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.

Charles Darwin standing next to a tree.

Charles Darwin's birthday of February 12 is celebrated by humanists (among others) as Darwin Day, a holiday to promote science. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Many members of conventionally theistic religions – and indeed possibly many who view themselves as humanist, secular, agnostic, or atheist – may blanch at the term “religion” being applied to these prison humanist groups. This reflects the widely held assumption that religion is simply a matter of creedal definition and the subscription to particular beliefs. It’s a holdover from the American understanding of our nation as basically Anglo-Protestant. One legacy of the Reformation is the definition of a religion or denomination as simply corresponding to a creed (if you are a Presbyterian you subscribe to the Westminster Confession, a Lutheran to the Augsburg, and so on). As a creed-centric understanding of religion it causes many people, including secular ones, to limit themselves to a Protestant-mandated definition of what composes religion. This ignores religions that are less concerned with theism (indeed some Theravada Buddhists are explicitly atheistic) such as the plaintiffs in the humanism lawsuit.

Scholars have come to understand that “religion” is an imperfect word for a universal human cultural phenomenon. Rather than seeing religion as being something with a clearly delineated border separating it from secular culture, it may be helpful to see religions as a set of related and similar ideologies that nonetheless can be profoundly different from one another and which blur into the wider secular culture. In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein gives an analogy about how categories such as “religion” operate. Not every member of a biological family looks identical to every other, yet there are certain traits which some have and others don’t. A daughter may share her father’s nose, a son may have his mother’s cheekbones but his father’s nose, and a third child may share most of their features with their siblings. Religion is similar: some may emphasize complex ritual, some may not, some may be centered on scripture, some may not, some may adhere to belief in God, and others may not. There is no master list of qualities that all religions must have. Taken to its extreme this could result in anything being definable as a religion – most scholars wouldn’t go that far. But a more expansive understanding of religion should at least allow for the possibility of an atheistic religion – a religion shouldn’t go unrecognized simply because it doesn’t adhere to the beliefs of the dominant religions in the United States. Humanism is after all not indifferent to questions of metaphysics and theology – it is deeply engaged with those philosophical issues – it has merely arrived at different conclusions than many (though not all) Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Humanism is a rich and important religious tradition, and this particular legal recognition contributes to a fuller understanding of the word “religion” for all of us.

Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in Salon, Quartz, The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.


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