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“Secular” Does Not Mean “Atheistic”

M onday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in a Texas case that public schools cannot allow student-led prayer before high school football games. Reaction to this ruling among believers has been mixed.  While some believers (especially those who belong to minority faiths) welcomed the ruling as a reinforcement in the wall of separation of state and church, other believers (especially those in the Christian majority) condemned the decision as a blow against religious freedom. Some Christians even feel that the ruling was a blow against Christians only!

Yet critics of the court decision do not seem to understand the difference between a secular government and an atheistic one. A secular government is one which does not favor one religion over another and which does not favor belief in God over nonbelief in God. If atheism means the positive belief that there is no God, then an atheistic government is one which explicitly favors belief in the nonexistence of God.

If this seems like nothing but semantic nit-picking to you, then consider public school graduation ceremonies. With our secular government, the school cannot begin graduations with any sort of official statement for or against belief. Thus, the public schools are not only prohibited from leading the audience in a Christian prayer or a Jewish prayer or a Wicca ceremony, they are also prohibited from beginning a graduation ceremony with a denial of theistic belief. If a school administrator were to begin a graduation with the atheistic chant, “There is no God and this life is all you get, so be sure to make the most of your life after high school, Amen,” that would be just as unconstitutional as even the most generic of theistic prayers.  In contrast, with an atheistic government, the atheistic chant would not only be perfectly legal, but quite possibly mandatory.

The same sort of misunderstanding also sometimes surfaces in the creationism/evolution debate when various individuals claim that science is inherently “atheistic.” Science is secular (or nontheistic if you prefer), but it is not “atheistic,” at least not in the sense in which most Americans use the word “atheistic.” Scientific laws may not explicitly refer to God, but they do not explicitly rule out the existence of God, either. As one person said, “Many, probably most, Christians believe that God ultimately controls the weather in a Providential manner, yet they have no philosophical problems with the nightly weatherman’s forecast (‘that damned atheist’).”

So before believers attack the courts for upholding the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, they should remember that that same principle prevents our government from being an atheistic government. And they should also remember that all of their religious freedoms are still intact. Believers can still pray before, during,  and after football games. They just can’t lead a prayer using a PA system at a school-organized gathering.

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