Secularism and Atheism

Secularism and Atheism November 7, 2013

I suppose I really have to go there

Apparently there is a great amount of confusion concerning the difference between atheism and secularism. Well, I’ll help try and provide some education on the two. Recently, a guest blogger (Sarah Jones) on Libby Anne’s “Love, Joy, Feminism” here on Patheos blogged about why she is not a secular activist even though she works for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

First things first – she is equivocating. It is something that is commonly done when either 1) the person presenting doesn’t know what they’re talking about or 2) the person presenting is intentionally misleading their crowd. I don’t think this was a case of example 2 but it is a mistake to equivocate the terms atheism and secularism. One can be a secularist without being an atheist. It happens all the time. In fact Barry Lynn, the Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, is an ordained minister and believer. He works tirelessly to fight the infiltration of the theocrats from taking over the US Government. But he is a secularist, and a secularist activist. He is not, however, an atheist.


Let’s start with misconstrued definitions.

The clearest example of this is the use of the word “theory”. The most accurate and trusted dictionary in the world is the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. *Anyone can publish a dictionary as a ‘Webster’s Dictionary’ but ONLY the Merriam-Webster is authoritative.* Here is what Merriam’s says are the five definitions of “theory”:

  • the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another (science)
  • abstract thought (layman)
  • the general or abstract principles of a body of fact, a science, or an art (music)
  • a belief, policy, or procedure proposed or followed as the basis of action (a set of rules)
  • a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena (see 1 above)
  • a hypothesis assumed for the sake of argument or investigation (sherlock holmes)

When involved in an argument over science those (creationists) who don’t accept the precepts of science will always state that evolution is “just a theory” which leads me to three conclusions.

  1. They don’t know the definition of just.
  2. They don’t know the definition of theory.
  3. They’ve never read a dictionary.

If by just they mean something so concrete that it binds the science world together then, yes, it is “JUST a theory – triumphantly so!”

If by theory they think it means anything beside definition 1 as stated above by Merriam-Webster, then they need to take a science class.


When an individual (in this example) equivocates a term in an argument, they make a false representation of the definition of a word and attempt to get that passed to the uninformed in a crowd. It wastes the time of their opponent who has to then explain the equivocation to the crowd before giving their rebuttal….all within their rebuttal time.

Transposing a word with multiple definitions by using it correctly in one sentence and then using the same word but the alternate definition is a clear sign of either ignorance on the word itself….or intentional deception. I get somewhat perturbed when I have to continually explain this again and again to believers when they come to me with questions, but that’s okay because at least they are willing to listen. I get angry when I have to reinforce that within my own ‘community’ because I know that we should all be filling the role of informing the uninformed or ill-informed believer. When we fail to uphold that standard for ourselves then we must correct ourselves and charge on…but it still gives some ammunition to the fundamentalists – but they aren’t going to stop anyways.

All that being said – atheism and secularism are two different things.


  • a disbelief in the existence of deity
  •  the doctrine that there is no deity
  • the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society
  • indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations
An atheist is more than likely a secularist. But let’s not lump the two together. A secularist need not be an atheist. I, myself, am married to a Christian Secularist. My wife is a Christian that believes in the absolute separation of church and state. Before we run around stating we are not “secular activists” let’s ensure that we aren’t doing a disservice to what secularism is. Secularism is solely keeping the church out of the affairs of the state – in keeping with the Constitution and what the Founding Fathers deemed as the only government that could succeed.


I suppose I am an atheist activist. I do work for American Atheists. But the biggest concern I have and what is more important to me is secularism. I am a secularist activist before an atheist activist. I’m more concerned with the separation of church and state than I am with promoting atheism. But while I am in the role of being an atheist that pisses all over the concept of “No atheists in foxholes” I am certainly going to take the opportunity to do all I can to destroy that false stereotype as well.

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  • scoutsadie

    FYI, there’s no apostrophe in AU’s name (see first mention), and Barry is the Executive Director, not the President.

    • Paul Loebe

      Duly noted.

      • Paul Loebe

        That’s an odd downvote. 10 guesses on who it is.

  • You make many good points in this article. It is in everybody’s best interest, whether religious or non-religious, Christian, Muslim, or Atheist, to keep it all out of the government. As an Atheist I am not asking the government to declare that there is no God, but I also don’t want them to declare that there is one (or a hundred).

  • Al Dente

    I often differentiate between atheism and secularism. I believe that it is in almost everyone’s best interest to have a secular government; believer and atheist alike. Our founding fathers understood that religion and politics corrupt each other. Religion with political power can force its beliefs on everyone while governments who claim divine providence have license to do anything. Most Americans do not study world history and know little about the dark ages, the crusades, the inquisitions, and little about European witch hunts. There was a time when people lived under a Christian theology and indeed it sucked.

    • Paul Loebe

      Very true! I think that is another problem. I believe we need to revamp the way we teach history in the public school system. There’s too much PC involved with it because they want a white-washed history without hurting anyone’s feelings (or book sales).

      • Al Dente

        The reason history is required in public schools is because military leaders were dismayed when soldiers facing a dire situation would surrender rather than “fight to the last drop of blood.” Obviously these kids didn’t know what they were fighting for else they would be willing to die for their country! History is always white-washed to a certain extent because it is written by the winners but public school history is pure propoganda. The goal of public schools isn’t to educate but to indoctrinate. It is to produce eager consumers, reliable workers, and loyal soldiers.

        • Paul Loebe

          Oh yes. Current school systems are based on a Prussian model to indoctrinate the youth so that when they became soldiers they wouldn’t flee the battlefield.

          It was copied off of that with the “intent” that our system would be used for good rather than for making mindless zombies who were extreme nationalists…

          It’s worked out pretty well…. *cough*

  • Thanks for reminding us of this important distinction. I am quite happy to work alongside people of faith (like Bruce Prescott and Barry Lynn) who stand up for separation of church and state.

  • Anton

    Count me in as a Christian who supports separation of Church and State.

    As an old wise man said, the two are sort of like Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis: I’m not crazy about the stuff they’ve done together in the past, and I think a reunion would just be a real bad idea.