Secularism in the schools. Ethics
without a God. Is Humanism a religion?
Conflicts over Secularism in public Schools:
Conservative Christians sometimes complain that Humanism is really the official
religion of the public educational system. They feel that the traditional wall of
separation between church and state has been breached, and that Humanism has taken over
the public schools. This is not an accurate view. Approximately 75% of adults in North
America consider themselves Christian.
1 This is probably similar to the percentage of Christians among the teachers and other officials in the school system.
The public school systems base their teaching on a secular or non-religious foundation.
In most subjects, like mathematics, reading, writing, physics, chemistry etc., this does
not present a problem. In human sexuality education, biology, geology, sociology, history, etc. the
secular approach often conflicts intensely with some religious traditions. For
example, in the area of sexual orientation:
non-religious approach to human sexuality would make use of the latest findings
orientation; they would teach that the three sexual orientations: bisexuality, heterosexuality and
homosexuality are natural and normal sexual variations, unchosen and fixed. The three orientations are found in all mammals and some other species.|
|Liberal religious groups, like Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, the United
Church of Christ, United Church of Canada etc. also
have adopted a
secular approach to this subject.|
||Conservative Christians interpret the Bible as
condemning homosexual behavior as a sin. They typically regard it as chosen, changeable, and a moral perversion. They are eager that it be taught as such. |
||Mainline Christian denominations hold views which
are intermediate between conservative and liberal groups. Most are gradually drifting towards liberal beliefs.|
U.S. Public Schools are required to base their curriculum on secularism because of the
principle of separation of church and state which the U.S. Supreme Court has
said is implicit in the 1st Amendment
of the U.S. Constitution. Humanism is also based on a secular view of the
universe for philosophical reasons. Many mainline and liberal religious groups take
secular views in many areas, ranging from human sexuality to geology. Thus public schools
do not teach Humanist beliefs any more than they teach the beliefs of the United Church. The
schools are simply secular, neither promoting nor demeaning religion.
Ethical behavior without a belief in God
Many people feel that ethical and moral behavior must be based on the absolute
teachings found with the Christian Bible. Without a belief in the Christian God, the
of Heaven and the threat of Hell, they believe that an individual will not be motivated to
behave decently. This belief was seen in a US military policy in past decades which only
allowed persons who believed in a God to achieve conscientious objector status.
Humanists have successfully developed moral and ethical systems which are independent
of divine revelation from a deity. They are based upon such foundational beliefs as:
||Systems of morality and ethics can be developed through mutual agreement much like we
develop laws and social customs.|
|They can be based upon common needs that humans have for survival, security, personal
growth and love.|
|Humans are social animals who can make the greatest achievements through mutual
|People will willingly follow humanistic codes because they are effective; reasonable;
lead to self esteem; are consistent with one's natural feelings of caring, compassion and
sympathy; are accepted by others, and do not lead to condemnation or rejection. No
system of rewards and punishment are needed to enforce them.|
Is Humanism a Religion?
To most North Americans, "religion" probably means the belief that a
God or Gods exist who created the world, who is/are to be worshipped, and who is/are
responsible for creating ethical and behavioral codes. In that context, Humanism is
definitely not a religion, and would not be perceived as one by its
followers. Humanists do
not generally believe in a supreme deity or deities, demons, ghosts, angels,
supernatural elements in the universe, in heaven or hell, or in a divinely ordained ethical code that humans
must follow. Most would regard the thousands of Gods and Goddesses who have been worshipped over thousands of years purely as a creations of humanity rather than the reverse.
Religious Humanism has been loosely defined as religion without
and traditional theological beliefs. Replacing these factors is a belief in
humanity as the highest known form of intelligent life, and a belief in the
scientific method as the best way to determine truth.
Many Secular Humanists feel that the role of religion throughout history has
been so profoundly negative, that the word "religion" should not be connected to
U.S. Court decisions concerning the relationship between humanism and religion:
"Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda was a 1957 California Courts of Appeal case in [which] the Fellowship of Humanity, an organization of humanists, sought a tax exemption from Alameda County, California on the ground that they used their property 'solely and exclusively for religious worship.' Despite the group's nontheistic beliefs, the court determined that the activities of the Fellowship of Humanity, which included weekly Sunday meetings, were analogous to the activities of theistic churches and thus entitled to an exemption." 2
Note that the court did not declare that the Fellowship of Humanity was a religious group. They merely determined that the group functioned like a church and so was entitled to similar protections and benefits. 3
During the 1990's federal prisoner Ben Kalka had attempted to form
a Humanism group as part of the Religious Services Department at a federal prison in Jesup, GA. He was refused when the
prison's Religious Issues
Committee decided that Humanism was not a religion; they ruled that it was "more philosophical and educational in nature." They decided
that he could freely practice his humanism and could organize a group within the prison's Education Department.
In 1998-SEP, a federal district
court ruled that Humanism is a religion. But they decided that denying Kalka access to the prison chapel did not prevent him from practicing his
During 2000-JUN, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia confirmed the lower court's decision that Humanism is a religion. However, they ruled that:
"A reasonable official would not have believed that excluding Kalka's humanism from the prison's
Religious Services Program was unlawful. There was neither precedent declaring humanism in general to be a religion nor any prior ruling on the religious
nature of Kalka's beliefs."
Thus, the prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity, and were not ruled to be liable for
penalties related to the violation of Kalka's civil liberties. 4
- The ARIS study of 2001 showed that 76.5% of
American adults consider themselves to be Christian. The Canadian Census of the
same year showed that 76.6% of Canadian adults
consider themselves to be Christian.
- "Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda." Wikipedia, as modified on 2011-APR-09, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
- Fellowship of Humanity v. Co. Alameda (1957) 153 CA2d 673, (1957) at: http://online.ceb.com/
- David Hudson, "Federal appeals panel: Prison officials not liable
for rejecting Humanism group," at: http://www.freedomforum.org/
Copyright © 1996 to 2014, by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1996-SEP-2
Latest update: 2014-DEC-03
Author: B.A. Robinson