This post is a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard’s 2012 Blogathon, a 12 hour blogging marathon by Chris Stedman and Chelsea Link to support HCH’s end-of-the-year fundraiser. Chelsea and Chris are both publishing one new post per hour, for twelve hours straight, and none of the posts have been written or drafted in advance. For more blogathon posts, click here. If you enjoyed this post or any of the others, please consider consider chipping in to support our work.
One of my biggest pet peeves as an atheist activist has to be when people conflate “secularism” with atheism, suggeting secularism means a society devoid of religion. This inaccurate framing is unfortunately propagated by believers and atheists alike.
Why the confusion? Well, let’s look at some definitions. Princeton University’s WorldNet 3.0 defines secularism as “a doctrine that rejects religion and religious considerations.” Merriam-Webster says secularism means “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.” With these definitions in mind, it’s easy to understand why many see secularism as meaning the absence of religion. And given this widespread misunderstanding of the meaning of secularism, it isn’t particularly surprising when religious people gather and express their opposition to secularism, claiming “the secular response to religious diversity is to push all religious beliefs out of public life.”
But if that were the case, why would one of the leading organizations promoting secularism — Americans United for Separation of Church and State — be headed up by a Christian reverend? Clearly, some people are working with an incorrect definition of secularism. (Hint: it isn’t the reverend.)
The misinformation that exists about secularism does not help ensure support for it, and I believe it should be called out as wrong. A more accurate definition of secularism is one that I believe necessarily includes the religious. I love the UK-based National Secular Society’s definition of secularism so much that I’m going to just copy and paste almost an entire page from their website:
Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.
Separation of religion from state
The separation of religion and state is the foundation of secularism. It ensures that religious groups don’t interfere in affairs of state, and makes sure the state doesn’t interfere in religious affairs.
Secularism protects both believers and non-believers
Secularism seeks to ensure and protect freedom of religious belief and practice for all citizens. Secularism is not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.
Secularism seeks to defend the absolute freedom of religious and other belief, and protect the right to manifest religious belief insofar as it does not impinge disproportionately on the rights and freedoms of others. Secularism ensures that the right of individuals to freedom of religion is always balanced by the right to be free from religion.
Secularism is about democracy and fairness
In a secular democracy all citizens are equal before the law and parliament. No religious or political affiliation gives advantages or disadvantages and religious believers are citizens with the same rights and obligations as anyone else.
Secularism champions human rights above discriminatory religious demands. It upholds equality laws that protect women, LGBT people and minorities. These equality laws ensure that non-believers have the same rights as those who identify with a religious or philosophical belief.
Equal access to public services
We all share hospitals, schools, the police and the services of local authorities. It is essential that these public services are secular at the point of use so that no-one is disadvantaged or denied access on grounds of religious belief (or non-belief.) All state-funded schools should be non-religious in character, with children being educated together regardless of their parents’ religion. When a public body grants a contract for the provision of services to an organisation affiliated to a particular religion or belief, such services must be delivered in a neutral manner, with no attempt to promote the ideas of that faith group.
Secularism is not atheism
Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. Secularism simply provides a framework for a democratic society. Atheists have an obvious interest in supporting secularism, but secularism itself does not seek to challenge the tenets of any particular religion or belief, neither does it seek to impose atheism on anyone.
Secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society – in politics, education, the law and elsewhere, for believers and non-believers alike.
Secularism protects free speech and expression
Religious people have the right to express their beliefs publicly but so do those who oppose or question those beliefs. Religious beliefs, ideas and organisations must not enjoy privileged protection from the right to freedom of expression. In a democracy, all ideas and beliefs must be open to discussion. Individuals have rights, ideas do not.
Secularism is the best chance we have to create a society in which people of all religions or none can live together fairly and peacefully.
Like the National Secular Society, I do not believe that religion has no place in public life. In fact, I strongly believe that public schools should offer classes about religion — religious literacy is staggeringly low in the United States, and it is imperative that we know what people believe and how that influences their behavior. For this reason, I’m a strong proponent of interfaith discussions, which create a forum for people to educate one another about religious diversity and the role religion plays in society. But in order to protect everyone, government must necessarily be secular.
So when talking about secularism, we should combat the common misunderstandings about secularism and include religious concerns and considerations about the importance of the separation of church and state. I like James Croft’s framing of it as “church-state protection.” Religious individuals and communities have as much to gain from secularism as atheists do. Let’s not allow secularism to be confused for atheism, or suggest that only atheists care about it. It isn’t true, and it cannot be true if we want to ensure a secular government that protects everyone’s freedom.
Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard. He is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, and the founder of the blog NonProphet Status.