April 23 was coming-out day. Not for LGBT 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 percent of Americans who personally know a lot of gays and lesbians support marriage equality, more than double the 32 percent 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.
With the growth and increasing visibility of the secular community, familiarity is sure to come, with respectability and acceptance not far behind. Such is a major arc in the story of this country, one of ever widening circles of inclusion. But history also teaches this: The road to inclusion is rarely straight, and never smooth.
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