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The Humanist Tax Exemption

Feb. 7, 2007

Something as seemingly mundane as the Internal Revenue Service's organizational-purpose designation has become the focus of a hot debate in some humanist circles in recent decades.

While some humanists are comfortable explaining their worldview in religious terms, and may even feel that other vocabulary falls short of describing their vibrant intermingling of emotive and rational thought, more and more humanists prefer to describe their convictions in a more clearly secular manner. Indeed, many humanists bristle at the idea of being a dues-paying member of a religious organization.

The American Humanist Association (AHA) was founded with an educational tax exemption in 1941. In the 1960's, without specific board authorization, a religious tax exemption was successfully attained from the Internal Revenue Service to enable the organization to provide benefits to humanist celebrants seeking to comply with state marriage laws. Those who considered themselves "religious humanists" rejoiced at this move that appeared to affirm their leanings, while other humanists were repelled.

It was during this time that the religious right began to gain strength and started to blame secular humanists for society's ills and accuse the public educational system of teaching the "religion" of secular humanism. Debates continue to this day with fundamentalists who claim that secular humanism is a "religion" taught in schools and secular humanists who argue that it isn't a religion at all. With groups like the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the American Ethical Union openly claiming their religious humanism, and the AHA (until recently) maintaining a religious tax exemption, it was hard for secular humanists to do better than break even in these debates.

Because of its religious tax exemption, the AHA had to develop another tact for such debates, and struck upon one that proved ultimately to be very effective. It is important to note that the religious right defines humanism essentially as anything contrary to their own views. To them it's a synonym for "heathen" or "worldly person."

That's why subjects as diverse as evolution, sex education, multiculturalism, globalism, comparative mythology and so on get called "humanism." Never mind that Methodists and Catholics and most other mainstream religious folks have no problem with such subjects. That doesn't seem to make them examples of "Methodism" or "Catholicism" in the public schools, at least as far as the religious right is concerned.

The AHA, on the other hand, defined "humanism in the public schools" as a theoretical, one-sided indoctrination of students in ideas unique and specific to humanist thought --such as the idea that we humans are alone in the universe; or that human values are derived solely from human nature, human needs, and human interest; or that humanity can have any sort of society it wants and will work together to achieve.

In other words, in order for a subject to be taught as part of "humanism," it needed to be as clearly defined as such. Otherwise, it's just another state-of-the-art teaching in a subject, which only coincidentally comports with humanism. Of course, in this light, it is perfectly clear to anyone that humanism is not being taught in public schools.

Meanwhile, when the humanist celebrant program became an adjunct of the AHA (now the Humanist Society), the original need for an AHA religious exemption disappeared. Before long AHA members voted to officially shed the religious tax exemption and efforts were made to accomplish this goal. However, those efforts originally failed and were abandoned until now.

At the Spring 2006 board meeting of the AHA it was agreed to again pursue this change in tax exemption, doing whatever was necessary to accomplish this goal. So began what could have been a very long-term process of dropping the religious tax exemption once and for all. Fortunately, a direct persistent approach got the job done. The AHA leadership negotiated with the IRS to accept this very unusual (perhaps one of a kind) request, and about one year later they accepted the change to a purely educational purpose and made the change retroactive to January 1, 2003.

So while the debate continues in some circles as to whether humanism is a religious or secular lifestance, the AHA has put the issue aside from an organizational standpoint.

Roy Speckhardt is the executive director of the American Humanist Association.

[CORRECTION, Feb. 8, 2007: an earlier version of this article incorectly stated the decade in which the AHA obtained a religious tax exemption. As this article now states, that was the 1960s.]

Editor's Note: Some humanists think humanism is religious, and other humanists disagree. In fact some humanists think this question is so important that they call themselves either "religious humanists" or "secular humanists" on the basis of their position on this issue.

Religious humanists and secular humanists have pretty much the same philosophy, however. They don't believe in God or the supernatural, and they share the same positive ethical outlook. Where they differ is on how to define "religion" and, in some cases, whether or not their meetings follow a congregational structure.

In a 2002 editorial in Free Inquiry magazine, Council for Secular Humanism Founder Paul Kurtz addresses the issue of secular humanism vs. religious humanism. In his piece, he argues that his organization's view of humanism and religion, as well as its educational tax exemption, makes it distinct from other humanist and atheist groups in the United States.

Kurtz states: "there are genuine differences between the Council and the American Humanist Association, the American Ethical Union, the Friends of Religious Humanism (now HUUmanists), and the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. All of these groups have religious impulses and religious tax-exemptions. We need to reiterate that the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry are postreligious. We have educational and scientific exemptions; more important, we wish to dissociate ourselves with any and all attempts to ape religion."

The Institute for Humanist Studies is non-religious and has been registered with the IRS as a tax exempt educational organization since it's founding in 1999. IHS does not feel the need to add adjectives to the word "humanism", however, and we have a record of working with humanists and freethinkers of all stripes.

For more information about secular humanism and religious humanism, see the Institute's online course Introduction to Humanism.

Appignani Bioethics Center