Satisfying my addiction to Reddit, I was perusing the Debate An Atheist subreddit when I found a question I had never seen or been asked before. This is not a common occurrence amidst the chorus of “What if you’re wrong?”s and “Why do you hate God?”s. Usually, I log in to Reddit, pop on over to DAA and within moments my eyes are rolling while I grumble, angrily, don’t they have anything new to ask? So, you can understand why I might have been mildly gobsmacked and titillated at a newish question. I mean, someone actually found a new question to ask atheists! That, however, didn’t stop OP from quickly offering a straw man as a potential answer. They said,
Difference Between A Secular Society And an Atheist Society? I mean I assume they would basically be the same thing right? At a functional level? Or does secular mean the religious people are all separate, like how the Amish are suuuper disconnected from everybody else and their business?
It’s obvious, with OP’s suggestion a secular society may be a new, fancy way to revisit segregation, that they’re ill-informed. However, we have to respect their willingness to learn. The very act of posting this question to Reddit, where skinning people alive for sport is what the comments section is for, is an act of bravery in and of itself. So, I thought I’d answer this in greater detail than has been done in the comments already.
The definition of secular, as I use it most often, is simply the separation of church and state. It’s not the elimination of the church. It’s certainly not the separation of religious people and non-religious people. It’s just the separation of church and state.
By “church” of course, I mean organized religion, and by “state”, I mean all branches of the government, from road maintenance to Parliament Hill.
When I, or any other secularist, push for a secular society, what we mean is that we don’t want religion to have any influence on public policy. We are making no comment on what you believe, personally. We’re not concerned with what you do in your private life and private institutions. Most secularists support, wholeheartedly, your freedom to practice your religion.
Where it stops though, is when your religion and your beliefs begin to affect the lives of those who don’t share them. A secular society would not allow your deeply held personal beliefs to be taken into consideration when creating laws, designing a public school curriculum or electing public officials. In a secular society, your religious beliefs are kept where they belong: in your own home, amongst other believers and in your own churches or private schools.
For example, if I am a Pastafarian and I believe that one must partake in a meal of divine, saucy meatballs at least once per day in order to receive endless garlic bread in the afterlife, then I am free to do so on my own dime, in my own time. Where we begin to have a problem is when I insist that my son or daughter’s school serve luscious, perfectly seasoned, pan-seared umami balls swimming in marinara at every lunch hour. Maybe I even stomp my feet to have this meal preceded with a prayer to His Noodliness in order that all the school babies earn themselves a toasty, golden-brown, garlicy, carbicidal afterlife. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, vegetarians, vegans and everything in between are forced to take part in this daily activity, their personal beliefs going unconsidered. What’s more, our tax dollars are paying for the juicy balls and delectable gravy and school time that could otherwise be spent learning about Schroedinger’s Cat, Pavlov’s Dogs or Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven is being spent wishing for post-mortem toast.
In a secular society, this would not be allowed, no matter which religion it favoured, even if the majority of the population identified with it. In a secular society, your religious rituals happen in your home or in your religious institutions and cannot be forced on people who don’t share your beliefs. In a more realistic example, opening the day at a public school with a prayer would not fly in a secular society. You are free to pray, but forcing others to is not okay.
There’s an old saying, “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins”. This perfectly defines a secular society.
An atheist society, however, is a different idea and it’s more of a pipe dream, really. It’s not likely to happen in any of our lifetimes and isn’t necessarily something most atheists really strive for. It’s kind of like wishing for a true replicator, just like the one that gave Picard his hot Earl Grey tea, to be designed and universally accessible before we die. It’d be nice. It sounds really cool. I want it to happen, but it’s not about to.
An Atheist society would be one in which the entire population of said society lacks a belief in God. An atheist society is not one in which the belief in God is outlawed or punished; it’s not a society in which we have gotten rid of religious people, it’s simply one in which everyone, by choice, no longer actually believes in a god. No need for churches, no need for religious private schools and no need to protect the rights of believers… because there would be none.
A society where religion or the belief in god is outlawed cannot be described as an atheist society because there are still going to be people who believe in a god but who successfully hide it.
Many atheists would tell you that such a society would be nice, but not likely anytime soon. They would also tell you that it’s not something they care to push. Most of the atheists I’ve been lucky enough to know are secularists, in that they don’t care what you believe so long as you don’t force it on the rest of us. If you keep it out of our public schools, away from our law books and out of our government, we support your right to believe it and practice it and we’re happy to live side-by-side with you.
As for myself, I believe very strongly that all societies should be secular. I don’t care if we’re all atheists, I just don’t want anyone’s personal beliefs to be pushed on people who don’t share them. I support everyone’s right to practice their own religion and have their own beliefs, so long as they are not using said beliefs to encroach on the personal rights of other people.
What’s your answer? What’s the difference between a secular society and an atheist one? Let me know in the comments!
Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay