Humanism Behind Bars: An Insider’s Perspective

Jon Guy

“[A] right is a non-negotiable claim. If you have a right to something, then you must not be prevented from having or doing that thing; in addition, others are duty-bound to allow or even enable you to exercise that right.”

—Stephen Law

The Council for Secular Humanism (hereafter the Council) has taken a divisive stance, excoriating the American Humanist Association (AHA) for strategies used when litigating on behalf of prisoners. AHA has opted not to respond to the Council’s seemingly anti-prisoner/anti-AHA remarks. This is unacceptable and may be viewed as a concession to error. Being unaware of any important gains in civil discourse being achieved through reticence—think civil equality or women’s suffrage—my purpose here is to clarify some of the (deliberate?) misunderstandings that have contributed to the Council’s position and to insist the Council has this one wrong. Not quite flat-earth wrong, as Steven Pinker might say, but wrong nonetheless. So inasmuch as activism requires activists, this issue needs another voice. This is mine.


Biases exposed, I really want to agree with the Council’s admittedly attractive stance but find myself unable to do so. I’m (currently) a prisoner whom AHA has represented in defense of my constitutional rights. I came to prison in 2004 for a senseless crime I could not possibly regret more than I do. As with many who’ve been down for extended periods, I do not let a mistake I made over fourteen years ago define the person I am today. Having said that, my intent is not to speak for all humanist prisoners, and I certainly do not speak for AHA. I’m simply offering some needed perspective to a controversy I have an interest in. The Council raises several important objections that have gone unchallenged, and it seems incumbent that someone offer a response. The onus of action has fallen to me.

Whether in the free world or living behind bars, almost everyone has an opinion about god, gods, or the lack thereof. Prisoners, me included, are no different. Rampant proselytization and unfamiliarity with alternative means of seeking redemption for wrongs committed—sins, as some call them—leads many prisoners toward theistic belief. For lack of a better option (prisons maintain a literal list of “faith groups” to pick from), I drifted toward Unitarian Universalism because it fit closest to my beliefs early in my sentence. After indulging in authors such as Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan, and Michael Shermer, eventually I wanted to identify as a humanist. Humanism had the same moral trappings as Unitarian Universalism, but without all the magical thinking and special pleading. I sought to establish a humanist group and was promptly denied. Although it said it took my request “very seriously,” the Department of Corrections (DOC) informed me that if I wanted to be a humanist, I had to be satisfied to “self-identify as a Humanist and read materials consistent with the belief in [my] cell … .”1 (Imagine them saying that to a Catholic!) Undeterred, I contacted the AHA, and without passing judgment they volunteered to find a local attorney willing to represent me. After two months searching in a state with nearly as many sheep as people, they eventually found one and to court we went.

As soon as the lawsuit was filed, the DOC folded, remembering their legal obligation to treat nonbelievers equitably. They issued an executive order recognizing humanism and permitting humanists to meet on the same terms and conditions as religious prisoners. The order made no distinction between religious and secular humanism.

The Controversy

The Council is concerned about unintended consequences of litigating on behalf of humanist prisoners, claiming (in a 2018 Free Inquiry editorial by Tom Flynn) that some organizations are “eager to blur the distinction between secular humanism and religion.” Assuredly, these ideas rest on conjecture alone and, as I intend to demonstrate, their only proposal is a distinction without a difference. A bigger problem is that those organizations the Council refers to are not strictly secular. For instance, AHA stands for American Humanist Association. If it stood for American Secular Humanist Association, the Council’s point would be much stronger. As it stands, the AHA is not a single-issue organization, and it defends humanism as a philosophy as well as a religion. As such, it is at liberty to litigate on behalf of all humanists, secular and religious alike, and there is simply no reason to believe that its goal is to blur the distinction between secular humanism and religion. The argument could even be made that the AHA is not only at liberty to litigate on behalf of both religious and secular humanists but has a duty to do so.

The Council’s primary argument, as expressed by Flynn, is that the AHA “wish[es] to wrap humanist prison initiatives in the mantle of religion … to take advantage of rules that promote the creation of religious groups for inmates.” Put differently, the Council thinks litigation seeking to establish the rights of humanist prisoners amounts to unethical exploitation, in that it attempts to portray humanism as a religion to shoehorn prison administrators into providing secular humanists the same amenities provided to religious groups. Like I said, it’s an attractive argument and not an unreasonable one. However, it is primarily based on unfamiliarity with how the prison system actually works. As we shall see, the devil is in the details.

