No, Secular Humanism is Not a Religion

I was recently surprised to read in Quillette an essay which argues that secular humanism is a religion. Although a number of thoughtful arguments for and against the similarity of secular ideologies to religious ones have been made recently, the argument in this one seems somewhat confused in its fundamental definitions. The author, Prof. John Staddon, seems to define secular humanism as any secular viewpoint which is broadly liberal or leftist. Further, he considers secular humanism to have an unfair advantage over religion due to it not being generally understood as itself religious in nature. The implication is that if secular humanism were accurately recognised as a religion, religious moral values around reproductive rights, LGBT rights and gender equality would then be seen as having equal validity to those of secular, humanist liberals. This argument is formed around a narrow definition of religion as morality and a conflation of ideas and people in the realms of secularism, humanism, liberal universalism and Social Justice collectivism.

Who Are These Secular Humanists?

The first problem with Staddon’s argument is that his target moves. He begins by naming notable liberals, skeptics and atheists:

[Secular humanism’s] rules come not from God but from texts like Mill’s On Liberty, and the works of philosophers like Peter Singer, Dan Dennett and Bertrand Russell, psychologists B. F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud, public intellectuals like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and “humanist chaplains” everywhere.

However, by the end of the piece, he is criticizing censorious attitudes which seek to punish people for having had problematic or thoughtless views in their past: “Secular humanists also have blasphemy rules. Dressing in blackface as a teenager or actually saying the N-word, even in an educational context, can lead to severe consequences.” Those who call for such things are generally understood and self-identified as Social Justice activists. They may be secular, although many of them are religious or pro-religion for those which are a minority in the west, but they are almost never humanist. They are, in fact, much more likely to condemn humanism and liberalism as oppressive, patriarchal, imperialistic constructs of Western modernity, in between writing essays about the misogyny and Islamophobia of atheists and humanists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

This conflation of secular liberal skeptics with Social Justice activists is one major reason this essay simply doesn’t work. One cannot have it, as Staddon tries to, both ways and argue that secular humanists both value science as the best source of discovering truth and deny that biological sex differences exist. If you find yourself doing this, it is worth considering whether you might, in fact, be talking about two different groups of people with very different ideas.

Is Secular Humanism Invisible?

Because Staddon conflates so many different moral frameworks under secular humanism, he finds it hard to find any consistency and he seems to understand this as invisibility: “Because secular-humanist morals cannot be easily identified, they cannot be easily attacked.” This again is a strange claim. Secular means “not pertaining to religion” and humanist means “centered on humans rather than on the divine.” One can usually detect whether or not a moral claim is unconnected to religion and human centered. Of course, attacks on such a claim would have to be for not being religious and for focusing on humans and this seldom happens because most people, including devout religious believers, support secular laws that promote human wellbeing.

Staddon argues that, “[Secular humanism] has escaped the kind of attacks directed at Christianity and other up-front religions for two reasons: its name implies that it is not religious, and its principles cannot be tracked down to a canonical text. They exist but are not formally defined by any ‘holy book.’” Is this really why? A lot of people have attacked secular humanism. These attacks just haven’t been similar to strong criticisms of Christianity and other religions because they don’t present the same kinds of problems. That really does matter. Ideologies that want to deny women reproductive freedom, oppose same sex marriage or ban stem cell research are vulnerable to different kinds of criticisms than those which seek liberal universalism, individual liberty and respect for science and reason. The people who are most critical of secular humanism are usually either religious and believe that spiritual and religious views should have more power in society or Social Justice advocates, who believe that secularism, humanism, science, reason and liberal universalism really just perpetuate straight, white male privilege.

Is Religion Defined as Morality?

The largest and most ongoing issue in Staddon’s essay is his conflation of religion with morality. Although religion is notoriously difficult to define—and psychologists of religion generally avoid doing so for this reason—Staddon gives it three properties that would be acceptable to most: a belief in the supernatural, truth claims about the world, and morality. He concedes that secular humanism does not have a belief in the supernatural and generally sees truth claims as the realm of science. However, he argues that the fact that secular humanism includes moral values is evidence that it is religious: “Secular humanism makes moral claims as strong as any other faith. It is therefore as much a religion as any other.”

