The Limits of “Religious” Equality: Humanism, Religion, and Defining our Purpose

Last week, Senior District Judge Ancer Haggerty issued a ruling on American Humanist Association v. United States, declaring Humanism a religion and therefore deserving of the same rights as other religious groups in the United States. This is a victory in the non-theistic community, and potentially clears the way for additional Humanist chaplaincies on campuses, in the armed forces, and in prisons, and ostensibly protects Humanists from further unequal treatment at the hands of the religious majority. Hopefully this is the beginning of better legislative representation, more open conversation about religious privilege in schools and community spaces, and growing tolerance of non-theistic individuals. It’s a single step, it’s an exciting step, and it certainly seems to be a move forward, but for many Humanists we have arrived at an ethical crossroads.

Humanism is an ethical lifestance founded on the principles of total equality, communal responsibility, and rationality. Although not anti-theistic in any sense, Humanism operates on the principle of being “good without God”, and is free from any belief in God, gods, or the supernatural of any kind. In short, it is specifically the ethics of living a good life for the sake of living a good life, without any need for what we generally refer to as the realm of “religion”. Except now Humanism is a religion, legally speaking.

The limits of language and categorization repeatedly come up in my work, specifically when discussing the terms we use for interfaith, interreligious, and interbelief work that includes the non-religious. For those purposes, I have happily conceded that Humanism is my version of religion – it fills that part of my identity and my understanding of the world and my place in it that for other people is filled by religion. It is my life philosophy, my set of guiding ethics. If I were filling out a survey, Secular Humanism would be my religious affiliation. I am not necessarily opposed to the idea of Humanism being categorized as a religion for the purposes of legal organization, as long as we understand that by so doing we are expanding what the term “religion” means, can mean, and the ways that it is applied to a person’s life. There are many Secular Humanists, however, who respond to the word “religion” with more hurt, more aversion, or just less shrugging than I do, and I think we as a community need to be sensitive to what it means for someone’s identity when we re-categorize ourselves. We also must be sensitive to what changing the expanse of a word’s inclusivity means for those who strongly identify with and respond to its previous specificity.

Being granted the legal status of a religion, complete with all the privileges, rights, bells, and whistles that come along with such a designation, raises both challenges and opportunities for Humanists. We are a community invested in fighting for and preserving the natural equality of all people regardless of sex, race, age, ability, gender, class, sexual orientation, political affiliation, religion, intelligence, or any other marker. We must still be committed to fighting for and preserving the equality of all people. I don’t want to be someone that protests the exclusivity of an institution until she is welcomed inside – the institution itself is still exclusive. As a Humanist it’s my responsibility to ask after those still left out.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University warns of the damage that can be done by the United States’ emphasis on Religious Freedom in foreign policy, but a lot of what she says can also be applied to religious freedom and equality of religions here in the United States. In an interview with Religion News Service last year, Hurd said, “When the United States promotes religious freedom and pursues religious engagement, groups that favor American political, economic and strategic interests are likely to be engaged and promoted, while those that the U.S. disfavors are likely to be classified as cults or extremists and cast aside. In this scenario, it’s surprisingly easy for the particular version of a religion that the U.S. supports to carry more weight politically than others.” She goes on to say that by “emphasizing and privileging religion as a fixed, stable, and politically and legally meaningful category”, we risk solidifying the divisions of difference that Religious Freedom advocacy work is often designed to heal. She discusses the ways in which people are marginalized by our use of religion as a category for promoting rights and freedom, rather than emphasizing human rights more broadly, and the political nature of how religion is defined and utilized. Much of what Hurd warns against and outlines in her work on Religious Freedom is relevant to the categorization of Humanism as a religion last week.

New language might help. I have made a case for Humanists claiming words like sacred for our own, meaningful use, but religion itself is a term with so many layers of politics, history, and individualized personal meaning that it might be too difficult to untangle and refresh. It’s a word that is often useful, but also can be problematic. With students I sometimes opt for “religious tradition” or “religious practice” as opposed to “religion” on its own, and have found that for many the qualification can be welcoming. It’s not so different from my comfort claiming Secular Humanism as my religious affiliation, yet hesitating to call it my religion.

Maybe we need to reconsider our categories. With our new official status, Humanists must continue to fight for the equal  human rights of everyone. It’s a victory for Humanists that we have greater access to resources that will allow us to better serve our community members in a variety of settings, and my purpose here is not to belittle the gains that have been made. It would be a greater victory to abolish the system that privileges certain beliefs over others in the first place, regardless of how we’re categorized and separated by definitions.

This image of Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fluery’s painting, Galileo Before the Holy Office, is used by permission of Wikimedia Commons.

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