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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.

  • Is Secular Humanism a Religion? Is Secular Humanist Morality Really Subjective?

    Posted on April 21st, 2019 Helian 5 comments

    John Staddon, a professor of psychology at Duke, recently published an article at Quillette entitled Is Secular Humanism a Religion?  The question of whether secular humanism is a religion is, of course, a matter of how one defines religion. According to Staddon, religions are defined by three elements they possess in common, including,

    1. Belief in invisible or hidden beings, worlds, and processes – like God, heaven miracles, reincarnation, and the soul.
    2. Potentially verifiable claims about the real world, such as Noah’s flood, the age of the earth, etc.
    3. Rules for action – prohibitions and requirements – a morality

    Many of the commenters on the article leapt to the conclusion that he was answering the question in the affirmative – that secular humanism actually is a religion. In fact, that’s not the case. Staddon actually claims that secular humanism fits only one of the three elements, namely, the third. As he puts it, “In terms of moral rules, secular humanism is indistinguishable from a religion.” However, in his opinion, that’s a very important similarity, because the first two elements have “no bearing on action,” including the very significant matter of action on “legal matters.” That is actually the whole point of the article. Staddon doesn’t attempt to answer the question of whether secular humanism is a religion one way or the other. He limits himself to the claim that, as far as the only element of the three that has a significant bearing on action, including legal action, is concerned, secular humanists are no different from religious believers. He’s right.

    In fact, I would go even further. I would throw in the first element as well. Secular humanists do believe in invisible or hidden things. Whether they admit it or not, they perceive good and evil as real things, and they act, often very passionately, as if they believe they are real things. In fact, to be a secular humanist is to believe in these illusions. Based on these fantasies, secular humanists assume a right to dictate to others how they should or should not behave, and what the law that applies not just to themselves, but to everyone else, should be.

    As Staddon points out, this is a problem, because, even though secular humanists are at least as passionate and fanatical in defense of their moral illusions as the religious, “secular morality is not written down in a single identifiable source. It is not easily accessible.” That’s for sure! It also has the unsettling habit of changing from one day to the next, and is often defended as “the truth” in spite of that. Secular humanist morality has also become almost completely disconnected from the reasons that the emotions that give rise to it exist to begin with. I know of not a single humanist out there who could give a coherent, rational answer to the question of why they hold their moral beliefs, and what those moral beliefs have to do with the reasons they exist. “Coherent” and “rational” are the key words here. In other words, in general they are ignorant of the fact that the existence of morality is explained by natural selection, they are incapable of explaining whether their version of morality will accomplish ends similar to those that account for the existence of morality to begin with, and they are incapable of citing any authority for their morality’s unsettling ability to jump out of their skull, fasten itself on someone else’s back, and begin dictating how they ought or ought not to behave.

    Prof. Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the excellent Why Evolution is True website and one of the most effective debunkers of the God myth around, was infuriated by the article, blasting back at it with one of his own entitled, “The worst article to appear in Quillette: Psychologist declares secular humanism a religion. Apparently he thought his ox had been gored, and ended up writing one of his own “worst articles” as a result. In the first place, he, too, jumped to the conclusion that Staddon actually did claim that secular humanism is a religion. As noted above, that’s not true. More importantly, however, Prof. Coyne completely missed the point about the third “element,” the one about morality. The point is, quoting Staddon, that when it comes to morality, secular humanists “…have just as many ‘unprovable beliefs'” as religious believers. The only difference between them is that seculars lack even the fig leaf of a God to provide an authority for their beliefs. Their “authority” is simply assumed, floating out there in the vacuum somewhere. In spite of that, again quoting Staddon, “…many passionate, ‘religious’ beliefs of secular candidates (for political office, ed.) go undetected and unquestioned. Thus they become law by stealth.”

    That is, in fact, a major theme of this blog. From my own point of view, it’s bad enough that secular humanists have delusional beliefs about morality that are no different in kind from the superstitions of religious believers. The real problem is, however, that they insist on forcing the rest of us to pretend their illusions are true, and intimidating us into acting and speaking as if they were true. As Staddon notes, they also insist on giving their illusions, which have no natural authority whatever beyond their own emotional whims, the force of law.

