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Humanists seek support from Congress on military chaplains

Gain momentum with rulings on religious liberty, acceptance of free thought

- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2014

U.S. humanists have seen an increase in visibility and validity thanks to recent court rulings on religious liberty and what religion historians see as a growing acceptance for free thought.

On Tuesday, the American Humanist Association hopes to make further progress by hosting its first congressional briefing to draw attention and support for humanist chaplains in the military.

"There's a lot of focus on the military now," said David Niose, legal director at the American Humanist Association. "You're going to be seeing more attempts to not exclude atheists and humanists. It's definitely one of the battlegrounds of the secular movement."

As a philosophical perspective, humanism stresses the value of human beings rather than a divine being and bases its beliefs on critical thinking rather than faith.

"It's been building for a while. People are rejecting traditional ideas that's grown really rapidly, especially among younger generations," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association.

"Happiness, how we can do well for others, are things that aren't unique," Mr. Speckhardt said. "Really, humanism is based philosophically on the pillars of reason and empathy, compassion, sense of equality. From that you get all the positions of humanist belief."

The modern humanist line of beliefs came about in the latter half of the 19th century, emerging from a group primarily composed of "disgruntled unitarians" and liberal Christians, said Lawrence Snyder Jr., professor of religious studies at Western Kentucky University.

"This group sort of prided themselves as free thinkers or radicals," Mr. Snyder said. "These free churches continued to operate sort of as religious centers; they simply didn't refer to a Christian god in any normative way."

Over the next century, the humanist movement evolved, Mr. Snyder said. In the early 1930s the first humanist manifesto was published, which was "very much a religious document, not a theistic one," while the early 1970s brought a second manifesto that was "much more antireligious, rooted in science," he said.

In the 1980s, the "long shadow" of the Cold War swung the pendulum in America back to the feeling of "a strong cultural preference for belief against [disbelief]," said Leigh E. Schmidt, acting director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

"The public environment was harder in some ways for humanists, atheists [and] religious nones to find space to express their opinion," he said.

But after the Cold War — and, more significantly, after the September 11 terrorist attacks — "there was growing room for religious criticism," Mr. Schmidt said. "The fear of the violence that people associated with religiously inspired terrorism gave more room for this strong religious critique.

"Post-Cold War and post-9/11, you have all this incredible attention paid to this demographic profile growing of a number of people who are comfortable expressing their religious beliefs on nothing in particular," he said.

But while people might be more comfortable expressing their beliefs, the American Humanist Association has taken a strong stand in regards to where those beliefs can be expressed.

In May the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a small New York town's practice of opening its government meetings with prayer does not violate the separation of church and state.

The Town of Greece v. Galloway decision was not a good decision, Mr. Niose said, but "now that we're living with it, we're starting to realize a silver lining in the cloud."

Mr. Niose said that visibility has been one of the biggest challenges for the secular movement.

"Quite a few people in America are atheist, agnostic, humanist or just plain nonreligious," he said. "The demographic tends to be invisible, but if you include the generally nonreligious, it's very big. You're talking about a demographic that's more than 1-in-5 in this country, which is bigger than any religious minority, pretty much."

A 2012 Pew Research Center study showed that the number of Americans who do not identify with any specific religion had grown from 15 percent to 20 percent in the past five years.

"[As to] the problem we've had with visibility and acceptance at the community level, I wouldn't say the problem is solved [with the Greece decision], but there are some tools that will enable our demographic to get more visibility and acceptance than it's had before," Mr. Niose said. "That tool is the fact Greece really does instruct the local government that they must be inclusive."

Earlier this month, an Indiana court ruled that secular humanists could officiate at weddings. In April the Army announced that "humanist" is now officially recognized as a "faith code" within its ranks. Less than two months later, the Navy rejected an application for the first humanist chaplain in its ranks.

"We want to get to the point where humanists are viewed as a valuable resource for society," Mr. Speckhardt said. "That the kind of conclusions we draw are likely to be good for society."

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