This is a very basic logical error. Two things having one quality in common doesn’t mean that they are the same kind of thing. If dogs and cats can both swim, this doesn’t mean that dogs are as much cats as cats are. For this to work, what Staddon would have to mean is that religion is defined by the presence of a moral framework and so anything with a moral framework is a religion. He does, in fact, say that this is the aspect of religion he is interested in as it is the one that has implications for action in politics and law. Secular humanists might well disagree with this definition of religion, but they have never denied having moral values.

There has been a surge recently of religious or pro-religious intellectuals (see here and here) arguing that atheists are, in fact, religious and giving evidence of this in the fact that we have moral values and seek meaning and purpose in life. The implication is that we don’t ourselves realize this or that we implicitly deny it when we criticize or reject religion. In reality, one of the primary objectives of atheist, secularist and humanist organizations for decades now has been convincing believers that we are not amoral nihilists and that meaning, purpose and morality are human, rather than religious, concepts. That many more sophisticated believers now see atheists as moral beings who value meaning in their lives is a sign of progress. We no longer need to convince them, at least, that we have the whole gamut of social, psychological and moral needs and intuitions that religious people have. We now have to convince them that these are not inherently properties of religion but of humans. The best books for this purpose are Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are; Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates; Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst; and James A. Lindsay’s Everybody is Wrong About God.

Staddon’s concern is that secular humanism doesn’t get its fair share of criticism and faces no barriers to power because it is not recognizable as a religion:

Yet belief in the innocence of abortion or the value of homosexuality, the “normality” of the LGBTQ+ community, or the essential sameness of men and women (scientifically false, but having many legal implications), may be no less passionate, no less based on faith—no less unprovable—than the opposite beliefs of many frankly religious people.

Set aside for the moment the fact that these values are less those of secular humanism and more a mishmash of broadly liberal aims mixed with one blank-slatist identitarian left view generally rejected by science-supporting liberal humanists. It simply does not make to sense to argue that if we recognized secular humanism as having what Staddon sees as the property of a religion—an ethical framework—this should disqualify it from having influence on law and society. Generally, we want and need societies to have ethical frameworks and this is why we make laws and social expectations. If we diagnose everything that has an ethical framework as a religion and thus ineligible for inclusion in law or social norms, we end up with anarchy. This is also unlikely to ever happen as we are social mammals with a well-developed moralistic prefrontal cortex and seem unable to help ourselves forming ethical frameworks and rules for society. Nicholas Christakis’ Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society explores this in much detail.

Alternatively, if we consider everything which has an ethical framework equally suitable for inclusion in law and social norms, we end up with a kind of moral and epistemological relativism currently more commonly associated with postmodern views. Jonathan Rauch in Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought refers to this as the Simple Egalitarian Principle: All sincere persons’ beliefs have equal claims to respect and points out that this does not allow for the advance of knowledge or ethics. If everybody is equally right because they equally sincerely believe themselves to be right, society can only stagnate. For progress, we need to assume that some ideas are more right, both factually and ethically, than others. We need the Liberal Principle: Checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who is right. The functioning of modern secular liberal democracy works via the marketplace of ideas, in which ideas are weighed against each other and compared for their various merits. When considering whether a moral claim should be legalized, it is less useful to evaluate whether or not it is part of something that could be considered religious than to address the ideas themselves and the strength of arguments for or against them. As a secular humanist on the economic left, I can support the idea that the richest should be expected to help the poorest on ethical grounds even though Jesus said it before Marx did. I don’t have to think either of them got this quite right either.

Staddon concludes by arguing that, because the beliefs of religious believers are clearly defined, they are unfairly disadvantaged as political candidates against secular humanists, who have just as many unprovable beliefs, which are less accessible. This is implausible. Candidates usually do state their values and proposed policies quite clearly in order to get people to vote for them. Also, arguing that religious beliefs are at a disadvantage because people understand what they are does not seem like much of a defense of them. The argument you’re actually just as irrational as we are is a time-honored accusation made by the religious against the non-religious, but it is hardly likely to inspire confidence in religious candidates.

It would be much better for Prof. Staddon to argue well for his own positions on abortion, homosexuality and gender roles in terms that will make sense to humanists and liberals, as well as to religious conservatives. Submit those arguments to the marketplace of ideas. Given that so many religious people already hold the liberal values on those topics that he associates with secular humanism and reconcile this with their faith, it seems this can work. If he is unable to convince liberal humanists of his stance on abortion rights, same sex marriage and gender roles (we already know gender differences exist), it might not be that we have an unfair advantage in the marketplace of ideas. Our ideas might just be better.

