Philosophy, recent, Right of Reply

Secular Morality Does Not Depend on Faith

In his piece ‘Values: Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne,’ John Staddon denies he ever claimed that secular humanism is a religion. Yet in Staddon’s original article, ‘Is Secular Humanism a Religion?,’ which I criticized in my response, ‘Secular Humanism Is Not A Religion,’ his very first sentence is this: “It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion.” Has he already forgotten this?

But forget Staddon’s rewriting of history. In his new piece, he concentrates on one similarity he finds between religious and secular morality—both, he says, are based on faith:

. . . in no case are secular commandments derivable from reason. Like religious “oughts” they are also matters of faith. Secular morals are as unprovable as the morals of religion.

Nevertheless, he sees religious morals as superior because they rest on religious stories, stories that he admits are myths:

The fact that religious morals are derived from religious stories—myths in Mr. Coyne’s book—does not make them any more dismissible than Mr. Coyne’s morals, which are connected to nothing at all. In his own agnostic terms, all are matters of faith.

What a thicket we must chop through here! While the grounding of moral systems in both religion and humanism is indeed based on preference (in religion for a particular sect, in humanism for a particular social outcome), this does not mean that the rules in both cases stem from faith, i.e., strong belief without strong evidence.

This is because, as we all know, not all preferences are equal. Religious morals based on faith, scripture and authority are not subject to examination or reason; they are dictates from on high. In fact, their connection to myths has promoted values many see as repugnant. The scriptures of Christianity and Islam, for instance, have been used to justify the oppression of women, gays, and unbelievers—not to mention various rules about sex that are oppressive and ridiculous. And insofar as religious morals are subject to scrutiny and revision as society changes, then, as Plato recognized in the Euthphryo Dilemma, they become secular. There’s simply no reason why morality should be improved by connecting it to mythology.

But is secular morality really connected to nothing? Hardly! One example is John Rawls’s ethics as outlined in A Theory of Justice. Rawls sees morality as promoting justice, and presents a thought experiment about how to achieve justice. Imagine, he said, that we choose our ethics from behind a “veil of ignorance,” in which we do not know what position in society we’ll assume—male or female, black or white, rich or poor, straight or gay. We then choose our principles based on this ignorance. This scenario produces a liberal and ethical society without any faith, as well as a rational way to decide moral questions.

Here, then, we have a secular ethics connected not to “nothing,” but to a preference for justice, fairness, and impartiality. The ethical principles are objective in the sense that they’re what people would agree on behind the veil of ignorance, but of course we cannot prove a priori that a preference for fairness, justice, and impartiality is better than a preference for inequality, bias and injustice. Nevertheless, I submit that Rawls’s method produces societies far better than those derived from the dictates of any religious faith.

There are many other forms of secular ethics based on ideas similar to Rawls’s. By claiming that humanistic morality is connected to “nothing at all,” Staddon dismisses the entire history of secular ethics from philosophers like Spinoza, Kant, Mill, Hume, Rawls, and Singer.


Jerry A. Coyne is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, emeritus, at the University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True and Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. You can follow him on Twitter @Evolutionistrue

273 Comments

  1. Craig DeLancey says

    For what it’s worth, about 2500 years ago philosophers realized that ethical claims were different in kind than empirical claims, and some argued (e.g., in Plato’s Euthyphro argument) that ethics is independent of religion, and then philosophers spent two and a half millennia studying different kinds of starting places, justifications, and explanations for ethical claims.

    For some reason, there appear to be a lot of biologists (and psychobiologists, in this case) offering ethical theories (typically “informed” by evolutionary theory) largely independent of this tradition (the culmination of which was E. O. Wilson, in a stunning misunderstanding of what ethics is, arguing that its study should be moved from philosophy to biology departments). Of course, biologists should be allowed to write whatever they want, but it’s a little strange to ignore a few thousand years of hard work in this area.

    • Not when those few thousand years of hard work chases its own tail, coming up with no definitive answers to anything, it isn’t.

      • Craig DeLancey says

        Is contempt really going to help this discussion?

      • Person of Pallor says

        After a few thousand years of hard work a philosopher solved the dilemma, definitively:

        You cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”.

        Everything else, like this article, is job security, coming from a place of willful denial.

