Five Reasons to be Openly Secular

Apr 23, 2015

Image: Shutterstock

By Robyn Blumner

There are plenty of days when people who don’t believe in God don’t think twice about their secularism. We nonbelievers can pretty much stay under the radar.

But then there are those times when nonbelievers feel like we must be the last acceptable target of untethered hostility, social animus, and just plain meanness. Like when Phil Robertson ofDuck Dynasty fame recently ranted that atheists hold no moral compass because God is not dictating right and wrong. Therefore, it must be okay for their wives to be decapitated and their daughters raped and murdered.

Obviously some basic enlightenment is needed (understatement alert!) on what atheism is — and the only way to effectuate that change is for us to make it happen.

Which is why on April 23 we celebrate Openly Secular Day, a day for atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and the nonreligious to proudly proclaim their community.

Here are the five reason nonbelievers should be Openly Secular:

1. Phil Robertson, et al.

He may be a particularly dim bulb, but to varying degrees his views are widely accepted. Americans seem stuck on the idea that morality comes from religion. It is a misconception that flies in the face of available evidence. Studies demonstrate that humans are hardwired for empathy.

From a very young age, toddlers will try to help strangers even if it redounds no benefit to themselves. And brain scans show we literally feel each other’s pain. As much as any religious text, our morality derives from this remarkable evolutionary feature that binds us together and allows us to care for one another as social beings.

When good, hard-working nonbelievers come forward to friends, neighbors, co-workers, and loved ones, they are living examples of being good without God. It is axiomatic that giving Americans a sense of how prevalent atheism is and how many nonbelievers they actually know, trust, and like will erode negative stereotypes.

2. Living your authentic self is liberating.

Just ask celebrities like Saturday Night Live alum Julia Sweeney and boy-next-door television host, actor, and singer John Davidson, both of whom have made Openly Secular videos coming forward to say they are happy and proud atheists.

Hiding one’s true views on religion can be stressful. You may be asked to join in prayers at public, family, and work events — or even asked to lead them. In dozens of Openly Secular videos, people from all walks of life of all ages, races, and ethnicity say what a joy it has been to be open about their secularism. When that “secret” is unleashed it often loses its intimidating power. Being able to speak truthfully of one’s understanding of reality and the natural world is a central aspect of self-identity.

3. It creates a safe space for others to be secular.

It’s always tough to be the first to explore any cultural terrain. In many parts of the country it is dangerous to be an atheist. Physical attacks are rare, though they do happen, but there can be alarming consequences to being openly secular, including the loss of family, friends, employment, and business opportunities.

People who know they are unlikely to face a backlash may be more likely to shrug about being public about their nonbelief, but it’s important to come forward to expand the safe space for others. Openly secular people give license to others who are more reticent or have more to fear.

Coming forward as secular is an act of generosity toward fellow nonbelievers, just as the first courageous gays and lesbians who came out helped blaze the path for others. Going public is perhaps the only way to change the culture for us all.

4. Political power and public policy are skewed.

Atheists and agnostics make up upwards of seven percent of the U.S. population — a higher percentage than Jews and Muslims combined. People who say they have no religious affiliation, of which nonbelievers are a subset, are the largest growing cohort in the country, accounting for 20 percent of the overall adult population and fully one-third of adults under 30.

Yet secular people have no political power. There is not one member of Congress willing to call him or herself atheist, a label considered the third rail of politics.

That means openly secular people are foreclosed from public policy decision-making — ceding more power to the Religious Right than it deserves. The very people who rely on science and evidence-based thinking are cut out of politics and governance. No wonder our policymakers are so often in the thrall of religious dogma when deciding issues such as sex education, birth control and abortion rights, stem cell research, same-sex marriage, and climate change.

5. It’s cool to be secular.

. . . or at least an evangelical Christian research and polling firm says so.The Barna Group, a major marketing firm specializing in public attitudes toward religion, says in its 2015 State of Atheism in America report, “atheism has shifted in the past 50 years from cultural anathema to something the ‘cooler’ kids are doing.”

Well, there you have it, the best argument of all.

You want to be cutting-edge cool? Be Openly Secular!

24 comments on “Five Reasons to be Openly Secular

  • 1
    Steve DeHaven says:

    Come out to at least one person today!

