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A discussion of "Secular humanism"

Secular Humanism is a term frequently thrown around in separation of church and state discussions. What is Secular Humanism and how does it pertain to the Separation issue? Does everyone who uses the term mean the same thing? You can find answers to these questions and more below.

Researched and compiled by Jim Allison
with contributions
by Susan Batte

 First Person:
First, Secular Humanism IS a religion.

 J. Allison:
I do suppose you are going to supply evidence to establish this fact? The first thing you might want to address is the fact that secular and humanism are two separate words. Secular refers to anything non religious. Humanism is defined as "any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity are taken to be of primary importance, as in moral judgements. Devotion to or study of the humanities." Taking into account the latter definition, even religious schools teach courses that are considered to be part of the humanities.

Next, you will have to address the fact that while there may be some dispute as to which of the two actually coined the phrase first, the phrase "secular humanism" is credited to either Leo Pfeffer or Joseph Blau, then professor emeritus of religion at Columbia University. However neither Leo Pfeffer nor Blau placed the type of meaning you are trying to put to it.

Pfeffer's meaning when he wrote the phrase in his book, Creed in Competition, which was published in 1958 defines it in this manner. "Those unaffiliated with organized religion and concerned with human values."

The late Leo Pfeffer also wrote:

" If secular humanism is a religion it is a funny kind of religion. It has no credo other than humanism--which is hardly an indispensable aspect of religion as is manifested by general and judicial recognition as religions of creeds that forbid blood transfusions (Jehovah's Witnesses), medical treatment (Church of Christian Science), or abortion even where necessary to save the life of a human being (Roman Catholic Church). It has no great founder or leader such as Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, or Reverend Sun Myung Moon. It has no prayers, no sermons or sermonizers, no rituals, no priesthoods, no symbols such as crosses, crucifixes and Stars of David, and no sacred books, such as the Old or New Testament, the Koran, Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures, or Book of Mormon. Marriage ceremonies performed by secular humanists are not likely to be recognized by states that accept ceremonial marriages performed by clergymen. Indeed, the term secular by itself indicates something that is not religious. (Use of the word to distinguish lay from clergy in Catholicism is obviously not intended to encompass "Secular Humanist.") Most important, the recently published Encyclopedia of Religion (13) has no reference to secular humanism. It is difficult to attribute the status of a religion to persons who are not recognized as such in undoubtedly the foremost authoritative encyclopedia of religion, particularly if it is claimed that they existed as long ago as 1961 when Torcaso was decided.

Be all this as it may, one thing can be asserted with a fair degree of certainty: Justice Black never anticipated and never intended that the term secular humanism should be used by champions of fundamentalism as justification for either censorship of public school instruction or introduction of religious instruction or both. But that is exactly what happened, and unlike the genie in the Arabian nights, secular humanism could not be returned into the Everson and McCollum bottle. Before, however, discussing the instances in which this has happened and is still happening, it is appropriate to recount the venture into this arena on the part of Utah's Senator Orrin Hatch, then chairman of the Senate's Committee on Labor and Human Resources.

In 1984, Congress adopted the Education for Economic Security Act of that year for the purpose of bringing up to date the Higher Education Act of 1963 and the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965. Section 20 U,S.C.A. 4059 of the 1984 statute read: "Grants under this subchapter ['Magnet School Assistance] may not be used for consultants, for transportation or for any activity which does not augment academic improvement." With no public notice, Senator Hatch tacked on to the proposed exclusionary subsection the words "or for any course of instruction the substance of which is secular Humanism." The subsection thus read: "Grants under this subsection may not be used for consultants, for transportation, or for any activity which does not augment academic improvements or for any course of instruction the substance of which is secular humanism."

How this came about is indicated in an interview by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York: "I have no idea what secular humanism is. No one knows ... I thought it was the price I had to pay to get school desegregation money."(14) Earlier, a press spokesman for Senator Hatch's Committee said that secular Humanism "is almost a term of art. You get into value education and a bunch of touchy-feely stuff that came out in the 70's. Conservatives Object because these things may get in the way of a Christian education .... That's a long way of saying there is no quick definition for it."(15).