Humanism in Prison

A huge part of secular humanism is about questions of metaphysics and cultivating one’s position on such matters. Did Jesus exist? Is there an afterlife? Does the Cartesian theater have an audience of one? Will there be cosmic justice? Is the evidence stronger for Santa or Jesus? (At last count, Santa was winning that last one 10–0.) Hardly anybody in American prisons was raised as a secularist, and exploring metaphysical questions that go against orthodoxy is the exception rather than the rule. As it turns out, this sort of questioning is endemic. Prison is a place where “soul searching” actually happens, in profusion. Despite the intent of the Quakers, it would not be prudent for prison authorities to permit only soul searching that was commensurate with theistic belief, hence the need to establish secular groups where prisoners can focus on questions of ethics and metaphysics without invoking supernatural agents.

For fear of gang activity or “organized disobedience,” prisoners may not gather in groups without express authorization. Thus, humanist prisoners must receive permission to form a study group. If prison administrators refuse, the way to enforce this right is through civil litigation. This does not mean secular humanists are claiming to be religious or trying to foist their way into religion’s domain. If someone wants to meet with likeminded people to discuss god, that is a constitutionally protected right. And if someone wants to meet with likeminded people to discuss not god, that is also a constitutionally protected right. This is what it means to exercise one’s right to freedom from religion. If the Council has a problem with that, its problem is with our Constitution, not the organizations arguing on its behalf.

An analogy can be drawn from another protected right. As many prisoners learned the hard way, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), the right to free speech includes the right to remain silent. By the same token, freedom of religion also means freedom from religion, and exercising the right to freedom from religion in prison requires a medium and venue. The medium ends up being secular study groups, and the venue ends up being the prison chapel or an equivalent—ours is in an unused classroom. The Council, understandably, takes issue with the term faith group, so let’s digress to unpack this term and show how it is little more than traditional phraseology.

A humanist group has nothing to do with faith, which the American philosopher Peter Boghossian aptly defines as (1) belief without evidence or (2) pretending to know something you don’t know. Humanism ardently rejects both as vacuous epistemologies. Even so, in prison humanism is colloquially considered a faith group. The use of the term boils down to a matter of logistics: if humanists are to congregate, they must do so somewhere; their meetings need to be scheduled, approved, and placed on someone’s calendar; and the duty to coordinate all this falls upon a facility’s religious coordinator. All groups on a religious coordinator’s calendar are referred to as faith groups (this is the list I mentioned earlier), probably for no better reason than convenience—and the fact that when these calendars originated, every group on them was likely a faith group in the literal sense.

While better terminology could certainly be implemented, this compartmentalization is not totally unreasonable; prison administrators could hardly be expected to establish new divisions to accommodate secularists. Thus, this task is pragmatically assigned to a category that already exists. Every faith group on a religious coordinator’s list must be preapproved. This is, among other things, to prevent groups that might present a security threat from forming or to reflect changes in a group’s status. For example, when the Aryan Nations church was declared a terrorist organization, prisons nationwide removed Aryan Nations from their lists of authorized faith groups. Accordingly, when secular groups are established, they inherit the language that already exists, and it would be a difficult sell to contend that by being included on these lists humanism or atheism magically become religions ipso facto.

In prison, secularism is treated like religion for First Amendment purposes. Not because secularism is a religion, and not because secularists pretend to be religious to ride on the coattails of religious privilege. Secularism is indistinguishable from religion because 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 their belief. Prison administrators often need a reminder of this, which is why litigating on behalf of secular prisoners is necessary and why courts predominantly find in prisoners’ favor in these cases. The strategy is not “If we can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” as the Council asserts. Nobody is trying to “beat” religion or propound that religious prisoners should not have a time and place for religious practices. The argument is simply that all prisoners have the right to equal protection and free exercise.

When people are discriminated against specifically because they lack theistic belief, the Constitution has been violated. This is not an ethical sacrifice on the altar of popularity, the exploitation of any loophole, or an attempt to “warp humanist prison initiatives in the mantle of religion,” as Flynn expressed it. Moreover, despite his recent hyperbolic comment that “Justin Bieber fandom might be properly described as a religion” if this sort of litigation continues—a dubious proposition given that the Constitution neither explicitly nor implicitly protects such beliefs—courts deserve a little more deference for their abilities to discern celebrity fandom from metaphysical convictions. More to the point, court rulings do not make de facto humanism a religion by fiat, and cases decided from the context of prisons are routinely distinguished by the courts (see below).

