Humanism is a Religion? Why Even “Anti-religion” Humanists Should Celebrate

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One of the first things I realized when I got involved in secular activism years ago was the importance that we humanists and atheists place on language. We are analytical by nature and take words seriously—and most of us believe that’s a good thing, even if it sometimes leads to unexpected problems. In one of my first talks to a humanist group almost a decade ago I got a bit sloppy, using the common phrase “cross your fingers” to make a point, only to see the room erupt into turmoil. Suffice it to say I haven’t committed that sin–oops, mistake–again.

As such, I understand that a large portion of the secular community rejects not only the notion of theism, but the larger concept of religion itself. In fact, I consider myself part of this group, as I would never self-identify as “religious.” Nevertheless, there are those within the humanist community who, though as godless as they come, consider humanism to be their religion. And while we could easily spend hours debating which approach is right, most of us realize that, at the end of the day, it’s simply a matter of personal preference.

Funny thing is, having circulated in the secular movement for a decade, I can tell you that beyond the semantics, there are very few differences between those humanists who embrace the term “religion” and those who reject it (and let’s not forget the third group, which is probably the largest: those who are indifferent to the term). These are all people who strive to be good without a god-belief.

The “anti-religion” crowd, however, sometimes gets upset when it sees humanism or atheism being called a religion in an official way, as sometimes happens in legal proceedings. This is not hard to understand, since these people are embracing an identity—humanist or atheist—only to see a court associate that identity with a concept—religion—that they wholeheartedly reject.

This is exactly what happened this week when the American Humanist Association won an important motion in the case of American Humanist Association v. United States, where we represent a federal inmate who was not allowed to form a humanist group, even though groups for Christians, Muslims, Rastafarians, and others were allowed. In denying the government’s motion to dismiss, the court accepted our argument that humanism should be treated like those religions. “The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes,” the decision read. It also ruled that humanism should be treated as “religion” for purposes of the Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits religious discrimination.

Social media lit up in response to this finding. “Atheists Score Major Win In Federal Court” declared the headline at Think Progress, and the ensuing buzz was quite widespread. Most of it was celebratory, but some anti-religion humanists and atheists reacted with great concern. “NO!” wrote one AHA member, insisting that our making this “religion” argument would cause all sorts of problems.

In fact, the classification of humanism and atheism as “religion” for constitutional purposes is nothing new. The judge was just following long-established constitutional standards going back at least to the landmark 1961 Supreme Court case of Torcaso v. Watkins, where an atheist successfully challenged a Maryland law banning atheists from public office.

Still, some seculars worry that this argument will have unforeseen consequences. One common concern is that if humanism is considered a religion, creationists will be able to keep evolution out of schools. This fear is unfounded, however, because evolution is a scientific fact independent of whether any particular religion–humanism or otherwise–accepts it as true. If the Southern Baptist Convention accepted evolution tomorrow (as the Roman Catholic Church already does), the educational legitimacy of Darwin’s theory would not be affected in any way. Valid science is valid science. And in any event, numerous courts have already rejected that very position, explicitly ruling that the teaching of evolution does not establish “secular humanism.”

The important thing for seculars to bear in mind on the “humanism is religion” issue is that the judicial categorization of atheism and humanism as “religion” is purely legal. When a court calls atheism or humanism “religion” it is doing so only in a constitutional context that does not necessarily extend elsewhere into ordinary life. Atheists and humanists who cringe at the “religion” classification might be comforted to consider that courts frequently impose contextual, legal definitions on terms. A pencil can be categorized as a “deadly weapon” in a legal context, even though in ordinary life we would rarely consider it as such. And a corporation can be considered a “person” even though it lacks every essence of humanity.

Another important thing to remember is that the legal definition of atheism and humanism as “religion” is often necessary for constitutional protection. If the government is discriminating against an atheist, that discrimination is based on a religious issue—the individual’s disbelief in deities. If we couldn’t call anti-atheist prejudice “religious discrimination,” it would be hard to frame a coherent legal argument.

So when considered fully, this is not an issue that should divide the secular community. In the legal context we can all celebrate the protections that can be enjoyed under the banner of “religion.” Anti-religionists need not wave that banner in their daily lives, but hopefully they can appreciate the context.