On Thursday, March 29, 2018, Federal District Court Judge Terrence W. Boyle forced the state of North Carolina to recognize humanism as a religion within its prison system by granting a summary judgment to plaintiffs Kwame Teague, a North Carolina prisoner, and the American Humanist Association.
The importance of this action will go unnoticed to many who are not incarcerated in North Carolina, or who are not humanist. But to those of us who benefit from the action, it was a great day to be a humanist.
In the eons preceding March 29, whenever a prisoner was admitted to a North Carolina State prison, he or she was automatically classified as a Protestant Christian. To be classified as anything else the prisoner had to submit a request to the chaplaincy department, and such a request was subject to denial, depending on whether the chaplaincy wanted to recognize it as a religion. Despite all the available recognized religions (Islam, Buddhism, Rastafarianism, and so on) humanism or atheism were not options. To declare any nontheistic identity was against strict prison policy. As a direct result, nontheists were not allowed to meet in study groups or observe nontheistic holidays, and some nontheistic literature was banned from the prison system altogether. We nontheists had to practice our beliefs in secret or be subject to disciplinary action.
This archaic practice was no more than the conglomerate Christian establishment at work, forcing people to identify with something the religious mind can understand and categorize. As a nontheist in prison, I know all too well how religious-minded people can misconstrue morality; i.e., believing that one has to follow a god or doctrine to live by a righteous moral code. The religious-minded person immerses themselves only in the study of one such doctrine, believing it to be absolute truth and all else lies—or worse, evil. In the eyes of the prison power structure, to be a nontheist is the most evil conceivable. This had always been the standpoint of the North Carolina prison system.
As prisoners, we enjoy the same constitutional rights as anyone else, including the right to meet with a group of peers for a discussion of beliefs. This is especially important for people who have committed crimes and want to change. Despite popular beliefs, prison cannot rehabilitate an individual in any way. A prison cell is a cage. No more, no less. Many of the prisoners here are victims of depressed socioeconomic communities and are mainly at fault for not having the herculean strength needed to climb out of the disparity they were raised in. Thoughts of returning to such an environment can be counterproductive to any program a prison may implement for “rehabilitation.” Survival will always take precedence.
Change that makes a difference is born from within. It sprouts from an inner seed of self-perception that blossoms into a tree of enlightenment that all can see. Change can’t be convinced, cajoled, or coerced. Like a seedling it must mature in its own time, and with the proper nourishment. Forcing prisoners to identify with a “religion” they don’t believe in can stunt that growth.
A phrase from the Humanist Manifesto III gave my life meaning:
We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability of death.
Those words are the epitome of who I am as a humanist and make me feel that I can make a difference in the world, despite my circumstances. Humanism has become the guiding light that leads me to righteous thought and actions. Without it, I would not have embarked on the path of change that I now travel.
I owe Kwame Teague, Monica Miller of the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, and the American Humanist Association my sincerest gratitude for opening the door of religious freedom, and the opportunity to pass on what has enriched my life to many others.