Humanism and Prisoners’ Rights: A Reply to Jon Guy

Ronald A. Lindsay, Nicholas J. Little, Tom Flynn

Jon Guy has written an impassioned essay taking strong exception to a 2015 editorial in which we maintained, among other things, that the American Humanist Association (AHA) had employed an inadvisable legal strategy in its representation of an Oregon inmate, James Holden. AHA filed a lawsuit on Holden’s behalf when his federal correctional institution denied him the opportunity to organize a Humanist study group. (Our capitalization of Humanist here—connoting religious Humanism—is intentional, as it follows Holden’s own description of this group.) During the litigation, the AHA argued that Holden was entitled to his study group because humanism is a religion. The federal district court agreed, expressly finding that “Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes,” American Humanist Association v. United States of America, (D. Ore 2014).

In our editorial, we stated that the AHA should have argued, at least in the alternative, that humanism is a secular belief system that is entitled to be treated as though it were a religion for certain legal purposes. This argument has been accepted by federal courts. See, for example, Center for Inquiry v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk, (7th Cir. 2014); Kaufman v. McCaughtry, (7th Cir. 2005). The distinction between arguing that humanism is a religion, tout court, and arguing that it should be treated for some purposes as though it were a religion may seem subtle. In some respects, it is. But subtlety is a characteristic of many legal distinctions. Moreover, it is an important distinction, for reasons set forth in our editorial and which we will revisit in part below.

The major claims Guy makes in his essay are that we and, by implication, the Council for Secular Humanism (the Council): 1) showed indifference to or misunderstanding of the plight of humanist or atheist prisoners; 2) opposed allowing prisoners who sincerely consider themselves religious Humanists from making the claim they are religious; 3) adopted an unnecessarily divisive stance toward the AHA, “excoriating” this organization for its legal strategy; 4) failed to recognize that the distinction between humanism as a religion and humanism as a nonreligious belief system is a distinction without a difference that serves “no higher social purpose.”

Guy marshals his arguments like a seasoned debater; his essay is clearly written, well-organized, and shows familiarity with the issues in dispute. Therefore, it merits a response. However, much of our response can be abbreviated, because Guy is simply mistaken in some of his claims.

Flaws in Guy’s Claims

To begin, our editorial expressly stated that obtaining permission for a humanist study group in a correctional institution, even one described as a “religious-Humanist” study group, would be a “laudable outcome.” To confirm what we hope would be obvious: the three of us—and the Council—fully support the rights of prisoners to form humanist or atheist study groups, whether the prisoners consider themselves religious or not.

Moreover, the Council has had experience in advocating for the rights of prisoners. In 2006, Paul Kurtz asked one of us (Lindsay) to take on a prisoner’s rights case as one of his first assignments after appointment as legal director for the Center for Inquiry (CFI). (The Council was then an affiliate of CFI; it is now a program of CFI). Specifically, the Council represented a New Jersey inmate who sought to establish a humanist study group at his institution. As a result of a series of discussions with officials of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, recognition was given to this humanist study group. Significantly, authorization was obtained without having to argue that humanism is a religion.

In addition, we did not, and do not, fault the AHA for informing the court that Holden was a religious Humanist. Holden did regard himself as having a religion, and it would have been a misrepresentation of Holden’s views to claim that he was not religious. As stated in the editorial, “it seems uncontroversial that plaintiff Holden can be understood as a religious Humanist—that is, one who views his humanism as a religious identity.” Our complaint was that the AHA should have noted that many humanists, in particular secular humanists, expressly reject characterization of their beliefs as religious and that, nonetheless, they should be entitled to the same privileges with respect to study groups as the religious.

Interestingly, Guy appears to acknowledge this point, emphasizing that “to deny secular prisoners an opportunity to meet and discuss their lack of belief is exactly the same thing as denying religious prisoners an opportunity to meet and discuss the existence of their belief.” However, he frets that courts would be confused by our proposed argument in the alternative. Two of us (Lindsay and Little) have a combined several decades of experience in practicing law. We have more confidence in the ability of judges to comprehend and analyze alternative arguments. Indeed, arguments in the alternative are routine. (“Your Honor, plaintiff’s claim must fail whether it is analyzed under the reasonable-basis or strict-scrutiny standard.”)