    • Diana MacPherson says

      Are you suggesting pedigree is as or more relevant than the argument? That ideas only have merit when given from the “right” arguer?

      • Craig DeLancey says

        Of course not. It’s not an appeal to authority, it’s an appeal to humility.

        If two historians argued in the pages of Quillette about the nature of motion, might you not think it reasonable to observe: “The physicists have been asking these same questions for a while, and I know that many of those physicists believe that they have managed to clarify and maybe even answer some of your questions; perhaps we should take a look at what those physicists have to say.”

        • Samedi says

          Your point is entirely fair. We should expect scientists who write about ethics to be familiar with the 2,500 year old conversation that is western philosophy. Ignoring great writers of the past is another form of parochialism.

          I think scientists have something important to add on the topic of ethics in two areas: 1) why we have an ethical instinct (i.e. how did it evolve?), and 2) given an end, what means are most likely to achieve that end? Despite non-sequiturs such as “moral facts” the is/ought divide remains. Scientist are very good at describing the “is” but have nothing to say–as scientists–about the “ought”.

          As for “ends”, there are many to choose from. Many ethical systems have been constructed, all of which are, ultimately and necessarily, arbitrary. But this arbitrariness shouldn’t bother us. It is only our unreasonable expectation of certainty in such matters that makes us uncomfortable with it.

          • Another feeds on into technological areas, broadly construed. This is the study of malfunctions (e.g., psychopathy) of the moral system(s).

    • Jack Roe says

      The study of ethics in 2019 is a curious atavism—it’s well-known now that morality is a perception and that perceptions are caused by brains. Grist for the MA/PhD/journal mill might question this endlessly, but there’s a reason that the ol’ icepick into the cranium (or a half-dozen double martinis) causes the alteration in perception, it is because perception is a physiological process, which includes perception of language, meaning, etc.

      You don’t need to read 2.5k years of speculative philosophy prior to neurology to understand the very basic situation in 2019, which is really an empirical proof of Nietzsche’s immoralism—what we historically called morality is actually a collection of nerve tissues that impel the individuals that have them to certain sorts of behaviors. Similarity in “morality” is simply similarity in physiology, and similarity in “meta morality,” that is, the judgment of what is moral is, likewise, physiological—so that when we say two actors are moral, what we are really saying is that they are physiologically similar, and if we say that we perceive their similarity to be good, we are saying something about our own physiology and how it evaluates those other actors.

      Or, if you must go to another philosopher, you can go to Max Stirner and his “spooks”, which we can see as configurations of nervous tissue which do not map to any externality—nervous tissues that perceives a horse, when there is a horse in the street, is not perceiving a “spook,” but nervous tissue that perceives an obligation, for example, is subject to a spook, because there is no external correlate for the entity; in fact, what is being perceived is one region of the brain by another, it is not a matter of the brain perceiving some externality.

      The big difficulty for University professors in addressing all of this is that they either need to lie or act like hypocrites. They can lie, knowingly (perhaps unknowingly) and pretend academia is a big chess game, one where if you get to the top of the pyramid with tenure, you can sometimes make a decent bit of money for doing something that is, arguably, not very physically difficult. So, even if they are Nietzschean immoralists, obviously this means that there’s no moral imperative to tell the students the truth, so they can say anything to make money, or to do whatever it is they want—this isn’t immoral, though, because there is no morality.

      Or they can be hypocrites, and inform the students of how much bullshit they’re fed, how much fairy-story there is, like, for example, the obligation that the Tenured Prof. takes advantage of when he cashes his Pension Cheque after retirement.

      Your argument is like saying that because philosophy grew out of religious city states, one cannot really understand philosophy without understanding religion—and this is true, in a sense, one cannot understand D&D without having read the Player Manuals, but, on the other hand, one can certainly observe the smelly nerds playing it at the local gaming store and go “nah, that’s probably a waste of time.” Ethics are a lot like that, nobody really believes in them anymore in 2019, you just get smelly academic nerds arguing over them like it’s 1750 or something and none of us know what neurology is.

      • augustine says

        Quoting John R. Wood, Jr., author of another article currently posted on Quillette:

        People need collective commitment, not just individual liberty, to be fulfilled and these commitments must be forged in moral virtue.