    In addition to the 7-20 percent who acknowledge their secularism, or who at least deny any religious affiliation, I suspect the number of “functional atheists” is quite large. By “functional atheist,” I mean all the following:

    (1) People who don’t respond “none” when asked about their religious affiliation, but who only classify themselves as “spiritual.”
    (2) People who classify themselves as “Christian” because they equate that with “Good Person,” but who nevertheless hold no particular Christian beliefs.
    (3) People who hold beliefs particular to one faith (Christian, Jew, Hindu, etc.), and perhaps even attend regular services, but who manage their daily lives on the basis of reason and evidence, regardless of any dogma.

    Within all these groups, but particularly the third, is a great amount of variation. They can range from the “Christmas-Easter” Christians, who only attend services on those days, to practicing Jews of almost any level of devotion short of ultra-Orthodox, to practicing Muslims who have assimilated into Western societies. Many of these people describe themselves in those terms or practice those faiths because that is the faith in which they were raised, and for no other reason.

    It is among these people that I believe secularists can have the largest impact. People in these groups may recoil at the term “atheist,” but they show, by their lack of extremist beliefs, at least some hope that they are open to education. Look for these people among your family, friends, and co-workers. These are the people to whom you can come out as secularist, rationalist, “Bright,” or atheist, and have some chance of reasoned dialogue.

    I’m not suggesting you can or should try to “convert” these people; merely that you have the possibility of relaxing their attitudes toward people such as ourselves, who openly admit we don’t believe. It is this relaxing of attitudes that will eventually open doors for us to express ourselves in the political arena with the same freedom as the believer. Once that door opens, politicians will find it nearly impossible to ignore the 7-20 percent of us who openly acknowledge our secularism. Then real change becomes a real possibility.

    So choose carefully, and come out to at least one person today!

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  • I find it difficult to imagine growing up in some parts of the USA, I was left to my own devices as a kid – and went to a non-religious school – It didn’t take my enquiring mind long to realise Father xmas was a fake, and then obviously – since adults could lie about that – what other myths were adults attempting to make us kids believe!!!
    I was atheist aged 10…… simples…

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  • My experience is with gay lib. There was nobody expressing the gay point of view in BC Canada. I came out. Within a couple of years there were perhaps a dozen, then it exploded. Getting started is the hard part. The earlier you come out, the bigger the difference you make.

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  • Yeah , well here in the north of England we have been reasonably tolerant, a few idiots – used to have a go at the more openly gay lads at school – I never really bothered – I have never cared what other people do as long as it doesn’t break the law or is brazenly anti-social. People could walk round stark bollock naked (if warm enough) if they wanted – and I’d probably only take note if a more pleasing female-body wended it’s way into my line of sight……

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  • A problem here is that the article conflates Secular with Atheist. I’m an atheist, but even religious people should be in favour of a secular society. The only other option seems to be a theocracy, and unless a persons particular variety of god-bothering matches the official version down to the smallest detail, they could have problems.

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  • I am a former evangelical christian who qualifies myself as “spiritual”. I am not an atheist or a physical materialist. Please don’t exclude our voices from secularism because you believe that we are “stupid” in the same way that atheists seem to believe religionists are “stupid”. The vast majority of religionists were indoctrinated before they had a choice or the ability to reason out and negate the lies they were being told. They are in essence “brain-damaged”. I have based my spiritual beliefs on my experiences in life, particularly those I lived while experiencing severe trauma. I clicked on this article and was surprised to find the words “atheist” and “secular” being used synonymously. They are NOT synonyms. Many religionists are in fact secularists as well. The pool is very wide, so please don’t hi-jack this label in an exclusive manner to apply only to one faction of secularists.

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  • carry
    Apr 23, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    I clicked on this article and was surprised to find the words “atheist” and “secular” being used synonymously.
    They are NOT synonyms. Many religionists are in fact secularists as well. The pool is very wide, so please don’t hi-jack this label in an exclusive manner to apply only to one faction of secularists.

    “Secular” simply means free of the domination of any one religion or religion in general.
    However, it is often conflated with “atheism”, simply because it is a position challenging attempts at religious domination, or moves to impose imposition of particular dogmas!

