This Makes Me Very Uncomfortable

File this one under there’s a right way and a wrong way to get to a desirable result.

A federal district court in Oregon has declared Secular Humanism a religion, paving the way for the non-theistic community to obtain the same legal rights as groups such as Christianity.

ThinkProgress quoted Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain on the decision. “I really don’t care if Humanism is called a religion or not, but if you’re going to give special rights to religions, then you have to give them to Humanism as well, and I think that’s what this case was about.”

I agree that Humanism deserves equal status with religion under the law. But the First Amendment requires neutrality; it doesn’t simply require equal treatment of religions, it forbids government from privileging religion over non-religion.

Here’s the danger I see in achieving parity by labeling humanism as just another religion: for years, religious literalists have pushed for “equal treatment” in science classes, arguing that secular humanism is a religion, that it is being privileged, that fundamentalist Christianity should be entitled to “equal time,” and so creationism should be taught in science classes. Up until this point, federal courts have refused to take that bait, properly noting that secularism is the absence of religion, and that it would be improper to teach religion in public school science classes.

Science is not a matter of faith, or belief. It is a method, an approach to determining the nature of empirical reality. Science cannot explain everything–it is limited to areas that can be falsified–and there are multiple aspects of human existence where faith or ideology  has a role to play. But drawing that line between matters of fact and opinion is only muddled by confusing a non-theist philosophy with religion. (I know there are non-theistic religions, but in those cases–Buddhism, etc.–their adherents claim the label.)

Courts struggled with the definition of religion in cases involving conscientious objectors, but finally recognized that sincere pacifism should entitle someone to claim that status whether or not that pacifism stems from a “recognized” (established?) religion or not. Similarly, the Oregon court could have–should have–found Humanists entitled to equal treatment for purposes of the prison program at issue under well-settled Establishment law principles.

I hope I’m wrong, but this “win” has the potential to be a real loss. How you get to a result is every bit as important as the result itself. Sometimes more so.


  1. If the courts really think clearly about it, the ruling that secular humanism is a religion should NOT affect the cases about teaching creationism in science classrooms because “science” is NOT secular humanism. It is appealing to people who are secular humanists because it is based on rationality and not dependent on a “god”. But science is science, and there are lots of desists out there that gladly teach the theory of evolution through natural selection. Science is NOT secular humanism so it doesn’t matter if you call secular humanism a religion or not. HOWEVER, Sheila, your point IS relevant because I don’t know that we can trust the courts to grasp the difference between science and secular humanism, and if thy don’t, then seeing secular humanism as a religion DOES bring us a step closer to a ruling in favor of the creationists.

  2. This discussion begs the question, “What is Religion or a ‘Religion’?” It seems to me that all “religious” talk, legal and otherwise, in the West is predicated on a Christian understanding of religion, i.e. monotheism, Sunday worship, rituals and sacraments, etc. I don’t consider myself a Secular Humanist and as I tend to declare with the Christian monk and mystic, Brother Lawrence, that washing the dishes is just as ‘holy’ or ‘religious’ as anything else in which human beings engage.

  3. Here’s a thought; it appears that only Christianity is considered to be THE true religion and is to be acceptd by all. Missionaries have crammed it, in it’s many forms, down the throats of people for centuries in the furthest reaches of the world. Christianity is found only in the New Testament of the Bible; this totally ignores the Old Testament where it all began. However your view; creationism by any name vs. evolution, you are debunking the Old Testament of all Bibles. Christianity, Judaism and Muslim religions are all based on the first five books of the Old Testament…the roots of where we are today. It begins with man’s version of creationism and evolves to what is acceptable – or denied – in this 21st Century. The “religious” people I know who attempt to give me Bible verses to solve all my problems, turn primarily to the Old Testament for answers – and they are Christians. As the King of Siam (aka Yul Brenner) so often said, “Is a puzzlement.”

  4. Mr. Silverman, I cannot quite equate the Flying Spaghetti Monster in their pirate garb with religion; exactly what is their basic belief? It reminds me of Flip Wilson’s “Church Of The What’s Happening Now” religion. The Flying Spaghetti Monster lawsuit also reminds me of two frivolous suits denied by Indiana courts a few years ago. One prisoner sued because the donated fudge ripple ice cream didn’t have enough fudge in it’s ripple. The other was a prisoner who was diagnosed as having back problems; the best treatment would be to soak his aching back in hot water so he sued to have a hot tub installed in his cell. They didn’t use religion as the basis of their suits; maybe if they had, the courts would have accepted and processed them as valid.