Clarifying the Difference

Surprisingly, none of this seems to have escaped notice. Several times throughout their critiques, the Council recognizes a difference between humanism-as-a-religion and humanism-as-a-religion-for-First-Amendment-purposes, even stating “that nonbelievers are protected by the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause, as well as by protections against religious discrimination … ” (Flynn, again). The Council takes issue with the ruling in AHA v. USA, 63 F. Supp. 3d 1274 (Dist. Or. 2014) where, in its opinion, the judge erred for finding secular humanism is a religion for First Amendment purposes. The objections are facially plausible, and the Council is correct that nonbelievers’ right to free exercise is constitutionally protected. However, it still fundamentally misconstrues how things work in prison and deliberately ignores the “for First Amendment purposes” caveat in the court’s ruling. With respect to whether the judge erred for failing to distinguish religious from secular humanism—in a prison context and for purposes of the First Amendment—there is simply no need, because religious and secular practices of this nature are virtually indistinguishable. Still, an a priori description of humanism-in-prison is needed.

In a controlled environment, if secularism is to be constitutionally protected, it stands to reason that it needs to be controlled, and those poised to work out the logistics are religious coordinators. In Flynn’s words, the Council appears to think this amounts to undue entanglement with an “odious religious privilege” and that the AHA, for example, condones this by “build[ing] legal momentum [that seeks] to establish prison humanist groups on the same basis as religious groups.” I’ll take these objections in respective order.

What is being referred to as an “odious religious privilege” is letting religious prisoners enjoy certain benefits that are denied to everyone else, such as special diets, jewelry, or permission to attend services. The characterization as “odious” is surely impertinent, though not entirely without merit, and the Council cannot be expected to understand the specifics of how this works in practice. Prisons cannot favor one religion over another (à la the Establishment Clause) or treat freedom of religion differently than freedom from religion (à la free exercise). So prisons are tasked with balancing prisoners’ right to free exercise while maintaining a clear secular purpose. As a result, religious prisoners are afforded amenities such as possessing a Qur’an or abstaining from eating pork. These are privileges, in that nonreligious prisoners do not get anything extra for being nonreligious. However, to say that letting religionists attend church or own a Bible is odious completely ignores their right to free exercise. In any event, the lawsuits the Council opposes have effectively placed this privilege on equal terms, eliminating any privileged status that once existed.

The argument that incarcerated humanists are seeking to establish themselves on the same basis as religion erroneously conflates religious privilege with religion-in-prison. Religious prisoners establish groups on the basis of religion; an easy feat, given that the American penitentiary system was built by religious Quakers on the idea that “penitents” need a place to dwell upon their sins. By contrast, secular prisoners seek to establish themselves on the basis of equality and the right to freedom from religion; a marked difference in ethos. Important legal reasons exist for amalgamating religion and secularism in prison, but these are not important differences unless you’re in prison.

Secularism does become enmeshed with religion … in prison. Having said that, courts routinely make exceptions on constitutional issues pertaining to prisoners. For instance, courts often uphold deprivations of prisoners’ constitutional rights—for example, the right to free assembly, free association, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure—while finding those same deprivations constitutionally intolerable in the free world. Indeed, the Supreme Court held in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987) that so long as prison administrators can convince a court that a practice that deprives a prisoner of a constitutional right is “reasonably related to [a] legitimate penological interest”—an easy burden because courts overwhelmingly side with administrators who are given “wide deference” in their decision-making by those same courts—that practice is valid. This means that a court ruling in one context does not invariably affect the issue in all circumstances. If it did, free citizens could expect to be strip-searched at the whim of a police officer, be maced for standing in a crowd, or have their homes ransacked for no particular reason. Yet all these are part and parcel of daily prison life.

A Distinction without a Difference

We have seen that the Council disapproves of secular humanism being treated as a religion because it positively rejects religion “as a class of human endeavor.” However, it immediately switches gears when the case involves … that’s right, itself. Case in point: Center for Inquiry v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk, 758 F.3rd 869 (7th Cir. 2014), a case wherein the Center for Inquiry (CFI, of which the Council is a program) argued that secular humanism is “situated similarly to religions in everything except belief in a deity (and especially close to those religious [sic] that lack deities).” The court found in CFI’s favor, ruling that “secular humanist celebrants [may] solemnize marriages … without risk of criminal penalties” because “an accommodation cannot treat religions favorably when secular groups are identical with respect to the attribute selected for that accommodation.”

