A Judge Recently Ruled That Secular Humanism is a Religion; Will That Hurt Us in the Long Run? November 11, 2014

A Judge Recently Ruled That Secular Humanism is a Religion; Will That Hurt Us in the Long Run?

A couple of weeks ago, a federal judge ruled in American Humanist Association v. United States that “Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.”

The backstory is that prisoner Jason Michael Holden wanted Humanism recognized that way so that he could benefit from the perks given to religious inmates, including:

(1) “proscription days” for religious holidays; (2) at least one hour of classroom/study time a week; (3) at least one hour of worship time each week; (4) the ability to congregate with other members of the religious group.

Now, Tom Flynn, Ron Lindsay, and Nicholas Little of the Council for Secular Humanism and Center for Inquiry argue that this is absolutely the wrong ruling, even if saying as much would hurt us in the short run:

It may seem like a subtle difference to say that humanism can be treated as though it were a religion for certain legal purposes as opposed to saying that humanism is a religion, but the subtle difference is very significant. The former approach is consistent with the long-standing principle embraced by most humanists that religion and religious organizations are not entitled to any special privileges. This is a principle for which many humanists have shed blood, sweat, tears, and money. The latter approach essentially says, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” It doesn’t maintain that religion and religious organizations are not entitled to any special privileges; instead it tries to portray humanism as a religion so it can partake of these privileges as well.

The thrust of their argument is that Secular Humanism and Humanism are not synonymous. This ruling takes the philosophy of Secular Humanism, conflates it with a religious form of Humanism, and that could lead to some pretty big consequences down the line. That includes giving fodder to conservative Christians who have long claimed that Secular Humanism is a religion and that’s why we shouldn’t teach its followers’ “belief” of evolution in public schools.

Their conclusion? Our groups should have chatted before you filed this lawsuit:

Had this case been pursued with just a slightly more complex argument, namely that certain secular beliefs should be treated as though they were religious beliefs for certain legal purposes, instead of a simple “humanism is a religion” argument, it might have obtained relief for its prisoner plaintiff while simultaneously achieving a higher social purpose. It could have further advanced the great secular project of replacing, where possible, freedom-of-religion law with freedom-of-conscience law. And it would have avoided the unintended consequence of causing a life stance and an organization that were not even involved in this controversy — ironically, the strand of humanism that most vigorously holds itself apart from religion — to be inaccurately and unwelcomely declared “a religion.”

It’s too early to see if the ruling will be used against us, but it seems like a compelling argument against the strategy behind it. It’s certainly worth debating if the solution proposed by Flynn, Lindsay, and Little would have resulted in legal victory and if the current ruling is too broad.

(Image via Shutterstock)


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