Secular Humanism is Not a Religion
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Secular Humanism is Not a Religion

Jerry A. Coyne
Jerry A. Coyne
7 min read

hese days you can dismiss anything you don’t like by calling it “a religion.” Science, for instance, has been deemed essentially religious, despite the huge difference between a method of finding truth based on empirical verification and one based on unevidenced faith, revelation, authority, and scripture. Atheism, the direct opposite of religion, has also been characterized in this way, though believers who criticize secular worldviews as religious seem unaware of the irony of implying, “See—you’re just as bad as we are!” Even environmentalism has been described as a religion.

The latest false analogy between religious and nonreligious belief systems is John Staddon’s essay “Is Secular Humanism a Religion?” for Quillette. Staddon’s answer is “Yes,” but his reasoning is bizarre. One would think that it should be “Clearly not” for, after all, “secular” means “not religious,” and secular humanism is an areligious philosophy whose goal is to advance human welfare and morality without invoking gods or the supernatural.

Nevertheless, Staddon makes an oddly tendentious argument for the religious character of secular humanism. After first giving a three-part definition of religion, he then admits that secular humanism violates two of the parts. That itself should have put paid to his claim. But he persists, arguing that secular humanism is still religious because, like some religions, it has a moral code that impels action. (He notes, however, that a secular moral code is inferior because it’s based not on superstition but on reason, and leads to unpalatable views.) In other words, he argues that secular humanism is religious because it embraces secular morality.

Staddon claims that “all religions have three elements, although the relative emphasis differs from one religion to another”:

The first is the belief in invisible or hidden beings, worlds and processes—like God, heaven, miracles, reincarnation, and the soul. All these are unverifiable, or unseen and unseeable, except by mystics under special and generally unrepeatable conditions. Since absence of evidence is not, logically, evidence of absence, these features of religion are neither true nor false, but simply unprovable. They have no implications for action, hence no bearing on legal matters.

But this characteristic is certainly not true of secular humanism, which of course is secular, i.e., holds no belief in “hidden worlds or beings.” Staddon’s second diagnostic trait of religion overlaps with his first:

The second element are claims about the real world: every religion, especially in its primordial version, makes claims that are essentially scientific—assertions of fact that are potentially verifiable. These claims are of two kinds. The first we might call timeless: e.g., claims about physical properties—the four elementary humors, for example, the Hindu turtle that supports the world, properties of foods, the doctrine of literal transubstantiation. The second are claims about history: Noah’s flood, the age of the earth, the resurrection—all “myths of origin.” Some of these claims are unverifiable; as for the rest, there is now a consensus that science usually wins—in law and elsewhere. In any case, few of these claims have any bearing on action.

This is nearly coincident with the first claim because some aspects of the supernatural—things like theistic gods, resurrections, an afterlife, miracles, and the soul—are claims about the universe, and some of them are testable. In fact, I’d say that claims about an afterlife are in principle more testable (say, through strong evidence of the deceased communicating after death) than are claims about literal transubstantiation of wine and wafers, which the Vatican has immunized against disproof by deeming the process undetectable by empirical means.

My book Faith Versus Fact (2015) and Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience (2007) outline various types of empirical evidence that could have shown a god. Sagan, for instance, says that a statement in scripture like “Two strands entwined is the secret of life” or God’s engraving the Ten Commandments on the Moon would be powerful evidence for the divine. Granted, like all scientific evidence this would be provisional, but if a god wanted us to convince all humanity of its existence, there are many ways it could do so. Sadly, as many theologians admit, God remains hidden.

This lacuna itself is evidence against gods. Stoddan claims that “Since absence of evidence is not, logically, evidence of absence, these features of religion are neither true nor false, but simply unprovable.” That’s not quite true. As the late physicist Victor Stenger noted, the absence of evidence is indeed evidence for absence if the evidence should have been there. That’s why most of us are confident that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. The same should go for most religious truth claims.

But never mind. Since Staddon admits that secular humanism fulfills neither of these two criteria, his argument has already failed. However, buried in the second criterion we learn what Staddon sees as the real defining trait of religion: things that “have a bearing on action.” As he argues:

The third property of a religion are its rules for action—prohibitions and requirements—its morality. All religions have a code, a set of moral and behavioral prescriptions, matters of belief—usually, but not necessarily—said to flow from God, that provide guides to action in a wide range of situations. The 10 Commandments, the principles of Sharia, the Five Precepts of Buddhism, etc.