        Reduction to physiology or chemistry may provide insight and understanding but it does not absolve us of collective and individual moral obligations. How can your empiricism be applied to this responsibility, Mr. Roe?

        • Jack Roe says

          It’s not reduction, reduction is something I do when I make a sauce, I take 500 mL of fluid and reduce it to 200 mL, thereby concentrating the flavors—it’s not reduction to say “we were mistaken about the existence of obligations, in fact what exists is a configuration of nerve tissue that causes a subject to render ten pieces of silver at this building after he is given a parking ticket,” or whatever. So it’s not that I’ve reduced the obligation to something else, I have eliminated the obligation—there is no obligation, there is a tendency we can observe: people given parking tickets ten to go to a specific building and give ten pieces of silver (or whatever) at a specific counter. We could observe all of the facts associated with this and have a fairly complete understanding of parking tickets and paying them without needing any sense of “obligation,” it doesn’t do any explanatory work.

          Consider absolution from religious sin, you don’t believe in that, do you? There is no more obligation or morality than religious sin, they are outdated concepts that are kept on foot primarily because the legal system is built around them, because in the legal system we have all sorts of documents that persists, which are still enforced, even though they were written before the advent of neurology in the late 1800s.

          When an individual talks about right, justice, moral virtue, etc. he is talking about his dreams—dreams are interior visions that people have. Some people want to make their dreams reality, which is fine, but the idea that their dreams are the “true world” and that those of us in the real world are in some “false world” because it doesn’t conform to the dreams of some self-appointed group, it’s silly. So this is what people are talking about when they talk about justice, morality, etc. they’re talking about their dreams.

          Any individual positing a moral obligation is doing so in order to control another creature’s physiology, that’s what moral obligations are, because those who obey a moral obligation, if I am correct, share similar physiology, so any attempt to impose a moral obligation is an attempt to make the subject’s physiology similar to the individual imposing the moral obligation. Or that the imposer of the moral obligation is imposing a moral obligation that is different from his own physiology, but it is to his advantage, e.g. he is Priest, who feels no moral obligation to pay tithes to himself, but he installs the moral obligation to pay tithes into his Parishioners.

          The only way this sort of empiricism poses problems is if people are still stuck in legalistic dreamworld—the fact that there is no justice or justification for, for example, punishing someone we observe eat a baby does not mean that we cannot punish someone for eating babies, nor does it mean that we cannot develop a system of applying consistent punishment to people who eat babies, all it means is that we cannot truly say that such a system is a system of justice, all we can call it is a system of perpetuating a certain physiological configuration, which doesn’t perpetuate itself because it is just or good or anything like that, it simply does because it has the capacity to perpetuate itself, and it has the desire to perpetuate itself.

          I would say that your question demonstrates why morality and faith are identical, you have a faith that obligation must be preserved and, therefore, morality is what preserves it—historically obligation was preserved by divinity, with God’s commands being morality. Now people talk about morality as though it has some natural being, which is fine, but if it does, we find it not morality, it is simply an evolved set of prejudices that are instantiated in nerve tissues, there is no necessity to any of them. It’s not like, for example, in the old Divine World, where God commanded us to “go forth and multiply,” which means we need to live, be healthy, have children, etc. If we don’t have that commandment, for example, there’s no necessity to life, health, having children, etc. This is also going to be something that underpins any secular morality, the “go forth and X” that a secular morality is going to say we should do. X might not be “go forth and have children to God’s Glory,” it might be “be happy” or “live your best self” or whatever, but it’s still the direction around which the “morality play” is going to be structured.

          People can be predictable and reliable without being responsible. My clock is very predictable, but I would not say that it is responsible. Part of the problem is associating responsibility with predictability—morality is, at bottom, about predictability of behavior.

          • Andrew Roddy says

            @Jack Roe

            The virtue of your misconception is that is comprehensive.

          • augustine says

            Thanks for your further thoughts.

            it is simply an evolved set of prejudices that are instantiated in nerve tissues, there is no necessity to any of them.
            Here you have reduced necessity and obligation to evolutionary incidence. You may say you have only “eliminated” them (because they are mere mental constructs) but that is in fact a reduction from a broader and generally understood meaning of those ideas down to the physiology of the brain.