Senator Hatch and his staff could not decide what a course using "secular humanism" might be; nor could his committee, nor the Department of Justice attorney called in for assistance; so it was decided to pass the ball to local school boards. "School boards," Senator Hatch's staff assistant explained,"depend on sane, reasonable people running them. There is no definition you can build into federal law that can keep crazy people from misinterpreting things. The absence of a working definition was a glitch. But with a little luck it won't be a serious glitch." Accordingly, a resolution was adopted that read: "A LEA [Local Education Agency] that receives [financial] resistance under this part may not use funds for any course of instruction the substance of which the LEA determines is secular humanism."

Unfortunately, the "glitch" turned out to be more serious than Senator Hatch and his staff expected. Unfortunate too was the reality that it would not go away. On the contrary, the publicity arising from newspaper accounts of the Hatch amendment resulted, on the one side, in a nationwide awakening among fundamentalists who suddenly realized that they had discovered a good thing and were not about to let it go; and on the other side, the action of People for the American Way in calling upon the Education Department to define what it meant by "secular humanism" in its regulations, and that of the American Jewish Congress in requesting the Department to amend the regulation so as to make clear that the Act "does not authorize much less require public schools to urge religious values on their students."

Senator Hatch, hardly a great libertarian, came to realize that the "glitch" had to be extinguished, preferably as publicly unnoticeable as was its inception. Accordingly, a bill was introduced to amend the statute so as to delete from the statute the words "or for courses of instruction the substance of which is secular humanism." The bill was passed in both houses of Congress and approved by the president in November of 1985, a little more than a year after it was first enacted. Sic transit Hatch amendment. Hatch amendment or no Hatch amendment, secular humanism is a weapon here to stay, at least until such time as the Supreme Court hands down a decision stating in clear terms that in constitutional law, then is no such thing as "secular humanism."

Indeed, the Court had an opportunity to do this as early as 1963 barely two years after the Torcoso decision was handed down. In that year it handed down its decision in Abington School District v. Schempp,(16) and the companion case, Murray v. Curlett,(17) both of which challenged the constitutionality of laws providing for devotional Bible reading and prayer recitation in the public schools. In Abington, in holding the practice unconstitutional, the Court said, "It is insisted that unless these exercises are permitted a 'religion of secularism' is established in the schools. We agree of course that the State may not establish a 'religion of secularism' in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe. We do not agree, however, that this decision in any sense has that effect."(18)

(13.) Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillian, 1987)
(14.) New York Times, 22 February 1985
(15.) Washington Post, 10 January 1985
(16.) Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).
(17.) Ibid.
(18.) Ibid.,225.

Source of Information:

The "Religion" of Secular Humanism by Leo Pfeffer. Journal of Church and State Vol. 29 Number 3, Autumn 1987: pp 498-500.

  First Person :
I will not post the entire contents of the two Humanist Manifestos, but you can examine them at your leisure. Clearly SH, by its own standards, is a religion, albeit a non-theistic religion.

See: Humanist Manifesto I and Humanist Manifesto II

  J. Allison:
Well, are you able to make a connection between those who call themselves humanists and subscribe to this Humanist Manifesto, agree with it, perhaps wrote it, etc, and those whom you label as secular humanists?

  First Person:
The second Humanist Manifesto says:

As we approach the twenty-first century, however, an affirmative and hopeful vision is needed. Faith, commensurate with advancing knowledge, is also necessary. In the choice between despair and hope, humanists respond in this Humanist Manifesto II with a positive declaration for times of uncertainty.

As in 1933, humanists still believe that traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to live and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith. Salvationism, based on mere affirmation, still appears as harmful, diverting people with false hopes of heaven hereafter. Reasonable minds look to other means for survival.

This quote alone shows the religious quality of SH. The balance of the two documents is equally candid.

  J. Allison:
Be that as it may, you have not established any connection between those who wrote those words and secular humanists. I would add the following sites that one can look at for additional information:

What Is Secular Humanism?
A Secular Humanist Declaration
The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles
The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto
10 Myths About Secular Humanism
The American Humanist Association
Humanist Manifesto I
Humanist Manifesto II

  First Person:

Furthermore, the US Supreme Court has ruled the SH is a religion, so irrespective of our beliefs on the subject, the government has ruled, and as obedient little serfs, we must accept.

In Torcaso v. Watkins, a Maryland Notary Public was reinstated despite his refusal to declare belief in God. The Supreme Court noted that many religions, including Secular Humanism, deny the existence of God.

