Openly Secular Day is nearly upon us. Well, to be precise, I think it is nearly upon us. Secular-friendly groups have promoted previous Openly Secular Days at different times of the year. Nevertheless, I’m all for having a consistent, national Openly Secular Day. The Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the Openly Secular network seem to have settled on the third Friday of October (October 19, 2018), so I am going to throw my two “In God We Trust” cents behind that one.
I love the idea of Openly Secular Day. Openly secular people should take a moment to value and share their relatively uncommon, but increasingly popular, belief system. For my part, I feel like I have identified with secular humanism since long before I even knew the term existed. I grew up without religion and have vacillated between being a complete atheist and an atheist with agnostic sentiments. At the same time, I am pretty certain that I actually care about people and morals (despite the Christians who indicate that atheism and morality are fundamentally incongruous). This combination of beliefs, not surprisingly, has led me to the moral-without-God philosophy that loosely describes the openly secular community.
I’m also middle-aged now, so I have decades of experience with being godless in a god-friendly world. I would feel wrong about suggesting that it was a major hardship. I often just kept my atheism to myself. Still, I spent my formative years in the 1980s. Back then, an awkward middle school atheist was more of an anomaly. When I wasn’t listening to Prince or Michael Jackson, I heard the same disparaging comments about atheists that other godless people know all too well.
Despite these experiences, I don’t seem to have any lingering frustration with faith per se. Many of the people I love and respect believe in some type of supernatural being. I have taken my children to church—by myself even, when my wife couldn’t make it—and I thought that my family’s Episcopalian priest, Father Nick, was a real asset in terms of teaching our children positive values.
Accordingly, I was pleased to see that CFI and the Openly Secular network were promoting Openly Secular Day in an intelligent and respectful manner (see https://openlysecular.org/). In particular, they encourage openly secular people to communicate their support for secular values with government representatives. Makes sense. They also suggest that openly secular people should engage in some type of interfaith activity to share their secular values and to better understand the religious identities of others. Perfect. These behaviors can make openly secular values more normative by placing faith and non-faith on a similar playing field. Even better, openly secular people can use the opportunity to demonstrate that they are caring and respectful, even without a god.
I should therefore be delirious about participating in Openly Secular Day, but one nagging concern keeps me from getting off the wall to share my pro-secular jam: I don’t like confronting theists with the possibility that their god does not exist.
Notice that promoting secular beliefs is importantly different than promoting faith. If my religious friends share their god over a cup of coffee, they typically leave open the possibility that we could be tipping back blessed brews eternally. Pretty sweet, especially if eternity has dark roasts. When I share my secular belief system, I’m pretty much suggesting death leaves us with nothing … forever … not even decaf. It’s kind of grim and, if contemplated deeply, unsettling.
Yes, I know. It isn’t like theists have always provided the same courtesy. You know what is way worse than an eternity of nothingness? Never-ending hell. Plenty of openly secular people have heard that their atheism is a crazy train to eternal damnation. Still, the secular community shouldn’t feel good about making traditionally religious people uncomfortable just because they have been the recipients of that approach in the past. It is wiser in this case to simply turn the other cheek.
Maybe I am just sensitive because my nearly complete atheism causes me some real suffering. I have dreadful death anxiety. Every once in a while it keeps me up at night. I wouldn’t wish it upon those who believe that death is merely a transition to a better place. This unfortunate extension of my secular beliefs is consistent with an argument that some consider to be pro-theism: secularism is so bleak—why would you want to believe that? Of course, wanting something to be true, doesn’t make it true. I’d like to think that I’m the most intelligent person in Colorado, but logic tells me I’m not. Heck, I’m not even the smartest person in my house.
I am also aware that, psychologically speaking, I probably don’t need to worry. One conversation with me is unlikely to put a noticeable dent in any staunch theist’s belief system. Moreover, I don’t have any real desire to talk theists out of their eternal aspirations, so I would expect my Openly Secular Day conversations to be respectful and non-threatening.
Even so, the possibility that I could undermine another persons’ comforting value system makes me feel less like a friend and more like a smooth criminal. Furthermore, psychology tells me that this genuine, gentle approach is more likely to plant seeds of non-faith than going in guns-a-blazin’ about the confusing physics of souls ascending to some ethereal heaven to wait for the apocalypse.
Despite these concerns, I have come around to sharing my openly secular beliefs this October. The reason is simple. I can deal with a god. In fact, I recognize that belief in a god and faith play important roles in society and, in many cases, help people become their best possible selves. At the same time, I cannot abide by some of the beliefs that seem enabled by the lack of a more open openly secular presence.
Chief among these is the negative view that many people still maintain about atheists and agnostics. The secular people I know, just like the religious people I know, typically maintain a great deal of concern about the well-being of other people. From what I can tell, secular humanists are not attacking religion so much as they don’t want it imposed upon them—say in the form of Old Testament Bible references placed in front of public buildings or in pledges that schoolchildren are required to make. The right to be free of religious imposition is, after all, in our constitution, just like the 2nd Amendment.
Furthermore, while the concept of a god can be used in positive ways, it also can be used to undermine science and reason. One obvious frustration is a desire among some (not all) Christians to force creationism into science education despite its scientific illegitimacy—a precedent that could open the door for new age healers, flat Earthers, and all sorts of unreasonable scientific claims. There is also reason to believe that faith in a god undermines a human response to climate change. Some (not all) faithful people seem to have difficultly believing that humans could profoundly manipulate a special planet created and presumably protected by a god.
Then there is the more direct nonsense such as faith healing. Obviously, the vast majority of theists have no part in this. Still, it seems fair to point out that choosing to neglect standard medical practice in favor of soliciting some type of supernatural-based cure is rooted in believing that a god or some other spiritual being intervenes in human affairs. Maybe a broader openly secular presence can encourage a more passive interpretation of what god is and discourage practices that can, for instance, slowly and painfully kill children through untreated pneumonia.
In this way, my feelings about Openly Secular Day reflect how I feel about being openly secular more broadly. It is a movement I believe in with all of my faithless heart, but I don’t feel any need to dispute a god per se. I just want the promotion of a god to stay away from troublesome extremes. Put bluntly, I don’t see any harm in theists believing in a god and the afterlife. I do, however, take issue with people inserting their faith into public institutions, forcing our children to receive watered-down science education, and allowing faith to distort evidence-based responses to social issues. Now more than ever, we cannot become complacent about social problems, figuring that a god will help us take care of them somehow.
So let’s go ahead and use Openly Secular Day to share our openly secular presence. Besides, we are all going to experience, or not experience, the afterlife someday. If openly secular people like us are wrong, the faithful will have plenty of time to remind us (if they are so inclined), and the faithless will have plenty of time to apologize. In the meantime, there are human issues to solve and there is an important place for being openly secular.
Openly Secular Day serves as a call to action for those with a secular identity by encouraging openness and dialogue around one’s identity and beliefs. Some common secular identities include atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, freethinker, and secularist, though you are encouraged to identify however your beliefs are best described.