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Secularism in the schools. Ethics
without a God. Is Humanism a religion?

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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:

bullet A non-religious approach to human sexuality would make use of the latest findings about sexual 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.

bullet 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.
bullet 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. 

bullet 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.

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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 hope 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:

bullet Systems of morality and ethics can be developed through mutual agreement much like we develop laws and social customs.

bullet They can be based upon common needs that humans have for survival, security, personal growth and love.

bullet Humans are social animals who can make the greatest achievements through mutual cooperation.

bullet 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.

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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 deity worship 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 their philosophy.

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U.S. Court decisions concerning the relationship between humanism and religion:

Wikipedia writes:

"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 humanist beliefs.

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

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References used:

  1. 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.
  2. "Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda." Wikipedia, as modified on 2011-APR-09, at:
  3. Fellowship of Humanity v. Co. Alameda (1957) 153 CA2d 673, (1957) at:
  4. David Hudson, "Federal appeals panel: Prison officials not liable for rejecting Humanism group," at:

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Copyright 1996 to 2014, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1996-SEP-2
Latest update: 2014-DEC-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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