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Sally Morem Clergy

Clergy in the Classroom: The Religion of Secular Humanism By David A. Noebel, J.F. Baldwin, and Kevin Bywater Manitou Springs, Colorado: Summit Press, 1995 135 pages, (no price listed on the book)

Reviewed by Sally Morem

Clergy in the Classroom is the latest attempt by Christian fundamentalists to claim victim status under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. How? By attributing the massive secularizing trends in America during the past century to organized secular humanism and by designating secular humanism as a full-fledged religion, the authors put their own rather questionable twist on the need for separation of church and state in America. Clergy is warning good Christian parents that secular humanism is being taught in the public schools as an illegally and unconstitutionally established religion. The “Clergy” in the title are the schoolteachers, either knowingly or unwittingly doing the work of the Devil.

You don’t have to open this book to get the ideological point. The cover makes it graphically apparent. Look at the blackboard listing the authors’ vision of what makes up a secular humanistic education: “Womyn’s Studies,” “Multiculturalism,” “Moral Relativism.” A stack of books site on a desk in front of the blackboard, including works by Carl Sagan, John Dewey, and Charles Darwin. The arrangement strongly hints at the possibility that these books are now being assigned to unwary students as textbooks.

After a short, introductory essay, the authors arrange their testimony in the form of photocopies of portions of secular humanist articles, essays, tracts, and sermons they believe make their points for them. They’re all here. Humanist Manifestos I and II. Free Inquiry. The Humanist. Religion Without Revelation. Julian Huxley. John Dewey. Paul Kurtz. Fred Edwords. Even Minnesota’s own John Dietrich, early 20th century minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis (of which I’m a member), makes an appearance. (Secular humanists take note: you may actually find this book useful as a historical reference work of writers, publications, and activists in the 20th century humanist movement. Of course this isn’t exactly what the authors had in mind.)

What are the authors driving at? Why did they amass this fine collection of humanist literature? They did so to demonstrate claims made by secular humanists themselves that secular humanism is a religion. A certain amount of confusion naturally arises on the question of the nature of secular humanism owing to its rather peculiar origins in Great Britain and America soon after World War I. Several noted Unitarian ministers at that time were indeed determined to found a naturalistic, non-theistic religion which, presumably, would eventually supplant Unitarianism. They borrowed the term “humanism” from a historical denotation given various Renaissance artists and writers who concerned themselves with the human condition rather than with the divine. We secular humanists have used the term ever since, with a predictable amount of bewilderment on the part of the public when they hear about our organizations–“You’re the local Humanist Association? Can I adopt a puppy?”

But these ministers failed in their attempt to fashion their movement into a religion. The humanist movement (at least in America) grew into a philosophical and political movement, promoting secularism, the scientific method, and a rational search for knowledge. Humanist leaders took a series of somewhat leftish stands on various economic and political issues, although (as I can certain attest) humanists are not limited to the leftward side of the American political spectrum.

Secular humanism is not a religion. It doesn’t have the rites or ceremonies of religion. It doesn’t have a churchly infrastructure. It has no ministers, except for some certified humanist celebrants. (Humanist leaders are mainly academics and publishers.) And by definition it has no theologians. But most importantly, it doesn’t provide worship services of any kind. Secular humanists don’t believe in that sort of thing. After the Unitarian ministers’ experimental failure, it’s doubtful that any purported religion can have any staying power without some sort of theistic sentiment energizing it–in short, worship of one or more deities.

However, in the court case of Torcaso v. Watkins of 1960 (as documented by Clergy), a Maryland Notary Public filed suit to be given a commission. He had been denied because he refused to declare a belief in God. The Maryland state constitution at that time required such a statement. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Maryland test for public office violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by attempting to force a person “to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.”

A footnote in the Opinion of the Court listed various religions in America which do not teach a belief in God, including Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, and Secular Humanism. Does this mean that the Supreme Court recognizes Secular Humanism as a religion even though it doesn’t possess the accouterments of religion I’ve described earlier? And how might such recognition affect instruction in the public schools?

My guess (and it can only be a guess since I’m not an expert in Constitutional law) is that there is a weakness in American law relating to the proper legal categorizing of philosophical and ethical societies. Take the American Humanist Association (AHA) for example. For tax purposes, the IRS ruled that it is a church (!) even though it possesses little, if any, religious organization or content (see above). So, why did the IRS make that ruling? The lawyers couldn’t think of anything else to do. They were loathe to create a special category for the AHA. Government bureaucracies must dot all i’s and cross all t’s and put everything in its place no matter how misleading that “place” may be.

It’s almost certain that the Supreme Court took its lead from the IRS. One government entity named a non-religion a religion, so that was good enough for the Justices.

And what effect did all this have on the public schools? None. Is secular humanism as a coherent philosophical belief system being systematically taught to students in America’s public schools? Certainly secular subjects are taught, secular systems of analysis are brought to bear on secularly derived data, and secular conclusions are drawn by students as a result of their classroom studies. But is this enough to dub course work “secular humanism” and teachers “clergy?” No.

By necessity, school curricula are suffused with secularity. But that is not the same thing as teaching secular humanism. Science and math are wholly secular subjects; their practitioners construct vast, intricate, interlocking systems of thought and discovery through the analysis of laboratory experiments, field observations, and formal proofs. The arts are secular (except for historical religious art); artists explore human creativity through human experience. History and the social sciences are largely secular; historians, political scientists, and psychologists seek patterns and regularities in the many things human beings do. Secular humanists have contributed in all these fields, but originated none of them. This chronology shows us it would be more accurate to label secularism as the cause and secular humanism as the effect rather than the other way around.

Even if you stretch the definition of religion to include secular humanism, that does not mean teachers are systematically teaching that worldview in public schools. For instance, biological evolution is rightly considered to be one of the core beliefs of secular humanists. But have you ever heard of a public high school with a science course called “Evolution” or “Neo-Darwinism?” I haven’t. When I was in school, we got evolution in bits and pieces scattered between astronomy, earth science, physics, chemistry, and biology. I never read a full-fledged, coherent textbook on evolution until college. I suspect you didn’t either.

Even though America is considered to be one of the most religious countries in the world, clearly at the end of this century and millennium, it’s far more secular than it was at the end of the 19th century, and certainly far, far more than at the end of the 18th century. Secularism has been one of the most powerful societal engines of change in the West ever since the Renaissance–or perhaps since the High Middle Ages. Science and technology must take the lion’s share of the credit (or the blame) for this state of affairs. Those twin dynamos have powered the reshaping of economic, political, and cultural institutions and mores for the past five centuries. Modern humanism, by comparison, has merely been along for only a small portion of the ride.

Raw beginners in science or philosophy often mistake coincidence for cause and effect. They assume a causal linkage between two or more phenomena merely because they abut one another in place and time. But upon closer examination, the purported link evaporates. This is the mistake the authors of Clergy make. Secular humanism is not the historical force they claim it was and therefore it could not do what they claim it could do. The authors proved nothing with their book, and so, unfortunately, illuminated nothing about the problems and possibilities of our own place and time.

“Review of Clergy in the Classroom” is copyright © 2000 by Sally Morem. All rights reserved. The electronic version is copyright © 2000 by Internet Infidels, Inc. All rights reserved.

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