Humanism and Secular Humanism

The question has been raised: who is in control of curriculum in our school? Not just the choosing of the precise books, but who is in charge of the contents of the books that curriculum directors can choose from? Once the answers to these questions are found, what should be done if they point to one group? So many problems in the United States have arisen when the people discover that one group is violating the people”s rights in some way by not allowing others power, that it would be logical to conclude that it would be perceived by many to be unfair if it is found that one interest group chooses what all American children learn, especially if that interest group is furthering their own interests by doing so.
However, finding out the answers to these questions is quite difficult at best. The subject has been written about extensively, and since there are so many opinions, the unbiased truth is virtually impossible to come by. In this topic, it has been at least suggested by others that everyone is biased, including our Supreme Court, so one must tread carefully in stating so-called “facts.” Humanism and secular humanism and what they have to do with present educational curriculum will be discussed for the remainder. Though human nature tends to make all humans biased in some way, both sides of the argument have been researched and will be documented until fair conclusions can be made.
First, the term “humanism” must be defined. To do this fully, the definition of “humanism” will be given from the dictionary, and then humanists themselves will have a turn to define themselves. Merriam Webster”s Collegiate Dictionary terms “humanism” as “a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; esp.: a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual”s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.”

The same dictionary defines “doctrine” as “a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief: DOGMA.” To understand fully what this is pointing to, one must then look at the definition of “dogma”-“a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church.” Most will agree that an accredited collegiate dictionary is an acceptable place to look for information, and here it is shown that humanism can be tied to a religion.
People who claim to be humanist would also seem to be a good place to look for a formal term for humanism. Rebecca Bushnell writes of early humanist pedagogy when she says,
“This is a humanism based on belief that people are largely responsible for what happens on this earth; committed to tolerance, attention to the differences among people and the need to treat them with equal respect; shaped by a cheerful acceptance of ambivalence and contradiction; and informed by an almost painful historical consciousness, which sees the past as estranged yet able to illuminate present concerns (8).”
This explanation definitely sounds like what most people want to feel, or at least what they claim to, but humanism is more than this.
Humanism is also defined by the worship of man; Curtis W. Reese writes, “There is a large element of faith in all religion. [Christianity has faith] in the love of God; and Humanism in man as the measure of values…Hypotheses, postulates, and assumptions in their proper realm are comparable to faith in the realm of religion. In this way I speak of the faith of Humanism.” Another humanist deals with the humanistic beliefs in right and wrong: “In humanism right and wrong are defined in terms of consequence to human life (10).”
To further clarify what humanists believe, more writings of humanists will prove that they consider humanism to be their religion. Gerald A. Larque, a man who signed the Humanist Manifesto II, writes, “Our religion is based upon the best that we know about our cosmos, our world, and ourselves…We recognize our oneness with the cosmos and our spatial and temporal minuteness…We see ourselves as the highest life-form the evolutionary process has developed…(11).” The 1979 Humanist of the Year, who co-founded and edited The New Humanist, also believes humanism to be a religion: “…Humanism in a naturalistic frame is validly a religion…(7).”
A Humanist Manifesto, also known as the Humanist Manifesto I, continually describes humanism as a religion. “The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs…In every field of human activity, the vital movement is now in the direction of a candid and explicit humanism…religious humanism (13).” From the Humanist Manifesto II, one can see that Kurtz thinks of humanism as ” a philosophical, religious, and moral point of view” and that it offers a believer a formula for salvation and a future sanctuary (12).
Other humanists who claim humanism as their religion illustrate what “religion” means to them. Julian Huxley says in Religion Without Revelation, “There are whole religions which make no mention of God. The most notable example, as already mentioned, is that of Buddhism (14).” Furthering this thought, “Religion, then,…will mean a ruling commitment practiced by a community of individuals to what they believe creates, sustains, saves, and transforms human existence toward the greatest good (15).” With this, one has sufficient information concerning basic humanism beliefs.
Besides the fact that humanists themselves admit to being a religious organization, there are several examples of how the American legal system treats humanism-as a religion. In a Supreme Court case, Torcaso v. Watkins, a Notary Public from Maryland was reinstated after being fired for refusing to proclaim a belief in God. The Court recognized religions that do not believe in God as “real” religions when it wrote, “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others (7).” This statement will be considered later in the discussion.
All formal humanist membership organizations in America claim 501(c )3 religious tax exempt status or deem themselves expressly religious. Dr. Paul Kurtz states, “Even the American Humanist Association (3,500 members)…has a religious tax exemption (7).” An editor of The Humanist magazine, Paul Blanshard says, “There has been another victory for those who would interpret the word “religion” very broadly…the appellate court reversed by a unanimous decision. Now the F.O.R. [Fellowship of Reconciliation] is established as a “religious” organization, with full right to tax exemption (7).” Tax-exempt status is serious business.