This is precisely the legal position taken with respect to secular prison groups that the Council opposes, but in the foregoing case, CFI supports the court’s ruling, opining that “for purposes of solemnizing marriages, humanism is entitled to be treated as though it were a religion—even though it is not.” This statement appears to be a prima facie double standard. I don’t think it is, though the distinction is one of degree, not of kind. The Council’s position seems to be not that it is okay for secular humanism to be treated as a religion for certain legal purposes when it is involved but not when others are. Rather, it appears to argue that the way in which the AHA goes about obtaining this status—that is, arguing that humanism is a religion without qualification—misrepresents humanism, unnecessarily entangles religious and secular humanism, and is anathema to the ethos of the secular movement writ large.

The Council objected to the AHA’s legal strategy on the grounds that the “AHA vigorously contended that humanism is a religion [making] no effort to distinguish its brand of humanism from secular humanism.” In the celebrant case where CFI won the right to be treated as a religion for certain legal purposes, it proudly announced having obtained victory on the pretext of having consistently represented itself as strictly secular—though, as we saw, CFI did so by conceding that secular humanism is quite closely related to religion. While the end result was almost identical, the Council still takes issue with AHA’s purported strategy of arguing that, without qualification, humanism is a religion. Importantly, in the case in question the AHA was representing a religious Humanist and advocating for the establishment and equal protection of religious Humanism. Of course it vigorously argued that humanism is a religion! What was its other option? To confuse the court with what it surely would’ve deemed semantic and irrelevant rhetoric? Imagine: “Your Honor, humanism is sometimes secular and sometimes religious, and here it is religious but at other times it may not be, and in the unlikely event your decision has unintended consequences, we think a careful distinction should necessarily be reflected in your decision.” Impossible. What pertains to the case at hand is all that matters, and that case required advocating for a religious Humanist and the establishment of religious Humanism. AHA’s strategy was appropriate for the case. Perhaps a distinction is needed, but in the case in question it would not have done any good and could have compromised its client’s agenda.

Tom Flynn, Ronald A. Lindsay, and Nicholas J. Little wrote that the AHA case should have “been pursued with just a slightly more complex argument, namely, that certain secular beliefs should be treated as though they were religious beliefs for certain legal purposes, instead of a simple ‘humanism is a religion’ argument,” thinking this “might have obtained relief for its prisoner plaintiff while simultaneously achieving a higher social purpose.” A laudable proposal to be sure, though let us not forget the plaintiff in that case was a religious Humanist, so it does not follow that advancing an argument related to secular humanism would have best served that plaintiff’s interests. That strategy would not likely have been either relevant or successful and in the end would not have made a difference to any higher social purpose.

Thinking Critically

The issues I have outlined are obviously of great personal interest. But there is a bigger picture here which I think we need to look at critically. The Council presents its case well, with dignity and integrity. However all it has accomplished is pointing the finger while patting itself on the back, making no attempt at reconciliation. The AHA has made no such attempts either, and this is not helpful. Because humanism is the common thread that binds the AHA and the Council, the goal here should be to understand each other and to work toward coming together in agreement. Otherwise secularism is divided, and the movement loses valued individuals. If we want to avoid similar disagreements in the future, we need to think critically and ask questions, such as “Why are rational, competent, compassionate people with so much in common in utter disagreement?,” “Why are they not seeing eye-to-eye, and what can we do to change that?,” and “Are one or both sides obstinate or, dare I say, irrational?”

The humanist community is extremely welcoming, and I would like to see this across the board. While writing this article, I reread the “Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles,” as I do from time to time. This discussion invites us to reflect on how these affirmations apply and to strengthen our commitment to these noble principles as well as to one another. “We are committed to the applications of reason … ,” “We believe in an open and pluralistic society … ,” “We are concerned with … eliminating discrimination and intolerance,” “We believe in supporting the disadvantaged … ,” “We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties … and strive to work together for the common good of humanity,” “We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies … ,” “We believe in optimism rather than pessimism … .” Respectively, why not try to reason out our differences, open the discussion, rein in the self-adulation, stop castigating our friends over disagreements, help prisoners in their worthy pursuits, refrain from throwing stones in glass houses, welcome those who seek humanism in times of need, and look at what we are doing right and build from there rather than dwell on what is wrong and remaining in that rut? Failing to even try is a profound contradiction.

