We Shoulda Seen This Coming—Oh, Wait, I Did!

October 2, 2013

Way back in the October/November 2011 FREE INQUIRY, I sounded the alarm about the danger of unintended consequences from the drive for humanist chaplains in the military. Since then, the issue has only mushroomed. Now (partly, but not solely, by way of Harvard's fast-growing humanist chaplaincy) tearing down the fences between humanism and religion has become a game almost anyone can play. Today even Peter J. Reilly, an online tax columnist (!) for Forbes, has weighed in with an essay asking "Should Humanist Groups Seek Church Status?" (Link at bottom of this post.)

Reilly covers the waterfront, using an interview with Harvard humanist chaplain (and recent FI contributor) Greg Epstein as a fulcrum from which to touch on FFRF's parsonage-exemption lawsuit, the American Humanist Association's educational tax exemption, and even Karl Malden's tough-guy priest character in On the Waterfront. (I told you he covered the waterfront.) But the larger message he draws from this is one that secular humanists, at least, should view with deep misgiving. "Maybe humanists will break ranks with [secularist hardliners like] the Freedom From Religion Foundation and stop resisting special treatment for the clergy and religious messages in public spaces as long as Humanism is included in the mix," he suggests. (Note that he capitalizes Humanism, as though it's already a religion to him.) Now Reilly reaches into his quiver for drop-dead proof that this viewpoint's time has come. "There is already a push," he notes darkly, "for humanist chaplains in the military."

Sometimes I really, really hate being right. In my October/November 2011 op-ed ("Humanist Chaplains In the Military: A Bridge Too Close?") I wrote:

[W]hen humanists, atheists, and other nonspiritual people lobby to be able to provide the same kinds of 'spiritual' support that religious practitioners deliver, it encourages the false public perception that we are simply one more gaggle of believers seeking special privilege for our own 'creed.' If the campaign for humanist chaplaincy succeeds, it may do permanent damage to unbelievers’ image as activists who stand—by choice--outside all religious traditions.

That damage seems to be well underway, and it's reaching well outside the military. Across the right -- even the center-right -- pundits smirk at the thought of, say, FFRF being forced to extend a parsonage exemption to its leaders Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, thereby erasing the status of atheism, freethought, and secular humanism as critics of religion who work from outside of religion's domain. (That's not likely to happen, but they'd love it if it did!)

I think the big lesson here is that we need to draw sharper lines between those schools within the larger movement that attach great importance to being outside the domain of religion and those that don't. In the current Free Inquiry we have a cover feature on congregational humanism, a wholly non-supernaturalistic movement that seems to have bifurcated from religious Humanism and is currently enjoying strong growth. (Greg Epstein, perhaps America's congregational humanist in chief, co-wrote an article that excellently sets forth what this new[ish] movement is all about. For whatever it's worth, though he stands somewhat outside the religious Humanist mainstream, Epstein is himself a rabbi, ordained by a bona fide religious Humanist organization. As Reilly's piece shows, people are noticing.) Epstein's article is here. My introduction to the feature, which takes a more secular-humanist view, is here

Religious Humanism is out there, and it is by self-definition religious (much as many may wonder at the number of self-labeled religious Humanists who seem to hold no transcendentalist convictions and thus, strictly speaking, aren't religious at all). Several religious Humanist organizations have existed for many years; some even benefit from the parsonage exemption! Meanwhile, congregational humanism -- religious Humanism's avowedly non-transcendentalist offspring -- is on the grow. So the potential for public confusion between those strands of humanism that are religious -- or at least churchlike -- and those that are wholly and purposely non-religious (atheism, freethought, secular humanism, and so on) is severe.

Secular humanists do not have a religion, and they're justly proud of that. Their lifestance is not, repeat not religious. Many of them have no interest in -- or an outright antipathy toward -- the church- or temple-derived practices that congregational humanism features so prominently. We who are by choice more secular than that need to be clear about what makes us distinct.

That is more, not less, important now, when religious and especially congregational humanists are attracting heavy attention in the press. Our religious-Right opponents are still out there, and they would like nothing more to exploit public confusion over issues like humanist chaplaincy to support their long-term agenda of pigeonholing all humanism, including secular humanism, as just one more creed.