When the First Amendment was drafted, then passed by both Houses of Congress, and then added to the new U.S. Constitution after enough states had ratified it, probably no American involved in that complex process understood the word “religion” mentioned in the amendment to include any God-less religion. When they said “religion” they had in mind the various branches of Christianity along with Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Deism, etc.
It was the great French philosopher-sociologist Auguste Comte (1798-1857) who, to the best of my knowledge, first suggested that the world, or at least the modern world, needed a religion without God. He called this the Religion of Humanity.
Comte, like many 19th-century modernists, believed that the old religions based on a belief in God (especially Christianity) were fading away, no longer credible. Unlike other modernizers (e.g., Marx and Nietzsche), however, Comte didn’t rejoice in this fading away. On the contrary, he was distressed. He held that religion was a necessary thing, necessary for the individual person (for without an object of religious devotion, the individual would not be able to achieve a unified personality) and necessary for society (for without a common religion, society would have no true unity).
Comte’s proposed Religion of Humanity never became popular – even though he took the trouble of drawing up a detailed plan for this new religion, a religion largely modeled on Catholicism; he thought that Catholicism, apart from its outdated belief in God, was a fine religion. His Religion of Humanity would have a Supreme Being, Humanity; a priesthood of philosopher-scientists; a capital city (Paris, not Rome); a pope (called the High Priest of Humanity – Comte himself being the first High Priest); a religious calendar with holy months and days dedicated to a long list of historical great men (e.g., Homer, Caesar, Charlemagne, Descartes); a promise of immortality for good persons (that is, “subjective” immortality – society remembering you long after your death).
If Comte’s Religion of Humanity never caught on in the 19th century, the “religion” of nationalism did catch on in a number of countries. To a very high degree, it caught on in France and Germany, and to a lesser degree in Britain, the United States, Italy, and other nations. It helped produce World War I, a great polytheistic war among national gods.
In the 20th century, there were two great God-less religions: the Religion of Communism and the Religion of Nazism. Their adherents found in these political movements dogmatic, philosophical, and moral satisfactions similar to those found in Christianity by Christian believers. To be sure, the content of these modern “religions” was radically different from the content of Christianity, but psychologically speaking there was a striking similarity.
Thank heaven, Nazism is dead and Communism is virtually dead. But that doesn’t mean that there is no need for a God-less religion, even here in America, where Christianity seems to be gradually fading away. Mainline Protestantism is shrinking rapidly, and Catholicism had been on the wane ever since the end of Vatican II – the Council that was intended to renew the Church, but seems to have done precisely the opposite. In America today, Christianity is vibrant only among Mormons and “fundamentalist” Protestants – and pockets of Catholicism.
But if Comte was correct in his belief that religion (or “religion”) is a psychological and social necessity, where is America’s God-less religion? Does it exist?
Yes, it exists, and it’s flourishing, among persons who may be described as “secular humanists” or (more accurately in my opinion) as “atheistic humanists.” Their atheism is manifested in their metaphysical belief that God does not exist, and their humanism is manifested in their moral support for sexual freedom, abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and LGBTQ+-ism generally.
Their humanism, I will note in passing, should be put in scare quotes: “humanism.” For in the long run, it will prove to be, and even now is proving to be, a very inhuman humanism.
Atheistic humanism, I contend, is America’s secular or God-less religion, and it is rapidly becoming the nation’s dominant religion. It’s the religion of those Americans who are economically, politically, and culturally the most influential individuals and groups in the country. It’s the dominant religion in the entertainment industry (Hollywood, TV, popular music), in our high-prestige colleges and universities, in the journalistic profession (both print and electronic), and in one of our two great political parties, the Democratic Party.
The leftist battle on behalf of abortion rights, gay rights, trans rights, and LGBTQ+ rights generally, not to mention the soon-to-arrive battle on behalf of euthanasia, is a battle for the complete triumph of atheistic humanism.
And what is atheistic humanism triumphing over? Why, Christianity of course, and especially Catholicism.
When our public schools teach our kids, as many schools now do, that homosexuality is a fine thing, that abortion is a fine thing, that transgenderism is a fine thing, and that LGBTQ+-ism is a fine thing, what are these public schools (taxpayer-supported schools) doing but promoting the God-less religion of atheistic humanism?
If these schools were to teach that Darwinism is wrong and that the account of creation given in Genesis is true, the courts would quickly tell the schools to stop, on the grounds that the schools are in violation of the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment.
But there is no likelihood that the courts will tell our schools to stop promoting the religion of atheistic humanism and its morality (or rather, immorality). Why not? Because our legal establishment, much of which is itself infected by atheistic humanism, has not yet understood that the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment, if rightly understood, bans the establishment of the religion of atheistic humanism.
Why do our Catholic leaders – our priests and bishops, especially the latter – do so little to fight back? Why do they tolerate the scandal of a Catholic (Joe Biden) promoting the anti-Christian ethic of atheistic humanism? Most of them must understand what’s at stake. And there’s nowhere to hide.
*Image: Auguste Comte by Jean-Antonin Injalbert, c. 1902 [Place de la Sorbonne, Paris]
You may also enjoy:
George J. Marlin’s Beyond Radical Secularism 
St. John Paul II’s A Christian Humanism