In an article titled “The Religion of Democracy: Part II,” Rudolph Dreikurs argues that humanism should be thought of as religious because of the form and content. “The new religion will probably be humanistic. It will be concerned with man and not with God.” This “new religion” will have new principles, new rituals, and new symbols (16).
Those involved in the humanist religion also have their own ministers, and “minister” is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “one officiating or assisting the officiant in church worship.” Harvard University has its own Humanist chaplain, Thomas Ferrick, who is also “one of the 34 full- and part-time chaplains that make up the United Ministry at Harvard and Radcliffe, and he also serves as executive director of the Humanist Association of Massachusetts” local chapter (17).” In Auburn University”s Student/Faculty Directory, under “Auburn Pastors and Campus Ministers-Humanist,” there is a Humanist Counselor for the students (7). The University of Arizona”s Student Handbook for 1990-1991 lists “Humanists” under the title “Religious Services” (7). These facts should only prove further that Humanism is a religion.
Now that humanism is understood, it is time to link humanism with present-day educational curriculum. Paul Vitz conducted research on the censorship of student”s textbooks, funded by the National Institute of Education, a part of the federal government, and came to the conclusion that they are strongly biased for the Secular Humanist worldview. “Whether one calls it secular humanism, enlightenment universalism, skeptical modernism, or just plain permissive liberalism, the bottom line is that a very particular and narrow sectarian philosophy has taken control of American education (18).” This seems to be a documented conclusion from an recognized institute, but yet it has not been fully discussed with the American public at large.
Humanists themselves have admitted to the fact that they use the classroom to further their religion. John J. Dunphy states in his A Religion for a New Age, “[T]he battle for humankind”s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers who correctly perceive their role as the proselytizers of a new faith: a religion of humanity that recognizes and respects the spark of what theologians call divinity in every human being (19).” Another man who calls himself a “Humanist minister”, Charles Francis Potter, says:
“Education is thus a most powerful ally of Humanism, and every American public school is a school of Humanism. What can the theistic Sunday-schools, meeting for an hour once a week, and teaching only a fraction of the children, do to stem the tide of a five-day program of humanistic teaching? (20)”
He then continues, “So very Humanistic is modern education that no religion has a future unless it be Humanism (20).” These men obviously believe very strongly not only that humanism is being taught in American public schools, but also that it should overpower other religions.
John Dewey, who signed the Humanist Manifesto I, wrote a book, Education Today, in which he voices many opinions about education and how humanism should be implemented. “I believe that…it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform…(21)”. On page eighty he says, “We certainly cannot teach religion as an abstract essence. We have got to teach something as religion, and that means practically some religion.” He also believes public education to be the vehicle by which this “deeper religion” is promoted (21).
Now that it has been documented that the humanist religion is being funneled into public schools, it is time to give a few examples of the things in school curriculum that are humanist in nature. First, homosexuality is being pushed as acceptable behavior to students. The schools are teaching that it should be looked at as positive to have “full sexual adjustment without any hang-ups caused by outdated religious concepts. And our schools are the main tool used to teach the young people this human freedom (6).” Not only is homosexuality taught as “okay,” but they are also teaching the theory of evolution in full force. Teachers are not allowed to present any kind of argument for creationist theory; Jerry Bergman, Ph.D., states, “In fact, it is often considered inappropriate to criticize evolution, let alone present the creationist position (6).”
This occurs without much argument, despite the fact that there are many books very critical of evolutionary theory “written by either evolutionists or by individuals who at least do not agree with the creationist perspective (6).” The biology textbook Of Pandas and People by Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon was included by the trustees in Plano, Texas, in the school curriculum, and humanist educators lost all pretense of “tolerance” because the book “acknowledges the abundance of design manifest in the natural world and thus reasonably postulates an intelligent Designer (7).” Homosexuality and evolution are just a couple examples of humanist perspective in the schools.
The logic these humanists use, that schools are the best place to push their beliefs, makes complete sense, even “falls in line” with some of the basic thoughts of sociological theory: that “no knowledge is value-neutral; no knowledge is free of presuppositions. All knowledge is rooted in the social structure in particular ways and reflects (even if indirectly) the particular interest of different sectors of the population (4).” Reasonably, this idea is also true for knowledge given to children in public schools. Even John Dewey said (as quoted earlier) that the teaching of religion is inevitable in schools, that “some religion” would have to be taught. Is this what the American Constitution allows? It is wrong, and very punishable, for public schools to advocate Christianity or to teach any of its beliefs, but the teaching of humanism”s beliefs remains untouched.
