Secular does not mean atheist

Recently, I wrote about how I don’t like the term “secular” being used as a substitute for “atheist,” even if it may be more palatable to certain people. The problem I cited was that it leads people to misunderstand what “secular” means, and then to resist secular things because they see them as atheist.

Suffice it to say, atheist and secular are not synonyms. Secular basically refers to things that are not religious. Restricting an agent to only secular actions does not necessitate their promotion of atheism. After all, even religious people take part in secular activities. Celebrating Independence Day on July 4th is a secular thing to do, but it doesn’t preclude you from also celebrating Christmas, Ramadan, or Rosh Hashanah. Then again, it doesn’t force or encourage you to, either. You’re completely free to make up your own mind about your religious beliefs. I wish that more people understood this.

Lest you think I’m making this problem up, I’ll direct you to a good example we had right here recently, in the comments of my post about the all-Christian book selection along the New Jersey Turnpike. Christian commenter Jorge Alvarado responded by talking about the proper “secular to religious” ratio in books for sale, and asserted that I would only “be fine if NO religious materials were sold” at the public rest stop. When I clarified this by quoting from my original post, Jorge explained, “After all, all I’ve understood atheists to want more than anything is to do away with God and anything relating to Him from public places.”

In each of these statements, Jorge is a bit right and a bit wrong, in a way that is difficult to explain quickly, or even to notice right away in the midst of conversation. Such is the nature of underlying assumptions; they’re buried underneath everything else and take some time to dig down to.

Many atheists in the US are working to remove references to God from public places — removing “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God we trust” from the currency, teacher-led prayers from public school classrooms, nativity scenes from municipal lands, and so on. But we are not trying to put “God is imaginary” on the currency, or display a giant red A on municipal lands, or anything like that. Removing references to God from certain places is not the same thing as making those places atheist.

I would be fine if there were no religious materials sold in this store — but that is not the only way we could reach an acceptable outcome. Let’s look at the different ways in which this could theoretically go down. Suppose that HMSHost, in their capacity running a government-granted monopoly selling goods to turnpike travelers,

  1. contracts with a Christian publisher to sell only books intended to “share the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ.” (You could imagine this as being about any other single religion, as well. A Jewish publisher, a Muslim publisher, whatever.)
  2. contracts with an atheist publisher to sell only books intended to “explain that belief in God is a ‘pernicious delusion.’”
  3. offers an assortment of books for sale, some of which advocate religion, some of which advocate atheism, and the rest are books which have nothing to do with the religion debate at all — biographies, romance novels, legal thrillers, mysteries, books on history or economics or science, etc.
  4. chooses to refrain from selling any books that are either pro-religion or anti-religion, and to only sell those books which have nothing to do with the religion debate at all.

Option 1 is bad, for reasons I thought were self-evident. It may surprise my religious readers (because of this very misunderstanding) to find that I also think that option 2 is clearly bad. The government should not be in the business of advocating any stance on religion, and a private company acting on behalf of the government and using special privileges granted by the government should not be doing it either. This applies equally well to options 1 and 2.

Option 3 would be fine by me. I do not, as I said in that post, object to the sale of any religious books at all. But it is important to realize that option 4 is also a completely viable option — that when we talk about a “100% secular” book selection, this is what we mean.1 This selection does not push a religious agenda, but it also does not promote an atheist one. It is neutral, and it is inclusive.

Many people make this mistake. I hope that these people will eventually learn that simply refraining from proclaiming the greatness of their God does not mean admitting that atheism is correct. Not putting up a nativity scene in front of City Hall doesn’t imply that nobody in town believes in Jesus. Not saying “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t mean that you can’t personally believe that our nation is under God. When we atheists advocate for a “secular agenda,” we are not trying to push our unbelief on you. That is not part of it at all. We are just asking for you to refrain from pushing your belief on us.

1: Option 2 would technically be secular in that it is not religious. But when people talk about “secular” things, they almost always mean things that are not religious but are also not atheist. We have another word for things that are both secular and atheist: just “atheist.” Squares are rhombuses, but we usually specify “squares” when that’s what we mean, and most people talking about a “rhombus” aren’t referring to a square. [back]

Leave a comment

11 Comments

  1. I think the fear comes from the realistic understanding:

    If religion plays less of a role in public (and government) display, its hold over the general populace will gradually get weaker. Thus, a cry for “secularism” is a realistic threat to the religious. They know it, we know it.

  2. MS Quixote

     /  August 9, 2010 at 12:52 am

    Pretty much with you on this one for the most part, NFQ. I’d like to see the church out of the government as well.

  3. Aristarchus

     /  August 9, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    @Sabio: I actually think you’re wrong about this. I mean, I agree with you on what policy we should have, but I think church-state separation actually helps religion over time, and I think it’s a large part of why the US is more religious than Europe. Most people who stop believing in some religion don’t do it for rational reasons. They do it because they see people in the church being hypocritical or because they prayed really hard and their child still died or whatever. It’s emotional. When there’s a clear state-endorsed religion, and it’s really a question of “Do I support religion X?” people over time become more atheist. When there are 20 flavors of religion constantly fighting to pick off the questioning people from each other’s followers, it doesn’t really happen.

    This logic might not apply to the really vague forms of government support – “one nation under God and so forth” – but I think it does apply to the type of connection church and state have most places on earth.

    None of this is to say we should stop fighting for separation of church and state. I’m still a big fan of it….