Torcaso V. Watkins, October 1961, US Supreme Court: Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others."

 J. Allison:

I don't think you really understand what courts have said about what you are saying.

One has to understand in reading court opinions that footnotes, dicta, reasoning/rationale even is not law, is not the actual decision or "holding" of the court. Only the actual ruling i.e. holding of the court means anything as far as law and being legally binding is concerned.

All the other comments in the opinion can be informative, can be interesting, can maybe be persuasive in future arguments, but it isn't law, it isn't the finding of the court, it isn't binding on anything.

People can say the court said this, or the court said that, but the only thing that the court said that really matters is the actual holding/ruling of that case.

 Susan Batte, Esq adds:

The above information appears in a footnote. Whether or not secular humanism was or was not a religion was not the issue in Torcaso. However, the 11th Cir. Court of Appeals in Smith v. Bd. of Comm. of Alabama (1987) held: "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, and we need not attempt to do so in this case, for we find that, even assuming that secular humanism is a religion for purposes of the establishment clause, Appellees have failed to prove a violation of the establishment clause through the use in the Alabama public schools of the textbook at issue in this case."

You must not know how to read a court decision, or you would know that a footnote does not constitute any part or parcel of the holding of the court in that decision, it has no legal standing, is not binding on anything. It is like obiter dictum--not part of the holding, not binding, not used as binding precedent for future decisions.

  First Person:
In other Supreme Court decision Abington School District v. Schempp, 374, US 203, 83 S.Ct. 1560, 10 L.Ed.2d 844 (1963) Justice Clark stated: "[T]he State may not establish a 'religion of secularism' in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus 'preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.' "

 Susan Batte, Esq. says:
Of course, the quote would make more sense in context: "It is insisted that unless these religious exercises are permitted a ‘religion of secularism' is established in the schools. We agree of course that the State may not establish a "religion of secularism" in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus "preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe." We DO NOT AGREE, however, that this decision in any sense has that effect." (emphasis added)

  J. Allison:
To quote Alan Pfeffer ( from 3 Nov, 1993:

Subject: Re; Secular Humanism

'This is correct. The term "secular humanism" (no capitals) was invented by Leo Pfeffer, my father, in a book called "Creeds in Competition" published in 1958. He was also the lawyer for Roy Torcaso, an atheist who was denied a notary license in Maryland because he refused to take an oath saying he believed in God. In his brief to the Supreme Court, my father mentioned as a subordinate argument that the Maryland law not only discriminated against atheists and agnostics, it also discriminated against religions that did not believe in God, such as Buddhism. Meanwhile, another brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of Torcaso's position (I think by the Unitarians), used the term secular humanism in another context. Somehow Justice Black's law clerk apparently combined the two items, and so the Court's opinion included a footnote listing religions that do not believe in God and including secular humanism.

The footnote was definitely not a ruling as that term is understood in law. It was completely irrelevant to the decision or the reasoning of the case. The Court's opinion said that requiring anyone, atheist or believer, to profess a belief in God was unconstitutional.

In other words, no, it is not correct that secular humanism was ruled a religion by the Court.

  First Person:
One might argue that even if it is a religion, that it does not affect children in school. This argument presupposes that schools do not teach Secular Humanism.

  J. Allison:

Taking the accepted dictionary definitions of the words being tossed around, any subject that is taught in any school that does not include religion in some form or fashion is therefore secular. Even a private religious school should they teach a subject, any subject, and did not wrap it in some form of religious presentation could be rightfully blamed of teaching secularism. Any school, including private religious schools that taught any subject that is generally considered to be a part of the "humanities" and taught it without wrapping it up in religion could be rightfully blamed of teaching secular humanities..

You are trying to say that RELIGION = RELIGION, BUT NON - RELIGION = RELIGION AS WELL. Teaching religion is teaching religion, but not teaching religion is also teaching a religion, the religion of non-religion.

Now has the IRS given the religion of "secular humanism" a tax exempt status as a religion? I don't think so. What other evidence do you have to offer?

  First Person:

One of the supporters of this point of view demanded that we show one textbook that teaches SH. It is quite impossible to do so because the teachings are subtle and accepted (by dint of decades of indoctrination) by the majority to be considered "religion".

