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  • Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette

    Posted on May 2nd, 2019 Helian 6 comments

    As I noted in a recent post, (Is Secular Humanism a Religion? Is Secular Humanist Morality Really Subjective), John Staddon, a Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology emeritus at Duke, published a very timely and important article at Quillette entitled Is Secular Humanism a Religion noting the gaping inconsistencies and irrationalities in secular humanist morality. These included its obvious lack of any visible means of support, even as flimsy as a God, for its claims to authority and legitimacy. My post included a link to a review by Prof. Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the Why Evolution is True website and New Atheist stalwart, that called Prof. Staddon’s article the “worst” ever to appear on Quillette, based on the false assumption that he actually did maintain that secular humanism is a religion. In fact, it’s perfectly obvious based on a fair reading of the article that he did nothing of the sort.

    Meanwhile, Quillette gave Prof. Coyne the opportunity to post a reply to Staddon. His rebuttal, entitled Secular Humanism is Not a Religion, doubled down on the false assertion that Staddon had claimed it is. Then, in a counterblast, entitled Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne, Staddon simply pointed out Prof. Coyne’s already obvious “confusion” about what he had actually written, and elaborated on his contention that secular values depend on faith. As I noted in the following comment I posted at Quillette, I couldn’t agree more:

    I’m sure Prof. Staddon doesn’t need my sympathy, but I sympathize with him nonetheless. He wrote an article in which he clearly does not claim that secular humanism is a religion. Prof. Coyne then falsely accused him of claiming that secular humanism is a religion, using this false accusation as the basis for his assertion that the article was “the worst ever” to appear at Quillette. Prof. Staddon responded by stating very politely what should have been obvious to anyone who gave his original article a fair reading in the first place – that Prof. Coyne’s response was based on a false premise. It would be nice if Prof. Coyne would now simply admit the truth and apologize but, human nature being what it is, I strongly doubt that will happen.

    IMHO Prof. Staddon’s article is one of the best that’s ever appeared at Quillette, not the worst. It addresses a very fundamental problem; the tendency of secular humanists to insist on tinkering with the law based on novel and constantly mutating versions of morality that lack even the fig leaf of a God to provide them with any reasonable claim to legitimacy or authority. This tendency is certainly predictable for our species, but it is also irrational. In fact, it is simply one aspect of an even bigger problem; our inability to understand and rationally respond to our moral nature.

    Secular humanist apologists among the commenters assure us that their moral claims are not similar to religious moral claims, because they are more rational and flexible. They can be refined and make progress towards the “Good.” Unfortunately, this “Good” of theirs doesn’t exist. It is an illusion. All they are really saying is, “Unlike religious morality, my version of morality is rational and flexible, and so can be refined and make progress towards satisfying my emotional whims.” That’s all their “Good” actually is, and yet they seriously believe it automatically possesses a magical authority to dictate behavior to others via the law.

    Lost in such claims is the very fact that morality is rooted in emotions, and wouldn’t exist, at least as we know it, absent these emotions. The claims are based on the assumption that the emotional basis of morality can simply be ignored, and “oughts” and “ought nots” tinkered and cobbled together as if these emotional constraints didn’t exist at all. In other words, secular humanism is just a warmed over version of John Stuart Mill’s Blank Slate utilitarianism, and just as chimerical.

    I’m afraid Prof. Staddon has Darwin on his side on this one. Just read Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man.” If that’s not clear enough for you, read the first chapter of Westermarck’s “The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.” If that’s not enough, read Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind,” and, if you still don’t get it, all I can suggest is that you start wading through the ocean of books that have been rolling off the presses lately about “evolved morality,” and the expression of morality in animals. Consider the obvious implications if morality is an expression of evolved emotions. Natural selection is just that, a natural process. It does not make progress towards anything, nor does it have any goal or function in mind. It has no mind. The same applies to morality if it is the result of that natural process. In short, Darwinism and secular humanism are mutually exclusive and the latter is really nothing but an expression of blind faith, just as Prof. Staddon claims. Emotional whims have no intrinsic authority whatsoever, and yet, as he points out, secular humanists persist in claiming that the law must be based on these whims. When one considers that the emotions involved evolved in times radically different from the present, it should be abundantly obvious that it can’t be assumed that they will even have the same results now as they did then. Furthermore, there is no basis whatsoever for the claim that those results, namely, survival and reproduction of the relevant genes, are “Good in themselves.” The secular humanist rationale for meddling with the law is based on a fantasy. It is not only irrational, but potentially dangerous as well.