  4. jorge alvarado

     /  August 14, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    Hi, NFQ, you are correct. I did use “secular” and equated it with “atheist”. My bad.
    I find it interesting, though, that you advocate for a “secular agenda” (not an “atheistic” agenda in your statement.
    “When we atheists advocate for a “secular agenda,” we are not trying to push our unbelief on you. That is not part of it at all. We are just asking for you to refrain from pushing your belief on us.”
    About that comment: maybe without even realizing it, you ARE pushing your unbelief on “us”. If you believe it is “wrong” for me to “push” christianity on you, you also believe it would be “right” if I did not. In other words, you think the world would be a “better” place if God was not referred to at all, and that it is “worse off” for having people believing in Him (if He exists at all). In making a “judgment call”, you assert your belief system.

  5. Of course I advocate for a secular agenda. I wear multiple hats. I’m atheist, and sometimes I say things in support of feminism. That does not make feminism atheist. I’m atheist, and sometimes I say things in support of science. That does not make science atheist. I’m an atheist, and sometimes I say things in support of blueberry pie. That does not make blueberry pie atheist. The fact that atheists support secular government and yet secular does not mean atheist is the point I was explaining above.

    I do believe the world would be a better place if God was not referred to any more often than any other imaginary character was referred to. But I’m not going to try to force people to stop talking about God, and I’m not going to use government resources to tell people that they’re wrong about God. I just want people to stop using government resources to tell me about God, or to require me to implicitly support their belief in God. Do you really not understand the distinction between refraining from using public resources to proclaim your religion, and using those government resources to proclaim atheism? If you want to argue that (referring to me and other atheists) “maybe without even realizing it, you ARE pushing your unbelief on ‘us’” — you will have to explain how you think that is happening. “Maybe” is not an explanation.

  6. jorge alvarado

     /  August 15, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    Re “you will have to explain how you think that is happening.”
    Glad to. Saying: “Not putting up a nativity scene in front of City Hall doesn’t imply that nobody in town believes in Jesus.” would only beg the question: By putting up a nativity scene in front of City Hall, would it imply EVERYBODY in town believes in Jesus?. Obviously not, and yet, you seem to believe that by having it, government would be proclaiming a religion. Now you will have to explain how you think that would be happening.
    That is where you, by using (or rather, misusing) reason , can be wrong.
    If I walked into someone’s room, and saw a banner with a swastika on the wall, would I be correct (without giving him the benefit of the doubt) in believing he is a nazy who believes he’s superior to me and therefore wants me, and everyone else who’s different dead?
    Do you not see how dangerous assumptions of this nature are? You may think you have me all figured out, but you don’t.
    Now I see something I missed earlier. In the post about the rest stops, you wrote:
    “I would have no problem if HMSHost was just trying to pick the books that sold the best, and happened to end up with a couple Christian books.”
    And yet, in this blog, you wrote:
    “I would be fine if there were no religious materials sold in this store”
    Which means I was right when I wrote: “I doubt it. I think “NFQ” would be fine if NO religious materials were sold there (the place being a “government-delegated monopoly power”).
    Funny, isn’t it ?. Your attempt to reach a compromise is not well thought out since you are using wrong assumptions to begin with.

  7. Jorge, your reading comprehension leaves much to be desired.

    1. “Begging the question” does not mean, “making one wonder.” You will need to know this for all those times someone tells you that you are begging the question. It means assuming the initial point. (Example: “We know that the Bible is true because the Bible says that it is true, and since the Bible is true it must be right about that.”)

    2. You seem to think that I cannot “have no problem” with one scenario and also “be fine with” a different scenario. Please scroll up and read the part of this post with the numbered list. Following that list I discuss why #3 and #4 are both ways in which the government (or the government’s proxy, HMSHost) would be choosing books without enshrining a particular religious (or irreligious) agenda.

    3. Anyone choosing to hang a giant Nazi (not “nazy”) flag on the wall in their home is making a loud and clear statement that they support Nazism. That you would even suggest that there is doubt on this matter makes me wonder if you are a Poe.

    4. Putting up a nativity scene in front of City Hall sends the message that the municipal government wants to demonstrate that that city is a Christian city — unless they also put up decorations for every other holiday of every other religion, including placards with atheist messages. (Typically, that is not the case.) While the nativity scene (in the absence of other religious decorations) may not send the message that literally every resident of the city is a Christian, it does send the message that Christianity is the ideal the government wishes to promote.

  8. jorge alvarado

     /  August 15, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    NFQ, All I’m trying to do is show you where you assume things are true when they are not by what you say. Saying “We know that the Bible is true because the Bible says that it is true” is totally idiotic in that you give no compelling reason to believe the bible is true (if you think that’s a phrase I would use you’re wrong).
    In saying “Not putting up a nativity scene in front of City Hall doesn’t imply that nobody in town believes in Jesus.” You are saying putting up a nativity scene in front of City Hall would imply somebody in town believes in Jesus, and that is the wrong assumption. It may be done just to keep a tradition alive.
    Anyone choosing to hang a giant Nazi (not “nazy”) flag on the wall in their home is making a loud and clear statement that they support Nazism.
    Not necessarily. There are a number of reasons one would choose to do that. It would take lots more to make a person a supporter of nazism. Wrong again.
    “Putting up a nativity scene in front of City Hall sends the message that the municipal government wants to demonstrate that that city is a Christian city”
    Need I say more?

  9. Secular just means no comment from religion, it doesn’t and shouldn’t mean anti-religion. But there are facist atheists that use it as a cudgel to attack ALL religion regardless of if only one religion in particular stands in the way of their agenda.

  10. Seebe, you are confusing secularlism with anti-theism. Admittedly, there is some overlap of membership between those groups, since I’d say that most anti-theists probably also consider themselves secular as well.

    “Secularism” isn’t a cudgel, it’s just the idea of keeping government and public forums neutral on the subject of religion. Reason and evidence are cudgel enough against religion.

  1. Definition: secular | Friendly Humanist

Leave a Reply