Neither of these failings disproves the accusation.

  J. Allison:

Smoke screen! You can speak for this so-called majority?

Here is your problem:

(1) By your own admission you acknowledge that you can't produce any textbooks that teach secular humanism.

(2) You either did not understand what you were reading when you read about the court decisions you cited or you did understand that these court decisions did not support your claims

(3) You have combined several so called "groups" ( secular humanists and humanists) without supplying any evidence that actually links them together as being one and the same, and then uses some vague quotes from a book by one of these groups as some form of evidence to support your claims. But you offer no proof that the various "groups" all subscribe to quotes.

(4) At least some of the claims you are making in regards to this "secular humanism" and the public schools system can also be made about private schools in general and that includes private religious schools in some instances. Any school system you could ever devise would also be "guilty" of teaching this mysterious "religion" in at least some instances. (i.e., the mysterious religion of "not teaching religion in classes since it was not really part of the subject material")

I don't see where you have really proven that "secular humanism" is a religion.

Additional information regarding "Secular Humanism"

Paul Kurtz wrote in the CSH Electronic Newsletter, Wed. March 2, 2001: [CSH is the Council for Secular Humanism]

Regarding the specific issue of the book calling Secular Humanism a "religion", I'd like to offer a radical suggestion, and many of you will probably disagree but it is only a suggestion.

First of all, the fear of taking Secular Humanism out of the schools, IMO, is unwarranted because Secular Humanism is not being taught in the first place. For instance, I have never heard of a public school teacher who has ever said to students, "you know that an action is morally wrong if it hurts someone, and if it hurts no one then its not wrong". There are enough non-Secular Humanists who are evolutionists that attacks on evolution based on its relationship to Secular Humanism just aren't going to wash except among staunch creationists. They might try to argue that not teaching God means teaching Secular Humanism, but that would be silly since Buddhism and Ethical Culture require no god belief and no one tries to argue the schools are teaching Buddhism, or Ethical Culture.

Second, I think we (not just Secular Humanists) could do ourselves a lot of good legally by tossing out our dictionaries in favor of the I.R.S. definition of religion as stated here:

Religious Belief Defined

It says:

The term 'religious' as used in IRC 501(c)(3) is not subject to precise definition. The leading interpretation of the term was made by the Supreme Court in United States v. Seeger , 380 U.S. 163 (1965), in which the Court interpreted the phrase 'religious training and belief' as used in the Universal Military Training and Service Act, 50 U.S.C. section 456 (j), in determining an individual's eligibility for exemption from military service on religious grounds. The Court formulated the following definition: 'A sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualifying for the exemption comes within the statutory definition.' The Court elaborated upon the Seeger definition in Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 33 (1970), stating that '[i]f an individual deeply and sincerely holds beliefs that are purely ethical or moral in source and content but that nevertheless impose upon him a duty of conscience to refrain from participating in any war at any time, those beliefs certainly occupy in the life of that individual a place parallel to that filled by... God in the lives of traditionally religious persons.' Thus, religious beliefs include many beliefs (for example, Taoism, Buddhism, and Secular Humanism) that do not posit the existence of a Supreme Being in the conventional sense."

There is no requirement for belief in gods or any other supernatural thing, no requirement to use faith as an epistomology, and no requirement to worship anything. All that is required is that you have a set of ethical or moral beliefs (you can even write your own) that are just as important to you as God is to Christians. If Fundamentalists insist on hammering in the idea that freedom of religion does not include freedom from religion, then perhaps we are better off taking advantage of the much broader IRS definition of "religion".


Secular Humanism

by Richard T. Foltin of American Jewish Committee, Washington, D.C.

This article is a response to the Right's claim that public schools promote secular humanism and, in doing so, inhibit the practice of Christianity.

One claim made by the radical "religious right" is that the public school curriculum promotes a religion called "secular humanism" and, in so doing, ostensibly inhibits the practice of Christianity. Alternatively, the claim is made that "secular humanism," if not a religion in and of itself, constitutes an anti-religious point of view.

These claims have served as the basis for challenges to certain textbooks and portions of curriculum as prohibited establishment of religion. (By virtue of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, schools may neither endorse nor derogate any religion.) But, as is discussed below, the putative "secular humanist" religion, at least as that term is used by the religious right, signifies nothing more (or less) than the failure of the public schools to teach a particular form of Christianity.

