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Is "Secular Humanism" a "Religion"?

John Dewey described Humanism as our "common faith." Julian Huxley called it "Religion without Revelation." The first Humanist Manifesto spoke openly of Humanism as a religion. Many other Humanists could be cited who have acknowledged that Humanism is a religion. In fact, claiming that Humanism was "the new religion" was trendy for at least 100 years, perhaps beginning in 1875 with the publication of The Religion of Humanity by Octavius Brooks Frothingham (1822-1895), son of the distinguished Unitarian clergyman, Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham (1793-1870), pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Boston, 1815-1850. In the 1950's, Humanists sought and obtained tax-exempt status as religious organizations. Even the Supreme Court of the United States spoke in 1961 of Secular Humanism as a religion. It was a struggle to get atheism accepted as a religion, but it happened. From 1962-1980 this was not a controversial issue.

But then Christians began to challenge the "establishment of religion" which Secular Humanism in public schools represented. They used the same tactic Atheists had used to challenge prayer and Bible reading under the "Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment. Now the ACLU is involved. Now the question is controversial. Now Secular Humanists have completely reversed their strategy, and claim that Humanism is not at all religious, but is "scientific."

This page examines two issues:

  • Secular Humanists and Humanistic courts have admitted that Humanism is a religion.
  • Why they now claim Humanism is not a religion, in order to avoid problems under the "Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment.
For further reading, see R.J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education, chapter 27, "Education as a Religion." He writes,
[T]he state school is a religious institution. As pointed out in Intellectual Schizophrenia, the public school is the established church of today and a substitute institution for the medieval church, dedicated to the same monolithic conception of society. Some years ago, Dewey very candidly discussed "Education as a Religion" (John Dewey, "Education as a Religion," The New Republic, August, 1922, p. 64f.) As Whitehead observed, "The essence of education is that it be religious." (Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education, NY: Mentor Books, 1952, p. 26)
     The public or state schools have thus been inescapably religious. Their "common faith" has been described as "made up of elements provided by Rousseau, Jefferson, August Comte, and John Dewey. 'Civil religion' is an apt designation for this faith." (G.H. Williams, Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, 1948-1949, p. 41.)

In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged that Secular Humanism was a religion. Nevertheless, many Humanists deny the significance of the Court's assertion. In order to buttress the claim that the identification of Secular Humanism as a religion in a footnote in the Torcaso case is more than mere "dicta," here is a memorandum prepared "[a]t the request of the staff of the Committee on Education and Labor” by Congressman John B. Conlan.

The U.S. Supreme Court cited Secular Humanism as a religion in the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins (367 U.S. 488). Roy Torcaso, the appellant, a practicing Humanist in Maryland, had refused to declare his belief in Almighty God, as then required by State law in order for him to be commissioned as a notary public. The Court held that the requirement for such an oath "invades appellant's freedom of belief and religion."
The Court declared in Torcaso that the "no establishment" clause of the First Amendment reached far more than churches of theistic faiths, that it is not the business of government or its agents to probe beliefs, and that therefore its inquiry is concluded by the fact of the profession of belief.

Actually, the Court in Torcaso rested its decision on "free exercise" grounds, not the "Establishment Clause." Abington v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 264-65 (1962) J. Brennan, concurring.

The Court stated:  

We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person to "profess a belief or disbelief in any religion." Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers,10 and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.11

Footnote 11 concerning "religions founded on different beliefs" contains the Court's citation of Secular Humanism as a religion. It states

Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others. See Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia, 101 U.S. App. D.C. 371, 249 F.2d 127; Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda, 153 Cal. App. 2d 673, 315 P.2d 394; II Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 293; 4 Encyclopedia Britannica (1957 ed.) 325-327; 21 id., at 797; Archer, Faiths Men Live By (2d ed. revised by Purinton), 120-138, 254-313; 1961 World Almanac 695, 712; Year Book of American Churches for 1961, at 29, 47.

