On Secular Humanism being a Religion

Ian Robinson / 11 January 2015

IN 2006, the Rationalist Society joined with the Council of Australian Humanist Societies and the Australian National Secular Association to sponsor a National Conference on “Separating Church and State: Keeping God out of Government”.

The Conference was publicised to a wide range of interested groups, including religious groups.

The Publicity Officer (PR) received the following email from one of those religious groups:

Dear PR,

According to the Supreme Court of the USA in 1961 Secular Humanism is a RELIGION. Are you going to ban them (perhaps yourself) from politics too?

Everyone has a ‘religion’ – even no religion means you ‘believe’ something – so if you keep people who believe something out of politics then in reality you have no politicians.

Can you tell me if it is only Christian belief that you think should be excluded? If not which other ones do you also discriminate against.

Peter P Stokes, Co-founder and Executive Officer Salt Shakers Inc.

The Publicity Officer replied with:

Thanks for your interest, Peter.

Alas, I am but the messenger and hold no opinion either way, though I suspect the debate is a little more complex than you’ve taken it to be. If you’d like, I could forward your message on to the organisers for a more considered response.

Regards, PR

Peter Stokes then responded with:

Yes, I would like you to pass it on to someone who has thought it through.

Just the messenger? I am disappointed that you sent me, and presumably many others, an email on something you hold no opinion about. Is it not time that you did have an opinion, before you send out such emails again?

Why should it be more complex? Was I being logical? Yes. Did my logic not make sense? Please consider and let me know.

Peter P Stokes, Co-founder and Executive Officer Salt Shakers Inc

Ian Robinson, then President of the Rationalist Society, then sent to following to Stokes:

Dear Peter,

Our PR officer recently sent you an invitation to a conference we are sponsoring to discuss the problem of the separation of Church and State. In a rather provocative reply to him you made a false statement, jumped to a number of unwarranted conclusions, undermined the significance of the word ‘religion ‘ and were unkind to our PR person. You have asked for a response to the issues you raise and I am happy to oblige on behalf of the organisers.

(1)  ln your first email you stated: ‘According to the Supreme Court of the USA in 1961 Secular Humanism is a RELIGION.’

This is simply not true. The fact is that in the case of Torcaso v Watkins ( 1961), one of the ruling Judges, Justice Black, in an ‘obiter dictum’, or personal opinion appended to the judgement, wrote: ‘Among the religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others.’

However, such ‘obiter dicta’ are not a formal part of the Supreme Court judgement; they are simply the personal opinion of one of the judges, neither part of nor necessary to the final result, and have no legal force whatsoever.

So the most you can say is ‘According to one US Supreme Court judge in a non-binding aside … ‘ However, when you look at the full quote it is clear that he is speaking very loosely and colloquially and little comfort for your position can really be gained from it. And anyway he is probably wrong: many Buddhists, for example, claim Buddhism is NOT a religion, precisely because they don’t believe in God.

(2)  You go on to say:  ‘Are you going to ban them (perhaps yourself) from politics too?’

You seem to assume that the conference is about banning people. The conference is about discussing issues around the topic and we have speakers from a wide range of positions, including Christian, addressing the participants. Nobody is ‘banned’, as long as they come, to both the conference and to public life in general, in a spirit of sharing, free exchange of opinions and respect for others’ views.

The position I would take is that in a robust democracy everybody is entitled to express an opinion, but that political decisions should be taken not on the grounds that they accord with the religious beliefs of any particular person or group within the community, but because they are for the good of the community as a whole; ie we shouldn’t do something because Allah prescribed it the Qur’an, but because it is in the public interest. I’m sure you would agree. And the same applies to any other set of religious beliefs.

(3)   You claim that “Everyone has a ‘religion’ – even no religion means you ‘believe’ something”

This seems to me to be an illogical position. Surely not all beliefs are ‘religious’ beliefs. There is clearly a distinction to be made between beliefs that are religious (e.g that God exists) and beliefs that are not religious (e.g that Carlton will win the 2006 AFL Premiership). So it is logically possible that someone might not have any beliefs that are of the kind that could be classified as religious and only possess beliefs that are of the non­-religious type.

Your reply would presumably be that absence of belief in religion, or failure to believe that anything that might be called ‘God’ exists, are in fact beliefs of the kind that might be correctly labeled religious. However, to not have a particular belief does not entail having a different belief, but simply being free of beliefs about that subject altogether, just as not to have a certain feeling does not mean you have the feeling of not having the first­ mentioned feeling, and not to have a particular impulse does not imply you have any other impulse. If I fail to believe that anything that might be called ‘God’ exists, this doesn’t mean I have some beliefs about ‘God’; on the contrary, it means I don’t have any beliefs about ‘God’, and it is hard to see how not having any beliefs about something could sensibly count as a belief – it is rather, the absence of a belief.

However, some atheists and humanists go beyond not believing that God exists and actually affirm the truth of ‘God does not exist’. This is certainly a belief, but is it a religious belief? It seems to me that one of the key criteria of whether a belief is a religious belief or not must be whether it includes or implies the truth of the statement ‘God exists’. By definition, the belief that ‘God does not exist’ does not imply this statement, in fact it states the opposite, and therefore it cannot be counted as a religious belief.

