Rules Are for Schmucks: The Secular Humanism Bill in Tennessee

The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville

The Tennessee legislature is at it again.

Tennessee, of course, is the state that gave us the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925. The legislature criminalized the teaching of evolution by natural selection, and the state then prosecuted the first teacher (John T. Scopes) who stood up to say “Um, but it happens to be true.” The trial turned into a circus, and the judge refused to allow the teacher’s lawyers to present the mountains of evidence they had assembled on his behalf. He did allow Clarence Darrow (representing the defendant) to question William Jennings Bryan about whether Bryan believed the literal biblical teaching that God condemned the serpent who tempted Eve to crawl on his belly forever. Bryan was unable to answer Darrow’s follow-up question: “Have you any idea how the snake went before that time? …Do you know whether he walked on his tail or not?”

Several decades later, after the Supreme Court had invalidated Tennessee-style anti-truth laws, the Tennessee legislature was at it again, authorizing teachers to “teach the controversy” about evolution, letting students decide for themselves whether natural selection or creationism better fit reality. The clever legislators cloaked this scam in the guise of promoting “critical thinking”—evolution, after all, being “just a theory.” Of course, gravity is just theory too, so maybe students should be taught the pros and cons of whether apples fall down or up.

Now we have a new wonder emanating from the same legislative body. Just last week, the Tennessee House passed and sent to the state Senate a bill banning state grants to anyone who “is an affiliate of a person or entity that performs abortions, induces abortions, provides abortion referrals,” or performs a number of other services in connection with a woman’s constitutional right to abortion. What’s especially curious about this bill, though, is its cutesy justification.

Rep. John Ragan, the bill’s sponsor, reasons that secular humanism is a religion, and that pro-choice philosophy is a key tenet of that religion. Therefore, he claims, state funding for any abortion-related organization would be favoring one religion over another, in direct violation of the Establishment Clause.

The general understanding nowadays is that humanism is not, in fact, a “religion.” But let’s put that aside for a moment, because I think Rep. Ragan is onto something. If you found writing that big tax check on Monday a bit disconcerting, the “Ragan Doctrine” could be used to eliminate lots of what government does, leaving you with much smaller tax bills in the future.

The biggest expense in the Tennessee state budget is education. Now there’s a “tenet” of secular humanism if ever there was one. There are at least a few anti-abortion humanists, but I’ve never heard of an anti-education humanist. Humanist Manifesto III, Humanism and Its Aspirations, celebrates the value of life-long education: “We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.”

Other religions have espoused different preferences. St. Augustine, arguably the most influential of the early Christian theoreticians, wrote that there was no need to be “dismayed if Christians are ignorant about the properties and the number of the basic elements of nature, or about the motion, order, and deviations of the stars, the map of the heavens, the kinds and nature of animals, plants, stones, springs, rivers, and mountains. …For the Christian, it is enough to believe that the cause of all created things… is… the goodness of the Creator.” In other words, for Christians, there is no need for education outside of the belief in the Lord’s creation. Ending government entanglement in the secular humanist tenet of education would save taxpayers (and the state!) a ton of money.

The second biggest item in the Tennessee budget is health and human services. Again, spending government resources on health is a profound tenet of secular humanism. Humanism and Its Aspirations proclaims that “Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns.” Human welfare means human health, first and foremost, and we’re all for it. It’s also interesting to note that the current manifesto says nothing at all about whether abortion itself is “moral,” contrary to what Ragan accuses. Our secular humanist commitment, it articulates, is simply to empower people toward “making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.”

Again, by contrast, religions other than secular humanism have taken an opposing view about the value of medicine, starting in the Bible itself. King Asa, who trusted in physicians rather than the Lord, quickly found himself dead. The same St. Augustine quoted above advised that “All diseases of Christians are to be ascribed to these demons; chiefly do they torment fresh-baptized Christians, yea, even the guiltless, newborn infants.” The Christian war against inoculation for smallpox was long and bitter, and Christian opposition to vaccination for cervical cancer continues.

Last but not least, the Humanist Manifesto provides that “it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process.” Democracy is quintessentially humanist: it puts humans in charge of their own destinies. Not a god, not a king, but ordinary human beings running their own lives. This secular humanist practice of American democracy is directly contrary to the long historical practice of other religions, like Islam and Catholicism. Having the state pay the salaries of Ragan and his colleagues has “the effect of excessively entangling the government with the religion of secular humanism, putting religion over nonreligion,” as his bill so eloquently states.

Alternatively, one could just say that the questions of education, health care (including abortion), and democracy, should be decided by fallible humans using their intelligence and their experience as best they can, without any taint of supernatural dogma.

The Tennessee House of Representatives that just passed Ragan’s bill is a joke. If only it were funny.