U.S. federal court declares secular humanism a religion

Well, I have mixed feelings about this one. According to ThinkProgress, which considers this a “major win” for atheists, a federal court in Oregon has ruled that secular humanism is a religion. The decision came in the case of a federal prisoner, Jason Holden, who wanted the right to have a secular humanism study group in his prison, similar to other religious study groups. This case gave him that right.

Federal Judge Ancer L. Haggerty ruled, in the case of American Humanist Association v. United States (his decision in full is here), that secular humanism is a “nontheistic religion” that is entitled to First Amendment Protection. There are other issues as well—and you can see them if you want to wade through the long decision—but this is the gist:

This year, the Seventh Circuit laid it out even more clearly, when making accommodations in prisons, states must treat atheism as favorably as theistic religion, and that, [w]hat is true of atheism is equally true of humanism, and as true in daily life as in prison. Although this decision was issued after the alleged violations occurred, the court does not find the Seventh Circuit’s opinion to be revelatory or a departure from existing doctrine. Rather, the court simply summarized the law as it is commonly understood. Thus, the court finds that the right was clearly established. . . 
 and
The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes. . .
What I don’t like about the decision (bad stuff first) is that it gives ammunition to those theists who argue that atheism, humanism, or any other non-theistic movement is “religious”, so “we’re just as bad as they are.” (Religious people should be very careful in making these tu quoque arguments, since they implicitly denigrate religion!) Secular humanism is not a religion, at least if you take the definition given in my go-to source, the Oxford English Dictionary:

Religion. Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.

We have no gods.

But, in the main, I think this is a good decision, for it helps level the playing field between belief and nonbelief. For example, it means that secular humanist “preachers” should be have their housing allowances declared tax-free, as is the case now for “regular” preachers. (Of course, the right thing to do is eliminate such exemptions for everyone, something the Freedom from Religion Foundation is trying to do.) But by eroding the unwarranted preference for and authority of traditional theistic religions, I suppose the decision is a good one, and I agree with Greg Epstein:

“I really don’t care if Humanism is called a religion or not,” Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, told ThinkProgress. “But if you’re going to give special rights to religions, then you have to give them to Humanism as well, and I think that’s what this case was about.”

 

h/t: Barry

89 Comments

  1. August Berkshire
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    They should have taken away the special privileges for real religions, not declared secular humanism to be one too.

    • reasonshark
      Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. This is going to backfire because the whole point about secular humanism is that it is opposed to religion. It’s like having a disestablishment group become part of the establishment: at best, they’re going to be called out as hypocrites.

    • Scientifik
      Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      This.

    • Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Depends on what you mean by privilege. I think churches are profit making business and should not get tax breaks, but if the “privilege” is the right to have group meetings and to socialize with people who share your worldview, I think that’s a rather minimal level of privilege.

      • Timothy Hughbanks
        Posted November 6, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        Well, sure. But such “privelege” extrends to people in local book clubs, bicycle clubs, and softball teams. August referred to special privileges.

    • Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      The position of the established religions is to oppose the disestablishment of state support of religion (I think this is called antidisestablishmentarianism (!)) and given their power it will be a very long time before that happens here.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 6, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Does “Secular Humanism” have a sufficiently coherent leadership structure to use this legal opinion as a “wedge” (hmmm, it’s that word again) to undermine the finances of theistic (and non-theistic) religions. Fine, in America atheism is being wrongly linked with religion, but that will mean that atheist organisations now have the right (don’t they) to stop paying taxes and to demand rebate of (at least) taxes paid this year. So … put those cases into progress (which will cause all sorts of trouble with the tax system) and make it known to the “Powers That Be” that the price of stopping this demand for rebate will be the application of taxation to all religious organisations.
      OK, it’ll make humanism and atheism unpopular with the religionistas. I have a friend who makes a 3-part gesture : a wide sweep of both arms, several crotch thrusts, then miming the distribution of playing cards to several players : “Big Fucking Deal”.
      Far be it from me to exhibit sympathy for politicians, but I can hardly see them complaining about a new source of revenue previously denied to them. And they can blame those accursed (lit.) atheists for it.
      Financially, by implication the non-theistic organisations have been paying tax to this date, so they’re going to be no worse off. And taking money out of the pockets of the goddistas isn’t going to actually help them to continue their proselytising.
      I can’t see any down side.

  2. Grania Spingies
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if this is really the best way of going about leveling the playing fields. Under the circumstances I can understand why they went this route, but considering the content of secular humanism any smart US-based “life coach” or “motivational speaker” ought to now apply for religious status too and run their businesses free from pesky taxes.

    • Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      “Apply for religious status” I think all you have to do is declare the parsonage allowance on your 1040.

      It will take a brave “life coach” and perhaps one that isn’t so smart to challenge the IRS based on this ruling. Hopefully FFRF will find a guinea pig and start the process.

      • Grania Spingies
        Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        Well, obviously it would require a court-ruling first. You are right, this ruling doesn’t give people the license to call their occupations religions just because they want to. But it does open the door to a court application to declare all manner of woo and life philosophies also religions.

        • Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

          I think this court ruling was meant to be applied in the very limited context of broadening the rights for imprisoned people. It might not immediately work for declaring that my devotion to my d*g is a religion.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 6, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

          … and by implication, damaging the whole concept of “organised religion”. Sounds good to me.

    • Posted November 6, 2014 at 1:38 am | Permalink

      Someone called Jim Humble has founded the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, which exists to promote “Master Mineral Solution” (formerly “Miracle Mineral Solution”) aka some kind of bleach, as the cure for all ailments. He reportedly prescribes it as an enema for children, but for those who take it orally, vomiting is a sign that it is working. The evidence for its efficacy is entirely testimonial. Humble is an Archbishop (no quotes, because who’s to deny it?) and it is a “non-religious church”.

      genesis2church.org

      It seems the message of L. Ron Hubbard, that founding a religion – or at least a church – is the way to wealth, is spreading….

  3. Diane G.
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    This matter itself is hardly a new one and I’ve been against the idea since I first heard of it. OTOH, I was against the claiming of the word gay by homosexuals and every new dictate on what blacks should be called (I date back to the “Negro” days), and so forth, back in the day. While we didn’t have the term, yet, it all struck me as PC.

    Obviously those changes happened and eventually the new terms sounded like the correct ones and it was the old ones that were non-PC. So I guess I should try to take the long view here…it will certainly grate for a while, though.

  4. Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    This makes me seriously consider incorporating myself as a religious institution and going for the full tax benefits thereof. I haven’t tried to do so with a parody religion because the courts would laugh at me, and neither with a superficially sincere fake religion because I don’t think I could deal with the dishonesty.

    But if this decision means that I’m already legally religious for tax purposes despite having no gods…well, why not take full advantage of the fact?

    And, if my so doing prompts others to do likewise and the special treatment afforded to the religious completely implodes as a result, so much the better.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • GBJames
      Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      My wife and I often have joked about starting an atheist choice school just to balance the scam a bit.

      I’ll join your humanist church if you join mine.

      • Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        Yeah…but, as always, who’d want to be a member of an organization that’d accept you?

        And, in seriousness, I think there may well be said for doing this as a “church of one” sort of thing. Maybe some early pioneers can figure out the path to jump through the hoops, but I think the most gain would be had from an hundred million individuals, each with their own unaffiliated religions. If that doesn’t get the point across, nothing will.

        Plus, I think the finances will work out better that way. In a traditional church, you have a small number of clergy and many followers. The clergy get most of the benefits. But if you’ve got a one-to-one relationship of church to clergy, you should maximize the returns.

        b&

        • GBJames
          Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

          Well if you aren’t going to join my church I’ll be damned if I’ll join your’s!

          • Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

            >I’ll be damned

            According to my church, you are right!

          • Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

            And if you’re going to quit my church, I’ll quit yours first — and damn you, too (since you asked for it)!

            b&

      • Posted November 6, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

        Alain de Botton would be proud guys! 🙂

    • eric
      Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      You are not legally a religious charity for tax purposes. You are legally religious for puposes of first amendment protections. It has been that way since 1961, since SCOTUS decided Torcaso vs. Watkins.

      I really don’t understand what the bruhaha over this decision is all about. The court was following a well-trod supreme court precedent. Nor is the court making a theological comment about the nature of atheism. They are saying what they have said for almost a lifetime now: the first amendment’s promise to treat all religious viewpoints equally and neutrally includes equal and neutral treatment of the “not religious” viewpoint.

      • Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        You are not legally a religious charity for tax purposes. You are legally religious for puposes of first amendment protections.

        What I mean is that this ruling would seem to open the door for me establishing either a 501(c)(3) or 501(d) organization with me as the sole member, and using it as a tax shelter. I’d personally tithe the maximum amount of my regular income to the organization and get that deduction, and then also hire myself as the priest-equivalent. The organization would pay me a salary, own my home and get the property tax breaks, the works.

