What’s The Difference Between A Secular Society And an Atheist Society?

What’s The Difference Between A Secular Society And an Atheist Society? May 9, 2019

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!

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  • James Edgar

    What an excellent description of both types of societies. Honestly if i was to write something it would look remarkably similar. With lots of speeling mistakes.

  • Depending upon the forum in which we discuss this (I’m not too concerned about this one) we should be mindful of the fact that “secular” really has two distinctly different meanings. It can mean “non-religious”, in which case a “secular society” and an “atheist society” are essentially the same thing. It can also mean “a system where government and church are not entangled” – what we’re supposed to have but don’t, quite. In that kind of secular society, people can have all manner of religious beliefs, including none, and are largely prevented from imposing their beliefs on others, especially by force of law. That’s pretty much the sort of “secular society” you’re discussing. If there’s any possibility of confusion, we should make it clear what we’re talking about.

    Just to add to the possible confusion, religious people commonly interpret “atheist society” as one in which people are forced to be atheist… the societies of Stalin and Pol Pot being popular examples. Of course, virtually no atheist advocates that, but we can be pretty sure that when a religionist uses the term, that’s what they mean. Always got to stay on top of that one.

  • blogcom

    Isn’t a secular society non religious? in which case its an atheistic one.

  • Kitsune Inari

    The society itself wouldn’t be theist, but its members could be.

  • MadScientist1023

    I don’t think formal separation of church and state is necessary for a society to be secular. Consider the UK. Officially, it’s a Christian nation. It has a state religion. The leader of the UK government, Queen Elizabeth, has a religious title and all citizens are officially her subjects. But since all of these things are more ceremonial than effective, it’s still a more secular society than America, which officially has separation of Church and State.

    I’m also not entirely sure your characterization of what constitutes an “atheist nation” is accurate. It might be what some people picture when they talk about an atheist nation, and it may be what an atheist nation ideally is, but then what else would you call a nation in which atheism is the state religion and all religion is banned? States have attempted to ban religion entirely in the past. I expect that this is the definition most religious conservatives are thinking of when they use the term “atheist nation”. It seems to me there need to be different terms for describing the kind of bottom-up atheist nation that you outline above and the kind of top-down atheist nation that the religious fear.

  • MrPeach

    I think by and large that a “society” that is atheist versus secular would be essentially identical, except in one some people would have weird hobbies involving special buildings and odd ceremonies. Really, that would be it. Pretty much like any other deep hobby, they would do it in their private time and it wouldn’t affect anyone else not involved in that hobby.

  • towercam

    I’m hoping that some time after you typed this up, you realized how silly it is to expect the religion-deluded to keep religion separate from state. It isn’t realistic to do so.

    Religion requires one to lie to one’s self about a super other.
    Once one has done that, one believes that that super being is with them continually.

    No matter where that believer goes, be it church or mayor’s office, the believer is going to apply his personal prejudices that he thinks his god supports.

  • Connie Beane

    There’s a big difference between a society that is genuinely secular and one that looks “secular-ish” because it’s not currently enforcing its official religious rules and regulations–like the U.K. If you don’t have a formal separation between church and state, that “ceremonially” secular society can swing back toward religious tyranny at the drop of a hat.

  • Rennyrij

    Thank you, GM! I think I get it – an Atheistic Society would be a universal, complete lack of the feeling of a need for any sort of theism (religion), whereas a Secular Society allows the various religions/philosophies/life-stances to exist, and merely seeks to keep each one within its own community or sets of community, more like a “live and let live” way of thinking and living.

    In my simple mind, the presumption by the certain religious communities, by way of their leaders, of their right/responsibility to inflict their point-of-view on everyone else, as superseding everyone else’s right to their own privacy and viewpoint, is probably the biggest stumbling block to us all getting along in our own ways. Will any American politician ever dare to introduce a bill that would make proselytizing a crime? Is there a better way of stopping proselytizing? Because it seems to me that Pride and the Need to be “acceptable” by the perceived majority get in the way, all the time, along with its twin, Peer Pressure. (And perhaps $Lobbying and Greed, too.) This may be an over-simplification, but doesn’t it bear thinking about?

  • Lucifer Son666

    A more accurate description of a nation that bans religion would be a antitheist nation but unfortunately you can’t expect the religious to understand the difference between antitheist and atheist

  • David Cromie

    I am not sure that anyone could be forced to be an atheist, how would that be achieved (neither Stalin nor Pol Pol managed it)?

  • David Cromie

    Firstly, Queen Elizabeth, as a constitutional monarch, is not the leader of the UK government, the Prime Minister (and Cabinet) is.

    Secondly, atheism is not a religion, and ‘a nation in which atheism is the state religion and all religion is banned’ is a logical contradiction.

  • Phil

    I am a signed up Pastafarian but ” in order to receive endless garlic bread in the afterlife” is my idea of hell! I think I’ll start a break-away sect where garlic is regarded as evil. Anyone caught eating it is to be ‘bread-rolled’ outside the city walls, unless it is raining of course.

  • Sure. I just mean a society where people are required to profess they are atheists, and prevented from practicing any religion. Obviously, we lack the ability (so far!) of forcing beliefs. But plenty of societies have limited or forced expression of beliefs.

  • Robert Baden

    It is false to equate non-religious and secular. Unitarian Universalists tend to be secular, since they expect they will always be a minority religion. Don’t want the Calvinists or Catholics being able to tell us what to do.

  • Facts, hun.