Secularism is very important to me. As a writer and political activist, I focus on America’s founding as a secular nation. Philosophically, I am committed to pursuing truth without reference to unverifiable whisperings of spirits, be they imaginary or merely superbly concealed from discovery. For all these leanings, I am often identified as an “atheist writer,” but this is only superficially true. I am, at heart, a secularist, and I count as my ally anyone who would join me in insisting on public policy that is completely free of the influence of religion. How thrilling for me, then, to meet Mark and Shanon Nebo earlier this year. They are the founders of an exciting organization called “Be Secular.” Its purpose is “to build a network of organizations and individuals who may not have the same religious convictions, but ARE united in support of the secular value of Equality, and the universal importance of Church/State Separation.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Mark and Shanon about their organization. Here are the best parts of that conversation:
William: Mark, Shanon, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. Can you start by talking about your organization? How did it get started? What are your goals? Or in a nutshell, for someone who’s never heard of you before, what are the most important things you’d like them to know about you?
Mark: Shanon and I were inspired to start thinking about ways to help the secular community after the 2012 American Atheists convention in Washington DC. The idea for Be Secular came to us during the Lance Armstrong debacle. We started investigating the Live Strong campaign and found out that they had sold over 80 million of those yellow bands raising money for cancer research, and the idea of getting that kind of money behind the fight for the separation of church and state was very appealing.
Shanon: Mark and I felt this overwhelming desire to help after the Reason Rally and the American Atheists Convention. Expressing our own opinions wasn’t enough, anymore. We realized that we could help the secular PR campaign just by promoting secular thinking, by increasing awareness of what “secular” means and how important it is to society. Just by people showing their support, it makes a difference. We likened the secular movement to the LGBT movement, realizing that it had rough beginnings, but has been able to make tangible differences in legislation and in people’s lives.
We also realized that the secular non-profits, prodcasts, and bloggers were the ones tackling all of the hard issues, taking on law suits, reaching out to people that have been harmed by religious oppression, and engaging in discussion about important issues with the general public. So, in selling Be Secular merchandise, we can increase awareness and raise money for the wheelhouse of the movement to keep the processes in motion.
William: You mention that you came up with the idea at an atheist conference. And in fact, I met you both at an atheist conference. There’s… how to put this gently… a lot of atheism surrounding you, at least at first glance. Let me ask it directly. Are you really an atheist organization? If not, where does atheism fit in your mission statement and goals?
Mark: Atheism in the culture is expanding at break neck speed. Every day, more and more people are either turning off their activity in their religious groups and opting out, or leaving faith all together. The politics and advancement of secularism isn’t going away and the larger it gets the more appealing it becomes and vice versa, snowballing.
Shanon: Atheism is growing reality in both culture and politics, but the acceptance of it in either arena is what needs to change. Being out about your atheism can mean setting yourself back in society, losing friends, losing family, and losing support from the general community. Being out about your atheism in politics is almost career suicide.
Although the atheist community is warm and welcoming, having face to face contact with other atheists sometimes means a lot of travel time. I really cherish the time I have when I don’t have the little voice in the back of my head warning me about being outspoken, when I can just discuss openly what I believe or don’t believe without worrying about who I might be alienating. I don’t think that atheists want any kind of special treatment, they just want to be treated the same as anyone else, and secularism would see to that. Right now, atheists are seen as the bad guys, the jerks, the in-your-face opinionated heathens, and that needs to change. People need to realize that we just want the same opportunities as everyone else without feeling the need to actively hide our beliefs.
William: Well, that’s about as direct as it could be, I’d say. It was definitely a leap of faith — if I may borrow the term — for me to tackle social issues as an openly atheist writer. Even though I rarely, if ever, openly encourage people to leave religion for atheism, I am often called upon to defend myself for being “aggressively atheist” or for trying to take away other people’s right to believe. As an atheist, it’s easy to build this monolithic view of religion as fundamentally opposed to not just my beliefs, but to me, personally.
But your organization is coming at it from another direction. You’re actively inviting and encouraging religious people to join in the push for secularism. How is that working for you so far?
Mark: We are! We have connected with a handful of large, progressive theist organizations. The Association of Practical Christians and Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented are both Be Secular affiliates, while The Christian Left and Mark Sandlin, from The God Article have been very supportive as well. We are always expanding on that side of things, it’s very exciting.
Shanon: We are continually reaching out to theist groups in the hope that they might identify with our cause. Striving for inclusiveness is important to us. I’ve recently begun attempts to reach out to Muslim groups, and I’m excited about the possible outcomes.
William: That’s great to hear! When I write articles about how Christians are oppressing atheists, or trying to institute theocracy in America, I inevitably get a few folks griping at me for misrepresenting those Christians who prefer secularism and embrace atheists as equal citizens. It’s great that you’re giving them an opportunity to be active and vocal in their support, and it’s maybe even better that you’re giving atheists a chance to see that there really are supportive Christians out there. There’s definitely been little to no communication between our respective groups, and there needs to be a lot more.
So now, I’m going to ask you the “miracle question.” It’s not as religious as it sounds. Don’t worry. But it’s a good way to think big and get an idea of where you’d like America to go in the long run. So… if you had a magic wand that could change one and only thing in America and make it 100% secular, what would it be?
Mark: Honestly, I wouldn’t want to get rid of anything religious. If I had a magic wand, I would want the religious communities to realize that the separation of church and state protects everyone, and things like gay marriage, public education and a woman right to choose aren’t something that should be dictated by religion.
William: HA! I think a lot of people would agree with both of you. Especially the Congress bit. Okay. So one more easy question. What’s been your favorite thing about Be Secular?
Mark: Meeting the people has been the most powerful part. Sarah Morehead from Recovering from Religion, Dave Silverman and Seth Andrews have all been very supportive.
Shanon: One of my favorite moments was getting a response back from one of our religious affiliates, of Practical Christians, and being welcomed into their group on Facebook. I was just so surprised, so pleasantly overwhelmed by their response to us. It made me feel like we might really be able to make difference, that if there are people of faith out there that see the merits of our mission, that it might be possible for us to succeed. It might be possible that many people of many beliefs might see that living in a secular society under a secular government is for the benefit of us all.
William: Thank you both again for taking time out of your busy day to speak with me. I’m excited about your project, and wish you continued success in the future. I’ll just ask you one more question. Or rather, I’ll just give you the floor and ask you if there’s anything else you’d like to say to readers.
Shanon: We encourage anyone that has any questions or comments to please contact us. We are more than happy to answer questions or put people in contact with other groups that might be able to help them. We have realized that many people struggle at one time or another with their personal beliefs, either in conflict with the world around them or internally, and we know many different kinds of people with many different ways of looking at the world that could provide support in dealing with those struggles. We also believe that what we do in this life is important, and we are here to try to make a positive difference in the lives of our fellow humans.
Note: I’ve included a slideshow featuring some of Be Secular’s merchandise, which is available through their website. Please give it a look, and head to their site if you like anything you see and want to help the secular effort.