        Might be a bit of legwork to properly set up initially, and some extra bookkeeping along the way…but the payoff could be quite substantial, I would think.

        b&

        • eric
          Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          The courts have a long history of assessing whether charity and religious nonprofit organizations are shams or not. Certainly they aren’t perfect at it, but neither are they blind to people trying to game the system. The first amendment did not prevent them from putting Ken Hovind in jail, for instance.

          So, your idea might work; there are lots of unethical and insincere tax dodges that do. But I don’t think your status as an ‘atheist religious organization’ would change your chances of winning or losing the ensuing court battle.

          And if the opposing lawyer was really good, they could just pull up this particular thread and show the court that your religious motives are insincere, and it’s just a tax dodge. Because courts do pay attenion to such info, when the prospective con artist is foolish enough to describe their plan on the internet.

          • Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

            But if the purpose is to advance secular humanism, it would be sincere…and a sham (albeit possibly a legal one).

            • eric
              Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

              I don’t understand: how is that a sham? If Ben wants to set up a charity organization to advance secular humanism, he should get the legal benefits such an organization is legally entitled to. What the courts care about is when someone sets up a charity-on-paper organization with the true purpose of avoiding paying taxes or enriching themselves.

          • Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

            And if the opposing lawyer was really good, they could just pull up this particular thread and show the court that your religious motives are insincere, and it’s just a tax dodge. Because courts do pay attenion to such info, when the prospective con artist is foolish enough to describe their plan on the internet.

            But that’s just it: my motives would be insincere were I trying to establish a supernatural religion, but that’s not what I’m contemplating. What I have in mind is a perfectly honest, straight-up expression of my sincere beliefs as repeatedly and vociferously demonstrated practically daily here in Jerry’s living room. If I’m correctly understanding the press release summary of this court’s decision, my sincere non-theistic beliefs are every bit as deserving of Constitutional recognition as any theistic beliefs. And those beliefs wouldn’t permit me to do anything like this with an organization such as the AHA, leaving my only reasonable expression this sort of single-person organization.

            I already have an S-Corp that bills out for my services and pays my salary and from which I collect profits (that are, as with any other S-Corp, passed through to my personal taxes). It’s no dodge; it’s a real corporation doing what real corporations really do, even down to paying unemployment insurance for its employees. And, of course, it’s taxed as a corporation (while I’m also taxed as an individual and employee). What I’m wondering is why this ruling shouldn’t let me meet my non-theistic non-religious “religious” needs the same way, and simultaneously enjoy similar tax benefits.

            I realize that some IRS auditor might think otherwise, especially if said auditor is devoutly religious in the theistic sense, so, of course, I’d have to weigh that risk.

            But if the State really does, as this ruling seems to state, have an obligation to treat atheism as favorably as theistic religion…well, how else would it treat me equally favorably other than as a “church” of one? And if the local diocese of many gets these tax breaks, it’s most discriminatory to withhold them from me. Why should I be forced to subsidize their religious expression if they’re not similarly forced to subsidize mine?

            And, again, yes, I think the best option is to eliminate special treatment of all religions…but, again, so long as some religions get special treatment and atheism is now a religion in that sense, us atheists damned well deserve equally special treatment. There’d be quite the uproar if only Christian churches were tax-exempt and Jewish temples and Muslim mosques were taxed, after all…and we now have the courts telling us that atheists are also no different, and the way the State recognizes a religion is through that IRS letter….

            b&

            • eric
              Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

              What I’m wondering is why this ruling shouldn’t let me meet my non-theistic non-religious “religious” needs the same way, and simultaneously enjoy similar tax benefits.

              The US tax code does not give a tax break to believers so they can ‘meet their religious needs’ as defined by them, it gives tax breaks to religious charities that meet the definition of a charity as defined by the IRS.

              But if the State really does, as this ruling seems to state, have an obligation to treat atheism as favorably as theistic religion…well, how else would it treat me equally favorably other than as a “church” of one?

              Do you know of any Christian ‘churches of one’ that qualify as charities and aren’t considered tax scams? No? So see, they would treat you equally. 🙂

              • Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

                it gives tax breaks to religious charities that meet the definition of a charity as defined by the IRS.