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  • If you did not have the opportunity so readily available to review Carry’s brief comment above, I would quote it in full because, taking rhetorical license, I can aver he is absolutely right. Declaring oneself openly secular does not preclude religious belief, spirituality, or mysticism confined to one’s private life. A secularist interacts with other human beings in the political arena, in the public square, in the social environment on criteria that promotes human flourishing consistent with scientific advances, reason and humanist morality. What he or she contingently believes about transcendent, metaphysical, or supernatural forces operating in the cosmos is a personal matter on the condition that such beliefs do not harm others or intrude upon freedom of inquiry and conscience.

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  • I applaud this.

    The term “atheism” is unreasonably poisonous to many in the US and secularism and “openly secular” seems to be intended as a euphemism for atheist. This is awkward all around and not only for the likes of carry or the many religious supporters of the political ideal of secularism, which has it that state, political, and democratic processes, in order to be democratic and fair, should only operate pre-religiously, but also for those atheists amongst us who wish the description “atheist” to connote no other necessary qualities than lacking a belief in god(s).

    Again and again a baggage-free definition of atheist defeats those who rail against it.

    Should the movement morph into a properly pro secular political movement, I will be delighted. Such a stance, fighting for a proper democratic process and the democratic rights of all and by default championing the most politically disadvantaged including (in the US), the Atheists, then it can have its cake, eat it and have seconds….

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  • Should the movement morph into a properly pro secular political movement…

    Yes. It should try to become a lobby to counter those who would insist that you all follow MY RELIGION, or else.

    I don’t like the term “Atheist”. It has been taken over by the pious, who are many and powerful, as a term of disgust and loathing. Too often the term is seen in the media by the great unwashed linked to terms like evil and immoral. I have no problem with a secular world, were people go about their beliefs, without no interference with others or rational government decisions.

    To me a non belief in god is just the collateral damage of a rational mind. It needs no other label. I would be happy if the term atheist was shunned by those of a rational mind, to side line it. To neutralize the negative connotations associated with that term.

    Carry would fit right in with the secular world I would envisage. The RCC would be there too, administering to their flock, but not crossing over the boundary of trying to influence matters that occur outside of their vast property holdings.

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  • I proposed in another thread that “Openly Secular” need to solicit openly secular religious folk and ideally a high profile one to add to the Penn’s and Teller’s.

    The RCC and others will mostly exclude themselves from a secular state on the basis that they see the political promotion of their religious values as their job. Their involvement in service provision, for instance, will consistently fall below the standards of fairness demanded by secular law-making. Conversely I expect many Catholics to support the idea.

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  • The RCC and others will mostly exclude themselves from a secular state..

    True. Today. The test for me as to whether a rational world was finally the adult in the room would be when the RCC, and all other major religions considered themselves as good partners in a secular world. A bit utopian, but if ever we cleared that bar, my work here would be done.

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  • 14
    Danyelle says:

    Carry, great post. I have and live a spiritual experience. God is not a person but an experience for me. I don’t need anyone’s agreement. It’s real for me and that’s enough. I also fully support secularism as well as science. I fully support everyone’s beliefs as long as they don’t disempower anyone else.
    I have been denigrated by fundamental Christians as well as by atheists. In a truly evolved society no mature adult human being can believe they have the answer to God’s existence and and then shame those who don’t agree. It’s time for an authentic “compassionate secular” society.

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  • Danyelle
    Apr 24, 2015 at 6:49 am

    I have been denigrated by fundamental Christians as well as by atheists.
    In a truly evolved society no mature adult human being can believe they have the answer to God’s existence and then shame those who don’t agree.

    While fundamentalists have only delusional assertions, the neuro-psychologists are working on an evidence-based understanding of spiritual feelings.
    “We have found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain,” said Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions. “Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain. Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.”

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  • I think that people have just got to realise that “altered states of personal experience” have got absolutely nothing to do with any external stimulus outside of what we all consider to be normal – sight, sound, smell and touch. The problem people have is in identifying the stimulus which may be acting on a cortex-subroutine of which your thinking-mind is not aware of. Pheromone response for instance! I like to relax and try to free my mind and concentrate on my breathing – classical meditation technique! I also like to get the old headphones on and immerse myself into a complex piece of music (usually symphonic progressive rock) – I often get a very strong emotional response to certain pieces of music – some literally move me to tears – and I have no conscious reason for understanding why it does…..