Secular humanism lacks any reference to the supernatural and defers matters of fact to science. But it is as rich in moral rules, in dogma, as any religion. Its 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.

Certainly most religions, at least theistic ones, are attached to a moral code. My own definition of religion comes from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods or similar superhuman power.” Abrahamic religions also include a moral code and a theism that endows God with a personal interest in humans.

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. Indeed, Staddon recognizes this when he says, “Because secular-humanist morals cannot be easily identified, they cannot be easily attacked,” and secular morality is “not written down in a single identifiable source. It is not easily accessible.”

Further, much of a religion’s morality, as Maarten Boudry and I argued, derives directly or indirectly from its supernatural claims. So the view that abortion is murder, for instance, comes from the claim that fetuses, like adults, have souls, and therefore aborting them is murder. In Islam and Christianity, the view that homosexuality is immoral comes from scripture. And so on. A religion’s morality rests on that religion’s truth claims.

Finally, unlike secular morality, religious morality largely comes from interpreting what is God’s will—sometimes in the problematic “divine command theory” stating that whatever God says is good is good. 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.

Staddon then jettisons his first two criteria, insisting that only item #3—rules for behavior and right action—counts as religion. Thus everyone in the world becomes religious, save for sociopaths and the few who disdain all morality. Staddon narrows his definition like this:

But it is only the morality of a religion, not its supernatural or historical beliefs, that has any implications for action, for politics and law. Secular humanism makes moral claims as strong as any other faith. It is therefore as much a religion as any other. But because it is not seen as religious, the beliefs of secular humanists increasingly influence U.S. law.

This is about as ludicrous a claim as you’ll see from a respected academic. It completely evades both the dictionary and vernacular conceptions of religion, and deems everybody who has a notion of right and wrong as “religious.” And so Staddon’s argument, resting on a contrived definition of religion, becomes moot. But why does he twist language this way?

Apparently, it’s because he doesn’t like the kind of morality that he sees flowing from secular humanism, which flouts what seems to be his conservative ideology. This is implied by Staddon’s three examples of how secular humanistic “faith” has affected people’s actions—effects of which he clearly disapproves.

One is the legalization of same-sex marriage. The second is the existence of “blasphemy rules,” like “it’s immoral to dress in blackface or use the ‘n-word’.” I too object to the extreme censoriousness affecting modern social behavior (though these two examples are abhorrent), but these acts violate cultural rather than religious norms. They’re like cheating on one’s taxes. The passion of those decrying blackface may be as intense as that of Christians opposing abortion, but that doesn’t make the former religious—unless you use “religious” as a synonym for “passionate.”

Staddon’s third example of “religious” secular morality is strange: Fred Edwords’ fight against the raising of a 40-foot Christian cross on Maryland public land. Not realizing that Edwords was simply pursuing the First Amendment’s prohibition against government endorsement of religion, Staddon argues that “It seems to be the faith of a competitor that Fred objects to.” In other words, by opposing religious monuments on public land but not opposing nonreligious ones, Edwords is supposedly showing the religious side of secular humanism: no competing religious monuments allowed. One might call this argument monumentally ridiculous.

In the end, Staddon fails to prove his thesis since he first admits that secular humanism lacks two of the three defining traits of religion, and then, by claiming that the true defining trait of “religion” is having a moral code, is able to deem all secular humanists—indeed, nearly everyone on the planet—as religious.

This argument reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s unconvincing attempt to harmonize science and religion in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages. There Gould proposed his NOMA (Nonoverlapping Magisteria) hypothesis: science is about finding the facts of the universe, while religion’s distinct bailiwick is its hegemony over meaning, morals, and values. Like Staddon, Gould defined ethics as part of religion. But Gould’s “solution,” finding compatibility in this claimed non-overlap, ignored not only the potentially testable fact claims of religion, but also the long tradition of secular ethics discussed by philosophers like Spinoza, Kant, Hume, Mill, Rawls, and Singer. As I wrote at the time:

Finally, it need hardly be pointed out that atheists are not automatically amoral. Gould senses this difficulty, but finesses it by claiming that all ethics is really religion in disguise. To distinguish the two, he says, is to “quibble about the labels,” and he decides to “construe as fundamentally religious (literally, binding us together) all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship of people.” But one cannot evade this problem by defining it out of existence.

Gould was wrong, and so is Staddon.

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Jerry A. Coyne

Jerry A. Coyne is Professor of Ecology and Evolution, emeritus, is at the University of Chicago and is author of Why Evolution is True and Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.