            Your idea of “true world” and “false world” is incorrect I think. My take is that for each individual there is a “true” world that he lives from and lives in– experience, reasoning, dreams, delusions and all. Better to view others as possessing their own “truth”, even if we believe they are wrong, than to call their world “false”.

            all we can call it is a system of perpetuating a certain physiological configuration, which doesn’t perpetuate itself because it is just or good or anything like that, it simply does because it has the capacity to perpetuate itself, and it has the desire to perpetuate itself.

            Amorality in other words. How do you convince people that the good is not worth pursuing, and the bad not worth avoiding? Do you tell them that it doesn’t matter if they pursue or don’t pursue anything? If you consistently instructed your children over the years in this way, do you think they would have an advantage over others? You may dispense with some troublesome things by this approach but also wisdom, mercy, honesty, respect, and lots of other things that evolution doesn’t care about.

      • Jamison says

        I think you’re more missing the point of what Samedi was saying. It’s fine to understand that human behavior is rooted in neurology and is used for an individual to navigate the world, yet that is only part of the conversation. Consider for a moment that just as life evolves over time through organisms competing, social structures also evolve and compete. History is the story of this competition. Religion was a way for people to come together under similar world views in order to break the cognitive limit best described by Dunbar’s Law. To understand the past is to see the flow of ethical and organizational thought. Academia is just one of many social organs at play, it’s the prefrontal cortex of humanity. But, the prefrontal cortex cannot act alone, it needs things like the amygdala, best represented by the news media. And surprise, surprise, there are two amygdala, the “left” and “right”. If you only focus on one part of the super organism called humanity, you doom yourself to repeat the mistakes of the past. If you automatically judge religion as meaningless superstition, you ignore the useful ideas that allow certain beliefs to perpetuate century after century. Humanism has an ethical lineage rooted mainly in the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. To deny this is to reveal an ignorance of the past and basic human nature.

      • Just saying... says

        Jack Roe sounds like that other brilliant philospher, Eric Harris, school shooter: “theres no such thing as True Good or True Evil, its all relative to the observer. its just all nature, chemistry, and math. deal with it. but since dealing with it seems impossible for mankind, since we have to slap warning labels on nature, then… you die. burn, melt, evaporate, decay, just go the fuck away!!!! YAAAAAH!!!!” Genius.

  2. Peter Strider says

    The main benefit I see in traditional religious ethical systems is that they are old and therefore have been tried. The experimental method playing out for centuries in the lives of countless individuals and hundreds of different communities and societies. That gives them proven survival value over a theoretical construct invented 40 years ago in the case of Rawls. The hiatory of the 20th century particularity, with all the human misery and devastation caused by Marxist and Nazi systems of ethics, has left many sincere humanistic moderns (not just religious adherents) wary of embracing more and newer untried idealistic systems of secular ethics.

    Personally it is my belief that religious ethics are actually repackaged versions of deeper historical pre-religious ethics. The culturally relevant religious story simply helped people accept the ethical precept within their community.
    To my mind, Rawls hasn’t actually invented a new system of ethics – so much as he has repackaged some of the older ethical principles in a way that doesn’t depend on religious stories he finds unnecessary. But with “his veil of ignorance” model he has still simply invented a fanciful story that many find implausible and unconvincing (including non religious people such as me!)

    Ultimately I see both religious ethical systems and secular systems like Rawls essentially seek to propagate their system on authority. The authority of faith in religion. The authority of the expert ethicist/philosopher in cases like Rawls. And to my skeptical mind that makes them both a type of “belief”.

    • K. Dershem says

      The main benefit I see in traditional religious ethical systems is that they are old and therefore have been tried. The experimental method playing out for centuries in the lives of countless individuals and hundreds of different communities and societies. That gives them proven survival value over a theoretical construct invented 40 years ago in the case of Rawls.

      Religion-based ethical systems have enabled civilizations to survive, but individuals within them have not always fared well. For millennia, the caste system in India condemned outcastes to lives of misery and oppression. Virtually all religions condemned homosexuality, condoned slavery, and regarded women as the property of men. Most monotheistic religions severely restricted religious liberty, harshly punishing heretics, freethinkers and apostates. They also inspired “holy wars” and provided justification for atrocities.

      Rawls never claimed to be inventing a new system of ethics — his ethical theory was constructed on the foundations laid by centuries of secular philosophies. His theory of justice is not based on the veil of ignorance, which is simply a thought experiment intended to help readers overcome their self-serving biases and envision a just society in a more impartial way. Acceptance or rejection of Rawls’ views is not based on arguments from authority; that’s not how philosophy works.

      Conservatives are right to remind us that traditional wisdom should not be blithely abandoned. Attempts to remake societies wholesale are usually disastrous, especially when they’re based on fundamentally flawed ideological systems like Marxism. However, the judicious application of human reason can allow us to make incremental progress, as Pinker shows in Enlightenment Now. In my view, considerations of human well-being provide a better basis for ethical reasoning than ancient scriptures. The latter contain valuable moral insights, but they also reflect the ignorance and prejudices of the people who composed them.

      • KD says

        Agreed, but progress comes from understanding what is not malleable, and weaving what is not malleable into a new cord. It is not the denial of fate, but the weaving of lines of fate that creates a new possibility of being.

        The kind of blank slate, “New Man”, totalitarian utopianism which characterizes most of 20th Century and 21st Century secular ideologies is something else entirely. It seems mostly to be a b.s. justification for Jacobin power grabs and poisonous exercises in mass politics, and entirely the opposite of wisdom.

        • dimitrios otis says

          some good points being made here on this thread–great dialogue!

          • Mary Patterson says

            You’ve made a good and valuable summary of disparate arguments!

      • Joana George says

        @K. Dershem

        Do you think we’ve reached a point where we no longer need to worry about the survival of our civilization? Will this still be the case in the future if we prioritize the well-being of individuals over the survival of the civilization?

        I didn’t mean those as rhetorical questions. I honestly don’t know and would appreciate it if you could elaborate a little on your views in this area.

        • K. Dershem says

          Hi Joana, I think that civilization faces different challenges than it did in the past. Religions that were adaptive (on a group level) in earlier eras may be maladaptive now — e.g., fundamentalist Muslims who want to recreate to 7th-century Arabia. I didn’t mean to imply that an exclusive focus on individual flourishing is the answer; as the recent article on communitarianism did a good job of explaining, healthy societies are indispensable.

          As a Secular Humanist, I like to think that people can be moral without grounding their values in supernatural beliefs. So far, devoutly secular societies like Japan and the countries of Northern Europe seem to be flourishing in the absence of religion. It remains to be seen if that’s sustainable in the long term and whether all cultures are capable of progressing to that point.

      • S.Cheung says

        K. Dershem,
        well said. Some narratives are time-tested, tried and true, yada yada. And maybe even useful. There is no need to discard them outright. Much better to apply reason to the dictates, and preserve the ones that are reasonable, and discard the ones that aren’t.

        Besides societies that survived without religion-based ethical systems, I would also say human kind survived for tens of thousands of years in a similar fashion absent such systems.

        • Alan Appel says

          S.Cheung, your second paragraph is the most important point in this discussion. Most humans who ever lived derived their morals from the social and cultural stream into which they were born. And their religion, when it finally became objectively developed, was the explanation not the source of values that they already held. It takes a great amount of surplus food, freedom from predators, and leisure in a society to have the space to speculate about value “systems.” Thanks.

      • EK says

        Basing morality on human well-being sounds good but can we all agree on what that is? What about our ignorance and prejudices?

    • “… particularity, with all the human misery and devastation caused by Marxist and Nazi systems of ethics, …”

      It is wrong to think of Nazi ethics as distinct from religious ethics. Nazi Germany was a highly religious and Christian country and it’s more true to say that Nazi ethics were a version of religious ethics. The anti-Semitism, for example, had a long Christian history back to Luther and beyond. The idea of a God-created special people (the Nazi view of “Aryans”) is also standard fare for religions.

      • Andrew Roddy says

        The notion of blind justice is hardly new.

    • Andrew Worth says

      “The main benefit I see in traditional religious ethical systems is that they are old and therefore have been tried. The experimental method playing out for centuries in the lives of countless individuals and hundreds of different communities and societies. That gives them proven survival value over a theoretical construct invented 40 years ago in the case of Rawls.”

      But most religious ethical systems die with large changes in society brought about by technology, a better educated population and increasing wealth, and if we look to the only religions that have proven themselves able to survive the thousand year plus journey from primitive societies to the sophistication of todays Western society we should, if we’re honest, recognize that our God/s have changed hugely over that time, our religious beliefs have changed, and our moral codes have changed.

      Those religions that have survived to the modern age have done so because they could be adapted by their adherents to modern times, they managed that because their adherents have been able to abandon and reinterpret those religions to fit the changes, often by selecting scripture more suited to them and abandoning scripture unsuitable to their changed society.

      If people were to adhere strictly to the commandments as presented by Moses we’d be living in very different societies to those that we now have. Most likely if those commandments that are not a good fit to modern society were to be strictly enforced in the West people would be leaving Christianity in droves. This ridged adherence to past interpretations is an issue Muslims in Western countries must also deal with, and we can see the practice of Islam by Muslims living peacefully in Western countries is significantly different to that practiced in more traditional communities in Islamic countries. Islam is slowly changing, evolving, as Christianity also changed.

      • Andrew Roddy says

        @Andrew Worth

        Yes I think that’s broadly correct but from where I sit (ie. on my arse) it looks like secularism is coming under a certain pressure to adapt. Pressure not necessarily from technology but rather from a more nuanced and less hysterical scrutiny. I can’t believe that secular thinking is not founded to a significant degree on a default and generalised emotional antipathy to traditional religious culture and mindset. I have sympathy with that but in the long run it will hardly pass the acid test. And certainly not if it tries to pass that chauvinism off as something grounded in the bedrock of reason. The churches have taken a good kick in the ass and how well they survive remains to be seen. Secularism is not going anywhere but some of its more aggressive champions may prove to be too brittle and lacking in humility to adapt with it.

        God, who inaugurated time, knows how to move with it.

    • Michael Buckley says

      Well said. Society needs a way of delivering these values and ethics — religious stories are one of these methods. Too many “philosophers” want to throw out the baby with the bath water instead of examining the core ethics from religious stories. In my opinion they are not willing to go deep enough into the thinking it would take to figure that out because they would have to admit the value of religion and we don’t know as much as we thought about how religious stories truly developed.

  3. X. Citoyen says

    Unlike religion, which is based on stories, secular morality is based on thought experiments, which are completely different. Thought experiments aren’t nothing either, because the words “thought” and especially “experiment” are sciency-sounding words, so clearly they have substance.

  4. Mike says

    Does the fact that an injunction to stone gay people to death is venerable make it moral?

    • Peter from Oz says

      Mike
      No the venerability of that injunction does not make it moral. But nor does it make it immoral either.
      As there are many who will respect bad old customs, there are just as many who respect any novel bad custom.

      • S.Cheung says

        Peter,
        precisely. It’s not the source of the custom, or its vintage, that we should focus on. It is whether the custom is of any merit. And hopefully that evaluation will be based on some form of reason.

    • Jack Roe says

      Maybe all we can say about things called “moral” is that they are either very long-standing or that a lot of people want them. If a lot of people want to avoid being bopped on the nose, we call it immoral to bop people on the nose, but why should their desire make it so? Why say “it is immoral to bop people on the nose” rather than “these people don’t desire to be bopped on the nose?” Using the abstract noun “immoral,” we disembody the desire of these individuals and turn their desire into some abstract, ahistorical commandment that, some con artists say, could be derived merely from the meanings of other terms, e.g., we could reason our way into understanding that we ought not bop people on the nose. This is pretty obviously false in 2019.

      Whether they say it is “Morality” or “God’s Will,” humans hate to take responsibility for the injunctions they wish to enact—the real issue is why it matters if an injunction is moral, when “moral” is just a shorthand for talking about either how long a thing has been done, or how many people support it. Why not eliminate talk of morality so that people aren’t deceived into thinking that there is any reasonable basis to morality? Similarity of morality is simply similarity of physiology.

      • S.Cheung says

        Jack,
        well said. “morality” is just a reflection of popular opinion over many generations.

  5. Koos Kleurvol says

    You use a thought experiment  to obscure an axiom of “inherent interchangeable  moral worth”. That axiom is taken on faith, for its foundations are not scientific.

