There is welcome news in the July 27th announcement that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has reached a settlement in a lawsuit to recognize humanism as a religion. The result of the lawsuit, filed by the American Humanist Association on behalf of an Oregon prisoner, is that inmates at all federal prisons who subscribe to humanism as a religious belief are now entitled to the same rights as members of any other faith-group. These include the right to form study groups, recognize certain holidays (in their particular case “Darwin Day”), and have access to chaplains. The Defense Department has for over a year now acknowledged humanism as a religion, alongside atheism and other stances which it may seem confusing to some to label as religions.
The immediate cause for celebration is that men and women in our federal prisons who adhere to humanist beliefs are now able to freely exercise their right to act as a participant in their religious community. But perhaps more importantly, the decision helps to complicate and enrich Americans’ understanding of what constitutes religion, something that benefits all of us, whatever religious position we hold or community we belong to. Rather than viewing humanism and atheism as simply the absence of faith and belief, this decision acknowledges that they are also metaphysical positions on ultimate reality, just like monotheism or polytheism. Indeed, the fact that some humanists choose to arrange themselves into communities that mark life with rituals demonstrates precisely that they are a religion and are deserving of the same federally recognized rights that other religions are accorded.