I’m a big tent atheist. I support almost any effort to promote atheism and to spread the message that ancient superstitions are dangerous for society. This is why I still support the new Openly Secular campaign even though I am about to criticize it.
My criticism stems from my friend Carl’s big pet peeve. He hates it when the greater non-theist community use the term “secular” interchangeably with atheism. Sometimes I think he goes a bit too far, but in this case I think it is actually a pretty big issue.
There are a lot of atheist organizations that use the term “secular” in their titles and sometimes that is okay. For example, the Secular Coalition for America is all about promoting a secular values in government. It isn’t about promoting atheists in government necessarily. They fight for the separation of church and state. That is a secular issue and one that even many religious believers can get behind. If you support a separation of church and state, then you support secularism. You don’t have to be an atheist for that.
Secular simply means, “not pertaining to religion.” The Red Cross is a secular organization. Public schools are secular institutions. But it would be a mistake to claim that the Red Cross is an atheist organization or that public schools “push atheism” as many religious conservatives might assert. They simply don’t pertain to religion. They are neutral; neither supportive nor hostile toward religion.
So what does it mean to be “Openly Secular?” What does this campaign seek to do? Is it to let politicians know that there are people who support the separation of church and state or does it ask for atheists to be open about their atheism? I think the purpose is the latter more than the former and that is the essence of my criticism.
According to their website, their mission is “to eliminate discrimination and increase acceptance by getting secular people – including atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, humanists and nonreligious people – to be open about their beliefs.”
No mention of religious believers who are also secular but in fairness, they aren’t necessarily excluding them either. Still, I don’t think religious believers who support the separation of church and state face much if any discrimination solely because of that particular stance nor do I think they lack any acceptance in our mostly Christian society.
When I see a campaign like this, I can almost hear religious fundamentalists pointing their fingers and saying, “See, see, I told you secular schools were preaching atheism and we should be able to preach our worldview too.”
My objection here is that I don’t think it is productive to use the term “secular” as a softer way of saying “atheist.” Doing so is inherently problematic for the reason shown above. If they want people to come out as atheists, then they should say so. I am openly secular because I openly support the separation of church and state, but more importantly I am openly atheist and openly godless. Whatever word you want to use is fine as long as that term means what you want it to mean. “Secular” does not mean what they want it to mean and in this case it is an important distinction.
Still, with that all said I am a big tent atheist and so I still support their efforts. I just wish their efforts were more thought out. This is why I support the old Blasphemy Challenge and the more recent We Are Atheism campaigns much more. Check out my videos on both: