Separating Secular Humanism and the State

Secular Humanism is a well-articulated worldview. This is evident from the three Humanist Manifestos written in 1933 and revised in 1973 and again in 2000. According to their own pronouncements, Secular Humanists are atheists who believe that the scientific method is the primary way we can know about life and living, from understanding who we are as humans to questions of ethics, social issues, and politics.

However, apart from the specifics of what Secular Humanists believe, the pressing issue is this: is Secular Humanism a religion? This is important in light of current discussions surrounding the idea of “separation of church and state.” That’s because this phrase has been used by the courts and secular organizations (such as American’s United Against Church and State) in an attempt to eradicate all mention of God from the public square, including public debates over social issues, discussions in politics, and especially regarding what is taught in public/government schools.

To verify that a number of major tenets of Secular Humanism are taught in public schools, one only needs to compare Secular Humanist beliefs with what is actually being presented through public school textbooks. For example, any text on psychology includes what are considered the primary voices in that field: Abraham Maslow, Eric Fromm, Carl Rogers, and B. F. Skinner, to name a few. Yet, each of these men are atheists who have been selected as “Humanist of the Year” by a major Secular Humanist organization. 1 So why are almost all the psychologists studied in school Secular Humanists? 2 Why are no Christian psychologists included in the curriculum? Is this balanced treatment of the subject matter being taught?

Or when it comes to law, why are the Ten Commandments, historically known to be the foundation for English Common Law and American jurisprudence, judged to be inappropriate material to be hung on the school wall, in a courtroom, or as part of a public display on government property? The answer, of course, is an appeal to the “separation” principle.

But if this is how the courts are going to interpret the separation principle, we must insist that this ruling be applied equally to all religious faiths, not favoring some others. Therefore, for the sake of fairness under the law, if Secular Humanism is a religious faith, too, then teaching the tenets of this religious faith must also be eliminated from public school textbooks and classroom discussions.

What follows is an excerpt from the “Introduction” of Clergy in the Classroom: The Religion of Secular Humanism, by David A. Noebel, J.F. Baldwin, and Kevin Bywater. This short essay provides the needed rationale for why Secular Humanism is, in fact, a religion on par with what are considered traditional religious faiths. 3

What Is Religion?

If “religion” is defined narrowly, as that which posits a transcendent deity, then Secular Humanism is not a religion. But if “religion” is defined in a way that includes non-theistic worldviews like Buddhism or Confucianism, then it certainly applies to Secular Humanism.

Defining “religion” is no easy task. To succeed, one must provide a definition that properly includes well-known religious traditions (such as Buddhism, Judaism, or Mormonism), and yet excludes those social realities which are not authentically religious (such as health-driven vegetarian diets, over-zealous sports fans, and political parties). The latter may ape religion in fervency, thus functioning in a quasi-religious form; nevertheless, they fail to develop in terms of full-fledged worldviews.

There are two basic approaches to defining “religion”: the substantive approach, which focuses on the content of the belief system, and the functional approach, which focuses on what the belief system does for the individual or community. Hunter explains:

The substantive model generally delimits religion to the range of traditional theisms: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and so on. The functional model, in contrast, is more inclusive. By defining religion according to its social function, the functional model treats religion largely as synonymous with such terms as cultural system, belief system, meaning system, moral order, ideology, world view, and cosmology. 4

The fatal flaw of most substantive definitions is their insistence that a belief in the divine is essential to religion. Of course, such approaches miscarry in that they fail to encompass the realities of non-theistic religions such as Confucianism. Thus, even though it is appropriate to employ a substantive definition of religion, it is clear that we must avoid a default inclusion of the divine.

One promising proposal defines “religion” as “a set of beliefs, actions, and emotions, both personal and corporate, organized around the concept of an Ultimate Reality. This Reality may be understood as a unity or a plurality, personal or non-personal, divine or not, and so forth, differing from religion to religion.” 5 Such a definition adequately encompasses both theistic and non-theistic worldview traditions. It also avoids inclusion of non-religious social realities such as sports team advocacy and political parties, neither of which properly makes reference to an “Ultimate Reality.” Of course, such a definition clearly encompasses Secular Humanism.

