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,
- 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.)
- contracts with an atheist publisher to sell only books intended to “explain that belief in God is a ‘pernicious delusion.'”
- 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.
- 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]