                That’s a good point. I should go look up what that definition actually is, rather than just assume that it’s what I think it is (or should be).

                b&

              • Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

                From a quick glance, it seems the big question would come to the matter of “inurement.” I’d have to investigate further to figure out if that means the same type of strict separation of books that one normally expects of corporations (your company can’t deduct your personal groceries) or if it would put the kibosh on even the mere thought of the application in the first place. Be strange if it were the latter, and perhaps even worthy of challenge…but nobody ever accused our tax laws of making sense….

                b&

    • Timothy Hughbanks
      Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      Goren’s church of the free-willing married bachelors.

      • GBJames
        Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        Bunch of heretics if you ask me. I kicked him out of my church because of his unwillingness to be a member.

        • Timothy Hughbanks
          Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          That is so Bengay®.

        • Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          …and I wouldn’t even let him in mine in the first place!

          b&

      • Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        You jest…but the hardest part of these things is often thinking up a name.

        Alas, it’d likely wind up being most boring and generic. My S-Corporation is just “Ben Goren, Incorporated.” The “church” would likely be something equally bland, such as “The Ben Goren Fellowship.” No point in pretending it’s something it isn’t: my expression of myself, put into legal language for the purpose of being formally recognized by the government the same way any other is.

        b&

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted November 5, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

          Don’t kid yourself! It would really be “The Fellowship of Baihu, Supreme Cat”.

          • Posted November 5, 2014 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

            Could well be…but then I’d also have to work the Sun in there, too, and such a name might start to get a bit long….

            b&

            • Posted November 6, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

              Ben’s Hippie Church of Cat and Sun Worship, Beer, Tie-Dye, and Music, The Right Rev. Ben Goren presiding. Hee hee hee! 🙂

              • Posted November 6, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

                Hmmm…needs more cowbell….

                b&

      • Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        I hear they make pilgrimages to a profane site north of the North Pole…

        /@

        • Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          …and the accommodations there are ones of Spartan luxury….

          b&

          • Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

            … which compensate for the opulent hardships?

            /@

            • Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

              No, those’re for the brilliant darknesses. You’re thinking of the smooth rough spots.

              b&

              • Posted November 5, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

                Ah! That’s crystal opaque.

                /@

              • Posted November 5, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

                Rightly incorrect! By George, I think he’s not got it!

                b&

    • Posted November 6, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      I had a colleague at CMU who became ordinained in the Universal Life Church (who will ordain anyone, for, at the time, $3) as a protest against the silliness of religious privileges denied the secular. Is that still doable?

      • Posted November 6, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        It was there a couple of years ago. California recognized it for doing weddings. Didn’t try for parsonage.

  5. Gimmepaws
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I have the sneaking sensation that this is the right outcome for the wrong reasons, and that something about it will come back to bite in the ass those who today seem to have “won”.

  6. Kevin
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    An uneducated democracy fosters the development of the notion that atheism is a religion. That consensus is not going to change soon. Providing equal legal status is a good thing, but it is wholly illogical.

    I think Trekkies should get equal status next. Now that’s a religion.

  7. mcirvin14
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I think that “The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes” part is where the danger lies. I’m no lawyer, but I can see someone arguing that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” means that Congress can establish secular norms in favor of religious ones.

    • mcirvin14
      Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      EDIT: means that Congress CANNOT establish secular norms in favor of religious ones.

      • Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        >Congress cannot establish secular norms in favor of religious ones.

        This seems like a big deal and a real risk to a rational society. Now you have me worried.

        • Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

          I wouldn’t worry too much. Congress certainly couldn’t establish religious norms over secular ones as a result, which at most leaves us with Congress not establishing any norms whatsoever. In that case, either Congress is rendered fully impotent or the silliness sinks in and the regular secular / religious divide returns.

          After all, building highways and sending troops overseas and inspecting meat are all secular norms.

          b&

    • eric
      Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      You’re confusing two meanings of the term ‘secular.’ Congress could not establish and fund a secular humanism foundation for the promotion of secular humanism, because that would be favoring SH over other metaphysical ideologies and entangling the government in the question of whether God is real or not.

      The same is true for other ideologies that don’t necessarily have a distinct God. Congress could not establish state Confucianism or state Taoism either.

      The other meaning of “secular” is something like ‘not having to do with religion.’ Example: a police station is a secular building, because it serves a law enforcement purpose having nothing to do with religion. And yes, Congress can establish secular rules, secular institutions and so on, in that meaning of the word.

      • mcirvin14
        Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        I still think this is potentially muddy and thorny. My worry would be that “secular” could be construed as anything that violates a religious dictate. Could a public school, for example, be seen as favoring secularism over theism if they serve non-halal food in their cafeteria? This ruling creates a dangerous equivalency between religion and non-religion. It essentially muddies the distinction that eric makes between different ways of defining secular.