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  1. Like all such definitions, Staddon’s is both too broad and too narrow. He’d have been better off looking at secular humanism as a worldview, and then asking whether it’s any more factual or rational than those it presumes to displace. After all, the real question isn’t religion or not but rational or not. In more experience with secular humanists, moreover, “religion” means beliefs I disagree with.

    One might claim that not believing in a god is more rational than believing in a god because there’s no evidence for it, especially if god is a skyman with a white beard and not believing is just agnosticism. But is believing in humanity, progress, morality, and a purposeful life more rational than believing in god? I fail to see how one set of groundless beliefs is any more rational than another. So I’m with Staddon in spirit, at least, because, whether you call it a religion or not, secular humanism is a worldview that serves all the normative purposes of a religion.

    By the way, I don’t see Staddon saying secular humanists can’t participate in politics. He’s saying, in a nutshell, that the secular humanists cannot exempt themselves from the poisoning the well strategy they use to exclude others from public life.

  2. It’s a worthy rebuttal boss, but let me take a shot at you:

    “Ideologies that want to deny women reproductive freedom, oppose same sex marriage (versus) … those which seek liberal universalism, individual liberty and respect for science and reason”

    Your self-congratulation here is perhaps a very good example of exactly the sort of arrogance that Saddon laments. You presume yourself to be on the side of science and reason and thus your views on abortion and gay marriage *must* be the right ones, in contrast to ‘ideologies’ … we wouldn’t want to be seen dead supporting ‘ideologies’ would we? No, not those of us who are on the side of science and reason.

    But those of us who take a different view might say that *you* have the ideology and we might rephrase the above thus: “Ideologies that want to deny the right of the unborn to life, that seek to undermine the most important social institution that we have …”

    You demonstrate that Saddon is essentially correct. Notwithstanding the semantic and taxonomic difficulties with calling SH a religion — that doesn’t get very far — the salient point is that those like yourself who consider yourselves freed from the ignorance and superstition of ‘ideologies’ are in fact ideologues yourselves. But you insulate yourselves from equal scrutiny via the trick of pronouncing yourselves scientific and rational whereas your values are no better than mine and maybe a whole lot worse. Or at least they should not be privileged. Saddon is also correct that part of this is due to the fact that SH — and SJW and whatever other daughter movements might be included under the SH umbrella — has no specific ‘target’, as would, say, the Catholic Church.

    Nope, your article here clarifies the weaknesses in Saddon’s article, but also reinforces his essential point.

    (Boss, it sure would be nice to be able to stay subscribed to articles. Can’t we subscribe once for all? When you click the boxes you get taken to WordPress and generally bothered.)

    1. I don’t consider myself freed from ideologies. See my essays where I argue for liberal leftism, humanism and more. I intend to be scientific and rational but am by no means sure I have achieved this. See my essay on the problem with reason and truth. That’s the whole purpose of keeping the marketplace open. Much of what I think true will be shown to be wrong and I cannot learn this unless I encourage other ideas to challenge mine.

      1. Ok then, we’re fellow travelers. But surely my point stands: there are those who wrap themselves in talk of science and rationality while remaining mere mortals who take their value system as dogmatically as anyone else. Basically I think that was Saddon’s argument.

    2. What your argument shows is at best that secular humanists are as susceptible to dogmatic belief in secular ideologies as teh religuous are to belief in religous dogma.

      This falls far short of the original artiles claim that secular humaniosm is a religon but also overlooks the key distinction which is that to be religous requires a belief in key articles of faith whereas to be a secular humanist simply requires a lack of belief.

      As with the original article there seems to be a confusion between secular humanism and fashionable left wing social justice beliefs.

  3. Thanks, Helen, great piece. Effectively applies to almost everything an ‘intellectual’ like Jordan Peterson asserts about religion and morality.

    And, as a previous comment has pointed out, indeed some lack of rationality on the part of Quillette in publishing that shoddy stuff.

