Federal prisons will now recognize humanism as a religion

While a student at Michigan State University, I would daily walk past a church named “The People’s Church.” I never visited it, but that didn’t keep me from joking that this was the place where The People, rather than God, received worship. It was where the thoughts and feelings of The People trumped the revelation of God. Ironically, in my last year, I finally met someone who attended The People’s Church. He was a religious studies professor who oversaw an independent study project of mine. He occasionally preached there. Deflating my assumptions, he turned out to be a deeply committed Christian who totally undermined my joke. He clearly didn’t worship the people.

The Psalmist David asked, “What is man that you care for him? You have made him a little lower than the angels.” Even with such a lofty conception of the human person, worship belongs to God, not to his image. Last year, the U.S. Army recognized “Humanism” as a legitimate religious choice for service members. Like my joke about The People’s Church, humanist groups really do believe that the human is the highest expression of the cosmos.

Now, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has agreed to recognize “Humanism” as a religion. Those claiming to be secular humanists will exercise the same religious freedoms as inmates of more traditional faiths. They can now request time and space for their activities, receive humanist chaplains as visitors and demand access to secular humanist literature and study materials. Humanists have recently declared Darwin Day, Charles Darwin’s birthday, Feb. 12, as a type of holy day. On Darwin Day, humanist inmates will receive whatever liberties Jews would receive on Passover or Christians on Good Friday. The prison bureau also agreed to add a section on humanism to its handbook on inmate beliefs and practices.

Christian humanism, often associated with the Renaissance era, flows out of the Christian understanding of the human person as divinely created in God’s image and endowed with intrinsic worth and dignity. He is revered because he images God in his creativity, rationality and capacity for moral responsibility. But he is God’s image, not God. God is the final and highest reality.

In contrast, secular humanism is a philosophy of life in which “man is the measure of all things” and “this world is the end of all things.” It is a system of thought that rejects any divine revelation and relies entirely on human knowledge. While most secular humanists are atheists, many fellow atheists see humanists as lacking the courage of their atheistic convictions. Humanists, they say, want to hang on to their high view of the person and progress in a materialistic universe in which the human animal is just another form of matter in motion and has no enduring significance.

In Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, British philosopher John Gray accuses secular humanism of being just another Christian heresy. In a materialistic universe, he insists, nothing privileges the human over any other form of life. There is no such thing as progress because there is no specified goal toward which we are supposedly moving. So secular humanists should get over themselves, Gray writes, and stop trying to make a more humane world. If God doesn’t exist, ultimate reality is the grave for all.

“Today,” writes Gray in Straw Dogs, “liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world’s religions.”

In spite of Gray’s cold logic, the American Humanist Association journeys on. It sued the federal prison system in 2014 on behalf of Jason Michael Holden, an inmate at the Federal Detention Center in Sheridan, Ore., who is serving a sentence for armed robbery. Holden was seeking the right to form a humanist study group, a right afforded prisoners of other faiths. Under the settlement, the Federal Bureau of Prisons agreed to acknowledge humanism as a “worldview.” A worldview is an overarching philosophy of life that answers life’s most fundamental questions, such as: Who am I? Where am I? What’s wrong with this place? What can fix this place? What is the final, ultimate reality? “Worldview,” “philosophy,” “way of life,” and “religion” all cover much of the same ground.

This is not entirely new ground. In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court in Torcaso v. Watkins listed Secular Humanism as a religion. In a later decision, Edwards v. Aguillard, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote: “In Torcaso v. Watkins, … we did indeed refer to ‘Secular Humanism’ as a ‘religion.’”

Back in Torcaso v. Watkins, Justice John Harlan II wrote: “This Court has taken notice of the fact that recognized “religions” exist that “do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God.” For example: “Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”

But there is a profoundly important unanswered question in adopting “secular humanism” as a religion worthy of governmental acceptance. If “secular humanism” is a religion demanding free exercise, is it also a religion that, if adopted by the government, can become an unconstitutional establishment of religion?

A strong case can and will be made that “secular humanism” functions as the default religio-philosophical worldview undergirding public education and other government-sponsored activities. The state frequently assumes a secular humanistic point of view when deliberating about the good society. It is fundamentally secular and humanistic and progressive. Is “secular humanism” America’s religious establishment? I’ll develop this question in a later column.


Al Kresta is president and CEO of Ave Maria Communications in Ann Arbor. His radio program, “Kresta in the Afternoon,” can be heard from 4-6 p.m. daily on 990 AM-WDEO and EWTN.