Is There A Difference Between A Secular And An Atheist Society?

Church and stateSatisfying my addiction to Reddit, I was perusing the Debate An Atheist subreddit, when I found a question I actually had never seen or been asked before. This is not a common occurrence amidst the chorus of “What if you’re wrong?”s and “Why do you hate God?”s. Usually, I login to Reddit, pop on over to DAA and within moments my eyes are rolling while I grumble, angrily, don’t they have anything new to ask? So, you can understand why I might have pinched myself to see if I was dreaming.

I wasn’t. Someone actually found a new question to ask atheists. That, however, didn’t stop OP from quickly offering a straw man as a potential answer. He or she said,

Difference Between A Secular Society And an Atheist Society? I mean I assume they would basically be the same thing right? At a functional level? Or does secular mean the religious people are all separate, like how the Amish are suuuper disconnected from everybody else and their business?

It’s obvious, with OP’s suggestion a secular society may be a new, fancy way to revisit segregation, that he or she is ill-informed. However, we have to respect his or her willingness to learn. The very act of posting this question to Reddit, where skinning people alive for sport is what the comments section is for, is an act of bravery. So, I thought I’d answer this in greater detail than has been done in the comments already.

The definition of secular as I use it most often is, very simply, the separation of church and state. It’s not the elimination of the church. It’s certainly not the separation of religious people and non-religious people. It’s just the separation of church and state.

By “church” of course, I mean organized religion, and by “state”, I mean all branches of the government, from road maintenance to Parliament Hill.

When I, or any other secularist, pushes for a secular society, what we mean is that we don’t want religion to have any influence on public policy. We are making no comment on what you believe, personally. We’re not concerned with what you do in your private life and private institutions. Most secularists support, wholeheartedly, your freedom to practice your religion.

Where it stops though, is when your religion, and your beliefs begin to affect the lives of those who don’t share them. A secular society would not allow your deeply held personal beliefs to be taken into consideration when creating laws, designing a public school curriculum or electing public officials. In a secular society, your religious beliefs are kept where they belong: in your own home, amongst other believers and in your own churches or private schools.

An atheist society, however, is a different idea and much more lofty. It’s not likely to happen in any of our lifetimes, and isn’t necessarily something most atheists really strive for. It’s kind of like wishing for a true replicator, just like the one that gave Picard his hot Earl Grey tea, to be designed and universally accessible before we die. It’d be nice. It sounds really cool. I want it to happen, but it’s not about to.

An Atheist society would be one in which the entire population of said society, lacks a belief in God. An atheist society is not one in which the belief in God is outlawed or punished; it’s not a society in which we have gotten rid of religious people, it’s simply one in which everyone, by choice, no longer actually believes in a god. No need for churches, no need for religious private schools and no need to protect the rights of believers… because there would be none.

Many atheists would tell you that such a society would be nice, but not likely anytime soon. They would also tell you that it’s not something they care to push. Most of the atheists I’ve been lucky enough to know are secularists, in that they don’t care what you believe so long as you don’t force it on the rest of us. If you keep it out of our public schools, away from our law books and out of our government, we support your right to believe it and practice it and we’re happy to live side-by-side with you.

What’s your answer? What’s the difference between a secular society and an atheist one? Let me know in the comments!

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