  4. First, you should clean up your sloppy copy editing: “It simply does not make to sense to argue that”

    Second, you should address the issue of the is-ought gap or fact-value distinction. It doesn’t seem like you have any training in moral philosophy or have any idea of the historical lineage of this debate. Instead, you reference a bunch of pop-science/pop-politics books from people who are already in your coterie or who already support the ideology you espouse. You don’t reference any of the thinkers in history on Staddon’s side of the debate, and therefore it seems you are firmly trapped in your conspicuously contemporary echo chamber.

    Third, you write:

    “For progress, we need to assume that some ideas are more right, both factually and ethically, than others. We need the Liberal Principle: Checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who is right.”

    This is a non-sequitur. Rightness can’t simultaneously be justified by public consensus (the “marketplace of ideas”) and simultaneously justified by “facts” and “ethics.” For instance, if 90% of people think abortion is “right”, then this doesn’t mean that it is “factual” or “ethical” or the marker of “progress.” Either you believe that the legitimacy of deciding rightness is a “marketplace” or you believe it is “facts” or “ethics” that legitimate rightness. Given that the marketplace doesn’t always yield factual or ethical rightness, you can’t be committed to all of these types of justifications of rightness simultaneously.

    Because it seems you have limited exposure to philosophy proper, it is no wonder why you would conflate “rightness” with sociology, epistemology and ethics at the same time without seeing the contradiction involved.

    1. “…the thinkers in history on Saddon’s side of the debate…”

      Genuinely curious- could you name a few credible ones? Would be great to read up on them. (By credible, I mean them not engaging in the same tautology that is dissected in this piece.)

      Side note, “pop” books are usually written by genuine experts to make their decades of academic insights more palatable to the lay public. I’d rather read Robert Sapolsky’s pop-biology than his articles in Endocrine reviews, but that’s cos I’m not as intellectual as you, I guess.

      Also, “marketplace of ideas” refers to a continuous and iterative process of expression, contestation and maintenance of ideas, not an outcome based on and imposed by the majority. Surely this did need to be clarified.

    2. I find your post mean spirited, but I must agree with this:

      “Rightness can’t simultaneously be justified by public consensus (the “marketplace of ideas”) and simultaneously justified by “facts” and “ethics.””

      Touche, your logic is impeccable.

      1. False equivalence. Ideas that are right based on scientific due process, or that people think/feel are right due to sound logic and ethics, are also subjected to the process that is the market place of ideas. Ideas that are bad (unscientific, pseudo-scientific, come at the expense of minorities) will be dismissed as such due to their uselessness.

        Having a majority behind an idea certainly facilitates this process. But majority consensus is often a reflection of the scientific and ethical validity (market competitiveness) of any one idea, as opposed to being the driver of.

      2. I admit that it not proven that the marketplace of ideas which encourages the examination of all ideas will necessarily result in a respect for science and reason and judging truth that way just because that is what it resulted in in western modernity. This is an argument that freedom of speech and viewpoint diversity is the best way to encourage a competition of ideas in which science and reason emerge as the best epistemology. By all means argue that it won’t and let the marketplace evaluate this.

  5. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. If you behave like religionists and form mobs to punish those who violate your sacred principles, who can tell the difference between you and the Christians you despise?

    1. I completely agree that social justice activists are doing this and that there are strong parallels between this and religious zealotry. I don’t agree that secular humanists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins or me are doing it. They’re part of the pushback against it.

    2. You’re not within a bulls roar of ‘secular humanism’ you’re attacking some weird combo of anti theism and ‘SJW’ authoritarian bullying. Weird, not least because the SJWs aren’t particularly anti religious. In fact given their moral and ethical relativism non western religions and non western Xtians would be see as resisting the neo colonialism of liberal universalism, which can only be a form Western Imperialist hegemony.

      Actually the one thing that’s not come up is the fact that best society for the religious in its plural sense is one based on secular humanist values. It would defend basic rights, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of conscience and worship. Societies based on religious values have an appalling record of persecution of anyone not adhering to the majority faith. The worst a secular humanist will do to you is think you’re stupid. If they’re one living up to their ethical principles they’d take to the streets to defend you if anyone actually tried to harm you. Good luck getting all but a minority of the religious to defend anyone they think is a heretic.

  6. Thank you Helen. Yay! I read the article too and thought it was shoddier than I expected of Quillette. I am glad you have challenged it so effectively.


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