Were the Fundamentalists Right All Along?

Is it time for atheists to celebrate? ThinkProgress calls a recent federal court decision a “major win” for them. In that decision, Oregon’s Judge Ancer Haggerty declared that Secular Humanism deserved to be counted as a religion.

But isn’t that what fundamentalists have been saying for decades? Is this decision really a long-term win for conservative religious folks, who have long argued that secular humanism is a religion? If SH is a religion, it can’t be promoted in public schools. Will fundamentalists be able to use this court decision to demand SH-free textbooks and state standards?

SH SchaefferI take a detailed look at this anti-SH school campaign in my upcoming book. The notion that SH functioned as a religion was popularized among fundamentalists by evangelical intellectual Francis Schaeffer. In his 1982 book A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer defined SH as a religion that made the terrible error of denying God and making humanity the “measure of all things.”

Mel and Norma Gabler, the school watchdogs who pushed Texas’ schools in profoundly conservative directions during the 1970s and 1980s, denounced SH as a “religion with an anti-biblical, anti-God bent.” Beginning with John Dewey in the 1930s, the Gablers believed, humanists had taken over schools and pushed leftist, amoral ideas on generations of schoolchildren. SH was not a neutral arbiter between religions, the Gablers argued, but rather a pernicious religion of its own. As such, it should not be allowed to do its damning work in public schools.SH Gablers

Tim LaHaye agreed. The blockbuster fundamentalist author argued in his Battle for the Public Schools (1983) that SH taught kids in public schools to be “anti-God, antimoral, antifamily, anti-free enterprise and anti-American.” By 1980, LaHaye wrote, humanism had achieved a “stranglehold” on the US government. As LaHaye put it,

Public education today is a self-serving institution controlled by elitists of an atheistic, humanist viewpoint; they are more interested in indoctrinating their charges against the recognition of God, absolute moral values, and a belief in the American dream than they are in teaching them to read, write, and do arithmetic. I call these people humanist educrats.

SH LaHayeThis claim among fundamentalists has become ubiquitous over the years. Conservatives insist that public schools are only interested in freezing out real religion. False religions, especially SH, receive special treatment. Kids in public schools, fundamentalists insist, are not actually in a neutral environment. They are, instead, effectively in an SH madrasah.

So here’s the $64,000 question: will last week’s federal court ruling fuel this fundamentalist fire? In coming years, will fundamentalist activist groups be able to prove their claims about SH and schools by citing Judge Haggerty’s argument?

It will help to look at the specifics of the case. In this case, an SH prisoner complained that he was being treated unfairly. He had demanded similar privileges for his SH group to those given to a list of religious groups. If Catholics, Shias, Sikhs and Druids could have special meeting times, Secular Humanists should too.

The judge agreed. In Haggerty’s words, “Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.” That is, as far as the Constitution is concerned, the government cannot favor any one religion over another. Judge Haggerty pointedly noted that his decision was in line with earlier court decisions that differentiated between Secular Humanism in general and organized groups of Secular Humanists who demanded equal treatment. It does not matter if SH in general is a religion. Those who claim equal privileges to religious groups deserve them.

So, in short, the judge did not decide that SH was or was not a religion. His decision was based on the notion that any religion or non-religion deserves equal treatment by the government. But here’s my hunch: For the coming few decades, fundamentalist pundits will refer to this case as proof that SH is a religion. They will ignore the niceties of Judge Haggerty’s decision. We might even see a re-do of the Mozert v. Hawkins County case from the 1980s. In that case, fundamentalist parents insisted that school textbooks pushed the religion of SH on their trusting children.

A new generation of fundamentalist activists might take heart from this decision. It is proof, fundamentalists might conclude, that they’ve been right all along.

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2 Comments

  1. Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, certainly thinks this was the wrong decision. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2014/11/11/a-judge-recently-ruled-that-secular-humanism-is-a-religion-will-that-hurt-us-in-the-long-run/

    But it seems to me that Hemant’s argument (that humanism is not a religion but should enjoy the same privileges for legal purposes) is more or less what the judge said.

    Reply
  2. Greg Logan

     /  December 20, 2014

    As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I recognize Tim LaHaye’s remarks absolute baloney – and really remarkable lies that have been foisted on the church of Jesus Christ. He is a great deceiver that has crept into the church.

    Reply

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