The world won’t exactly be rocked by news that on Oct. 30 a federal judge declared Secular Humanism a religion for the purposes of the establishment clause, but for a certain set of both irreligious and religious people this will be a source of consternation. It’s easy to understand why people on both sides of the issue might be rubbed the wrong way; however arbitrarily they’re assigned, words have meanings, and people and institutions take actions in the world based on those meanings.
For those who after much fretting and existential struggle decided to leave their religion of birth, it’s likely they went through a pretty major identity shift. This shift likely came with plenty of cognitive dissonance and pushback from many, if not all, of their religious friends and family; coming out as an atheist is often no easy task. For those who have remained faithful or gained faithfulness, they likely feel a special connection to the word religion because of their own personal associations between a word and a community defined at it’s core by a shared belief in not just the values that religion may bring, but the point of origin and ultimate enforceability of those values in the next life. Bottom line: both groups will have members who will experience some negative emotions over this for understandable reasons.
As previously stated any consternation over the legal reclassification of the term Secular Humanism is likely based on the fact that words have meanings and those meanings generate action in the real world. As atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and other secularists we ought to be sure that when we’re upset it’s about the actions those meanings generate, not our attachment to words. Secularists ought not treat the term “Secular Humanism” in any way similar to the way a fundamentalist cleric would treat the words in a copy of the Koran, as if they hold some special magic that need be protected. We should treat “Secular Humanism” like any other bit of language, as a fluid tool used to accomplish communicative and other goals. In this instance treating Secular Humanism as a religion, even if it’s absent a god or god’s, even if it leaves a sour taste in some of our mouths, serves the nobel purpose of ensuring people without belief have the same rights under the law as believers, and that is a good thing. Simply put, we likely have no more to fear from Secular Humanism being called a religion than religious folks had to fear from legally recognized homosexual romantic partnerships being called a marriage. It’s not the classification of our name that makes us who we are, it’s what we believe and what we do.