What Is Secularism?

This month, I want to write about some words important to the atheist movement that are frequently misused and abused by religious apologists. The first of these words is secularism.

In the rhetoric of spokespeople for the religious right, secularism is often assumed to be the desire to ban all forms of religious expression from public view. As is usual in these polemics, this is a falsehood, created by taking a true statement and then twisting and distorting it almost beyond recognition. The polemicists who make this accusation have invented a far more sinister and far-reaching goal that we’ve never advocated or supported, and assumed, without any evidence, that it must be our secret desire.

To be secular means, simply, to be without religion. But this adjective applies very differently to countries than it does to people. For a person to be secular means that they do not subscribe to the creed of any existing religion (as in “secular humanist”). A secular person, by the usual and conventional meaning of the term, is therefore a nonbeliever, an atheist.

For a state to be secular has a superficially similar meaning: that that state is not ruled by a religious authority, nor are its laws derived from the tenets of a religious creed, nor are its citizens required to give assent to a particular set of religious beliefs. A secular state is one that has no official religion, no favoritism or preference shown by the government for one church over another, or for religious belief in general as opposed to nonbelief.

But this does not mean that a secular state must be one that officially bans the holding of religious beliefs among its citizenry or takes positive steps to disadvantage religion. Just because a state is secular says nothing about the religious affiliations of the people who make up that state. The people themselves may be devout followers of any number of faiths. Even the elected leaders can hold whatever beliefs they like, so long as they make laws based on religiously neutral considerations of public policy, and not on the edicts of any particular sect.

The difference is a crucial one, and partisans of the religious right have effectively stirred up confusion on this point in order to argue that because a secular person has no religion, a secular state must also contain no religion whatsoever. But this is not true. Because people are unified wholes, a secular person has no religious beliefs and that’s that. But states and countries are not single entities, but assemblages of large numbers of people who may believe all sorts of different things. The key is that the different beliefs of all these people “average out”, so to speak, producing a government that treats them all as equals before the law, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

The Army veteran and atheist Ron Garrett put this point succinctly in an essay on Ebon Musings:

Who gets to decide we have to believe in one god, or many gods, or no gods? Under our Constitution, only I get to decide that for me, and you for you, and neither of us gets to use our temporary control of the government to bully others into agreement, or program children in a public school classroom to believe in someone else’s gods and prophets against the parent’s wishes, or even in accordance with them, because the government can’t do that under our law.

The problem arises when the government does not treat all people as equals, but begins to show special favoritism or grant official privileges to certain religious beliefs and not others. This is when advocates of secularism – who may, or may not, be secular people themselves – step in to demand that the government cease this favoritism and return to its neutral position. And this, inevitably, is when the religious right partisans appear to create confusion. They argue that what we secularists (secretly) want is not neutrality of government towards religion, but official support for atheism and positive hostility of government towards religion.

Phrased in this way, the argument is absurd. First of all, as I previously mentioned, many people who support secularism are not secular people themselves: they are religious believers who recognize the value of government remaining neutral toward religious beliefs. (For example, Barry Lynn, the current director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.) Second, if that was what secular people wanted, we wouldn’t merely be demanding that the government cease its official endorsement of religions we don’t belong to; we would be demanding that the government take our side. We would be demanding not that “under God” be stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance, but that it be replaced with “under no God”. We wouldn’t be asking for an end to official prayer before city council meetings; we’d be asking for an official reading from the books of Richard Dawkins or Robert Ingersoll.

The rampant dissemination of falsehoods about secularism has led to absurd situations where religious fundamentalists and secularists have exactly the same goal, only the former group doesn’t realize it. For instance, there have been many cases where a state or township put some intrusive religious monument on public property like a school or a courthouse, was sued by a church-state separation group, and after a protracted and bitter legal fight, finally agreed to move the monument to private land, like a church lawn, in exchange for the dropping of the complaint. Inevitably, religious fundamentalists cheer this outcome as if it represented a victory over those evil secularists, when in fact it’s the very thing we were asking for all along.