    “We then choose our principles based on this ignorance”
    Great, obviously not based on science, since it would be very contra-Darwin for a king to assume he is not in reality  a king but
    possibly a pawn in a thought experiment. Why not let a lion pretend he could have been a gazelle?  How rational  of the lion?
    Self interest is the only rationality with scientific  basis. This axiom of ignorance  is “unscientific ” and contra game theory of self interest.

    “what position in society we’ll assume—male or female, black or white, rich or poor, straight or gay.”
    You mean to say let us assume same moral worth of all individuals ?
    Why only include these caricteristics?  Why not include “lazy” ,  “disabled ” , “pedophile” “bigamist” “muslim” “satanist” etc ,  seems like a value judgement? 

    If Rawls experiment leads to an illiberal  dictatorship, would you accept that system? No you would abandon  ship and find a thought experiment  that leads to your preferred liberalism.

    Side note

    “Nevertheless, I submit that Rawls’s method produces societies far better than those derived from the dictates of any religious faith.”

    Proof dear author, you have strayed from metaphysics into reality. I demand proof, or GTFO!

    Which societies would those be?  Imaginary ones, not subject to the test of history? Or post-modern incarnation of a state not built on this principle, and as yet not “survived” the test of history?

    • keith cook says

      ““Nevertheless, I submit that Rawls’s method produces societies far better than those derived from the dictates of any religious faith.”

      Proof dear author, you have strayed from metaphysics into reality. I demand proof, or GTFO!”

      I submit GTFO! and look for yourself, take a look around. Read Steven Pinker’s ” The Better Angles of our Nature” there you will see a steady climb from violence and intolerance to a civilizing and pacifying process and the slow demise of the use of religious ideology to achieve this.
      Commerce, the printing press, common hygiene practices for instance had their defining moments in this process.
      Nothing is perfect, including myself, as humans we have blundered our way (morally and ethically) through history and there is more to come. Take AI (or not) this is a new problem that no book of faith has ever entertained and no stone tablet is going to add one iota of a contribution. Issac Asimov’s I, Robot probably has more to say.

      Secular morality moves with the times retaining what IS important for human progression and hopefully the planet, assuming that’s what you/we want and discarding the rubbish morality/ethics, like, throwing gays from a roof top as a cure for same sex attraction.

      “Why only include these caricteristics? Why not include “lazy” , “disabled ” , “pedophile” “bigamist” “muslim” “satanist” etc , seems like a value judgement? ”

      Sorry this is plain dumb, these behaviours, cults, religious ideology are all subject to the same rules of secular morality and in the name of common decency are rejected, tolerated ( if no harm is perpetuated) and in the case of “lazy” say, you could lose your job if no valid reason can be stated or sent to your room for time out.

  6. David Luce says

    If “nationalism is tribalism.” – Krishnamuri. Then is religion also tribalism and division ? As in the Crusades, Ireland, Myranmar ?

  7. Ray Andrews says

    “It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion.” Has he already forgotten this?”

    I stopped reading right there. Staddon very obviously is not making that claim himself, he is pointing out that that claim has been around for a long time. If the author wants to engage in such a shabby attempt at a gotcha, then I doubt the rest of his article is worth reading.

    • I’d suggest you read the original article. Staddon clearly claimed that secular humanism was a religion. He wasn’t just recounting old stories. I don’t think much of someone that stops reading an article because they disagree with the first assertion, an assertion that’s actually supported by Staddon’s initial piece. Why don’t you read it instead of kvetching.

      If you doubt my article (or Staddon’s original piece) is worth reading, I doubt that you’re worth engaging.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @whyevolutionistrue

        I did read the original (which you could have easily verified) and folks were hugely unfair to Staddon. He structured his article poorly but his claim was that SH is comparable to religion in some respects but not others. In any case, attempting a gotcha is not cricket — engage on the substance please. I don’t think the answer is binary, do you? SH is rather obviously not a religion in the way that the Catholic Church is a religion, but it does have at it’s foundation — like every other belief system — assumptions which cannot be proven and are just presumed to be true. The nuances of this fact should be discussed politely and respectfully. The humanists I know have this over weaning assumption that their views come from some better place than the mere faith of the religious. They are ‘rational’, therefore if, say, they believe that gay marriage is a good idea, that must be the ‘rational’ view and if you don’t share it, that’s because you are irrational. It does not follow.

