GUEST POST: The Openly Secular Movement by Shanan Winters

Today Shanan Winters is sharing her experience on what the Openly Secular movement means to her. Please feel free to join the conversation. What does this movement mean to you? How will it affect your life or your relationships?  Can you even be “open”? Every week I hear from non-theists who are not “out.” Unfortunately, some folks don’t feel they have the choice to be openly secular.

As always, I appreciate the many voices and perspectives. Thank you for guest posting, Shanan!

What the Openly Secular Movement Means to Me

When I was little, we moved to the Key Peninsula outside Gig Harbor, WA. I played a game called “By the Power of Gray Cat” with some other kids in the neighborhood. We loved He-Man and I had a Russian Blue named Gray Cat… we’re so creative. My friends and I would chase the cat through the woods brandishing our stick-swords. We would climb trees, and there was a particularly crumbly stump in my backyard that served as our version of Castle Grayskull. We would stand upon the stump, which was a rather difficult climb, and shout, “By the power of Gray Cat, I have the power!”  And then we’d make the death-defying leap, all four feet, to the ground.

Some of our local religious tribe decided we must be witches (you know, “power”… “cat”… only logical conclusion). My family was relentlessly hounded for weeks by these people, and their kids would jump behind bushes, make hex signs and literally HISS at me when I walked by! They would call us every night during dinner, and just spew bible verse over the phone. They pushed my younger friends around at the bus stop, and made all sorts of derogatory comments. They even suggested to my friend’s little sister, who was five or six at the time, that if the “cat” gives her so much “power”, why doesn’t she prove it by jumping in front of the bus?  Fortunately, she was strong enough of character to tell them to leave her alone. The harassment only stopped when my mother threatened to turn them all into toads. And it didn’t really stop; they just became silent and accusatory in their glances, rather than outwardly aggressive.

I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not. I fully understand that their behavior is not “All Christians.” Fortunately for us, not all of the kids in the neighborhood were participants in their harassment, thus we did have friends besides each other.  Most of our friends were, in fact, Christian, and some even attended the same church as our harassers. It was a handful of houses… but it was also half of the kids at our bus stop. For me, the Openly Secular movement is incredibly important work. The way I see my children, I have one who is very secular, and another who leans toward belief (not sure in what yet…) Regardless of where they land spiritually, I want them to have every right and opportunity that would be available to anyone who is “conventionally Christian.” The way our political spectrum is shifting, I see this as less and less of a plausible future for them. Hence my thinking that this Openly Secular movement is extremely important. We need to start dispelling fear, and we need to do it now!

My experience with the neighbors of my youth definitely made a bad impression, but it wasn’t life changing. I’ve never been one to accept a Christian belief structure. I’ve tried… I gave it my best shot at one point, just to “fit in” and “keep the peace” with certain people — who are no longer a part of my life. It’s not me, and it never will be. I harbor no resentment toward those who peacefully go about their lives and live by their faith. I just wish the lack of resentment was reciprocal more often than not. I think it goes beyond “judgment” or lack thereof, as well. I’ve known plenty of people who have said, “It’s not my place to judge, and I don’t… but let me tell you all about my life in Christ. Aren’t you interested?” And I’m like… Um… isn’t that being kind of judgmental in itself? At the very least, it’s extremely presumptuous.

The ability to live a life with or without religion should extend to every individual, without fear of harassment, bullying or attempted conversion. We don’t all have to believe the same thing to get along. Learn who a person is rather than what church he attends. Find out a person’s passions rather than judging her based upon her choice in belief, or lack thereof. And for the love of gods (or none), teach your children to be open and inclusive. Maybe we can still turn this ship around.  Maybe if each and every one of us is “Openly Secular,” we will become less of an unknown, and thus less feared.



7 responses to “GUEST POST: The Openly Secular Movement by Shanan Winters

  1. We live in a very small rural town, and it is difficult, at best, to be “out” here…. While I don’t think we would be accused of being witches (but maybe?), people here just cannot accept that we don’t think and believe like they do. We are “out” to a neighbor (who preaches to us now, attempting conversion… “Don’t you want to know you’ve done everything you can to save your children from damnation?!”) and a friend whose daughter goes to school with my son (she repeatedly invites us to her church, insisting the kids “would have so much fun!”), but that’s it… Unless the rumor mill has spread our status around…
    My “fear” is for my children, not for myself. It is a very real possibility that they could suffer bullying and ostracization should (more) people find out our family’s status. I teach them about ALL religions and belief systems, and they are the most accepting, nonjudgmental kids I’ve ever met… Yet they might not be afforded the same…
    Thanks for the meaningful post!

    • I worry for my kids, too. My daughter is very matter-of-fact secular while also very inclusive. I do try to teach about cultures, faiths, etc. With an attitude of, “Isn’t it great how diverse the world is?” We also plan on world travel once the kids are double-digit midgets.

    • @Jody–I hear your frustration. We definitely don’t get back the tolerance we give. I bet you sit there and listen to your neighbor, but he/she would not listen to you if you tried to talk him out of his religion!

  2. Well said. I like the word ‘tribe’, it says a lot about our species. If a tribe is isolated, then what they think and believe is normative…..outsiders become a threat. Small towns would be a prime example. Though I think over time much of this will come to an end.

    I am impressed by your struggle to stay objective. One problem today is that ‘village atheist’, who are very out spoken….are advocating that no respect whatsoever should be paid to religious believers. That will also make things worse. I don’t care what others think of my beliefs, but to attack without provocation makes it easy to paint all people of the same tribe with one simplistic prejudicial statement.

    It is all nonsense that an intelligent woman like you has to go through this. I am glad your children are handling this well and that you have people who support you in this.

  3. @Mark: Spoken with the voice of a bully – the blanket statements like the “village atheist” without any real substance are just rather obnoxious. It is surely no coincidence that idiot and atheist became so nicely interchangeable?

    Where exactly have the ubelievers been preaching this disrespect and intolerance – could it actually have been the well publiziced cases where the pious have trampled on your constitution and the unbelievers stepped in? As you’ve read from the testimonials of average people, they’ve been bullied and are worried that their kids will be (and have been i many cases) ostracized by their schoolmates because they do not share the religion.

    The last comment was just odd – you simply just waved off the experience of another human being claiming it nonsense – would that make Jesus proud…

    • “Village atheist” does come across as derogatory, especially when you are asking that respect be given to believers. Atheists and other secularists are making a cultural push against the powerful institution of religion, and there will be some who don’t like that. But it doesn’t matter what they do or don’t believe, their aggressive tendencies have nothing to do with belief or unbelief. Also, if people are attacking belief–or nonbelief–it’s because they are speaking out about it (like you and me). Hopefully, our nation will get to a place where what we do or don’t believe is irrelevant and where we keep our thoughts private. To get to that place, we will need to have a balance of power.

  4. It’s completely unfair but amazing how much thought you have to put into this as a parent. Wanting your children to be open and inclusive just seems like such obvious qualities anybody would want to instil.

    Kids are never going to be like that if the adults around them show them to be distrustful and ostracize those who are different.

    It’s not just about faith and belief, it’s about teaching a child tolerance and the benefits gained from learning about people different from ourselves. The behavior you encountered was plain bullying tactics being passed down from one generation to the next.

    At least you know that whatever your kids end up believing it will be because they’ve taken the time to think about it and decide for themselves rather than just following a crowd (or fear of burning in hell).

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