Private individuals and religious groups can promote their religion to their heart’s content, on their own property and with their own money. But the government is supposed to represent all of us, to respect everyone’s freedom to believe or not believe as they see fit, and to refrain from any action which sends the message to a particular religious (or atheist) group that they are favored, privileged insiders, or that they are disfavored, rejected outsiders.

And lastly, why do we advocate secularism in government? The answer is that, in the long run, it’s better for everyone regardless of what beliefs they hold. Prominent advocates of state secularism, like America’s founding fathers, had the lessons of history to draw from, and knew full well that when a state is not secular, when its religious belief is determined by its rulers and competing beliefs are outlawed or persecuted, the inevitable result is bitter, bloody religious war. Europe was convulsed by warfare between Catholics and Protestants for centuries for that very reason. Today we see similar strife between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, in countries where the rulers demand allegiance to one or the other of those sects.

One doesn’t have to be an atheist to recognize that it’s better for everyone when the state doesn’t attempt to coerce uniformity among its citizens. Religious belief is and must be a matter of individual conscience, not of coercion imposed by law. That’s why secularism in government is good for us all, both for religious people and also for people who are secular themselves.

But I would add that, for individuals, secularism is a good thing as well. Being a secular person means being free from the superstitious and arbitrary impositions of religion, from the chains of senseless dogma and from archaic and irrational rules. Secularism means the freedom to live your life as you see fit, pursuing whatever purpose you choose for yourself, subject only to the limitation that you allow others the same freedom and not interfere with their equal right to set their own course. As Robert Ingersoll put it in his usual poetic style:

Secularism believes in building a home here, in this world. It trusts to individual effort, to energy, to intelligence, to observation and experience rather than to the unknown and the supernatural. It desires to be happy on this side of the grave.

Secularism means food and fireside, roof and raiment, reasonable work and reasonable leisure, the cultivation of the tastes, the acquisition of knowledge, the enjoyment of the arts, and it promises for the human race comfort, independence, intelligence, and above all liberty.

Secularism, in government and in individual life, is something the human race needs more of. We should work to make it so.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    To be secular means, simply, to be without religion. But this adjective applies very differently to countries than it does to people. For a person to be secular means that they do not subscribe to the creed of any existing religion (as in “secular humanist”). A secular person, by the usual and conventional meaning of the term, is therefore a nonbeliever, an atheist.

    I disagree with you on this, and the dictionary backs me up: “of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.” I.e. it means not applying one’s views on religion to colour all areas of interest. Under this definition, even religious believers can be secular, meaning that they do not impose religiosity to all areas of their life, i.e. they are not theocratic. The use of the word secular as a substitute for atheist was driven by the stigma attached to the latter word.

    I also maintain that the word “humanist” does not imply religious non-belief. Humanism is working towards improving the lives of people here on Earth rather than worrying about their fate in an afterlife. Therefore, humanism also does not exclude religious believers.

  • prase

    Second, if that was what secular people wanted, we wouldn’t merely be demanding that the government cease its official endorsement of religions we don’t belong to; we would be demanding that the government take our side.

    This isn’t much convincing argument. Which demands some group openly declares and what they really want aren’t the same. Each politically weak movement tries to phrase its program moderately, else they are doomed to remain marginal. When the movement gains power, the attitude usually changes. The evolution of enlightenment ideas into the Robespierre’s absurd cult of “reason” may be one historical example.

  • Dave

    We wouldn’t be asking for an end to official prayer before city council meetings; we’d be asking for an official reading from the books of Richard Dawkins or Robert Ingersoll.

    Unfortunately, there are some freethought groups trying to do exactly this sort of thing. They put up “Holiday displays” that are nothing but attacks on religion. When invited to join a prayer service, they accept and deliver logical arguments against belief.