If you want to water down the meaning of ‘religious’ to such an extent that the belief that ‘God does not exist’ counts as a ‘religious belief’, I believe you have made the term virtually meaningless. Very little is gained (at best, you might claim a few cheap debating points against those pesky heathens) and a great deal is lost (you have separated the idea of belief in God from the idea of religion, with which it has for so long been conjoined). If this makes you feel better, far be it from me to deny you that pleasure, but my friendly advice would be that the gains are not worth the losses.

As an afterthought, it may be plausible to claim that atheism or secular humanism are ‘religions’ in a metaphorical sense, in the same way that some people claim that Communism is a ‘religion’ or that barracking for Collingwood is a ‘religion’. [My personal  belief is that both should be stamped out!] What this means is that believing in Communism and barracking for Collingwood share certain things in common with holding religious beliefs that make the metaphor salient and useful  in understanding  them, but they are not literally ‘religions’ in the proper sense of the word. In a similar way, one might plausibly argue that non­-religious beliefs such as atheism and secular humanism share with religious beliefs such things as an interest in metaphysics and in ethics that make them metaphorically ‘religious’. But as a student and supporter of logic, you will know that a metaphor cannot be the basis for a logical argument or a definition. You cannot make a stick to beat atheism out of such a move.

(4)    You state: ‘so if you keep people who believe something out of politics then in reality you have no politicians’. Again, an unwarranted assumption. We don’t want to ‘keep people who believe something out of politics’, but we do want to keep the political and the religious spheres apart. Politics should be driven by belief in political principles such as equality, liberty and the common good, and religious beliefs per se have no place in political decision making. Jesus himself was very clear on this point: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s.’ How can we disagree with this?

Once you allow religion to enter politics directly you open a Pandora’s box, for the question then becomes ‘which religion?’ – Islam? Hinduism? Voodoo? People who argue for a place for religion in politics generally mean a place for their religion exclusively, and not a place for all religions, which is neither egalitarian nor democratic. And we are all in favour of democracy.

(5)  You ask: ‘Can you tell me if it is only Christian belief that you think should be excluded? If not which other ones do you also discriminate against?’

There is no question of excluding religious beliefs, just of confining them to the private sphere. This applies to non-religious beliefs such as atheism and humanism also. Politicians shouldn’t argue that some decision should be taken purely on the grounds that it is consistent with humanism, any more than Christianity. They must advance political arguments in terms of political principles such as liberty and equality and democracy and justice to support those decisions.

(6)  You rather unkindly chide our PR person, who is just doing his job: ‘Just the messenger? I am disappointed that you sent me, and presumably many others, an email on something you hold no opinion about. ls it not time that you did have an opinion, before you send out such emails again?’ PR is not a member of any of the sponsoring organisations. He has been employed to publicise the conference. The flier was sent in good faith to a number of religious organisations which he thought might be interested in participating in the debate. You are welcome to avail yourselves of the opportunity. Or not, as you wish.

(7)  You conclude with three short questions:

Question: ‘Why should it [the issue] be more complex [than my view]?’ Answer:  It is more complex than you imagine because you made the unwarranted assumption that this was just another bit of simplistic religion bashing, rather than an invitation to participate in meaningful dialogue about complex political, social and ethical questions around balancing the competing needs and interests that are involved.

Question: ‘Was I being logical? Yes.’ Correct Answer: No. You boldly answer this question yourself in the affirmative, but it is clear from the above points that the correct answer to this question is ‘No’.

Question: ‘Did my  logic  not make  sense?’ Answer: In as far as there was any logic it didn’t make much sense and in as far as it did make sense, the sense was arguably wrong.

In conclusion, I have had a look at your website and you seem to be a hardworking and well-meaning group promoting Christian belief in a wide range of areas. I even agree with you on some issues. However, where we principally disagree is whether for example in the case of recognizing same-sex couples, what the Bible seems to say about the issue is binding on or even relevant to non-Christians, and more importantly, whether such considerations should be part of the political debate in society at large. Certainly Christians can assert that for them a same-sex union is not a marriage, and can discourage it amongst themselves, but they shouldn’t try to impose this belief on others simply because it is their belief. Socio-political arguments about the legitimacy of same-sex marriage should be based on considerations of our common humanity, not on one sect’s dogma. This is in part what separating Church and State means. My personal belief is that there are significant problems with extending the concept of marriage to include same-sex marriage, similar to the problem discussed above of extending the meaning of ‘religion ‘ to include atheism, but I am still mulling over the problem and haven’t come to a conclusion. I note in passing that there are many people who claim to be both Christian AND homosexual, so there is inconclusiveness about the question amongst your team as well.

I hope you come to the conference and express your views. If you do, please introduce yourself to me, as I would be happy to meet you and discuss these issues further.

Yours Sincerely,

Ian Robinson President, Rationalist Society of Australia

Peter Stokes did not respond, and did not take up the invitation to attend the Conference.

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All the more reason.