Humanists tend to label certain “unpopular” ideas (those that they do not agree with) as religious, and those they do support as non-religious. For instance, schools are free to teach “thou shalt not steal, lie, or murder” but not “thou shalt not commit adultery or take the name of God in vain.” What is the difference between the two statements, which are both from the Ten Commandments, the most basic Western religious law? Other concepts taught presently that have a religious origin are “the goal of treating others as one would like to be treated, the need to take an occasional break from one”s work, to be balanced in all things, and the attempt to be fair to all people (6).”
One of the biggest objective of liberals in recent years has been to insure equal rights for all people, yet this idea was adopted as a religious goal over 2,000 years ago in the Christian Scriptures. Bergman states, “Incidentally, the source of the belief in the equality of man is the Bible, few ancient books espouse this concept, and it is foreign to most non-Christian peoples (6).”
Since these concepts are biblical in origin, why are the students not told this? What about the fact that abortion, homosexuality and fornication are talked about in school, but teachers are not allowed to discuss the religious side of the issue, only the side deemed non-religious? Though the public schools are teaching a type of religion, obviously, the students are not informed about it; in fact, the topic of religion is not deemed important (6).
Community schools, before federal aid was instigated, were to reflect the values of those who lived in it. “What happened to “community public schools” that were to reflect the values of the community? They disappeared when federal aid was approved. Now only what is approved by secularists [humanists] in Washington is ‘neutral” (22).” As James David Hunter documents, “Public education arguably shares a common ethical orientation with modern humanism, particularly to the degree that these perspectives are advanced without respect for cultural traditions that might dissent (4).” Community”s values are no longer taken into account when curriculum is chosen.
In recent times, the idea of choice in education has come to life with a system of tuition vouchers, but criticism of this choice has been rampant among the educators who believe in humanism. Richard A. Baer, Jr. writes:
“The point is this: Education never takes place in a moral and philosophical vacuum. If the larger questions about human beings and their destiny are not being asked and answered within a predominantly Judeo-Christian framework, they will be addressed within another philosophical or religious framework-but hardly one that is “neutral.” The arrogance and philosophical implausibility of secular humanism are demonstrated by the insistence of many humanists that their position possesses such neutrality, lack of dogma, and essential rationality. It is an arrogance that also quickly becomes coercive and imperialistic, as is clearly seen in the widespread opposition among such educators toward genuine choice in education, for instance, the kind of choice that would be possible through a system of education tuition vouchers (23).”
If America is a land of freedom, one would assume that Americans could choose where to send their children to school and what they are taught. However, not all Americans can afford private schools, so beyond their local public school, there is no choice.
With all of this discord, it would be surprising if no one had taken this matter to the courts. They have, in some aspects. First one must look at the history of the First Amendment. The First Amendment was written to guarantee that the interest of certain faiths would not be expanded by direct or indirect benefaction of the government, at least not to the hindrance of smaller, minority faiths.
When originally written, its intention was to curb the “deep and long-standing tensions” between various inter-Protestant competitions (4). Of course, they also encompassed conflicts between Protestants and Catholics and between Jew and Christians, whose beliefs are quite different, though these conflicts were minor because Catholics and Jews comprised less than two percent of the population at the start of the nineteenth century. When these populations increased, their full religious liberties were still restricted, continuing past the beginning of the twentieth century (4).
This failure to fully perfect the ideals of the First Amendment is important because “many of the social dynamics taking place in the present find a parallel in the past (4).” Not only have the numbers of Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, and Buddhists grown, but the secular humanists have increased from two percent in 1962 to about eleven percent in 1990. Though humanism is not the same kind of religion as Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism are determined to be, how should they be perceived for First Amendment purposes?
The Supreme Court held a strict definition of religion-“Our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian…”-until the early 1940s, when it broadened the definition:
“Religious belief arises from a sense of the inadequacy of reason as a means of relating the
individual to his fellow men and to his universe-a sense common to men in the most primitive and the most highly civilized societies…It is a belief finding expression in a conscience which categorically requires the believer to disregard elementary self-interest and to accept martyrdom in preference to transgressing its tenets…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 (4).”
This expanded the criterion from the nature of belief in a divine being to the psychological function of belief (4).
In 1961 the Supreme Court decided that a Maryland law violated the no establishment clause because it put “the power and authority of the State of Maryland…on the side of one particular sort of believers-those who are willing to say they believe ‘in the existence of God” (4).” This new functional definition was not used with the no establishment clause by opponents until the case Smith v. Board of School Commissioners. The plaintiffs believed that most of the textbooks in the county public school system promoted secular humanism”s religion, which would violate the no establishment clause of the First Amendment. The first judgment in the case favored the plaintiff; however it was eventually overturned. A Washington Post columnist, Colman McCarthy, wrote:
“A careful reading of the decision, as against a skimming of news accounts of it, reveals that Mobile families had a fair grievance: That what was taught in classrooms about religion was impeding the teachings of mothers and fathers at home about religion. What”s wrong with that complaint? (4)”
What is wrong with that complaint? Surely every parent has the right to teach their children what they want to. It seems confusing to find that the Supreme Court did not believe humanist religion to be in school curriculum, especially when humanists themselves have admitted to the fact, as documented earlier. However, humanists have backtracked from their earlier, outspoken works. Paul Kurtz, quoted earlier, wrote his 1989 book, Eupraxophy: Living Without Religion, to “take back” all the earlier writings of humanists that claimed it a religion. He even coined a term-eupraxophy-to describe humanism without using the word religion.