    Of course, secular humanists aren’t the only ones who are delusional about morality. Virtually everyone else on the planet is as well. The illusion that good and evil are real things, existing independently of anyone’s opinion about them, is a powerful and pervasive aspect of human nature. It is so powerful that, when it is challenged, we defend and rationalize the illusion, refusing to even consider the seemingly obvious and elementary reasons that it is just that – an illusion. Many “get” the connection between evolution by natural selection and the existence of morality. In spite of that, they are incapable of putting two and two together and accepting the implications of that connection. As Westermarck pointed out long ago, if morality is a manifestation of emotions that exist by virtue of natural selection, it is simply impossible for the illusions of good and evil spawned by these emotions to be true. As he put it,

    The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood. The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

    Prof. Coyne is typical of secular humanists in general. In one breath he claims that he realizes that morality is subjective, and in the next he leaps to the defense of the chimera! This glaring non sequitur is treated as if there were nothing incongruous or absurd about it at all. In defending his chimera, he resorts to typical rationalizations, which can also be found sprinkled among the comments to the articles referred to above. For example, he writes,

    But religious morality has three features that differentiate it from morality deriving from secular humanism. First, the diversity of morality among secular humanists is far wider than that of followers of a given religion: beyond adherence to the Golden Rule, secular humanists vary dramatically in what they consider moral.

    This is entirely beside the point. The number of versions of morality one can find among the various secular humanist ingroups is irrelevant. What is relevant is that both religious believers and humanists defend their goods and evils as if they were real, objective things, regardless of whether they claim to believe in the subjectivity of morality or not. Prof. Coyne goes on,

    Further, much of a religion’s morality, as Maarten Boudry and I argued, derives directly or indirectly from its supernatural claims… In contrast, the morality of secular humanists derives from rational consideration about how we ought to act—principles based largely on reason but ultimately grounded on a secular preference (i.e., “I prefer a society in which individuals do what maximizes well-being.”). Once consequentialist preferences like this one are established, empirical study, aka science, can then help us decide how to act.

    As noted by Darwin, Westermarck, Hume, Hutcheson, and many others, these “secular preferences” are actually emotions, irrational by their very nature. If the moral pretensions of humanists are “ultimately grounded” on emotions, they cannot be “largely based on reason” at the same time. They are based on emotions, period! “Reason” comes in when, like everyone else, humanists attempt to figure out what their emotions are trying to tell them. This “rational” process inevitably fails, because the emotions in question are artifacts of a natural process. As such, they cannot possibly be trying to tell them anything. Coyne then recites the usual nonsensical circular argument humanists are fond of using to justify their moral claims:

    I prefer a society in which individuals do what maximizes well-being.

    which boils down to, “My version of the Good is that which maximizes the Good.” Coyne continues,

    Once consequentialist preferences like this one are established, empirical study, aka science, can then help us decide how to act.