It is important to note that this citation of Secular Humanism as a religion is not merely dictum. The Supreme Court refers to the important 1957 case of Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia (101 U.S. App. D.C. 371) in its holding that Secular Humanism is a non-theistic religion within the meaning of the First Amendment.
The Ethical Culture movement is one denomination of Secular Humanism which reaches moral and cultural relativism, situation ethics, and attacks belief in a spiritual God and theistic values of the Old and New Testaments.
The Washington Ethical Society case involved denial of the Society's application for tax exemption as a religious organization. The U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the Tax Court's ruling, defined the Society as a religious organization, and granted its tax exemption.
The Court Stated,

The sole issue raised is whether petitioner falls within the definition of a "church" or a "religious society" . . . . The taxing authority urges denial of the tax exemption asserting petitioner is not a religious society or church and that it does not use its buildings for religious worship since "religious" and "worship" require a belief in and teaching of a Supreme Being who controls the universe. The position of the tax Court, in denying tax exemption, was that belief in and teaching of the existence of a Divinity is essential to qualify under the statute. . . . To construe exemptions so strictly that unorthodox or minority forms of worship would be denied the exemption benefits granted to those conforming to the majority beliefs might well raise constitutional issues . . . . We hold on this record and under the controlling statutory language petitioner qualifies as "a religious corporation or society" . . . .

It is incumbent upon Congress to utilize this broad definition of religion in all its legislative actions bearing on the support or non-support of religion, within the context of the "no-establishment" clause of the First Amendment.

Other Justices have reflected back on the Torcaso opinion and confirmed our analysis.

Justice Scalia wrote:

In Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 495, n. 11 (1961), we did indeed refer to "SECULAR HUMANISM" as a "religio[n]."
Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987) note 6

Justice Harlan summed it all up:

[Footnote 8] This Court has taken notice of the fact that recognized "religions" exist that "do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God," Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 495 n. 11, e. g., "Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, SECULAR HUMANISM and others." Ibid. See also Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia, 101 U.S. App. D.C. 371, 249 F.2d 127 (1957); 2 Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences 293; J. Archer, Faiths Men Live By 120-138, 254-313 (2d ed. revised by Purinton 1958); Stokes & Pfeffer, supra, n. 3, at 560.
Welsh v. United States 398 U.S. 333 (1970) note 8

But many who favor a secularist "separation of church and state" will contend that fundamentalists invented the idea that Humanism is a religion. Like most Americans, these secularists do not understand the legal issues involved here.

The Humanist-dominated Court is permitting Secular Humanists to have their cake and eat it too.

Secular Humanism is a religion
"for Free Exercise Clause purposes."

The Court has undeniably defined Secular Humanism as a religion "for free exercise purposes." When Secular Humanists want the benefits of a religion, they get them.

Tax Exemption. Secular Humanism has been granted tax-exempt status as a religion. The Torcaso quote cited the cases.

Conscientious Objection. Even though Congress originally granted conscientious objector status only to those who objected to war for religious reasons (i.e., because of a belief in God), the Supreme Court turned around and said that Humanists who don't believe in God are "religious" for C.O. purposes. U.S. v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 183, 85 S.Ct. 850, 13 L.Ed.2d 733, 746 (Holding that belief in a "Supreme Being" is not a necessary component of "religion," quoting a Secular Humanist source, "Thus the 'God' that we love . . . is . . . humanity.")

So Secular Humanism is emphatically and undeniably a religion -- "for free exercise purposes."

Any claim that "the clear weight of the caselaw" is against the proposition that Secular Humanism is a religion  is a misleading claim. Secular Humanism is a religion ("for free exercise clause purposes").

Secular Humanism is Not a religion
"for Establishment Clause purposes."

But when Christians attempt to get the religion of Secular Humanism out of the government schools, based on the same emotional frame of mind which atheists had when they went to court against God in schools, then pro-secularist courts speak out of the other side of their faces and say that Secular Humanism is NOT a religion "for establishment clause purposes." This is slimy deceitful legalism at its worst.

But it explains why so many are confused about whether Secular Humanism is a religion.

Here is the rule: When Secular Humanists want the benefits of religion, Secular Humanism is a religion. When Secular Humanists are challenged for propagating their religion in public schools, it is not a religion. If that sounds insane, it is; but all insane people are still rational. This insanity is cloaked in the rational-sounding rhetoric of constitutional law. Remember:

Secular Humanism is a religion "for free exercise clause purposes," and it is not a religion "for establishment clause purposes."

