Thursday, November 6, 2014

Secular Humanism Ruled a Religion

Atheists often refute the notion that unbelief constitutes a religion, any more than, say, a lack of interest in golf constitutes a sport. While this is true, many atheists also subscribe to Secular Humanism, a system of philosophy that among its tenets rejects supernatural forces. Last week a judge ruled on a case brought by a federal prisoner that, for legal purposes, this philosophy should be treated as a religion and entitled to the same rights and protections as faith groups and churches.

On Thursday, October 30, Senior District Judge Ancer Haggerty issued a ruling on American Humanist Association v. United States, a case that was brought by the American Humanist Association (AHA) and Jason Holden, a federal prisoner. Holden pushed for the lawsuit because he wanted Humanism — which the AHA defines as “an ethical and life-affirming philosophy free of belief in any gods and other supernatural forces” — recognized as a religion so that his prison would allow for the creation of a Humanist study group.

Haggerty sided with the plaintiffs in his decision, citing existing legal precedent and arguing that denying Humanists the same rights as groups such as Christianity would be highly suspect under the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution, which declares that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

“The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes,” the ruling read. The decision highlights the unusual position of the Humanist community, which has tried for years to obtain the same legal rights as more traditional religious groups while simultaneously rebuking the existence of a god or gods. But while some Humanists may chafe at being called a “religion,” others feel that the larger pursuit of equal rights trumps legal classifications.

As I see it this ruling is a proper reading of the Establishment Clause, since my take is that it was created to ensure freedom of conscience. Secular Humanists have a clearly defined set of shared beliefs, even if one of them is the rejection of supernaturalism, and those beliefs should be respected just like those of everyone else. It should be noted, though, that this still does not imply that atheism as a whole is "religious" in any coherent or meaningful sense. Not all atheists are Secular Humanists, and anyway the law does not judge the content of the beliefs that it protects.

As I've written many times before, I would rather not see religion in general driven from the public square. I just think that representation should be given to minority religions and those unbelievers who seek it out. Hopefully this ruling will facilitate the latter.

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5 comments:

Melissa Lamb said...

I like the idea of atheists and secular humanists being able to encounter their beliefs characterized as religion.
Many of them believe that they are compelled into secularity by science and logic, that their world view is self evident and undeniable to an intelligent person, and that people who are religious in the vernacular sense either lack even the basic level of comprehension which they exerted to reach their conclusions, or are immature, deliberately playing make believe, like little girls getting together and hosting a fairy tea -party.

They're rarely challenged to dissect their beliefs other than on their own terms.

i.e. atheists says 'blah blah evolution so therefore no God'
religious person 'Oh yeah??? Well! maybe carbon dating blah blah blah!'

No one ever just points out, 'dude, half your convictions hang on disproving a very crude interpretation of a Judeo-Christian world view, so you essentially buy into this particular false dichotomy espoused by our culture without question and then proceed to draw conclusions largely influenced by a collection of in-elegantly related value assumptions, such as verifiable data is equivalent to truth and being able to attribute causation through one system of thought invalidates an explanation provided through some other system of thought, and that somehow, for some reason, this automatically rules out the existence of any and all concepts of god.

I mean, as a belief system it's kind of impoverished, and is incapable of facilitating mindful spiritual growth so it doesn't appear at first glance like a proper spiritual belief system, but it's an irrational belief system with moral teachings just like any other nonetheless and some apologetism or self comparison to other faiths would help it develop into something potentially on par with other religions.

Don't get me wrong, there's some inspiring and fabulous no-godders out there, for the most part people just develop how they feel like apart from what they mentally attribute as their beliefs, it's just the garden-variety ones that take everything at face value who should be pushed to use their brains.

Scott Stenwick said...

One of my big issues with how atheists debate Christianity is that always go for the Biblical literalists and attack them on the basis of things in the Bible being inaccurate in some scientific sense. That's not an argument against religion, it's an argument against literalism - which, by the way, is relatively modern in Christianity.

I think that a person can be just as inspired by the beauty and magnitude of the cosmos as they can be by some conception of a deity. But the point is to get inspired. For me, as a spiritual practitioner, the entire point of "religion" is as a system for producing spiritual experiences, whether you attribute those experiences to brain changes, transcendental realization, or both.

As I see it, taking away those experiences would make religion is kind of pointless. It's like belonging to a club where you go to socialize or something, which has never been where my interest lies.

Unfortunately, for most people tribalism has a much stronger appeal than any sort of experiential engagement with expanded states of consciousness, and that goes for believers and unbelievers alike.

Melissa Lamb said...


I'm on board with attacking literalists being a poor tactic and missing the point….it's just many (I'm going to call them garden variety atheists ok, GVA) many GVAs seem innately wired to identify biblical literalism as the antithesis of their own beliefs, which tells you a lot about what GVA thinks atheism is.

The guy that can't conceive of the world other than as a one dimensional contraption with an operating manual written by Newton and Darwin will go and pick a fight with they guy who thinks exactly the same way but reckons the manual was written by God and Jesus. Everyone else is just a mystery to these two groups.

Almost any religion that has survived the test of time has layers to it where u can sort of climb from superstition and literalism to a more nuanced ideas of the universe were 'god' is short hand for how things are interrelated or come to exist. Although this ladder is already available to Christians, atheists don't have it yet, the insightful and inspired atheist doesn't seem to sit down and write about their beliefs rather than just sublimating them into more scientific research.

Atheism's an interesting premise and I wish they would all realize that it is actually a belief system based on assumptions, and instead of blindly attacking the antithesis of these assumptions take a look at how atheism compares to other belief systems, in terms of coherency, and ability to enrich life or be worth giving a damn about.

..and this ties into the tribalism thing to, if everyone else has a 'religion' and their scene doesn't, they're special, but if u take away that distinction they suddenly have to re-evaluate a lot of things.

I love pointing out to loud atheists that they're religious, just to mess with them.

Scott Stenwick said...

I talked about some of those issues back when I posted this article:

http://ananael.blogspot.com/2013/07/atheists-just-like-everyone-else.html

It turns out that just like with Christians, there's a small but vocal minority of "Anti-theists" who are essentially atheist fundamentalists. They're not as annoying as the most extreme of their religious counterparts, but they can be close sometimes.

Melissa Lamb said...

ooooh I like this article. Guess this is the point where I rant about the difference between organized religion and religion and being religious but the enthusiasms kind of fizzled.