  5. It seems to me that the problem is not whether to treat secular humanism as a religion but rather how we have treated religions. Sheila put it well.”But the First Amendment requires neutrality; it doesn’t simply require equal treatment of religions, it forbids government from privileging religion over non-religion.” But haven’t we in fact done already, even traditionally, what the First Amendment prohibits?

    There is great wisdom in the First Amendment. It anticipated the problems this issue brings forth. The more fervently one holds to one religion, the stronger must be your rejection of others.

    The Federal Government cannot take any side in that without being devisive.

    Also, equating science and faith is completely irrational. But it’s a mistake that has been made before and recorded by history and it is apparently a compelling mistake to some. We all recognize the need sometime to assume a position on a topic for which there are alternatives and there is no possibility of knowing with certainty a correct position. That’s faith. Science is when we have an evidence based certainty. Like the criminal law system. Before evidence has been peer reviewed and adjudicated we assume, have faith in, innocence. Once the process has been carried out and a guilty verdict rendered we have knowledge of guilt.

    The whole faith/knowledge thing takes place within the context of human limitations. We can never be irreversibly certain of any knowledge. Merely certain enough to act confidently on it as though there was no possibility of further evidence. It’s a necessary attribute to progress. The only alternative is stasis. The same is true of faith. Further evidence might reveal that those whose faith was “A” were more fortunate in their choice than those whose faith was in “B”.

    If ” human secularism” is defined as science (which is a question rather than an assertion) it’s not faith. In fact, rather than insist that the government take no side in it, we need to be absolutely committed to fully embracing it. It’s the only path to further progress.

  6. If secular humanism and a belief in science are a religion, then how would the courts define scientists who are also Jewish, Christian, Muslim, etc.? Would companies dependent on their chemists and laboratory results now qualify to be treated like a church? What’s next – defining Republicans and Democrats as secular humanists? This decision has trouble written all over it.

  7. Here’s a mind bending thought.

    When the First Amendment was conceived, religion was the pre-emminent manifestation of faith. Our founders therefore decided to protect the function of government by isolating it from faith and basing it on fact.

    However mass media brand marketed politics has supplemented , or even replaced in many cases, religion as the most obvious and influential faith based belief system.

    Do we now have to redesign the notion of politics to protect evidence based government from faith based influence as we did with religion?

  8. JoAnn.

    No need to “equate” the Flying Spaghetti Monster with other religions. The issue is whether the government should decide what is a religion so they can privilege religion over conscience. Groups like the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Satanic Temple claim to be religions in order to show why our government should not privilege religion. And speaking of Flip Wilson, in his Geraldine persona he gave an argument we sometimes hear from religious people: “The Devil made me do it.”


  9. oh what a tangled web. The Christian fundamentalist doctrines that are the most controversial seem more relevant to rand than Christ. I would argue that secular humanism is on a par and opposite to defunding health care and denying access to abortion that the fundamentalists are arguing for. But neither are religions

  10. “The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes,” the ruling read.

    As a “devout” atheist and secular humanist, I fully support the action which was brought by the prisoner seeking to be able to start a Humanist study group in his prison. Different than a “modern prison architecture” or “hoosgow fashion” study group, humanism runs parallel to other religious or spiritual traditions which are afforded free expression in the prison system. Those traditions seek to help individuals answer the unanswerable, provide a community of support, and offer a literary and discoursive history.

    I appreciate the nuance offered by the judge that Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes. This subtle mention is deeply meaningful, as it indicates that there is a difference between humanism and Catholicism as “religious” traditions in the eyes of this court.

    And…I see the dangers of labeling a tradition of skepticism a religion.

  11. Herb; as I was typing my comment about Flip Wilson I was picturing Geraldine in the congregation. My best friend from Tech High School (1953) is an atheist; I look on that as a form of spirituality, it is belief and trust in what can be proven and what we can see and know is real. It is a form of faith and thus, in my mind, a form of spirituality. My “religion” is a mixture of Baptist, Jews for Jesus and evolution as viewed by Atheists.


  12. Sheila, this is apropos of nothing in this blog but I would ask a favor. My daughter-in-law and I are trying to figure out how to plan Thanksgiving dinner for our DYSFUNCTIONAL family and my thoughts keep returning to your family dinner last year. Could you please repost that – unless this year’s Thanksgiving dinner is even more beautiful?

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