On the Conflation of “Secular” and “Atheist”

Some weeks ago I reposted an article by Sarah Jones. In it, Sarah explained why she is not a “secular activist.” A significant number of commenters objected, arguing that Sarah was conflating the words “secular” and “atheist,” and that the two words were fundamentally different. They argued that secularism was synonymous with the separation of church and state, that it was a sort of middle ground where religion and non-religion were on an equal footing, and that it was the belief that no one has the right to force their beliefs on others. While I understand this critique, I think it’s worth noting that Sarah didn’t invent the conflation of “secular” and “atheist.” The two are conflated all the time by a variety of atheist groups and organizations.

The Secular Coalition for America‘s byline is “Representing Secular Americans in Our Nation’s Capital.” Who are these secular Americans?

The Secular Coalition for America represents the viewpoints of nontheistic Americans. Nontheists use a variety of terms to describe themselves: atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker, skeptic, bright, ignostic, materialist, and naturalist, among others.

The Secular Coalition for America uses “secular” as a synonym for “nontheist.”

Another organization, Secular Woman, offers this mission and vision statement:


The mission of Secular Woman is to amplify the voice, presence, and influence of non-religious women.


Secular Woman envisions a future in which women without supernatural beliefs have the opportunities and resources they need to participate openly and confidently as respected voices of leadership in the secular community and every aspect of society.

“Secular” women means “non-religious” women.

And then there is the Secular Student Alliance.

Mission and Vision

The mission of the Secular Student Alliance is to organize, unite, educate, and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics. We envision a future in which nontheistic students are respected voices in public discourse and vital partners in the secular movement’s charge against irrationality and dogma.

The Secular Student Alliance is a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit. We work to organize and empower nonreligious students around the country. Our primary goal is to foster successful grassroots campus groups which provide a welcoming community for secular students to discuss their views and promote their secular values.

“Secular” means “nontheistic” and “nonreligious.”

And then there is The Secular Web.

The Secular Web is owned and operated by Internet Infidels Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization dedicated to promoting and defending a naturalistic worldview on the Internet.

As defined by Paul Draper, naturalism is “the hypothesis that the natural world is a closed system, which means that nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it.” Thus, “naturalism implies that there are no supernatural entities”—including God.

“Secular” = “naturalistic” = no God.

And then there is The Secular Census.

The American Secular Census℠ is open to all U.S. citizens and permanent residents over 18 years of age who are skeptical of supernatural claims, regardless of self-identification or affiliation.

“Secular” means those who are skeptical of supernatural claims.

Of the twenty-two leaders of “secular organizations” who signed An Open Letter to the Secular Community, which was clearly penned as a response to the turmoil roiling the atheist movement, only one was the head of an organization that was not explicitly atheist, and that organization (JREF) was a skeptic organization rather than a secular organization. Patheos atheist blogger Adam Lee uses “secular movement” as a synonym for “atheist movement.”   The Secular Coalition refers to atheists, agnostics, and other unbelievers as “seculars.” Susan Jacoby also conflated “secular movement” and “atheist movement” when she wrote of “The Dearth of Women in the Secular Movement” for The Humanist.

The simple reality is that when I traverse the realm of atheist blogs, organizations, and conferences, I find “secular movement” as their label of choice over and over and over. Even Ron Lindsay of Center For Inquiry uses the term “secular movement” to refer to organized atheism, carefully defining the term “secular movement” in a way that made his conflation with organized atheism beyond obvious. A Secular Student Alliance leader wrote in an article posted on the Secular Student Alliance website that “secular is a word that encompasses many nonreligious philosophies, which include atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, freethought, and humanism, among others.” Conferences that bear the label “secular” are actually atheist conferences. “Secular movement” has become the shorthand for “atheist movement,” and “secular” has come to refer to those who are nontheistic or nonreligious. And in the U.S. at least, “secular activist” has become synonymous with “atheist activist.”

Sarah Jones did conflate “secular activist” and “atheist activist” and “secular” with “atheist,” but when she did so she merely echoed what is done regularly by atheist/secular organizations and conferences. If you’re unhappy with that conflation, it might be worth talking to Secular Woman, Secular Coalition for America, Ron Lindsay, Adam Lee, Susan Jacoby, The Humanist, and each of the organizations that signed the Open Letter to the Secular Community. Sarah was not the one who initially conflated those two terms. They were.

Finally, some commenters argued that because Sarah works for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, she is a secular activist, whether she claims the label or not. This is problematic for two reasons. First, if someone doesn’t want a label, you shouldn’t try to stick it on them. Second, AU doesn’t actually describe itself as “secular,” taking instead the label “nonpartisan,” which is very close to Sarah’s preferred term, “nonsectarian.” So no, Sarah is not a secular activist.

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