The word “secular” has become synonymous with “atheist” in recent years. There is a difference, though.
In a recent Newsweek column, Lisa Miller writes this:
Like the words “feminist” and “liberal,” “secular” and its derivatives have come to mean extreme versions of themselves. They are code in conservative Christian circles for “atheist” or even “God hating”—they conjure, in a fresh way, all the demons Christian conservatives have been fighting for more than 30 years: liberalism, sexual permissiveness and moral lassitude.
She also makes this claim:
Aware that no group is more reviled in America than atheists, and reeling from all the attention atheists have gotten from recent best-selling books, some nonbelievers prefer to wrap themselves in a safer label: “secularist.” This rhetorical deflection only makes them targets. Secularist equals nonbeliever; nonbeliever equals immoral God-hater. “It’s red meat for the pundits,” says Greg Epstein, Harvard’s humanist chaplain. He prefers the word “humanist.”
Greg elaborates on this quotation (and clarifies what he meant) on the On Faith blog (emphasis his):
Only extremists want a society where we could simply claim god as the reason we should get whatever we want, without having to argue the practical merits of our case. In this sense, all Americans (and others) who support the separation of church and state are “secularists.”
He adds that there are a number of non-religious organizations that use the word “secular” (like my own, the Secular Student Alliance, and Greg’s, the Harvard Secular Society). The uses of the word in these cases is not contradictory, though. There’s no word that non-religious people can use as an umbrella term and “secular” has its uses:
… we must make clear we aren’t claiming exclusive rights to it. Pundits and politicos from Bill [O'Reilly] to Mitt Romney would have a harder time vilifying America’s so-called “secular religion” if forced to grasp that in so doing they alienate not just atheists but all who stand guard at Jefferson’s Wall of Separation between state and religion.
“Secular” means “separate from religion.” Our public schools are secular, not atheistic. Our government is secular (at least, it should be). We’re better off that way. So are Christians.
It’s disturbing that anyone would be against “secularism” when we’re talking about this use of the term.
Except for the people that want their faith to be forced upon everyone else.