    Really!? Is it “science” when mom and pop bakeries are threatened with destruction unless they act in ways that violate the proprietors’ religious beliefs, based on novel rules that didn’t exist when they opened their businesses? Is it “science” when parents are threatened with heavy fines, jail, and the state kidnapping of their children unless they agree to have them poisoned, mutilated, and neutered in order to promote “transgender rights?” Is it “science” when the careers of legitimate scientists are arbitrarily destroyed by baying mobs for being insufficiently “woke” about the latest dictates of political correctness? Is it “science” when the literature and other cultural icons of a people are destroyed because of some humanist’s delusion that they don’t “maximize well-being”? Is it “scientific” to propose versions of morality that blithely ignore such fundamental aspects of human morality as its dual nature – our universal tendency to apply different versions of morality to ingroups and outgroups? To this I can only respond, try reading and actually comprehending Prof. Staddon’s argument in his original article about the arbitrary manner in which humanist moral pretensions are actually transformed into law. Is there really anything “scientific” about it? Is there some regular process by which the opinions of all regardless of the version of morality they happen to embrace are taken into account? Is there any suggestion that those who insist that others obey laws based on their moral claims be required to clearly state the emotions that are the “ultimate grounding” for those claims, and explain whether or not the laws will accomplish anything even close to the reasons that account for the fact that the emotions in question exist to begin with? No, no, and again, no! The idea that there is anything remotely “scientific” about the way the moral sausage is prepared in our societies is utterly ludicrous. I think that is what Prof. Staddon was actually trying to say. In his words,

    I wasn’t saying that secular humanism is a religion. I was saying that in those aspects of religion which actually affect and seek to guide human behavior, secular humanism does not differ from religion.

    This seems perfectly obvious to me, but apparently not to Prof. Coyne. He continues,

    Thus everyone in the world becomes religious, save for sociopaths and the few who disdain all morality.

    No, secular humanists to not “become religious” by virtue of the fact that there are similarities between their behavior and that of religious believers. And “everyone” does not belong to one of these two categories. Darwin was not a sociopath, and Westermarck did not disdain all morality, and yet neither of them seems to have suffered from the illusion that their moral emotions should be consulted in formulating the law.

    Prof. Staddon has a point, and a very important one. Our moral emotions, the real “ultimate basis” of our morality, are relics of an environment that no longer exists. It is extremely unlikely that blindly consulting them to formulate the laws and other rules that regulate human behavior in a completely different environment will have the same result that it did when the emotions in question evolved. I would go even further than Prof. Staddon. He claimed that secular humanists don’t believe in “invisible or hidden beings, worlds and processes—like God, heaven, miracles, reincarnation, and the soul.” In fact, they do believe that imaginary things, namely, Good and Evil, have an objective existence independent of anyone’s mere opinion about them. Many of them claim to be subjective moralists, but, for all practical matters, if not in theory, subjective morality and secular humanism are mutually exclusive. It is not rational to insist that the law be based on one’s emotions, and yet, as Prof. Staddon points out, that is precisely what we commonly find them doing. Far from respecting alternative opinions about morality, they perceive anyone who disagrees with them according to the familiar practice of our species – as outgroup. That is yet another characteristic they share with religious believers.

    If, as Darwin insisted, human morality is ultimately based on emotions, and those emotions exist by virtue of natural selection, then it is impossible to derive “moral truths” based on reason. That, however, is the secular humanist agenda. It is an agenda that depends on ignoring the reasons that the emotions in question exist to begin with, on insisting that they can be “reprogrammed” to apply to social realities that didn’t exist at the time they evolved, and being willfully blind to inconvenient truths about human morality, such as its dual quality of applying radically differently rules to ingroups and outgroups. It is on such palpably false assumptions that the rules and laws that regulate behavior in our societies are made. Nothing that I, Prof. Staddon, or anyone else says is likely to change that fact any time in the foreseeable future. However, whatever your personal goals happen to be, it would probably be expedient to take it into account as you pursue them.

     

    6 responses to “Secular Humanism and Religion; Standoff at Quillette” RSS icon

    • Well said,
      Having now read your post twice, there are so many responses that I would like to post that its hard to know where to start,. So I’ll start at the beginning or the initial thought I had,.
      If I can indulge you, and by name dropping I hope you forgive my impertinence, one of the reasons my little brain exploded with relief and joy when I first turned the pages of Ardrey was of the mention of the impossible word ‘Instinct’.
      Then came Lorenz, then Morias, then Tinbergen with his small but wonderful book about ‘Instinct’. (Why is this not the core of most of the natural sciences).
      Lets move backwards, both literally and metaphorically, the blank slate is based on the notion that we act not from more that one billion years of evolution, but from the metaphysics of ‘social construction’. Just where this social construction came from is never explained,. Lets not waste time.
      I respect your use of the term emotion, I imagine that Coyne etc consider themselves gods rather than animals (apologies to Ardrey). Good grief, its so telling yet so impenetrable.
      So forgive me but as I read this post I placed ‘Instinct’ in every place I read ‘emotion’, it made great sense,.