Religion and the Courts

As America has moved toward secularism, her courts have gradually accepted less restrictive understandings of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has progressed from a substantive understanding toward a functional understanding. 6 In the 19th century, the Supreme Court understood “religion” in terms of traditional religions. In Davis v. Beason (1890), for example, the Court ruled against the teaching and practice of polygamy (declaring both to be criminal actions), on the basis of “the general consent of the Christian world in modern times.” 7 Also, in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (1892), Justice David Brewer stated in the majority decision, “this is a Christian nation.” 8

In the 20th century, a broader understanding of religion — one that would include non-Christian and non-theistic religions — has emerged. In United States v. Kauten (2d Cir. 1943), conscientious objector status was granted to Mathias Kauten, not on the basis of his belief in God, but on the basis of his “religious conscience.” The court concluded: “Conscientious objection may justly be regarded as a response of the individual to an inward mentor, call it conscience or God, that is for many persons at the present time the equivalent of what has always been thought a religious impulse.” 9 Thus, the Court adopted a functional understanding of religion, as opposed to a distinctly theistic one.

Another example of the Court’s adoption of a functional understanding of religion occurred in Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda (1957). 10 In this case, the Fellowship of Humanity sought recovery of property taxes because, it argued, its grounds were used for religious worship. They were awarded a refund of paid property taxes. Other cases awarding religious tax-exemption to non-theistic bodies involved the Washington Ethical Society and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Paul Blanshard, a signatory of the Humanist Manifesto II, declared that the Fellowship of Humanity court decision represented “another victory for those who would interpret the word ‘religion’ very broadly . . . ” 11

Another example of the court’s use of a functional definition of religion is well-known. In 1961 the Supreme Court handed down the Torcaso v. Watkins decision regarding a Maryland notary public who was initially disqualified from office because he would not declare a belief in God. But the Court ruled in his favor. It argued that theistic religions could not be favored by the Court over non-theistic religions. In a footnote it clarified what it meant by non-theistic religions: “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others.” 12

Clearly, the Supreme Court’s understanding of religion has broadened enough to include non-theistic religions like Buddhism and Secular Humanism. Unfortunately, the Court has not been consistent in applying this understanding to its present interpretation of the First Amendment. If the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment really means that there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state, why are only theistic religions disestablished? If Secular Humanism is a religion — something the U.S. Supreme Court has claimed, and something countless Humanists proclaim — why is it allowed access to our public schools when there is to be no established religion? As Hunter observes,

To be legally consistent the courts will either have to articulate a constitutional double standard or apply the functional definition of religion to the no establishment clause just as they have to the free exercise [clause]. The latter would mean that secularistic faiths and ideologies would be rigorously prohibited from receiving even indirect support from the state, which – needless to say – would have enormous implications for public education. 13

The Importance of a Worldview Approach

The bottom line is this: all worldviews are at bottom religious in nature. Therefore, every subject taught in school and all political discussion, by necessity, must involve ideas that can be traced back to their religious origins. This is just the nature of how ideas work. Worldview analysis exposes the fallacy of a religiously “neutral” education or the misinformed idea that political issues can be separated from a religious foundation.

Ideas don’t just pop out of thin air. They are never formed in isolation. The ideas we hold in one area, such as education or politics, come from other, more foundational, ideas. And every idea is ultimately rooted in religious beliefs. A worldview approach to life provides the framework for this understanding. Therefore, we need to share the insights of worldview thinking with our friends, co-workers, public school teachers, principals, and politicians.


  1. For a complete list of Humanists of the Year presented by the American Humanists Association, go to, accessed 11/19/2016.
  2. The exceptions would be Jung, whose worldview is more akin to Cosmic Humanism and Pavlov, who is considered in the Marxist camp.
  3. Clergy in the Classroom: The Religion of Secular Humanism.
  4. James Davison Hunter, “Religious Freedom and the Challenge of Modern Pluralism,” in Articles of Faith, Articles of Peace: The Religious Liberty Clauses and the American Public Philosophy, James Davison Hunter and Os Guiness, eds. (Washington, D.C.: The Bookings Institution, 1990), 58.
  5. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 4. Italics removed from the original.
  6. See the discussion in Hunter, “Religious Freedom,” 59–62. See also John W. Whitehead and John B. Conlan, “The Establishment of the Religion of Secular Humanism and Its First Amendment Implications,” in Texas Tech Law Review 10, no. 1 (1978): 1–66; and John W. Whitehead, The Second American Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1982), chapter 9.
  7. Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333, 343 (1890).
  8. Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457, 471 (1892). Cf. David A. Brewer, The United States: A Christian Nation (Philadelphia: The John D. Winston Company, 1905; reprinted Smyrna, GA: American Vision, Inc., 1996).
  9. United States v. Kauten, 133F. 2nd 703, 708 (2d Cir. 1943). See also United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965), where the court adopted Paul Tillich’s understanding of religion to justify its use of the functional definition of religion.
  10. Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda, 153 Cal. App. 2nd. 673.
  11. “Paul Blanshard’s Column,” in The Humanist, No.4 (1959): 238.
  12. Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 495, fn. 11 (1961).
  13. Hunter, “Religious Freedom,” 72.