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,
- Belief in invisible or hidden beings, worlds, and processes – like God, heaven miracles, reincarnation, and the soul.
- Potentially verifiable claims about the real world, such as Noah’s flood, the age of the earth, etc.
- 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.
5 thoughts on “Is Secular Humanism a Religion? Is Secular Humanist Morality Really Subjective?”
Do you have a particular blog post that is best suited to this? I’m curious about what this scientific claim predicts we will never see. (That is, I’m looking for Popperian falsification.) I’m taking it to be a scientific claim, not a philosophical claim—correct me if I’m wrong.
But wait a second: if the power of natural selection to shape us is limitless, then must we say that what is currently accepted as ‘scientific’ is merely because of that which was best at producing many offspring? If facts have exactly zero motivating power, then they cannot provide the final account of why a given claim is accepted as ‘scientific’.
Except for spandrels. And assuming the model is ontologically accurate—that is, further refinement will be predictable in an ontological matter, distinctly unlike the refinement of classical physics. And yet, anti-realism seems a much better explanation of the success of scientific theory, on evolutionary grounds.
It seems to me that the idea of survival being the prime goal is only required by logic when there is no mind to be forward-looking and thus ensure survival but also have other goals. Natural selection is modeled to be purposeless; minds are not. And there have been minds able to anticipate for millions of years. Is there any good accounting for how the purposeful mixes with the purposeless?
It seems to me that in order to ensure your own genetic survival, you either look out for the welfare of everyone or you look out for the welfare of your tribe. If your tribe, then there is no need to share what you know and understand with the rest. If I were to share with you how I understand the moral behavior of my group to work, then to the extent that I’m right, I’ve merely given you further ability to manipulate my group. The very tribal understanding of morality you’re promoting favors an arms race, which is clearly a potential danger. And yet, you don’t seem to have sound reasoning to trust anyone outside of the tribe. Because ultimately, you’ve modeled it as us vs. them on a genetic basis. Where on earth (or in our genome) is the motivation to do what you want everyone to do?
Hume, Hutcheson, and many other philosophers have written about the emotional source of morality. Scientists such as Bekoff and de Waal have been publishing a great deal lately demonstrating the source of some of the emotions in the brain, their presence in similar locations in animals, etc. When the 17th century philosophers claimed that emotions are the source of morality, their claims could have been falsified by modern studies of the brain demonstrating that no such emotions exist. The opposite has occurred. Their hypotheses have been confirmed.
I have claimed that morality exists by virtue of natural selection. I have never claimed that morality is some kind of a goal. Natural selection has no goal. See what G. E. Moore wrote about the naturalistic fallacy.
I’m pretty sure David Hume and Francis Hutcheson committed “Descartes’ Error”; do you disagree? (Damasio 1994)
Where is the possibility that emotions play an important rule in morality but are not “the source”? I’m really confused; if whims and refinement of whims are the only psychologically motivating force in life, then what can we say about the truth-value of outputs of such whims? If whims are the only ultimate source, then why do we say that some whims deliver truth-value [in the realist sense] while others are 100% subjective? If something other than whims can sometimes “take control” and make scientific utterances of truth-value, exactly what is going on?
The phrase “survival of the fittest” or “survival of the sufficiently fit” can be phrased in teleological terms but also mechanical terms, rather like the principle of least action can be phrased in teleological terms but also mechanical terms. You can model an organism as if it has the goal of producing enough offspring. And you can say that it would not exist if it did not act this way. What I’m saying is that if an organism has other goals (because it has a mind), those can also explain actions. Therefore, positing natural selection as the only or best explanation seems dubious for organisms with minds.
We can also ask how much emotion developed during the time when organisms had multiple goals. If so, then we must be careful in how much about emotion we explain by appeal to natural selection.
I take it as trivially obvious that organisms which developed goals which are incompatible with leaving sufficient offspring will cease to exist. Europe with its sub-replacement birthrates may head in this direction. But this in no way means that “leaving sufficient offspring” is the dominant goal. It just means that no other goals trump the “leaving sufficient offspring” goal.
As far as the question of whether morality has an emotional source or not, why does it matter whether a particular philosopher made “Descarte’s Error” or not?
As Westermarck pointed out, emotions, or “whims,” have no “truth value,” other than the fact that they exist.
If emotions are required for practical reason—e.g. achieving goals—those goals include science. If emotions are required to do science, then that would open up territory which currently seems closed.
If emotions are the only reason we do anything, then you need to let everything be tainted by them. But as far as I can tell, you do not.