Is Secular Humanism a Religion?

Many Say It Is, but Secularists Say It Isn't

Many people disagree with or even loathe secular humanism. A common complaint heard from critics, usually Christian fundamentalists, is that secular humanism is actually a religion — but upon what basis would they make such a claim? Is secular humanism really a religion?

It is a curious claim because it seems to be motivated by hypocrisy. Whenever fundamentalists assert that secular humanism is a religion, they suddenly find a new belief in the importance of the separation of church and state, arguing that in order to preserve church-state separation, secular humanism must be removed from schools, universities, the media, etc.

A further complication lies in the fact that some religious humanists also argue that secular humanism is a religion. According to secular humanists, this provides “aid and comfort” to those religious fundamentalists who claim that secular humanism is a religion which has infiltrated our schools and government.

One argument often used by fundamentalists is that the Supreme Court has ruled that secular humanism is a religion. In the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins, Justice Hugo Black wrote in a footnote that:

”Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God is Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, secular humanism, and others.”

As a footnote, it qualifies as an obiter dictum — this means that it is simply a personal observation of the judge, and hence is only incidental to reaching the opinion. It has no real weight when it comes to legal precedent and cannot be properly considered the “decision” of the court.

In accordance with this, in the 1994 9th Circuit Court decision in Peloza v. Capistrano it was ruled that the Supreme Court had never “held that evolutionism or secular humanism are ‘religions’ for Establishment Clause purposes,” essentially refuting the argument made by the fundamentalists.

Another argument commonly offered for the idea that secular humanism is a religion is through reference to the devotion which secular humanists have for their principles and beliefs.

Presumably, the defining characteristic of a religion is a person’s zeal and earnestness — but is that a valid way to understand what religion is? As Paul Kurtz has written:

Is feminism a religion? Are we devoted to it? Is communism a religion? Is libertarianism a religion? Libertarians are devoted to the free market and actively support it. Is vegetarianism a religion? It seems to me if we were to use the term religion in that way, its definition becomes so wide that it applies to everything. If you’re a devout pinochle player, if your whole life is spent playing pinochle, are you religious in that sense? By such a definition, religion applies to everything and to nothing. It’s a misuse of the language, and it makes no sense.”

There are, however, other obvious difficulties with the idea that secular humanism might be a religion. For one thing, there is the obvious fact that it would represent a contradiction in terms — the very label “secular” means, essentially, non-religious. A non-religious religion isn’t logically possible. Thus, if secular humanism really is a religion, then it can’t actually be secular; that means either that only religious humanism is a religion or there is no such thing as genuinely secular humanism.

Part of the problem for the argument made by religious fundamentalists is that they fail to understand that humanist traditions form the background of both secular humanism and cultural humanism. They seem to assume that Christianity, but especially Christianity as they perceive it should be, is the only influence on Western culture. That is simply not true — Christianity is an influence, but just as important are the humanist traditions which date back to Greece and Rome.

Religious fundamentalists would like to eliminate the influence of humanism and act as though that entails simply getting rid of secular humanism. In reality, however, this would include the elimination of all vestiges of cultural humanism as well — and that means essentially overturning modernity. The result would be a very repressive Christian theocracy where all traces of the philosophic and rational traditions from Greece, Rome, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment would be missing.