As to whether our criticism of the AHA was too harsh, this will be left to the reader to decide. But the fact of the matter is that the Council and CFI have in the past decade cooperated extensively with the AHA and other humanist or atheist organizations on any number of legal and lobbying issues. CFI’s lawyers and lobbyists regularly consult and coordinate with AHA’s team, and CFI/the Council have filed amicus briefs in support of AHA’s litigation in several cases. Guy may not be aware of the extent of cooperation between the AHA and CFI/the Council, so he should not be faulted for devoting much of the latter part of his essay to worrying about conflict between the AHA and CFI/the Council, but we want to assure him—and everyone else—that these two humanist organizations are committed allies, not adversaries.

Does It Matter If Secular Humanism Is Classified as a Religion?

This leaves one issue where we and Guy may have a substantive difference of opinion, namely in the importance of maintaining that secular humanism is not a religion.

We will not provide here an in-depth argument on why secular humanism is not a religion, although our view is that on any workable definition of religion secular humanism is clearly not a religion. (It lacks three critical hallmarks of a religion: belief in a transcendental realm that exists apart from the material universe; epistemological priority given to faith over reason and evidence; and a set of dogmas.) Instead, we will point out that accepting the classification of secular humanism as a religion can have serious political and social consequences.

The claim that secular humanism is a religion has fueled efforts by religious-Right activists to put state-mandated prayers back in schools, restrict or ban the teaching of evolution, provide funding for religious institutions, restrict or ban abortion, and block same sex-marriage, among other objectives. Although there have been sporadic efforts by the religious Right to advance these arguments through the courts, for the most part these efforts have been confined to the political realm. Here these arguments have met with occasional, if temporary, success. Examples of recent efforts include proposed legislation in Tennessee that would ban funding of health care facilities that provide abortion on the ground that the morality of abortion is a tenet of secular humanism* and proposed legislation in Kansas that would prohibit the state from enforcing sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws on the ground that the immutability of sexual orientation is a doctrine of secular humanism.**

Such arguments are illogical, factually ungrounded, and legally unhinged. But that’s not the issue. The issue is that the belief by some that secular humanism is a religion animates repeated attempts to enact regressive legislation and stiffens resistance to church-state separation. Why feed this delusion?

Moreover, beyond the political context, the mistaken belief that secular humanism is a religion undercuts the distinctiveness of secular humanism and, in doing so, may render secular humanism … well, pointless. Secular humanism is not one religion among many. To the contrary, secular humanism maintains that humanity would be better off without religion. We should reason together based on publicly accessible evidence, not some revelation from a spiritual realm conveyed by a self-appointed prophet. Faith is a vice, not a virtue. Dogma? We don’t have any. No Bible, no Qur’an, no authority figure. No assertion by anyone has any more merit than the reasons and evidence offered in support of it (including this assertion). Distinguishing secular humanism from religion isn’t splitting hairs; rather, it goes to the essence of what secular humanism is.

We strongly support freedom of conscience. People are free to adopt whatever belief they want and can describe their beliefs as they see fit. If a humanist or secular humanist wants to call him- or herself “religious,” he or she is free to do so. But we are also free, and arguably obliged, to point out that that person is making a categorical mistake.


We thank Jon Guy for his constructive criticism. However, we continue to believe that one can effectively support the rights of humanist inmates without compromising the integrity of secular humanism.





Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.

Nicholas J. Little

Nick Little is the Vice President and General Counsel of the Center for Inquiry. In this role, he oversees both the Center's in-house legal work, and its outside litigation.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

Jon Guy has written an impassioned essay taking strong exception to a 2015 editorial in which we maintained, among other things, that the American Humanist Association (AHA) had employed an inadvisable legal strategy in its representation of an Oregon inmate, James Holden. AHA filed a lawsuit on Holden’s behalf when his federal correctional institution denied …

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