Anti-Clericalism Movements Have Helped Shape History

Opposition to the Power and Influence of Religious Institutions

Anti-religion graffiti.

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Anti-clericalism is a movement that is opposed to the power and influence of religious institutions in secular, civil affairs. It may be a historical movement or applied to current movements.

This definition encompasses opposition to power that is real or merely alleged and religious institutions of all sorts, not just churches. It also applies to movements opposed to religious institutions' influence on legal, social, and cultural matters. Some anti-clericalism is focused solely on churches and church hierarchies, but other forms are broader.

Anti-clericalism takes form in the American Constitution, which establishes a separation of church and state. Some countries require civil marriage rather than recognizing a religious marriage. Or, it can take a more extreme form of confiscating church property, exiling or restricting clerics, and prohibiting the wearing of religious garb and insignia.

What Is Anti-Clericalism?

Anti-clericalism is compatible with both atheism and theism. In atheistic contexts, anti-clericalism is associated with critical atheism and secularism. It may be a more aggressive form of secularism, like that found in France, rather than a passive form of church and state separation. In theistic contexts, anti-clericalism tends to be associated with Protestant critiques of Catholicism.

Both atheistic and theistic anti-clericalism may be anti-Catholic, but theistic forms are perhaps more likely to be anti-Catholic. First, they are focused primarily on Catholicism. Second, the critiques are coming from theists who are probably members of a church or denomination with its own clerics — priests, pastors, ministers, etc.

Movements That Opposed Catholicism in Europe

"The Encyclopedia of Politics" defines anti-clericalism as "opposition to the influence of organized religion in state affairs. The term was applied particularly to the influence of the Catholic religion in political affairs."

Historically, almost all anti-clericalism in European contexts was effectively anti-Catholicism, in part because the Catholic church was the largest, most widespread, and most powerful religious institution in the world. Following the Reformation and continuing through the following centuries, there were movements in country after country to prohibit Catholic influence on civic affairs.

Anti-clericalism took violent form during the French Revolution. More than 30,000 priests were exiled and hundreds were killed in the War in the Vendee, from 1793 to 1796, in which genocidal actions were taken to eliminate the area's staunch adherence to Catholicism.

In Austria, the Holy Roman Emporer Joseph II dissolved more than 500 monasteries in the late 18th century, using their wealth to create new parishes and taking over the education of priests in seminaries.

During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, there were many anti-clerical assaults by the Republican forces, as the Catholic church supported the Nationalist forces. Over 6,000 clerics were killed.

Modern Anti-Clerical Movements

Anti-clericalism is an official policy of most Marxist and Communist governments, including that of the former Soviet Union and Cuba. It was also seen in Turkey, as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey as a staunchly secular state that restricted the power of Muslim clerics. This has been gradually eased in more recent times. In Quebec, Canada in the 1960s, the Quiet Revolution transferred more institutions from the Catholic church to the provincial government.


Carlisle, Rodney P. (Editor). "Encyclopedia of Politics: The Left and the Right." 1st Edition, SAGE Publications, Inc, March 17, 2005.

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Cline, Austin. "Anti-Clericalism Movements Have Helped Shape History." Learn Religions, Sep. 21, 2021, Cline, Austin. (2021, September 21). Anti-Clericalism Movements Have Helped Shape History. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Anti-Clericalism Movements Have Helped Shape History." Learn Religions. (accessed June 8, 2023).