In one notable instance in which this issue was raised, Judge Brevard Hand, a federal district judge sitting in Alabama, stated in 1983, in a subsequently-reversed decision, that:

"[Case law deals generally with removing the teachings of the Christian ethic from the scholastic effort but totally ignores the teaching of the secular humanistic ethic.... [T]he curriculum in the public schools of Mobile County is rife with efforts at teaching or encouraging secular humanism - all without opposition from any other ethic to such an extent that it becomes a brainwashing effort. If this Court is compelled to purge "God is great, God is good, we thank him for our daily food" from the classroom, then this Court must also purge from the classroom those things that serve to teach that salvation is through one's self rather than through a deity."(1)

Thus, for Judge Hand the public schools are defined as disseminators of "secular humanism", because they are not allowed to teach patently religious points of view.

Insofar as the radical right is asking that public schools remove from the curriculum all teachings or textbooks that are inconsistent with their religious views, and replace those texts with books that are consistent with such views, they are seeking a result that is, in and of itself, antithetical to the First Amendment's prohibition of the establishment of religion. As a federal appeals judge has stated:

"It is apparent that [those who]... deem that which is "secular" in orientation to be anti-religious... are not dealing in the same linguistic currency as the Supreme Court's establishment decisions. If the establishment clause is to have any meaning, distinctions must be drawn to recognize not simply "religious" and "anti-religious," but "non-religious" government activity as... Therefore, [one]... cannot succeed in demonstrating a violation of the establishment laws by showing that the school authorities are somehow advancing "secular" goals."(2)

The arguments asserted by the radical right would, then, read all meaning out of the First Amendment. They would treat all texts and all school subjects as either pro-theistic religion or as a promotion of the "religion" (or "anti-religion") of "secular humanism." Implicitly, this analysis is based on the premise that the state cannot be neutral toward religion because all thought is religious religion having been implicitly defined as anything anyone thinks is important.

Part of the problem is that the radical right has taken a term referring to an actual philosophical perspective (a perspective that may or may not properly be deemed a "religion") for constitutional purposes and applied it to the actions of school officials in a fashion that is wholly inappropriate. "Secular humanism" is a world view that is premised on the non-existence of a Deity and which embraces reason as the sole appropriate response to the universe. There is simply no evidence that educators are "secular humanists" seeking to proselytize through the public schools, The argument that educators are proponents of that viewpoint relies on the obfuscation of the differences between the particular school of thought known as "secular humanism" and the more general concept of "humanism."

As one school board stated in response to a challenge to its curriculum:

"In the broadest sense a "humanist" is quite literally anyone who is interested in the study of humanities: the artistic, cultural, philosophical, and social achievements of human history. As such, humanism is the deepest stream of philosophical, scientific, literary, artistic, and moral thought in Western Civilization and is basic to the entire tradition of learning. A humanist is one who is dedicated to the achievement of the highest possible human potential. Humanism in this sense is not necessarily inconsistent with religion, theistic or non-theistic; indeed, throughout history there have been many "Christian Humanists."

The school board went on to note that "by blurring the distinction between humanism and Secular Humanism, [those challenging the school curriculum]... can quite literally take any proposition with which they disagree and put a 'humanist' label on it.... [T]hey rely on the... the ambiguity and malleability of the term `humanism' to contribute to their dualistic social outlook, under which everything is either traditionally religious or part of the 'religion' of 'humanism.'"

In sum, the assertion that textbooks and educators are advocates of "secular humanism" is premised on the interchangeable and inappropriate use of the terms "humanism" and "secular humanism." The acceptance of this assertion would, in the end, lead to the dismantling of the entire system of public education, because it would then be impossible for school boards to decide to promote any values or even to convey any information without being subject to attack from some religious group or another.

(1) Jaffree v. Board of School Com'rs of Mobile County, 1983

(2) Engle v. Vitale, 1962; Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 1963.

Source of Information:

How to Win: A Practical Guide for Defeating the Radical Right in Your Community Copyright 1994 by Radical Right Task Force. Permission is granted to reproduce this publication in whole or in part. All other rights reserved.

For more information contact:

Pat Lewis
National Jewish Democratic Council
711 Second Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20002
(202) 544-7636