A Short but Essential Read on Secularism

Tom Flynn

Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom, by Andrew Copson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-19-880913-5) 176 pp. Hardcover, $18.95.


Numerous books offer an introduction to humanism. Many more acquaint the reader with naturalism. There’s an absolute torrent of “primers” on atheism. But secularism? Despite its importance, books delivering a concise, objective introduction to the topic of secularism are rare. Andrew Copson’s short, engaging, impartial introduction thus fills a genuine void in the literature, and it does so impressively.

Copson is chief executive of the British Humanist Association, first vice president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), and coeditor (with no lesser personage than philosopher A. C. Grayling) of the Wiley-Blackwell Handbook on Humanism. So he knows whereof he speaks. In this highly accessible book, Copson profiles the various forms of secularism now active in the world. Have you wondered about the differences between American-style church-state separationism and the French laícité? Copson will set you straight. He ably describes the historic progression from the Protestant understanding of freedom of religion to today’s ideals of freedom of conscience. He presents common arguments for and against secularism as advanced by their respective proponents, treating anti-secularist arguments respectfully, though he offers refutations for each of them. In his closing chapters, Copson even-handedly surveys today’s dilemmas that pit the rights of free speech against the presumptive (and sometimes compelling) right of religious believers not to be belittled in the public square.

If you read one introduction to secularism this year, it should be this one. The fact that there probably isn’t another one is beside the point; this is just an excellent little book.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


Numerous books offer an introduction to humanism. Many more acquaint the reader with naturalism. There’s an absolute torrent of “primers” on atheism. But secularism?

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