    This is a horrible precedent. All it does is suggest the very thing people are opposing: that we’re “just another religion, and one that shouldn’t be favored”

  • JulietEcho

    Excellent essay. I think the distinction between “secular” and “atheist” needs to be addressed and defined more often. “Secular” and “secularism” shouldn’t be treated as bad words by anyone – they’re ideals that protect everyone’s rights.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Which demands some group openly declares and what they really want aren’t the same. Each politically weak movement tries to phrase its program moderately, else they are doomed to remain marginal. When the movement gains power, the attitude usually changes.
    – prase, #2

    Well, on one hand, you’re right: there are those “secularists” who really aren’t secularists but just say they are – they don’t merely want the state to remain silent on religion, they just want to use secularism as a platform to launch into an anti-religious state in an “ask for an inch, take a mile” sort of way. On the other hand, that’s not secularism, to wax just a little redundant – in the same way that the “women are people, too” sort of feminism can be joined and/or “corrupted” by those who want to tear down patriarchy and then establish matriarchy (instead of replacing it with a truly egalitarian society). And while I personally would like to see a world where everyone voluntarily drops their supernatural mumbo jumbo, it kinda ruins the whole thing if anyone is coerced into doing so.

    So rest assured that, because civilization runs on agreement, the things we can agree on will tend to be the ones that get put into action, in the long term. Everyone wants their way, but it’s a whole lot more likely that everyone will agree to get along whether each person gets their way or not. And I trust that you’ll be right there with us to shout down the whack-jobs who call for state-mandated atheism or what-have-you, should they come out of the woodwork to push their oppositely unreasonable agenda if we ever get a majority.

    TL;DR version: Yeah, yeah, there’s whackos in every group, fine. But you might as well take the movement at face value because that’s at least what all the people in the movement can agree to among themselves/in public/on the face of it. We’ll deal with the whackos as they come up – and they’ll always come up, no matter what.

  • Alex Weaver

    in the same way that the “women are people, too” sort of feminism can be joined and/or “corrupted” by those who want to tear down patriarchy and then establish matriarchy (instead of replacing it with a truly egalitarian society)

    Or those who insist, in the most condescending and disingenuous phrasing imaginable, that any disagreement anyone ever voices with them on anything is a manifestation of “patriarchy” or “misogyny.” We’ve encountered a few self-proclaimed secularists like this; someone named Christopher who used to comment here fairly regularly insisted that concern for the well-being of others was just a holdover from the wiles of religion, not a genuine human trait.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Like Reginald Selkirk (#1), I disagree with identifying the term “secularist” with the term “atheist.” When I was a believer, I was a theistic secularist. I understood the value of secularism in the public sphere and saw it as the best means of protecting and preserving the rights of all, believers and nonbelievers alike. Now I’m an atheistic secularist who still regards secularism in the public sphere as the best means of protecting and preserving the rights of all.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    Then again, if we fought for “under no God” on the money, maybe we’d get “under God” removed as a compromise. ;)

    Then then again, considering how uncompromising the opposition is, maybe not.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Unfortunately, there are some freethought groups trying to do exactly this sort of thing. They put up “Holiday displays” that are nothing but attacks on religion. When invited to join a prayer service, they accept and deliver logical arguments against belief.

    That isn’t the same thing, Dave. If the government chooses to create an open forum, then people of every viewpoint have a right to speak their minds, including atheists – and more power to them, when they do that. The difference is that we don’t ask for official acknowledgement of atheism and only atheism, the way many Christians demand for their own beliefs. We don’t ask for politicians, acting in their official capacity, to grant us special recognition or special privileges that are not also available to others.

    When I was a believer, I was a theistic secularist. I understood the value of secularism in the public sphere and saw it as the best means of protecting and preserving the rights of all, believers and nonbelievers alike.

    Well, you were clearly always a smart person, Chaplain. :) However, while I acknowledge that religious believers can support secularism, I maintain that a secular person is by definition a nonbeliever. Merriam-Webster, for instance, defines a secularist as a person who embodies the characteristic of “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations”, which seems to me to go beyond merely promoting separation of church and state.

