Are There Secularists in the Trenches?

The following article was written by an inmate in a prison in New Jersey whose name is being withheld because of possible repercussions. The author is highly educated and a committed secular humanist, but his efforts to establish a secular humanist group in prison have encountered countless roadblocks. After much negotiation with the New Jersey Department of Corrections, he was allowed to establish a secular group, which first convened during the solstice season as an alternative to the numerous religious services being held. The group has tried to meet periodically ever since, but unfortunately it has been stymied by the failure to find volunteers in New Jersey outside the prison who would support the group and attend meetings. The prison chaplain sometimes serves as a volunteer so that the group can meet, but he is an evangelical who is opposed to the secular approach. Sectarian religious groups meet frequently, but the many inmates who are nonreligious cannot. Anyone who would like further details please contact me at paulkurtz [at]
— Paul Kurtz


Secularists applauded the 2007 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upholding a lower court decision that voided a contract between the Iowa Department of Corrections and Prison Fellowship Ministries to operate a sectarian program (Americans United for Separation of Church and State, et al., v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, Inc., et al., 509 F.3d 406 (8th Cir. 2007)). The courts found that the use of taxpayer money to fund Prison Fellowship Ministries’ Evangelical Christian programs violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (as well as the Iowa Constitution). Brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the lawsuit resulted in a decision that was heralded as an exemplar of legal reasoning for the proposition of separation of church and state. And properly so. We secularists have, by and large, met with substantial success limiting the use of public funds to proselytize sectarian doctrine.

Have we though, as a philosophical and ethical movement, focused too much energy in opposition to policies and practices with which we disagree as opposed to advocating for that in which we believe? I bring a unique perspective to this debate. Convicted some years ago of a crime I did not commit, I have nevertheless drawn heavily from my humanist ethics and naturalistic worldview as a means of survival while incarcerated. It has been, not surprisingly, a lonely struggle. The few oases of compassion, acceptance, and humanity one finds in prison are largely populated by sectarian groups that thrive in no small part due to the imprimatur of prison officials who see these organizations as a means of keeping the prison population under control.

Over time, I came to recognize that between the militant antisocial elements in prison and those who have decided to surrender control of their future to a higher power existed a large, underserved population. This diverse, largely penitent group rejects the anarchical and nihilistic worldview of the most pathological inmates but also has difficulty stomaching the agency-stripping philosophy of religious denominations that reject any pursuit of redemption or reclamation of one’s own humanity on human terms. So, after considerable struggle, I managed to get the approval of prison officials to start a secular humanist group in the institution. We started auspiciously, with over thirty attendees for our inaugural meeting. Unfortunately, the group became quickly labeled as a “cult” or, worse, “devil-worshippers” by the hierarchy of some of the religious groups who forbade their congregants from attending our meetings. The atmosphere created by such perceptions and the restrictions imposed on our ability to respond* caused our numbers to drop by half in the first six months of the group’s existence.

But our biggest struggle has been in attaining the legitimacy conferred by the presence of outside sponsors or volunteers. Compared to the more than one hundred outside volunteers who come into the institution each month to service the Christian, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim communities, our secular humanist group could not secure a single volunteer. After four years of reaching out to the American Humanist Association, the Council for Secular Humanism, the Center for Inquiry/Transnational, various Unitarian churches (which many humanists call home), and the Ethical Cultural Society, among others, we still have not been able to secure an outside volunteer.**

Because inmate groups are not permitted to meet without an approved volunteer or staff member, our group’s meetings were suspended for a period of time. Finally, wary of an equal protection lawsuit arising from the fact that the institutional chaplain was serving as a staff volunteer for another group struggling to obtain outside volunteers, we were permitted to start meeting again under the chaplain’s supervision. This accommodation has cost us many more members who are uncomfortable discussing humanist ethics and engaging in frank discussions about how to deal with the pervasive religiosity around them in the presence of a chaplain who also happens to be an outspoken Pentecostal minister.

Ultimately, as promoters of a philosophical and ethical movement, we humanists must take care to avoid becoming defined by what we oppose. We should define ourselves by what we stand for and, most particularly, what we’re willing to stand up for. Are we merely satisfied with stripping federal funding for sectarian programs, or are we willing to step into the trenches and provide the types of services we lament have been the nearly exclusive purview of religious organizations for too long? Can we really expect to compete with religiously motivated individuals when we’re content to allow a Pentecostal minister to lead a secular humanist group in prison? Is it true that none among us is willing to make the same commitment that over a hundred other volunteers (and thousands more across the country) are willing to make in support of their religious values and beliefs? Do we abdicate the moral high ground when we decline to walk in the lowlands where the daily battles of life are being fought? Our nascent group’s survival, like that of similar groups forming or trying to form around the country, depends on the answer to those questions—and a commitment to proactive action at least as strong as our commitment to reactive defense.


* Attempts to refute or rebut attacks against our group were deemed proselytizing by the administration and thus prohibited. The irony of this restriction surfaced a year later when an inmate filed a lawsuit to challenge the inclusion of sectarian teachings and biblical references in prison-sponsored and, in some cases, prison-mandated treatment programs, as violating the establishment clause. In response to the lawsuit, the institution removed the offensive material.

** Actually, one volunteer, the president of a statewide humanist chapter, was recruited some years ago, but her application to serve as our volunteer and sponsor was denied by prison officials for undisclosed reasons.

The following article was written by an inmate in a prison in New Jersey whose name is being withheld because of possible repercussions. The author is highly educated and a committed secular humanist, but his efforts to establish a secular humanist group in prison have encountered countless roadblocks. After much negotiation with the New Jersey …

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