Is Humanism A Religion?

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There is debate over whether secular humanist organizations meet the criteria of a religion. Several cases have been appealed on account of the idea that secular humanism is a religion, on the premise that as such the teaching of evolution is a religious endorsement. What do our courts say? In 1987 the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals noted, "The Supreme Court has never established a comprehensive test for determining the delicate question of what constitutes a religious belief for purposes of the First Amendment.”

Supreme Court rulings are inconsistent regarding the definition of religion for First Amendment purposes, defining secular humanism as a religion in one case and rejecting it as such in another. In Peloza v. Capistrano U.S.D. the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that, “…neither the Supreme Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or secular humanism are ‘religions’ for Establishment Clause purposes.” The court went on to note that according to the dictionary definition of religion, secular humanism does not qualify, because by this definition religion is “belief in and reverence for a supernatural power recognized as the creator and governor of the universe,” and as, “a particular integrated system of this expression.” 

Ben Kalka was a federal prisoner incarcerated in several Federal Corrections Institutes after his conviction in 1991. Kalka, a member of the American Humanism Association, attempted to form humanist groups within prison chapels, but certain wardens refused to recognize humanism as a religion and thus thwarted his efforts. Kalka brought his case before the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals in 2000, where Judge Randolph concluded that such denials did not violate the Establishment Clause, again on the basis of traditional definitions of religion, writing, "The term 'religion' has reference to one's views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character, and of obedience to his will."

However, on a number of occasions the Supreme Court has concluded that even a small and unknown sect that denies its religious character may be defined as religious for purposes of the First Amendment. In Torcaso v. Watkins, in the context of ruling on a state statute requiring notaries to profess belief in God as a condition of office, the Supreme Court assumed that certain non-theistic beliefs could be deemed ‘religious’ for First Amendment purposes. The Court stated, “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…” Much has been made of this footnote, which has been explained as follows by Judge Canby, concurring in Grove: “Torcaso does not stand for the proposition that ‘humanism’ is a religion, although an organized group of ‘Secular Humanists’ may be.” In United States v. Seeger, 1965, a draft-exemption case during the Vietnam war, the Supreme Court interpreted the statutory language, "in a relation to a Supreme Being," to include a belief, "which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God" of other traditional religions, but to exclude "essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views."

The Washington Ethical Society is an organization that holds regular Sunday services with Bible reading, sermons, singing, meditation, and leaders who preach and minister to a congregation of listeners. The District of Columbia Circuit ruled the Society was entitled to a tax exemption as a religious corporation even though its members were not required to believe in a Supreme Being or a supernatural power. Similarly, in Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda, an organization of secular humanists sought a tax exemption on the ground that they used their property "solely and exclusively for religious worship." Despite the group's non-theistic beliefs, the court determined that the activities of the Fellowship of Humanity, which included weekly Sunday meetings, were analogous to the activities of theistic churches and thus entitled to an exemption.

Buddhism and Taoism are two established, non-theistic Eastern religions. Secular humanism, though it has a long history reaching back into Greece and even prior, is relatively new as an alternative to theistic religion, thus occasionally obscuring the Court’s ability to properly recognize it as such. At present the only thing we can say with any certainty regarding the question of whether or not humanism is a religion is that even the Supreme Court contradicts itself. The official position of this website is that humanism is a bona fide religion, but that it is illogical to twist this fact into arguments to justify the teaching of religious claims in the public science curriculum.

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