Will We Ever Live in a Secular Society?

This is a guest post by Ryne P. Smith. Ryne is an atheist living in Chicago, trying to figure out how to be a biology teacher.

I am fortunate enough to work in what I consider to be a secular workplace.

We have a Holiday Tree and written into the rules of the desk decoration contest is a “no religious iconography” clause. I know that I am lucky to have this. I’m sure almost all of you know of individuals who have been through hell at work for their lack of belief, but I have never had this problem. In fact, most managers at my workplace seem to be either completely apathetic to religion or casually ridicule it upon discovering my lack of belief.

But this does not mean that I have not had my share of religious exposure here. For one, I talk to people all over the country every day. On voicemail greetings, in closing pleasantries, and in discussing work histories, it’s impossible to go a day without being wished a “blessed day” or hearing about missionary work. Even within the workplace itself, the overt religiosity of some employees is clear. Prayer wishes for recently deceased coworkers, reading of the Bible between calls, a group of young Christians who eat lunch together, and even proselytizing to an overtly gay employee (which was thankfully handled appropriately by management) are commonplace.

I ask myself: is this enough? Is it enough that the organization itself takes absolutely no stance on matters of religion, or should I hope for more?

I know those are strange questions to ask, especially when I have it pretty good. This isn’t a legal issue. This is just about how people talk about religion in our culture.

As an atheist, I have gotten the idea that secular sections of society, like the workplace, should be completely devoid of religion. I had the idea that a secular society would be a magical place where no mention of religion was ever uttered in public except by evangelists. Religious people would be relegated to only speaking of their superstition in the confines of their own home or church. I hoped that admitting you were religious in public got you the same looks of disbelief that an atheist gets when they admit a lack of belief in god while socializing after a church service.

I see now that this was an unrealistic vision for what secularism can look like in America. While there is a religious majority, there will always be people who try to explain their beliefs to me because of the books I’m reading. There will always be the elderly woman who says that god has a plan for everything when an earthquake kills thousands. And there will always be the risk of judgment if my lack of belief is known. It is something I have accepted, but it is not something I do not think will change with time.

I’m curious to know what you all think of this: Have you experienced workplace discrimination because of your lack of faith? And is my idea of secularism completely off base, or is this something that may some day become reality? What would a “secular society” look like?

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