians are being undermined in a very subtle manner and fundamental rights are neglected.
The various forms of denial of Christians to participate in public life is the scope of a declaration of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, issued on July 10th 2011, in which it urges the governments of European countries to combat intolerance and discrimination against Christians, recommending that a “public debate on intolerance and discrimination against Christians be initiated and that the right of Christians to participate fully in public life be ensured.” Its declaration states that legislation in the participating States, including labor law, equality law, laws on freedom of expression and assembly, and laws related to religious communities and right of conscientious objection should be assessed. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly also encourages the media not to spread prejudices against Christians and to combat negative stereotyping. This declaration also comes as a reaction to increasing expressions of intolerance against particularly Christians in Western Europe, such as negative stereotyping, defamation and insult and the realization of disrespectful works of art.
Secular intolerance could be seen as a subtle form of persecution or “bloodless” persecution, whose sources lay in the enlightment and in humanist philosophy.
Values that are important to Christians are more and more marginalized. The education sector is slowly taken over by humanist ideas. More generally, imposed equality legislation is reducing the freedom (autonomy) of social covenants such as the family, the school, the church or the market place. This undermines the foundations of society.
The principle of separation between Church and State has become one of the main arguments for (radical) secularist thinkers to advocate a total exclusion of religion from the public sphere that goes much further than the removal of religious symbols in public buildings.
Secularists categorically reject all forms of religion and religious considerations in public life based on the conviction that religion should not have a visible influence on society, particularly on education and politics and believe that the marginalization of religion to the private sphere is a requirement for the wellbeing of modern liberal democracy.
Many secularists such as Polly Toynbee, Matthew Parris or Richard Dawkins, claiming to be tolerant, reject public expressions of worldviews that are based on religious convictions, but seem to have no problems with worldviews based on political ideologies such as socialism, humanism or liberalism.
When the separation of Church and State is understood as the complete elimination of faith from public life one might question whether pluralism, which lies at the core of any democratic society, is still respected (see art. 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). If democracy is a system that accommodates the preferences of antagonistic minorities, this should also include the preferences of religious minorities.
The relegation of faith to the private sphere in fact contributes to the marginalization of ideas and individuals who base their political standpoints on their religious convictions, because they are simply dismissed as “discriminating” and not even given the right to fully participate in public life.