This article continues my survey of ideas commonly associated with atheism. The previous installment considered the relationship between atheism and freethought. In this article, we consider the relationship between atheism and secularism.
There is no doubt that atheism is often closely associated with secularism such that self-identified atheists are often committed to the furtherance of secularism. But what exactly is the relationship between these two concepts? Is it merely a common association borne of historical circumstance or is there a stronger logical relationship?
Let’s begin with definitions: what, exactly, is secularism? The word secular derives from the Latin saecularis which referred to a generation or age. However, in common parlance, the term refers to a focus on this present age (i.e. the world around us) as opposed to a spiritual reality beyond this material realm. With that in mind, the term secularism refers to a programmatic movement or philosophy that attempts to focus on life in this present age whilst marginalizing if not removing altogether the significance of other-worldly religious doctrines from the public square.
It is quite easy to find evidence of the close association between atheism and activist secularism. One of the most influential atheist groups in North America, American Atheists, includes the following statement as part of their mission: “American Atheists fights to protect the absolute separation of religion from government and raise the profile of atheism in the public discourse.” In other words, the group American Atheists is programmatically devoted to the defense and expansion of avowedly secularist values.
While there is no doubt that many atheists share the same secularist vision as American Atheists, once again we find the same phenomenon at work with regard to secularism that we have already seen with regard to freethought, scientism, materialism, and skepticism. In short, some theists embrace secularism whilst some atheists reject it. And so, as with these other concepts, we see that the association between atheism and secularism is borne of contingent historical association rather than some necessary conceptual link.
Theists who embrace secularism
Let’s begin with the notion of theists embracing secularism. On this point, I’ll simply make mention of a matter of some controversy in my home country of Canada: the reference to God in the Canadian national anthem, “O Canada,”: “God keep our land glorious and free.” Not surprisingly, the Canadian Secular Alliance has been among the leaders campaigning for removing this reference to God in the anthem. The reasoning is clear: God has no place in the national anthem of a secular state.
Predictably, you’d expect that Christians and other theists would line up on the other side of this cultural war as avid defenders of the place of God in the anthem. And to be sure, many do. However, other Christians are not quite so happy about God’s place in the anthem. For example, Canadian evangelical theologian John Stackhouse expresses his opposition to the references to God in the anthem as follows: “I think it’s egregious that we include that portion. I think Christian prayer should be reserved for Christians praying.” He continues, “Since many people are neither monotheists nor Christians, it is a completely inappropriate expression in a society like ours.” Stackhouse’s statement could have been written by a representative of the Canadian Secular Alliance (or American Atheists) and yet it comes from the pen of a respected evangelical Christian theologian.
This Christian concern about religion in the public square shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The fact is that many religious traditions are deeply committed to the disestablishment of religion and the separation of church and state. In that sense, they share with the secularist a commitment to keeping religious convictions private whilst establishing and maintaining a healthy secular public square. Indeed, my own Baptist tradition was founded on such principles back in 1609 when Thomas Helwys wrote a courageous but ill-fated letter to King James I requesting religious freedom for his middling group of non-conformist Baptists. (King James responded swiftly to the request, albeit not in the way Helwys had hoped. The poor chap was quickly imprisoned and never heard from again.)
Of course, one could reasonably retort that there is a stronger sense of secularism which is inconsistent with theism, namely one that seeks to remove religious or transcendent concerns altogether. In short, one seeks not merely to push them out of the public square but out of one’s private life as well. While that significantly more robust project would certainly be inconsistent with Christian theism, it would actually be consistent with deistic theism.
Atheists who reject secularism?
What about the other side? Could there be atheists who are critical of secularism? The answer is yes, certainly. Just as one can find Baptists (and other theists) who are keen to defend a secular sphere, so it is perfectly possible that one can find an atheist who would have significant concerns about the programmatic pursuit of a secular public square. For example, an atheist could believe that religion serves a valuable pragmatic role of providing social cohesion and stability, and this could be sufficient to warrant a principled disavowal of secularism. To note one interesting example, I once heard an English atheist defend the caesaropapist model of church/state relations in the United Kingdom by insisting on pragmatic grounds that it provided stability and social cohesion for society. This gentleman worried about both the threat of Islam and the thinness and insipidity of British secular ideology to sustain social institutions and government.
To that end, consider this famous quote widely attributed to Voltaire (who was himself a deist) which was supposedly given to his mistress: “Whatever you do, don’t tell the servants there is no God or they’ll steal the silver.” Whether Voltaire said this or not is beside the point. The point, rather, is that an atheist could share Voltaire’s sentiment that theistic belief is valuable to secure good behavior and social stability. In that case, an atheist could enthusiastically promote theism and religion in the public square borne by a pragmatic calculation for societal benefit. Whatever else you may think of that type of reasoning, it certainly shows that atheism is perfectly consistent with a rejection of secularism as surely as theism is consistent with the embrace of it.
 Canadian Secular Alliance, “The Canadian Secular Alliance invites our government to make the national anthem secular, and thereby make it easier for all Canadians to show their patriotism,” http://secularalliance.ca/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/CSA-briefing-note-God-and-the-national-anthem-14May2014-1.pdf (Accessed July 1, 2016).
 One commentator offers her reflection that her (secular) boss referred to that positive reference to God in the anthem as an “amazing line.” She then reflected, “I’m not sure I’ve ever appreciated a fresh perspective so completely. I’ve probably sung and heard “O Canada” thousands of times in my lifetime—yet I rarely think about the words. They’re powerful, aren’t they?” “Trinity Western University: ‘We Know it Will be Messy,’” Faith Today Blog (June 30, 2016), http://blog.faithtoday.ca/ (Accessed July 1, 2016).
 Cited in Jeff Dewsbury, “God stays, debate goes on,” (July 1, 1999) Canadian Christianity https://canadianchristianity.com/god-stays-debate-776/ (Accessed July 1, 2016).
 Incidentally, I share Stackhouse’s sentiment. See also my article “Why you shouldn’t sing ‘Silent Night’ at city hall,” Tentative Apologist Blog (December 8, 2011), https://randalrauser.com/2011/12/why-you-shouldnt-sing-silent-night-at-city-hall/ (Accessed July 7, 2016).
 Cited in Mark Coppenger, Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians: Pushing Back Against the Cultural and Religious Critics (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), 65.