April 23 (today in the USA) is Openly Secular Day, a day to celebrate being secular. People who are secular—including atheists, agnostics, humanists, and nonreligious people—are asked to tell one other person. The mission is “to eliminate discrimination and increase acceptance” of secular people. Above is the official promotional video.
I think everyone I know (which includes regular readers of this blog) is aware that I’m ardently secular and completely non-religious (if not, surprise!). I believe that for freedom and democracy to thrive, there must an impregnable wall of separation between church and state, while at the same time I also believe that people must be free to believe whatever they want—as long as they don’t try and force those beliefs on everyone else. None of this is news for regular readers or the people who know me in real life.
Even so, I don’t usually label myself specifically. In the past, I’ve used the terms “non-theist” and “agnostic” for what seemed the best description of my own religious orientation, but, like all such terms, they’re imprecise. I’ve come to realise that my difficulty in self-labelling on religious belief (and sometimes labels are necessary) is based on internalised prejudice.
The fact is, atheists in particular have a really bad image, and Americans have an especially negative opinion of them. For example, here’s something I wrote about in 2010:
In 2007, Gallup conducted a poll that asked if people would be willing to vote for their party’s presidential nominee if the party nominated a “generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be an atheist” (among other categories). Only 45% would vote for an atheist, and 52% would not. Interestingly, Americans hate Atheists even more than gay people, with 55% saying they’d vote for “a homosexual” as opposed to 45% who would not. [link in the original]Those statistics kind of sum things up for me. I’m part of a minority that’s been oppressed in the past, often severely, though things for LGBT people now are light years ahead of where they were when I was a kid. For atheists, things are now not much better than they were for LGBT people when I was a kid—maybe they’ve made it to the 1980s. Maybe.
Which is why the Openly Secular Day is such a great idea. Progress on the civil and human rights of LGBT people took off once everyday Americans got to see and even know real LGBT people, not the caricatures. So, if Americans can get to see and know real atheists, the USA might become more tolerant of them, too. Maybe.
As we’ve also seen with LGBT people, growing openness in society can also help heal internalised prejudice against one’s self. I think that’s a good thing in itself.
Of course, being secular isn't just about being atheist. In fact, plenty of religious people are also secularists. But if people like me are reluctant to embrace the label implied by non-belief, how much harder must it be for religious secularists, people who are often condemned as being atheist or, at least, not a “real” adherent of their religion?
The larger point is, there are many different ways to be secular. At the bottom of this post is a video for Open Secular Day that I ran across a couple days ago. It’s part of a series of videos in which people talk about being openly secular. This one features John Davidson, and, I’ll admit, part of me was fascinated from a “where are they now?” perspective, seeing someone I remember so well from my youth. Beyond that, it was also because he, too, is a preacher’s kid, something that obviously interests me personally.
If living an authentic life, being honest with one’s self and others, is a good thing in itself—and clearly I think it is—then Openly Secular Day is a positive force for change. Secularists like me have a long way to go in melting away prejudice, but we have to start somewhere, even if it's with ourselves.
Happy Openly Secular Day.