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.