Domestic Religious Liberty


August 4, 2015

A Pyrrhic Victory: Humanism Is A Religion Now?!

On July 27, the Federal Bureau of Prisons agreed to give Humanism the same “religious accommodations” as other religious adherents. Essentially this means Humanism will be given a section in the Manual on Inmate Beliefs and Practices, a manual given to inmates to provide general guidelines, define practice and define that that every offender has the opportunity to practice the religious beliefs.   This also grants Humanists the right to host study groups (a la Bible studies) and permission to celebrate Darwin Day, Charles Darwin’s birthday.

For the American Humanist Association (AHA), which represented Jason Holden, an inmate who was forbidden to host a Humanist study group, this could not be greater news.

Roy Speckhardt, the AHA’s executive director considered it an equal rights victory, “This settlement is a victory for all humanists in the federal prison system, who will no longer be denied the rights that religious individuals are accorded.”

However, the celebration may be premature. The decision raises many questions about the religious nature of Humanism and its implications for the establishment clause.

For example, if humanism is going to get the same benefits as the very religions it so abhors – should it not also be subject to the same restrictions?

Christianity and other religions are bound by the Establishment Clause.

In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the Court said that a public policy involving religion is only acceptable if its primary purpose is secular in character, it neither advances nor inhibits religion, and it doesn’t “excessive[ly] entangle” government and religion.

If Humanism is not treated like a religion, it might be able to pass the first test. Under very narrow definition of religion, one might be able to convince most people that it meets the second and third criteria as well.

However, now that Humanism receives the same benefits of religion and effectively behaves as such, it is impossible for it to pass this test.  Any action in Humanism’s favor would by definition advance religion. Furthermore, the values expressed in the latest Humanist Manifesto are so vague that it would be virtually impossible to pass any legislation without excessively entangling government and religion.

How can you create public policy that does not entangle the government with Humanism’s doctrine of “treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity?”

This leads to a deeper question:  how can government maintain religious neutrality?

Deeper still, how can individuals be neutral with regards to religion?

In the culture war debates, Christians are often told that they can’t appeal to God or the Bible because such tactics impose their beliefs on others. What they don’t realize is that everyone has religious beliefs.

In Smith v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County (1987), Judge Brevard Hand consulted the expert testimonies of Humanists, Christians, preachers, sociologists, and others to find an optimal definition of religion. He concluded that religion is a collection of assumptions regarding “the existence of supernatural and/or transcendent reality…the nature of man…the ultimate end, or goal or purpose of man’s existence, both individually and collectively…[and]…the purpose and nature of the universe.”

Humanism is just as religious as Christianity. Both speak to the nature and existence of God (the former claims he doesn’t exist), both have commentary on the nature and purpose of man, and both speak to the purpose of the universe.

This means that the culture war is best understood as the battle of the Gods fought by human pawns. There is no reason for Christians to surrender their King as a valid authority, especially when the opposition continues to defend its own religious beliefs.

In the end, Humanists face a dilemma with this new development. They can either accept both the hindrances and the sacramental benefits that come with religious recognition, or continue to work the system against their opponents under the illusion of religious neutrality. What they cannot do is have it both ways.



One Response to A Pyrrhic Victory: Humanism Is A Religion Now?!

  1. Mike Ward says:

    Can’t see a downside here. Roy Speckhardt should have his study group and his holidays, and if some of that liberty spills over onto Christians, all the better.

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