The Real Meaning of Secularism February 17, 2008

The Real Meaning of Secularism

The word “secular” has become synonymous with “atheist” in recent years. There is a difference, though.

In a recent Newsweek column, Lisa Miller writes this:

Like the words “feminist” and “liberal,” “secular” and its derivatives have come to mean extreme versions of themselves. They are code in conservative Christian circles for “atheist” or even “God hating”—they conjure, in a fresh way, all the demons Christian conservatives have been fighting for more than 30 years: liberalism, sexual permissiveness and moral lassitude.

She also makes this claim:

Aware that no group is more reviled in America than atheists, and reeling from all the attention atheists have gotten from recent best-selling books, some nonbelievers prefer to wrap themselves in a safer label: “secularist.” This rhetorical deflection only makes them targets. Secularist equals nonbeliever; nonbeliever equals immoral God-hater. “It’s red meat for the pundits,” says Greg Epstein, Harvard’s humanist chaplain. He prefers the word “humanist.”

Greg elaborates on this quotation (and clarifies what he meant) on the On Faith blog (emphasis his):

Only extremists want a society where we could simply claim god as the reason we should get whatever we want, without having to argue the practical merits of our case. In this sense, all Americans (and others) who support the separation of church and state are “secularists.”

He adds that there are a number of non-religious organizations that use the word “secular” (like my own, the Secular Student Alliance, and Greg’s, the Harvard Secular Society). The uses of the word in these cases is not contradictory, though. There’s no word that non-religious people can use as an umbrella term and “secular” has its uses:

… we must make clear we aren’t claiming exclusive rights to it. Pundits and politicos from Bill [O’Reilly] to Mitt Romney would have a harder time vilifying America’s so-called “secular religion” if forced to grasp that in so doing they alienate not just atheists but all who stand guard at Jefferson’s Wall of Separation between state and religion.

“Secular” means “separate from religion.” Our public schools are secular, not atheistic. Our government is secular (at least, it should be). We’re better off that way. So are Christians.

It’s disturbing that anyone would be against “secularism” when we’re talking about this use of the term.

Except for the people that want their faith to be forced upon everyone else.

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • That’s nothing new. Secular was considered the equivalent of godless back in the 70s & 80s when I was going to church. They think humanist = satanist, too. Shrugh. Willful ignorance and misuse of words, I think. The sad thing is that kids are indoctrinated with this fear of anything secular or humanist.

  • I agree. If we let “secular” become a synonym for atheist, then we don’t have a word for secular. There are already enough people who confuse a religiously neutral government with one that actively oppresses religion, so how can they appreciate that most of us nonreligious folks actually prefer the former over the latter like they do?

    But as you say, there aren’t any good umbrella euphemisms that describe both atheists and atheists who don’t like to call themselves atheists. Inventing a new word seemed like a great idea, but somehow it ended up sounding unnecessarily condescending (“Bright”). And making up a complementary label for everyone else is a bad compromise, even if it’s “Super.”

    As much respect as I have for the Secular Student Alliance, the Secular Coalition for America, and the Harvard Secular Society, I think we need to reclaim “atheist” itself. Every time you simply call yourself an atheist (especially a Friendly one), it stops being a derogatory or accusatory word. If some of us use it without shame, others will be less afraid to do the same, and someday it won’t even need a qualifier like “self-professed” or “openly” in newspapers. I appreciate that not all atheists are Humanists like Greg, but the latter term should still only be used for specificity, not evasion. If we shy away from an inherently neutral word like “atheist,” we let it become just as charged as “heathen,” “heretic,” or “infidel.” We can’t work toward tolerance or respect if we’re embarrassed by our own name.

  • Karen

    I recall the same thing, Donna. In my churches “secular humanist” was as dirty a term as “atheist,” in fact probably more so because we all were supposed to know actual secular humanists, whereas the only open atheists (back then) were Madalyn Murray O’Hare and her family.

    It’s an interesting argument. What I think he’s saying is that he wishes more religious people identified themselves as secularists in the sense that they support a secular government and society. For instance, there are religious believers in Americans United for Church and State, but that’s certainly a secular organization.

  • BZ

    Atheists shouldn’t use the word secular to mean people who aren’t religious. There’s a perfectly fine umbrella term for those all who aren’t religious, including agnostics and apathetics, etc. It is this: non-religious.

  • Richard Wade

    Epistaxis is right. This is why I call myself an atheist, to desensitize people (just about everyone) who have absorbed the negative connotation from the society around them. When I don’t live up to the evil stereotype their assumptions are weakened.

    Euphamisms are futile and even self-defeating. The fasci-fundies will always demonize whatever name we use. Stand your ground with the term that best describes you and make no apologies.

  • Old Mormon Guy

    Hemant: Thank you for this little essay. I agree with you, and I also like the verbage suggested by BZ, ‘non-religious’ when referring to anyone that prefers to be an atheist, agnostic, etc. I am 76 and have been a life long participant in the Mormon church and have always been taught there to avoid labels so far as possible, and try to understand other religious and non-religious positions, avoiding any condemnation. I respect you as an atheist. I hope you also respect me as I practice my faith. When you say that no group is more reviled than atheists, I wonder how well you understand the Mormon history? I know we both (atheists and Mormons) get some really bad press from evangelical pulpits. Has any atheist group ever had an extermination order issued against them by a Governor of any state, as was issued against Mormons by Govern Lilburn Boggs of Missourri? I guess an answer isn’t really important. I think it may be easy for any group, like yours or mine, to commisurate in the face of opposition and feel that they have been selected for some special reviling?? Peace!

  • Siamang

    Stand your ground with the term that best describes you and make no apologies.

    That’s why I’m going with “kitten-eating God-hater”. I’d like to see the windbag O’Reilly spin that one!

  • Milena

    That’s why I’m going with “kitten-eating God-hater”. I’d like to see the windbag O’Reilly spin that one!

    Why kittens, though? Are you in an area where babies are hard to find? Sucks to be you, Siamang.

    I’m pretty adamant about calling myself an atheist, too. I feel like secularist might be used a bit too often as a synonym for atheist, when it isn’t, and that takes away secularism’s own meaning and demonizes in the eyes of the Religious Right. I’d rather separate the misconceptions fundies have of atheists from their apparent fear of the separation of Chirch and State. It seems like it’d be easier to deal with.

  • There seems to be an interesting contradiction here in the USA. The people who talk the loudest about freedom are the quickest to condemn you if you do, say or think something they do not like.

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