    Then again, if we fought for “under no God” on the money, maybe we’d get “under God” removed as a compromise.

    That’s a stumper, Ergo Ratio. As a tactical matter, I agree that when bargaining, it’s usually best to ask for more than what you want in order to get what you want. But as a moral matter, I dislike the thought of demanding something I don’t actually desire; and that’s not to mention the propaganda coup it would be for the apologists if they could point to us making such demands. I haven’t come up with a good solution to this one yet. Any thoughts?

  • http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com/ Erika

    I think the point that a secular government must make laws based on religiously neutral reasoning deserves repeating. Lawmakers can believe something is right or wrong based on whatever grounds they want, but if they want to make a law out of it, they must find supporting arguments that are secular.

  • Valhar2000

    someone named Christopher who used to comment here fairly regularly insisted that concern for the well-being of others was just a holdover from the wiles of religion, not a genuine human trait.

    Wow… that guy…

  • Valhar2000

    And I trust that you’ll be right there with us to shout down the whack-jobs who call for state-mandated atheism or what-have-you, should they come out of the woodwork to push their oppositely unreasonable agenda if we ever get a majority.

    As I argued once in the comments to a post on Atheist Revolution, there are atheist extremist, but we are not them, no matter what kooks, cranks and liars of various description will say. But, yes, there are atheist extremists, people who advocate for the total elimination of religion, who will condone violence to this end, and who will brook no disagreement on this matter, perceiving any criticisms or misgivings about their stated beliefs as moral failings and concrete acts of evil on the part of their detractors. I’ve come across them. However, these people are very rare, and they have absolutely no influence whatsoever.

    Perhaps, if the cause of secularism progresses, they will indeed feel emboldened and turn their rhetoric into action: we will have to continue fighting for freedom. That war can never be won.

  • Alex Weaver

    But, yes, there are atheist extremists, people who advocate for the total elimination of religion, who will condone violence to this end, and who will brook no disagreement on this matter, perceiving any criticisms or misgivings about their stated beliefs as moral failings and concrete acts of evil on the part of their detractors.

    There are. In fact, there are probably at least three of them.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    someone named Christopher

    Heh, at first I thought you were talking about Christopher Hitchens… he’s an asshole.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    Alex, you have a gift. Brevity truly is the soul of wit.

  • http://ljosephlogston007@gmail.com joseph logston

    in time all the religions will know that _ods and superstitions are false and there wont be no more fighting over these fairy tails… that will be a good day….let knowledge & science advance…..all this supernatral crap should have been in the movies where they belong, not obstructing science & knowledge

  • Jerryd

    Regarding the Ebon’s comments on the issue of changing the “Under God” motto. I have a practical suggestion. First when we became a nation under a god you would expect there to be some benefit if that god is real and appreciated the gesture. I defy anyone to find such a benefit after we changed our motto. So why retain that that god if there were no benefits?

    Football and baseball stadia change their names based upon a simple precept: it goes to the highest bidder. Why not offer out our motto the same way? We have mountains of debt, so no reason to give your motto away for free under such circumstances? Let’s retire some of the national debt with our national motto.

    I suggest we offer out the motto to the highest godly or religious bidder on, e.g., a monthly basis, with the clincher that we’ll remove all costs and retain him in the motto permanently if he can show his appreciation in demonstrable ways unquestionably connected to his existence and actions. The chance to reduce the national debt and prove your god exists at the same time. Who could pass that up?

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    Ebon, your thoughts on the “under God” stumper echo my own. I wish I had ideas, but I don’t.

  • prase

    D,

    Yeah, yeah, there’s whackos in every group, fine. But you might as well take the movement at face value because that’s at least what all the people in the movement can agree to among themselves/in public/on the face of it. We’ll deal with the whackos as they come up – and they’ll always come up, no matter what.