    • Ah, but one must be very careful about conflating “instinct” and “emotion,” David. The reason has to do with the attempts of the academic tribe to “rearrange” history by resurrecting and propping up some of the ancient strawmen of the Blank Slaters. I’ll have a lot more to say about it in a review I will soon post of “Mama’s Last Hug” by Frans de waal.

    • I had a quick read of a review,. It mentions Jeffery Masson, who shares a rare distinction on my book shelf.
      Over the decades I’ve taken great joy in assembling books that explored both sides of individuals. For example, the fraud who was the theosophists darling, “Krishnamurti”, extolled in a Biography, then a counter biography by his ‘secretaries’ daughter telling of the multiple abortions and horrors of the inner circle,.
      Masson, who I have a fair bit of respect for, debunked much of the Freudian nonsense, for those who were interested, he also debunked his families Guru, a certain shonk who wrote books about India sadhus, and spoke of the ‘overlord’.. good grief.
      Back on topic, one of the things I gained from these readings was a understanding of the unconscious, lets be frank, its ‘instincts’. However, its not something that we can come at easily.
      There is much to be learned from the East, however, this is not an easy path.
      Imagine a whole culture, (ours) who deny that animals have a soul, well they were right, but lets not stop there, why do we demand a soul, the East have language here that the Western philosophers could learn from.
      To bring it home,. Imagine a fool like Pinker being confronted with a Eastern concept like Annatta, he’d choke.
      Looking forward to your review,.

    • Is it “scientific” to propose versions of morality that blithely ignore such fundamental aspects of human morality as its dual nature – our universal tendency to apply different versions of morality to ingroups and outgroups?

      Curiously enough, neither Christianity nor Judaism are so naive. The Tanakh is clearly nationalistic with some attempts to move away from that in the prophets. Here’s what Jesus says:

      “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

      “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.

      “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:27–36)

      That middle paragraph is an explicit acknowledgment of the tribal nature of morality. But somehow, Christianity must be stupid. It could not possibly have something right that those who claim to love science have wrong.

      Anyone who claims it is physically or logically impossible to break out of tribalism has some pretty high barriers to surpass. I do believe that it is tremendously hard, and that the Enlightenment thought it had done what it had not come anywhere close to doing. Predicating anything supra-tribal on the threat of omnium bellum contra omnes seems to me incredibly fragile, and yet that’s all I see you doing with your “the potential dangers it poses”. The coordination here is based on threat instead of common goal. Nations have regularly gone to war to get this kind of coordination, so it works—for a time.

    • @Luke

      I have never said that it is physically or logically impossible to break out of tribalism. What I have said is that ingroup/outgroup behavior is a fundamental aspect of human nature. We are not forced to do anything by our emotions. As I have pointed out many times, blindly responding to them can be dangerous. To avoid the danger of, for example, tribalism, however, it’s useful to know why tribalism exists to begin with.

    • @Helian

      Sorry, I saw you as wanting something supra-tribal but providing little route for achieving that. Yes, understanding tribalism is a step forward, but we must remember that Freud thought psychoanalysis would make psychoanalysts better; he was extremely disappointed that this did not happen. Ostensibly, understanding tribalism better will enable two behaviors:

           (1) Overcoming tribalism.
           (2) Strengthening tribalism.

      According to your understanding of evolutionary psychology, what do you think humans are most likely to do once they gain more understanding of tribalism? What I’m trying to figure out is how close supra-tribalism comes to a full revolt against our genes. Sub-replacement birth rates among the most Enlightened of individuals in the world is another factor in the mix.


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