Differences between secularism and non-denominationalism: how to distinguish them?

It is common to hear expressions such as secular state or non-denominational state, sometimes synonymously. But there are important differences.

In order to understand what they are the details that make secularism and non-denominationalism actually very different conceptsWe are going to define each one of them so that later we can compare them and find the points that make them unique and therefore distinguish them.

What are the main differences between secularism and non-denominationalism?

It is common to wonder what the differences are between secularism and non-denominationalism. Both terms refer to the non-religiosity of a certain territory, but there are certain nuances that make them different and therefore it is convenient to delve into these details so as not to make mistakes.

Mainly, secularism refers to absolute independence from a public administration to any type of organization of a religious nature.

Instead, When a State declares itself non-denominational it is indicating that it does not officially profess any faith, but that does not prevent establishing agreements with religious entities, especially those that historically have been linked to the powers of the country in question we are talking about.

Therefore, when we talk about the differences between secularism and non-denominationalism, the first distinction that we must make is that of secularism, as an entity alien to all religion, versus non-denominationalism, as a predetermined absence of a relationship with a specific religion but without impediment so that ties are established in some specific issues or even said religious institutions come to enjoy certain benefits or privileges.

Faced with these two typologies we would find a third formula, that of the confessional State. In this case we would be talking about a country whose political organization is closely linked to predominant religious power, being able to reach extreme cases in which both powers are indistinguishable from each other, forming the so-called theocracies, where the laws and rules that govern life people’s religious beliefs are the same as those that act on civil life.

Today there are many countries that maintain the theocratic model, many of them of Islamic character, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Sudan. Also Christians, as in the case of the Vatican State. Likewise, there are confessional states where, although political and religious power have a certain separation, they are interconnected and coordinated for numerous issues and even legislation, which mix religious and legal norms.

Returning to the question of the differences between secularism and non-denominationalism and looking at the example of confessional states and theocracies, it is easier to understand that they habitually fall into the error of confusing secularism and non-denominationalism and use both terms interchangeably to refer to a State that is not associated with any religion, because in contrast to the examples we have just seen, the differences between them become very subtle.

The problem of definitions

One of the reasons that make it so difficult to establish the differences between secularism and non-denominationalism are the very definitions that the Royal Spanish Academy provides on these terms and that instead of solving doubts, they deepen them. The truth is that the help that one could look for in the dictionary of the RAE to fully differentiate these concepts is not as satisfactory as we could hope for, far from it.

In reference to the term secular, what the Royal Academy establishes in its definition is: “independent of any religious organization”. So far we would not find any problem, since it fits reasonably well with the description we have made in the previous point. The problem comes when we search for the non-denominational term and we discover that the definition that the RAE provides is practically identical.

What the quintessential Spanish dictionary tells us is: “that it does not belong to or is attached to any religious confession.” It is difficult to find the differences between the two definitions and this is because there are practically none. In the first case, he uses the term “independent”, while in the second, instead, he prefers expressions such as “does not belong” or “is not assigned”. The divergence, if any, is too subtle.

As we anticipated, this is a setback to be able to discern between the differences between secularism and non-denominationalism. Therefore, it is necessary to go beyond the definitions that the Royal Academy provides us and study other sources, especially that of specific cases, in order to shed some clarity and be able to more easily observe the elements that establish the disparity between both concepts.

Therefore, in the following point we will be able to study the case of the Spanish model, thanks to which we will find some of the differences between secularism and non-denominationalism.

Is Spain a non-denominational or secular state?

It is frequent that, when we talk about differences between secularism and non-denominationalism, many people think of the specific case of Spain and wonder if this is a secular or non-denominational state. Today, Spain is a non-denominational state, but it is not unusual for this doubt to arise, since we have already seen that it is not unusual to confuse both concepts due to their proximity.

Spain became a non-denominational state as of the 1978 constitution. In fact, although neither the secular nor non-denominational terms are used in the Magna Carta, it is explicit that no denomination will have a state character. What does this mean? That Spain will not have a specific official religion. But history has a lot of weight and traditionally Spain has been one of the banners of Catholicism.

Therefore, although at the legal level Spain no longer has a specific confession, it is true that the Catholic Church maintains a special relationship with the State, supported by agreements signed between Spain and the Vatican, that is, the Holy See, in 1979. These agreements basically refer to taxation, but it is true that there are also certain agreements relating, for example, to education matters .

In summary, taking into account the differences between secularism and non-denominationalism that we have reviewed, we could conclude that the definition of secularism, although it is close, does not fully fit with the position of Spain regarding religions, so the most correct thing would be to affirm that in reality the Spanish State is non-denominational, since it does not ascribe to any confession but maintains agreements with Catholic Christianity, a religion that has historically predominated in our country.

The example of France as a secular state

Through the case of Spain we have been able to see an example of a non-denominational country. Now we will focus on France in order to have on the table the other type of model, the secular or secular. Thanks to this comparison, it will be even easier to understand the differences between secularism and non-denominationalism, being able to compare between the French and Spanish systems, as representatives of these models.

France, like Spain, has been a traditionally Catholic country. However, while Spain detaches its political power from the religious one in 1978 and also does not close the door to certain agreements (hence it is considered non-denominational, as we have already explained), France does so much earlier and in a more blunt way . For this we must go back to the beginning of the 20th century.

It was in 1905 when in the Gallic country the law of separation of the Church and the State was promulgated, a documentary that captures the secularism of France, a model that continues to this day. With this law what France did was to end any type of agreement that existed at that time with the Holy See (that is, with the Catholic Church, which was the official confession of the country until that moment) and establish three principles that would regulate from that moment the relationship of the State with religions.

In the first place, the French State declares itself neutral towards all confessions. Second, it establishes total freedom for citizens in choosing their faith, if they have it, since it is such a personal matter that the State should not be involved in such a decision. By last, cancels, as we have mentioned, the agreements that were in force at that time between France and the Vatican State.

This process was quite convulsive and involved a debate at the national level and years of back and forth in the legislative chamber until an agreement was reached. It is logical that it happened in this way, since it implied an important change at a historical level and therefore the positions in this regard were very opposed.

In any case, this model sheds light to understand the differences between secularism and non-denominationalism in a clearer way.

Bibliographic references:

  • Corral, C. (2004). Secularism, non-denominationalism, separation Are they the same? UNISCI Magazine.
  • Innerarity, C. (2005). The controversy over religious symbols in France. Republican secularism as a principle of integration. Spanish Journal of Sociological Research (REIS).
  • Martí, JM (2008). Non-denominational, secular; before the Right to education and freedom of education. Notebooks on judicial law.


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