Atheists and Secular Humanists are protected by the First Amendment regardless of whether their belief systems are “religions” or not

Dec 2, 2014

By Ilya Somin

A recent federal district court decision holding that Secular Humanist prisoners are entitled to organize a discussion groups focused on their beliefs on the same terms as theistic prisoners is easily misunderstood as relying on the conclusion that Secular Humanism is a religion. The judge did indeed note in his ruling that “[t]he court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.” However, at another point in the decision, he also wrote that “the touchstone of the Establishment Clause was ‘the principle that the First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’[McCreary County v. ACLU], 545 U.S. 844, 860 (2005) (emphasis added). Thus, whether Humanism is a religion or a nonreligion, the Establishment Clause applies.” Just as the Establishment Clause protects Christian or Muslim prisoners who wish to hold a discussion group where they promote belief in God, so it also protects Secular Humanists or atheists who want to promote the opposite view.

From an Establishment Clause standpoint, it does not matter whether Secular Humanism is a “religion” in any deep philosophical sense, but only that it entails beliefs about religion. The key question is not whether Secular Humanism is a religion, but whether equal treatment of Secular Humanists is a component of nondiscrimination on the basis of religious belief. The answer to that latter question is yes. Even if Secular Humanism is not a religion, it clearly entails rejection of commonly accepted religious commitments (such as belief in various gods and other supernatural forces). Discriminatory treatment of people who reject these types of religious beliefs is discrimination on the basis of religion in much the same way as discrimination against people who refuse to support any political party or ideology is discrimination on the basis of political belief. As the district court decision points out, Supreme Court precedent has long held that the Establishment Clause forbids discrimination in favor of religion against irreligion, as well as in favor of one religion over others.

The Supreme Court briefly referred to Secular Humanism as a religion “which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God” in the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins. But, as in the recent district court case, the result in Torcaso did not depend on whether Secular Humanism qualifies as a religion or not. As Justice Hugo Black put it in his opinion for the Court, “We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person ‘to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.’ Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against nonbelievers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.” Thus, it makes no difference whether a law discriminating in favor of theists against atheists or secular humanists qualifies as favoring religion over non-religion or favoring one religion over others.

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10 comments on “Atheists and Secular Humanists are protected by the First Amendment regardless of whether their belief systems are “religions” or not

  • However, at another point in the decision, he also wrote that “the touchstone of the Establishment Clause was ‘the principle that the First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’[McCreary County v. ACLU], 545 U.S. 844, 860 (2005) (emphasis added).

    I’m please this has been clarified. The previous news report about this matter reported on this web page left a sour taste, with the judgement appearing to call atheism a religion.



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  • I am not sure I have understood completely this article, but this sentence annoys me:

    The key question is not whether Secular Humanism is a religion, but
    whether equal treatment of Secular Humanists is a component of
    nondiscrimination on the basis of religious belief.

    In my point of view this equality should not be there in the first place. Lies are not equal with truth. To believe in supernatural things are lies about origin of life and life in general, and people who believe in such thing should not be treated equaly with truth. How can truth be discriminatory?

    Red colour from the Sun is red because its characteristics as light wave, this is invariable, and it is called red, but if someone has been learned, from ignorants, that this colour is called green for example than that person should not be tolerated. Lies and truth should not be treated as equal. Discrimination is an inevitable consequence of neglect of truth, and not an intended action by Secular Humanists.

    Acceptance of thrue facts considering life on Earth is not matter of choice, therefore people who do not accept it are discriminated by nature. They have put themselves in that state.



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  • Let’s put it this way.

    Buddhism is not a religion either. It is a philosophy. There is no god in Buddhism. This is why the Japanese can be both Buddhists and Shinto.

    When it was imported into North America, they too had to fight for equal rights against the ‘Churches’ and were given the classification of ‘Religion’ rather than re-writing existing law.

    WE have been given similar status.



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  • TSM Dec 4, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Buddhism is not a religion either. It is a philosophy. There is no god in Buddhism. This is why the Japanese can be both Buddhists and Shinto.

    The basic problem, is getting “faith-thinkers” to agree on the definition of “religion”, as meaning anything other than their own (and maybe one or two closely god-sharing related cults).
    Once the definition extends into philosophies, all sorts of political ideologies come into the frame – and faith-heads would not want those to be claiming the religious privileged status they seek.



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  • 5
    patrice says:

    Buddhism is not a religion either. It is a philosophy.

    well maybe in a bit in theory.

    in practice, a great portion of the Buddhists (most of korean buddhists for example) relate to it as a religion.
    Praying to Buddha as if he was a god, requesting stuff from him…

    It is also commonly related to as a philosophy but it wasn’t intended to be.
    The philosophy is (supposed to be) derived from specific observations made available by the practice.

    The “philosophy” is to be re-discovered by the student from his own observations.
    (this only happen to very serious adepts, we’re not talking about the 10 minutes a day or once a week enthusiast type of thing)

    The practice is to improve the skills necessary to observe the mind and body very precisely.
    ie: developing the skills necessary in order to achieve a sort of intense focus state that isn’t available to the untrained, and using said focus to observe thoughts popping up in the mind and emotions (sensations) appearing in the body in relation to those thoughts,
    or observing sensations (emotions) vibrating (on and off) many times per second resulting in a illusion similar to the persistence of vision type of things.



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  • TSM Dec 4, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Buddhism is not a religion either. It is a philosophy. There is no god in Buddhism. This is why the Japanese can be both Buddhists and Shinto.

    Buddhism is an interesting case, as while Buddhists do not believe in gods ( so are technically atheists) they usually believe in reincarnation, and all sorts of other woo!



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  • Being a Secular Humanist is, by definition, a position within the realm of religious belief. Specifically, the lack thereof. Therefore, the court finds we are equally protected under the Establishment Clause of the Constitution for our lack of belief. If I understand it correctly.



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  • You missed the point.

    Reread this section of the article:

    The judge did indeed note in his ruling that “[t]he court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.” However, at another point in the decision, he also wrote that “the touchstone of the Establishment Clause was ‘the principle that the First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’[McCreary County v. ACLU], 545 U.S. 844, 860 (2005) (emphasis added). Thus, whether Humanism is a religion or a nonreligion, the Establishment Clause applies.”

    The ruling has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the claims of religious groups or secular humanist groups. Neither did the ruling claim that the views of the two groups were in any way equal. Only that they each have equal protection under the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.



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  • John Dec 5, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    The ruling has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the claims of religious groups or secular humanist groups. Neither did the ruling claim that the views of the two groups were in any way equal. Only that they each have equal protection under the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    I agree, – but the fact that this had to go to court, shows that many in the USA just don’t get it!



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