“Eupraxophy…provides a coherent, ethical life stance…it presents a cosmic theory of reality…defends a set of criteria governing the testing of truth claims…advocates an ethical posture. And it is committed implicitly or explicitly to a set of political ideals. Eupraxophy combines both a Weltanshuung and a philosophy of living.”
Now, why would Kurtz do this after he had decided already that humanism was, in fact, a religion, his religion? Why? Kurtz realizes that if humanism is religion, then it will not be allowed in the schools: “For if humanism, even naturalistic and secular humanism, is a religion, then we would be faced with a violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof.” (24).” It causes more confusion in the whole topic when different people claim different things.
The whole argument comes down to this: That academic freedom seems to be unequal among educators. There are many different religious beliefs in America, and most teachers would claim to have some kind of religion or world view. “Academic freedom is the ability of the instructor to teach what he/she feels is the truth about reality in an intellectually honest and reasonable way (6).” Teachers in the present day are not allowed to teach what they believe and why, because of the First Amendment. Humanists and Christians have both agreed that religion will be taught in the schools in one manner or another, and this causes a great problem because someone must choose which religion will be taught. Noebel writes in his Clergy in the Classroom:
“Imagine a child enrolled in a public school and learning only what that public school imparted (with no outside interference from family, church, Christian teachers or Congressional chaplains). When he graduated, what would he believe? Without divine intervention, he wouldn”t have much choice: Secular Humanism would be all he knew. This situation is idyllic, as far as the Humanists are concerned. Because their doctrines are every bit as dogmatic as Christian doctrine, and because they view Christianity as a ‘rotting corpse,” they use their established position to censor any hint of positive Christian influence in the classroom. Though they posture as ‘open-minded,” ‘tolerant” folks, Humanists eagerly discriminate against Christianity in the classroom (7).”
This is not fair, just as it would not be fair if America”s public schools taught strictly Christian doctrine. Excluding religion from the classroom, when the whole purpose of school is to teach the entire body of knowledge, is “censorship of the worst sort (6).”
Many parents, Humanist or Christian, Buddhist or Catholic, are rightfully worried that their children”s teachers will indoctrinate their children with some specific religious belief. However, students are bright, reasoning people and do not gullibly believe everything a teacher says. Children who have strong prejudices against certain groups do not let go of them easily, even when a teacher tries to help that child overcome the prejudice. Also, a teacher”s ideas may spark a child”s desire to further research the topic so that the child comes to his own conclusions.
If students are to become those who can debate important topics, it seems that removing all religious questions would hinder that which is significant for living a well-rounded life (6). Jerry Bergman gives the example of Australia to clarify whether it is possible to bring religion into the classroom. Only three percent of Australia”s population attends church regularly, but the schools still have classes in religious education as an “integral part of the school curriculum at all grade levels (6).” This brings the conclusion that religion in schools is feasible, and not just the religion of one group.
In conclusion, the questions asked at the beginning have been answered, but not fully. It has been proven that Humanism is a religion, by quotes of many influential Humanists and by the Supreme Court, and that there is evidence of Humanist beliefs in our school curriculum, by a federal government study and by Humanist”s admittance. Many men, Humanist, Christian, and those with unknown beliefs, have agreed that education cannot occur without some religious worldview”s influence, and the topic does not seem to be dormant in their minds.
The battle is not over; the writer is quite convinced that there will be more court battles concerning this issue. To have an education system that treats each person”s beliefs equally, there needs to be a change. Either separate all children into schools of their respective religions, or treat them as intelligent individuals with minds that deserve to learn about all religious views and the immense amount of history that goes with them.
Shujaa, Mwalimu J. Too Much Schooling, Too Little Education: A Paradox of Black Life in White Societies. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, Inc., 1994.
This book covered many areas of African-American education, and was a great background knowledge source. The topics most valid to my interests were the African experiences in schools, the analysis of African-American males” response to schooling, exploring exemplary African-American teachers” views, and African-Americans” communal nature of learning. Also I got great information concerning different school environments, and their effect on African-American students” education, which I then used to get strategies for teaching African-Americans from.

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