    According to Prof. Coyne, “…there isn’t really a morality of secular humanism beyond ‘Do what benefits other people.'” It’s beyond me how anyone with any experience of the real world can believe something so preposterous. There may not be “a” morality of secular humanism. There are, in fact, a variety, generally quite similar, but, whatever the details, they are often passionately defended. They are also very well defined. Secular humanists tend to belong to ingroups that are defined by ideological shibboleths, many of them consisting of moral “goods” and “bads.” The fact that, as Prof. Coyne puts it, “…secular humanists differ drastically from each other in how they construe ethical action beyond the Golden Rule,” is completely beside the point.

    Prof. Coyne himself is no exception. He claims to believe that morality is subjective. Many other secular humanists do as well. In fact, secular humanism and subjective morality are mutually exclusive. Read some of the articles on his website. He makes moral judgments all the time. If pressed, he will claim that they are just his opinion, but he never states them that way. He claims to be a scientist and an atheist. If so, his behavior, in common with that of every other secular humanist I’m aware of, is fundamentally irrational.

    As Darwin, Westermarck, and many others before them pointed out, morality is by its very nature an expression of emotions. Where do those emotions come from, and why do they exist? If one is truly an atheist and a scientist worthy of the name, one must admit they exist by virtue of natural selection. How does natural selection work? When it comes to morality, does it work by selecting for actions that “benefit other people”? No, it doesn’t work by selecting for those things, or for anything even close to them. Among other things, it has selected for hatred of outgroups, a trait that all human beings have in common. Secular humanists are fond of ignoring that trait, although their hatred of outgroups, generally consisting of people who disagree with them about what “ought” to be, is often deeper and more bitter than the outgroup hatred of religious people. Have a look, for example, at Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, one of Prof. Coyne’s favorite fellow secular humanists. Therein you will find expressions of hatred directed at Donald Trump and his supporters on one hand and Friedrich Nietzsche on the other that utterly fly in the face of the claim that secular humanism is all about “benefiting others.” If one is to take Pinker seriously, one must believe that people like Trump and Nietzsche wake up every morning wracking their brains to come up with a list of bad deeds they can do that day. Are we to seriously believe that there is nothing even remotely coercive in such shaming and vilification by prominent public intellectuals? When it comes to the law, are we to believe that such whimsical pronunciamientos have never had any effect on legislation regarding, for example, gay marriage, who may use what bathrooms, and who must bake what sort of cakes for whom?

    Natural selection, the source of the emotions that account for the existence of morality, is a natural process that favors traits that enhance the odds that the genes responsible for those traits will survive and reproduce. Moral emotions are included among those traits. When someone tells us that they want to “benefit other people,” or they want to “create a harmonious world,” they are telling us, after devoting more or less thought to the subject, what they think their moral emotions are trying to tell them. They are utterly wrong. That is not what their moral emotions are trying to tell them. To the extent that their moral emotions are trying to “tell” them anything, it is “Survive and reproduce!” When secular humanists tell us that they want to “benefit other people” and “create a harmonious world,” they are actually blindly responding to emotions in ways whose connection with the reason the emotions exist to begin with is purely coincidental. When they attempt to force the rest of us to swallow their prescriptions for “benefiting other people,” and “creating a harmonious world,” is it unreasonable for the rest of us to ask, “On what authority?” and to demand that they explain why we should be constrained to pay attention to any of their dyfunctional emotional whims whatsoever? What on earth gives them the right to arbitrarily reprogram human morality, and then bully the rest of us and denounce us as “evil” if we don’t blindly follow suit? That, in a nutshell, is the secular humanist agenda. I know of not a single one who isn’t on board with that agenda, and certainly none of them of any prominence is an exception to the rule.

    It is questions like these that Staddon is actually posing in his Quillette article, and that is the reason why it is anything but “the worst” they’ve ever published. We can’t ignore human moral emotions, whether we’re speaking of the law or of simple rules and conventions relating to social behavior. However, it seems to me there must be some better way of establishing those laws and conventions then simply allowing whatever ingroup happens to be best at manipulating emotions to dictate them to the rest of us. We might start by actually seeking to understand our moral behavior, including the potential dangers it poses. It might also behoove us to pose the question to anyone seeking to “improve” our social or legal rules, “How will the change affect the odds that the genes you carry will survive and reproduce? If it will not enhance those odds, why do you want to make the change?” Circular answers such as “It will do good” will not be accepted. I’m sorry, Prof. Coyne, but this time you got it wrong. You missed the point of the article, and if you think your version of morality is truly “subjective,” you have some explaining to do.