        • eric
          Posted November 5, 2014 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

          That appears to be the way the religious right uses the word ‘secular’ sometimes, but fortunately it does not appear to be the way the courts use it.

          But that’s somewhat irrelevant. Combinations of words don’t always result in the same denotation as the individual words would. Even if there was one, single, all-agreed upon definition of “secular,” the term “secular humanism” could have a completely different meaning from just secular+humanism. Same as “Christian science” isn’t just Christian+science or “Angel food cake” isn’t just angel+food+cake.

          So I don’t think anyone with a decent brain is going to construe it that way. OTOH, Scalia might…

  8. Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    This will just muddy the waters and give credibility to accomodationists and the “teach the controversy” crowd. It is the opposite of the thing that needs to happen: the removal of all tax breaks and other special privileges for religion.

  9. Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Semantically it’s a bad thing for all the reasons Jerry and commenters have said.

    A good thing I can see is it might sort out the problem in the US military where atheists have to either use chaplains, or go to a psychologist or psychiatrist if they need someone to talk to. Chaplains have to be nominated by a legally recognised religion so atheists had no one. (There is a potentially career-threatening stigma in using medical personnel.) Atheists in the US military have previously tried and failed to get their own “chaplain”.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Yes I was about to post the same. Conversations with a chaplain are confidential (while conversations with a psychotherapist are not), chaplains advocate on the behalf of soldiers up the chain of command and facilitate requests for literature or family communications on the front lines as well. Atheists would be denied these services.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted November 6, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        Conversations with a chaplain are confidential (while conversations with a psychotherapist are not),

        You know, considering that this involves the military, and that it involves America, and that it involves religion, I shouldn’t be surprised at the insanity of this. But still … for every scraping of the bottom of the barrel of sanity, there remains more bottom to scrape through.

        • Posted November 6, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

          This is the American military. They don’t scrape the bottom of the barrel…they blow it up with heavy explosives as part of a fishing expedition.

          b&

    • eric
      Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      I agree that semantics are an issue here, but since we are stuck with a good rule that is parsed in 300-year-old language, the best thing to do is be sensible about it. The religious clause of the first amendment protects theistic, deistic, and atheistic ideologies alike. Basically any sincere code by which people try and live their life. And it protects the people from the government pushing any theistic, deistic, or atheistic ideology on them without a good non-ideological reason.

      Even something like strict vegetarianism might count: the government cannot establish vegetarianism without a secular reason, and cannot entangle itself in vegetarianism vs. meat-eating without a secular reason. In this case, “health effects studies” might give that secular reason and so this example is somewhat trivial, but the principle is the same: the US government cannot push one ideology over another, or use government funding to promote a specific ideology. At least not without having a reason the the majority of people outside of that ideology would recognize as a good reason for doing so.

  10. Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    If secular humanism is a ‘religion’ the constitution would enforce a separation between it and the State – so a secular State would not be possible.

    • Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      No, because secular humanism is different from secularism as such.

      In the UK, we generally say only “humanism” where we mean “secular humanism”, I guess because religious (theistic?) humanism isn’t such a big thing over here.

      /@

    • mecwordpress
      Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      No, I don’t think it does. See Eric’s response to mcirvin14 above.

  11. Gordon Hill
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    The question of whether secular humanism is a religion has been debated among humanists for a century or more. One concise treatment of Humanism as religious or not is he Humanist Way: An Introduction to Ethical Humanist Religion by Edward L. Ericson. Both views are presented including a concise history of humanist thought.

  12. August Berkshire
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    These laws put the government in charge of deciding what is a sincere religion worthy of special privileges that other groups don’t get and what is not a sincere religion. But groups should be allowed to meet in prison regardless of content, so long as that content does not pose a danger (e.g. planning to knife someone, planning an escape, or selling drugs). Meetings could be monitored because, yes, in prison you do lose some rights.

    • eric
      Posted November 6, 2014 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      The government (specifically, the courts) have always had to decide what is a sincere religious organization and what is a con job. That’s nothing new, and they do it reasonably well (not perfectly, not badly). So no, this judgment doesn’t cause the government to take on some new responsibility: they already had it.

      Your second part I agree with.

  13. Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    sub

  14. Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    It strikes me that, within current societal norms, this is a desirable legal framing to ensure equitable rights for non-believers.

    Just as, in British law pertaining to vivisection, an octopus is a vertebrate.

    /@

    • Posted November 6, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      “Just as, in British law pertaining to vivisection, an octopus is a vertebrate.”

