5 Challenges for Secularism

Secular activists. (Charlie Neibergall, AP, 2009)
Secular activists. (Charlie Neibergall, AP, 2009)

Openly Secular Day aims to promote respectability and inclusion.

Thursday is coming-out day. Not for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, but for a group that hopes to emulate the success of the gay rights movement: agnostics, atheists, humanists and other religion non-believers.

Openly Secular Day, the work of an alliance of secular advocacy groups, including the Richard Dawkins Foundation and the Secular Student Alliance, is aimed at motivating seculars to open up about their non-belief by putting out videos and statements on the Internet, or by simply having a candid conversation with someone in their life.

Organizers are quick to acknowledge they are taking a page out of the gay rights playbook, and why not? Survey data show that 68% of Americans who personally know a lot of gays and lesbians support marriage equality, more than double the 32% support rate among those who do not.

Indeed, Openly Secular Day and similar tactics are likely to help the growing population of the non-religious gain their deserved acceptance and freedom from discrimination. Even so, it is hardly a given that advances will come as rapidly and thoroughly for seculars as they have for the LGBT community. Here are five challenges the secular movement faces as it ramps up to achieve respectability and inclusion:

  • Secular is not the new gay. While it’s true that non-believers face discrimination — as testified by the fact that several states forbid atheists from holding public office — seculars have not faced the severity of demonization, bullying and violence that gays and lesbians endure. This makes non-believers a less sympathetic group, as does the perception that non-belief, unlike sexual orientation and racial identity, is a choice, not something intrinsic with which one is born.
  • Seculars are known for what they are not — religious — more than what they are. This is part of a wider reputation problem borne out by atheists (the most visible subset of secular America) emerging as the second-least popular religion-related category on a “feeling thermometer” study by the Pew Research Center, with Muslims barely edging out atheists for the dubious honor of being last.

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Tom Krattenmaker

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