Our principles are based on rationality, empiricism, understanding, and so much more. Why, then, are disagreements such as this taking place in public forums? Can they be discussed using reason and understanding? The two biggest names in humanism, both priding themselves on their intellect and rational prowess, are unable to come together to resolve their differences. Why? In The Edge of Reason, the British philosopher Julian Baggini calls judgment philosophy’s dirty little secret, because philosophers do not like admitting that judgment is a necessary component of reason. This does not give us a license to replace reason with opinion but, rather, imbues a responsibility to use judgment sensibly, still basing our decisions on facts and evidence. In this sense Baggini concludes, “there is nothing dirty about [judgment].” One hopes that rational people on either side of this discussion can use their judgment responsibly, without being blinded by abject prejudices or personal biases. If everyone took a step back and asked What would it take to change my mind?, where would we be? It certainly would not hurt to try. Secularists often talk about aligning with the religious when our goals are one in the same. Can we make more of an effort to align with each other because our goals are one in the same?

Looking toward a Better Future

Given the Council’s objections, I wonder what it would do in prison. Let’s imagine that some powerful evangelical convinced Donald Trump it would be really manly to make blasphemy illegal. Assuming he could enact such a law, our evangelical friend also convinces Trump that making the law retroactive would be manlier still. The roundup begins, and one-by-one the Council’s members are hauled off to jail, where they will spend the reminder of their lives imprisoned for nearly innumerable counts of blasphemy. Would they want to organize a humanist group? If so, how might they go about accomplishing their goal? Might they join one that the AHA helped establish?

On the satirical cartoon South Park, one of the characters gets transported to the year 2546 where, with the help of Richard Dawkins, religion has been eradicated2. But the joke is on the secularists: the world has been split into rival factions of atheistic organizations, replacing the squabbling religious sects of times past. If we continue to carelessly ostracize ourselves, engage in what amounts to needless infighting, marginalize our cohorts, and get into semantic disputes without trying to resolve them, the spoof could become secularism’s own tragicomedy. In 1983, the stalwart humanist Paul Kurtz said, “… humanism is not and should not be a denomination or sect competing with others.” I agree. So why are we? In honor of Paul Kurtz, I close by proposing a sincere attempt at resolution by all parties involved.


Further Reading

  • Al Mutar, Faisal Saeed. “The Failure of Ideological Purity Tests,” Free Inquiry, August/September 2018.
  • Baggini, Julian. The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World, New York: Yale University Press, 2017.
  • Boghossian, Peter. A Manual for Creating Atheists, Durham: Pitchstone Publishing, 2013.
  • ———. “What Would It Take to Change Your Mind?” Skeptic, Vol. 22, No. 1, 2017.
  • Cuno, Steve. “Jesus vs. Santa: The Evidence Speaks,” Free Inquiry, December 2018/January 2019.
  • Flynn, Tom, Lindsay, Ronald A., and Little, Nicholas J. “Secular Humanism: Not a Religion,” Free Inquiry, February/March 2015.
  • Flynn, Tom. “Does Opportunity Knock?” Free Inquiry, August/September 2018.
  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Second Vintage Books Edition. 1995.
  • Kurtz, Paul. “The Future of Humanism,” Free Inquiry, Fall 1983.
  • Law, Stephen. Philosophy (Eyewitness Companion Guide). London: DK Publishing. 2007.
  • Pinker, Stephen. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, New York: Viking, 2018.



  1. Julie Tennant-Caine, WDOC Deputy Administrator, personal correspondence. April 3, 2017.
  2. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, “Go God Go” and “Go God Go XII,” South Park, November 2006. Parker-Stone Productions.

Jon Guy

Jon Guy is a prisoner at the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp. He has almost completed writing his first book, tentatively titled Think Straight, which is about teaching critical thinking to prisoners. He will be released as soon as they let him go.

“[A] right is a non-negotiable claim. If you have a right to something, then you must not be prevented from having or doing that thing; in addition, others are duty-bound to allow or even enable you to exercise that right.” —Stephen Law The Council for Secular Humanism (hereafter the Council) has taken a divisive stance, …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.