Here's how it works. In Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School Dist., 37 F.3d 517 (9th Cir. 1994), a high school biology teacher tried to balance the teaching of evolutionism with creationism based on the claim that Secular Humanism (and its core belief, evolutionism) is a religion. The court emphatically rejected this claim:

We reject this claim because neither the Supreme Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or secular humanism are "religions" for Establishment Clause purposes. Indeed, both the dictionary definition of religion and the clear weight of the caselaw5 are to the contrary. The Supreme Court has held unequivocally that while the belief in a divine creator of the universe is a religious belief, the scientific theory that higher forms of life evolved from lower forms is not. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 107 S.Ct. 2573, 96 L.Ed.2d 510 (1987) (holding unconstitutional, under Establishment Clause, Louisiana's "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act").

Note 5: See Smith v. Board of School Com'rs of Mobile County, 827 F.2d 684, 690-95 (11th Cir. 1987) (refusing to adopt district court's holding that "secular humanism" is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes; deciding case on other grounds); United States v. Allen, 760 F.2d 447, 450-51 (2d Cir. 1985) (quoting Tribe, American Constitutional Law 827-28 (1978), for the proposition that, while "religion" should be broadly interpreted for Free Exercise Clause purposes, "anything `arguably non-religious' should not be considered religious in applying the establishment clause").

Thus a teacher who wants to tell his students about his religious beliefs is free to do so if his religion is the religion of Secular Humanism, but may not tell his students about his religious beliefs if his religion is Christianity. Christians are not even allowed to discuss Christianity with students during lunch break, while Secular Humanists are allowed to teach the tenets of the religion of Secular Humanism from the blackboard during class.

Peloza alleges the school district ordered him to refrain from discussing his religious beliefs with students during "instructional time," and to tell any students who attempted to initiate such conversations with him to consult their parents or clergy. He claims the school district, in the following official reprimand, defined "instructional time" as any time the students are on campus, including lunch break and the time before, between, and after classes:

You are hereby directed to refrain from any attempt to convert students to Christianity or initiating conversations about your religious beliefs during instructional time, which the District believes includes any time students are required to be on campus as well as the time students immediately arrive for the purposes of attending school for instruction, lunch time, and the time immediately prior to students' departure after the instructional day.

Complaint at 16. Peloza seeks a declaration that this definition of instructional time is too broad, and that he should be allowed to participate in student-initiated discussions of religious matters when he is not actually teaching class.

The school district's interest in avoiding an Establishment Clause violation trumps Peloza's right to free speech.

While at the high school, whether he is in the classroom or outside of it during contract time, Peloza is not just any ordinary citizen. He is a teacher. He is one of those especially respected persons chosen to teach in the high school's classroom. He is clothed with the mantle of one who imparts knowledge and wisdom. His expressions of opinion are all the more believable because he is a teacher. The likelihood of high school students equating his views with those of the school is substantial. To permit him to discuss his religious beliefs with students during school time on school grounds would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Such speech would not have a secular purpose, would have the primary effect of advancing religion, and would entangle the school with religion. In sum, it would flunk all three parts of the test articulated in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 29 L.Ed.2d 745 (1971). See Roberts v. Madigan, 921 F.2d 1047, 1056-58 (10th Cir. 1990) (teacher could be prohibited from reading Bible during silent reading period, and from stocking two books on Christianity on shelves, because these things could leave students with the impression that Christianity was officially sanctioned), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 112 S.Ct. 3025, 120 L.Ed.2d 896 (1992).

Secular Humanist teachers and school administrators (who are protected by the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment as members of tax-exempt religious organizations and religious conscientious objectors) are free to propagate their views in schools, but Christians are not. If Christians propagate their views, it is an "establishment clause" violation, but not if Secular Humanists propagate their views.

Secular Humanism is a religion "for free exercise clause purposes," and it is not a religion "for establishment clause purposes."

Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, {23} And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.
Romans 1:22-23

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