    If I were a theist, how would you convince me that I can take the movement at face value? That is what I was pointing at. Many theists are convinced that the ultimate aim of any secularist movement is to persecute Christians. They are afraid of atheists because they don’t believe that atheists are sincere.

    I suppose that this blog exists not only to provide a virtual meeting point of atheists (which is itself a worthwhile purpose), but also to express arguments that can convince theists to loose their faith, or at least to become more secular, as in this post. If so, then I find saying “see, we don’t aim to persecute you, because else we would have announced it already” a bit superfluous. Either one believes that the secularists can be trusted, and then it is enough to say “we don’t want to persecute Christians”, or one doesn’t believe that and then such argument is simply pointless.

    tl;dr version: I find sentences “we will do X” and “we will do X because we’ve said so” more or less equally convincing and thus I don’t consider the part “because we’ve said so” a valid argument for veracity of “we will do X”.

    P.S. I write “the secularists” instead of “we” not to indicate that I myself am not a secularist (which I am), but because the original post was mainly about the secular movement in the US, where I don’t live.

  • TEP

    Regarding the Ebon’s comments on the issue of changing the “Under God” motto. I have a practical suggestion. First when we became a nation under a god you would expect there to be some benefit if that god is real and appreciated the gesture. I defy anyone to find such a benefit after we changed our motto. So why retain that that god if there were no benefits?

    Football and baseball stadia change their names based upon a simple precept: it goes to the highest bidder. Why not offer out our motto the same way? We have mountains of debt, so no reason to give your motto away for free under such circumstances? Let’s retire some of the national debt with our national motto.

    I suggest we offer out the motto to the highest godly or religious bidder on, e.g., a monthly basis, with the clincher that we’ll remove all costs and retain him in the motto permanently if he can show his appreciation in demonstrable ways unquestionably connected to his existence and actions. The chance to reduce the national debt and prove your god exists at the same time. Who could pass that up?

    That wouldn’t be without precedent. In the Greek myth, the city of Athens was given its name after Athena and Poseidon both offered a gift, in return for the city being named after them. Poseidon offered a miraculous spring, but the inhabitants chose Athena, who offered them the first olive trees. It’s a much better way to go, because by having multiple gods competing against each other, more benefits can be obtained as they go out of their way to outdo one another.

  • Zietlos

    TEP and Jerryd… you know the States’ current worries about elections and corporations, right?

    “One nation under: Bold BBQ Doritos”… “One nation under: the weather? Try Aspirin”… “One nation under: Pfizer, you know why”…

    It wouldn’t end well. Collectible coins just got a lot more complex, though. :) It’s fun to think about it, but I doubt it’d end well.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Zietlos, remember Colbert’s Doritos-sponsored presidential run? That was classic.

  • http://lenoxus.pbworks.com Lenoxus

    #19 prase: This is a good point, but it applies to pretty much every group.

    In particular, any heaven-hell Christian who doesn’t believe non-Christians are evil seems to be playing a game of cognitive dissonance, no? If not, then some part of that narrative isn’t holding up.

    Similarly, why would a genuine Christian not want to establish theocracy, unless s/he has some doubts as to his/her faith’s truth?

  • Honest Inquiry

    If the government is going to print “In God We Trust” on our currency, shouldn’t there be a definition for what the word “God” even means? According to some the definition is rather specific and refers to a personal sky-faerie who reads thoughts and grants wishes. According to others the term God refers to everything, meaning there is nothing outside it with which to relate it to. (Under such a definition of God, even an atheist like myself could say that I “believe” in God – although to say I put my trust in it, it meaning everything, would require some explanation).

    My point is, why not require the government to define the word “God”? If it can’t be defined then why should it be used?
    (My hope is that the attempt to define it will lead to the conclusion that government shouldn’t be pretending to know things that no one can know, and it shouldn’t be using one religion’s opinion over another regarding what the definition of “God” means.)