This blog’s first post was about the news that Secular Humanism was ruled a religion by a federal court judge. As was alluded to in that post, it’s not our legal classification that makes nonreligious people who we, it’s what we believe and what we do. Still, labels do matter in that people ascribe meanings to them and then act in the world based on those meanings. How we think about things, how we see them, is how we treat them. In the wake of the court ruling my friend Jeff Isbell sent me the following message, which I think has some important ideas, in response to that first blog post:
“Americans are most comfortable including people who demonstrate possession of certain qualities. One of those qualities is being ‘in’ and not ‘out’. One of the ways to be ‘in’ is by being part of a religion. Why? After all, most people are not very religious . . ..
There is a human quality that is expressed by the use of codes and passwords, [though] these words are not [usually] recognized as codes or passwords. What gives them vital importance is that they are AGREED to be TRUE. As such, acceptance of the existence of God is ‘The Test’ for admittance to the group.
Secular Humanism has been legally named by the court to be a religion with regard to the Establishment clause of the Constitution. This may be a turning point for atheism in society. Approval by the highest court in the land may gently open the door to the inside of society. The question is whether society is ready to accept [our] membership in a ‘religion’ as a replacement for ‘belief in God’. It may be. Most people seem to be moving away from literal belief in the Bible. Mormons and Scientologist are more accepted than atheists though their beliefs are arguably more bizarre. A nominal ‘worship’ of the ‘goodness of the human spirit’, may be sufficient to be accepted.
While the name ‘atheist’ says ‘NO I am NOT’, the name ‘Secular Humanist’ says ‘YES I am’, thus removing any threat.”
That governmental inclusion of a godless group as a ‘religion’ opens the door for it’s people to take their place as equals among a society’s religious masses is an interesting proposal. At the very least it further enshrines our right to have our preferences for treatment considered equally under the law, even if it doesn’t necessarily change the Bible Belt’s private thoughts about us. Take for instance that becoming a legally recognized “religion” grants a stronger case for the recognition and inclusion of atheistic chaplains in military and bureaucratic service, a greater claim that government should support atheistic alternatives to addiction recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and better opportunity to exempt our organizations from taxation in the same ways that traditional religious organizations enjoy. This last one is particularly important if we are to have any power as a movement. If money equals power, and the ideological competitors who seek to impose their beliefs on us and the public sphere are not only more numerous than our movement, but are also able to keep every dollar they make, while we turn a percentage of our organizations’ earnings over to the government, it’s easy to see how this artificially disadvantages our movement.
While these sorts of legal advantages are important, it would be nice to win over the people in the Bible Belt; it would be nice to not just be “in” as it were, but also to be welcome. For this to happen secularists need to be a visible, positive force in our communities. As Jeff claims, ” . . . the name ‘Secular Humanist’ says ‘YES I am’, thus removing any threat.” But we may be getting ahead of ourselves here. Does the name “Secular Humanist” actually say “yes I am”? I’m not sure, but I know it’s trying to, however if our message isn’t received, then our attempt to say anything is futile. To be clear: we need the idea that we have something positive to offer society to be well understood and accepted if we are to truly take our place as equals in society.
There have been several ongoing attempts to do this, and I think they should be lauded. The most important of these attempts are those that organize Secularists into groups for community service and outreach. Here in San Luis Obispo, California Atheists United regularly has an outreach booth at the farmers market, and every time I’ve walked by it seems like a friendly place with everyone in good spirits. The Sunday Assembly (the “atheist church”) in London, New York, and Los Angeles offers a weekly forum with a nonthreatening and familiar organizational structure and purpose. And of course there is the American Atheists Association, the Skeptics Society, and other outreach and advocacy organizations. Also of importance are the texts that try communicate who we are and what we value. Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard has laid out a wonderful text titled “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe” and A.C. Grayling’s “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible” are notable examples of the many texts that are honest, beautiful tomes that layout the goodness of the secular community, and how it may even out perform the goodness of traditional religious doctrine.
Lawrence Krauss recently made the claim that all it takes for religious belief to disappear is one generation of people who don’t find the relevance of scripture to their lives. The millennials, with the highest reporting of being nonreligious of any generation of Americans ever, appear to be pushing America in this direction. This presents a unique opportunity for the secular community to offer alternatives for what will stand in place of religion, for how we will make sense of our innate moral impulses, and how we will act in the world. The reclassification of Secular Humanism as a “religion” may just give us new unique ground to share our positive vision for a future in which Jesus, Yahweh, and Mohammed, have joined the ranks of Zeus, Odin, and Zoroaster in western society. But we can really only do that by sharing our “yes I am” rather than our “no I’m not.”