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5 Challenges Facing the Secular Movement

04/27/2015 01:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

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.

  • 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.
  • A wide swath of the American public continues to equate God belief with morality. A reminder of this comes courtesy of the recent speech by conservative Christian icon Phil Robertson, who graphically described an atheist family being tortured and murdered and having no legitimate basis to object, given their non-belief in God. This notion is patently unfair and unsupported by data. Research shows, in fact, that non-religious families do well at fostering ethical behavior and moral values among their offspring. Secular people can be and generally are "good without God," to cite the slogan of the American Humanist Association. Even so, the movement has a way to go in convincing the rest of the culture.
  • Secular organizations are often too quick to write off religious groups -- the more liberal-leaning ones, in particular -- that could be their natural allies in advancing the common good and warding off encroachments on church-state separation. Chris Stedman, author of the book Faitheist and a secular leader who advocates a more faith-friendly form of secularity, points to both principle and practicalities in urging his fellow travelers to engage with religious people: It's the ethical thing to do, and seculars do not have the numbers and organizational infrastructure to get far without them.
  • Finally, the secular movement must overcome the problem of strangeness -- the reality that in many parts of the country, people generally do not know anyone who is secular and "out" and thus are deprived of seeing the ways in which seculars defy negative stereotypes. This is where efforts such as Openly Secular Day come in.
  • 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.