      Seriously?

  15. Gimmepaws
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of the oft-cited thing about everything looking like a nail when you have a hammer.

    To a religion-soaked society, everything looks like a religion, no matter how nonsensical that feels to more-sober minds.

  16. Jonathan Dore
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I *don’t* have mixed feelings about this. I think it’s a disaster, and I can’t quite understand why people are not seeing what an extremely dangerous legal precedent this sets. The secular position has always been for the abolition of privilege, not the extension of it. Now the religious will be perfectly entitled to class any advocacy for secularism as being among the things that the US government is not allowed to endorse, because it qualifies as a religion under the establishment clause. The prisoner’s case should have been based on challenging the privilege extended to the religious being allowed to organize study groups simply because they were religious, not by seeking to get himself classed as a member of another privileged group. Disastrous.

    • Posted November 5, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      I think you’re making the same error as Shatterface (#10).

      /@

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 5, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      That thought crossed my mind as well. It might be why it’s best to still identify as atheist in most situations.

  17. Joe Bloch
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I must disagree. I think classifying Secular Humanism as a religion actually works in Atheists’ favor; it gives us a tool to blunt the argument that “Atheism is a religion.”

    Now, in response to such claims, we can say, “No, Atheism is not a religion, because it doesn’t prescribe or proscribe any sort of specific behavior, any more than Theism does. It only requires a lack of belief in the existence of gods. But Secular Humanism *is* a sort of religion, with a moral code and behavioral norms.”

    I’d also point out that the definition you cite from the OED is listed as obsolete. The Merriam-Webster definition (#4) omits mention of any supernatural entity:

    “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith”

    Which I think it could be argued does include Secular Humanism.

    • Posted November 5, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      Well, I don’t think that characterisation of (secular) humanism is true. I don’t think there is a moral code or behavioural norms as such, at least in a proper religious sense of such a code or norms being prescriptive. While there is a Humanist Manifesto (does that make it more like a political movement?), it’s really more of a description of the ideals and behaviors of people who self-identify as humanists. And it says so explicitly: “not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe”. I never score 100% on any “So, you think you might be a humanist” quiz, but nobody at the BHA is having me excommunicated! 😇

      But clearly humanism is different from atheism qua atheism (i.e., “dictionary atheism”!). HM refers to “the lifestance of Humanism” and “lifestance” is a term which is use in some countries’ laws (e.g., Iceland, as I’ve mentioned hereabouts before … but for some reason the choose to do so in Icelandic: lífsskoðunar).

      The way I’d frame this is to say that the federal court is interpreting “religion” in a generic sense the equivalent of “lifestance”. Which is easier than reenacting all the laws that cite “religion”.

      /@

    • Posted November 5, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

      PS. Re the MW definition you cite, I certainly don’t see “faith” as having any part in humanism. It’s a word HM sensibly eschews.

  18. JimV
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    I guess it isn’t the formal definition, but I associate “religion” with a set of beliefs which are espoused and promulgated, e.g., “Confucianism” and “Buddhism”. This allows me to characterize Communism and Nazi-ism as forms of religion – along with Republicanism; and Capitalism and Socialism, for that matter. Perhaps my rule would be that when an -ism starts with a capital letter (in the minds of its adherents) it is a religion.

    However, on further thought, perhaps the single most defining element is that a religion is what one adheres to even in the face of contrary evidence. Still this does not necessarily rule out Humanism – hasn’t PZ Myers said that no evidence could convince him to believe in any form of theism?

    • Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      Confucianism is tricky, since it (and perhaps Buddhism as well) started as a pure philosophy, in the sense that the religious traditions it appeals to are already present and understood (even if somewhat critiqued).

  19. merilee
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    sub

  20. Hans van den Bos
    Posted November 6, 2014 at 3:50 am | Permalink

    Is it not better for non believers, instead of using the word ”believe”(Like the text of Epstein: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe), to use the words ”think” or ”know”?

  21. Democrat
    Posted November 6, 2014 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Jesus, now right-wing idiots will point at this decision saying “See. I told ya atheism was religion.”

  22. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted November 6, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    When are we going to see tested in court the proposition that bald is a hair colour, or that not collecting stamps is a hobby?

  23. Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Forgive me for intruding, but Secular Humanism was declared a religion quite some time ago. This didn’t just happen in 2014. It actually goes back several decades prior to that.

    http://www.newswithviews.com/Cuddy/dennis114.htm


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