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  • JimJFox
    Apr 24, 2015 at 9:00 am

    Hi Jim!

    When I want an actual link address to show, I put a copy of the link address in the square brackets [ ] with the same link address following in curved brackets ( ).

    Apr 24, 2015 at 8:57 am

    HOW does the link description work??

    Your link description to the article on Turkey works, but you have the words, “[link description work]” in the [ ] brackets, so that is what will show in the preview and post.

    Sometimes the system creates links automatically from a copied web address.

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  • 23
    steve greene says:

    Two years ago, my former spouse invited me to dinner at her home. It was just the two of us, and she had meticulously prepared a wonderful dinner. The ambiance was exceptional, and our continuing friendship was solid, despite our unsuccessful past as a married couple. We sat down at her elegant dining room table, where she carefully placed the food on our two plates. As she is a born-again Christian, it is her way to say a prayer prior to eating. In the past when I have dined with her, she has done this. This time it was different.

    She looked me in the eyes, comforting charm in her face, and asked if I would say grace. Now keep in mind, she and I rarely see each other over the years, as about 1,000 miles separate us, so she really was not aware of my thoughts on the supernatural because she has not read my book of personal ideologies. So here I was, in a rather uncomfortable situation that appeared unexpectedly. Do I just go ahead and say some standard and quick blessing to appease her need for divine guidance? After all, with a few simple words, we would be eating in no time, and they are just words, right? Where is the harm?

    Well, since I went public as a naturalist in 2012, the genuine freedom of emotional well-being that accompanies being openly honest about all things had become a regular part of my life. I had had enough of feigning beliefs of others simply to fit in with their ways. What about my path? Must I always compromise the thoughts in my head? As she waited for me to begin the prayer, in what seemed like mental eternity as my brain quickly assessed the pros and cons of honesty versus closeted behavior, I realized I could no longer play the supernatural game of the masses, even here at a private dinner setting.

    I looked at her, and matter-of-factly stated that I am a naturalist, which necessarily means that I have no belief in supernatural deities, thus saying prayers to any of humankind's many gods is not something I do. Okay, so what could have been a quick entry into picking up our forks and eating morphed into a serious, albeit brief, discussion about how I could be so lost as to not believe in God. Of course, she was referring to the ubiquitous Christian god, a deity she had long since chosen to follow in a nation where Christianity seems to be the prevailing choice of a sizeable population. In an exceptionally brief reply, I simply referred her to my public writing if she had sufficient interest, which I believe she did not because the conversation rather quickly turned to something else more comfortable for her (after she went ahead and said the needed prayer). I was willing to carry it as far as she had desire to progress, but followed her lead and let the topic of supernatural needs dissolve. I was a guest, thus my deference to her wishes.

    This was a new experience for me. Over the years, when I have found myself in such a position to lead a prayer at a dinner table, which has been exceedingly rare, mind you, I have simply deferred to the Christian tradition so that I would seem a good person in line with all at the table. This particular evening however, I could no longer follow the delusional path of supernatural belief paradigms, and I openly stated so. It was a momentary challenge for my head, but the results were well worth the effort to simply be myself for a change! Our respect of one another has not changed, and perhaps she came away from the experience with an understanding that a man she respects actually is a naturalist, rather than a supernaturalist. For me, this was the optimal choice that evening, and it reinforced the inner peace that comes with honesty.

    steve greene
    (note: I refer to myself as a naturalist, a definition that stands alone for one who honors the natural world as it factually exists. I do not label or define myself in reference to any supernatural ideologies, thus my use of terms like atheist is not part of my behavior. For me, calling myself an atheist is countering a theistic belief system, and while that system might be prevalent in our fearful world, I opt not to honor it in any way in my writing or speech. I associate myself with what is, not with what is not.)

    [Link to user’s website removed by moderator]

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  • I did better than tell one believer. I posted the following on my Facebook page:

    Tomorrow (4/23) is the first annual Openly Secular Day. Created by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, it’s purpose is to break down walls between the believers and the non – believers. During OSD non – believers are to “come out of the closet” and tell at least one believer about his/her lack of faith in order to open up dialogue. Although I’ve never really been “in the closet” about it, I’ve never made a whole lot of noise about it either. So here you have it. I am openly Antitheist!

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