        • Hi Ray,

          “… like every other belief system — assumptions which cannot be proven and are just presumed to be true …”

          Such as?

          (By the way, values are not “assumptions” and are not “presumed to be true”.)

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Coel

            Such as the belief that abortion is ok, but capital punishment is wrong.

            “(By the way, values are not “assumptions” and are not “presumed to be true”.)”

            Then please correct my language. You understand my meaning already. The humanists that I know do not question the grounding of their value system, I would thus say that they presume or assume it to be true, however if you have better words I’d be glad to hear them.

        • @Ray:

          “Such as the belief that abortion is ok, but capital punishment is wrong.”

          Those are not “assumptions” and are not “presumed to be true”, they are values, they are reports of what sort of society someone wants (“I want to allow abortion but prohibit capital punishment”).

          “The humanists that I know do not question the grounding of their value system, I would thus say that they presume or assume it to be true, …”

          I suspect that they do indeed question their values. But again, values are not facts, so they are not “presumed to be true”, they are simply what someone wants.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Coel

            “Those are not “assumptions” and are not “presumed to be true”, they are values”

            That’s what I’d call them, yet there is a tendency on the part of some to view them as somehow ‘true’ or ‘correct’ or ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’. I think that’s what Staddon was trying to say and I agree with him. In this way only I think that SH can be compared to religion.

            BTW, this is a specimen of the same issue that was my original objection to this article: When I said that folks assume their values are correct or true, I’m reporting that belief, but I do not support that view myself.

        • K. Dershem says

          I think Staddon’s original article was very poorly argued. It’s a good example of a phenomenon that is common on Quillette, publishing a piece by someone who’s addressing a topic that’s way outside their field of expertise. I don’t think that people should always and necessarily “stay in their lanes” — e.g., it’s fine if a biologist wants to engage in arguments about philosophical and theological issues — but it’s incumbent upon them to understand and address what’s been said before. Richard Dawkins was criticized — rightly, in my view — for similar reasons after the publication of The God Delusion.

    • Ken Kukec says

      Accusing someone of “a shabby attempt at a gotcha” for responding to the claim in an author’s first sentence is rich coming from someone who quit reading that response after the second sentence.

    • Daz says

      RA

      Well spotted, it was indeed a shabby attempt of ‘gotcha’.
      Just so he could write another article on this, quite frankly, boring subject of who’s ideology is the best.
      They are all intertwined whether you like it or not.

  8. The Romanian Conservative says

    So Jesus persecuted gay people or women? You have to be a Chicago teacher to be this dumb!

    • Saul Sorrell-Till says

      That’s like saying ‘you have to be an Olympic sprinter to be this slow’, or ‘you have to be a chess grandmaster to be this shit at chess’. I can see you think it’s a clever put-down…but it doesn’t actually make any sense.

      • codadmin says

        When did Chicago teachers become the ‘Olympic sprinters’ of teaching?

        • Saul Sorrell-Till says

          The person in question is a professor at one of the country’s top universities(not a “Chicago teacher” as the OP and yourself have rather lamely tried to rebrand him) and a world authority on speciation. He’s one of the most respected evolutionary biologists alive today.

          So, yeah, I’d regard that as the definition of a leader in their field, wouldn’t you?

          • codadmin says

            I agree, apologies for my interruption. I had no idea Coyne was at the university of Chicago. I’ll read the bio’s and not just the articles themselves from now on.

  9. Setting aside the fact that the assorted religious morals of the world and throughout history severely contradict, from where, I wonder, does Harris think they ultimately derive? From God?

    No, the pronouncement, ‘The Gods Say So’, was clearly an expedient to lend force to entirely mundane proscriptions and requirements that boosted the functionality of the society (or secured the power of the elite), which themselves precipitated out the social animal behavior.

  10. Platonist or Aristotelian?

    Plato asserted the existence of the noumenal realm. Aristotle asserts only the particulars of existence.

    If you are Platonist, you get to claim morality resides in an unseen, unknowable higher place. If you are Aristotelian, you are limited with founding moral claims on the existents in existence.

    If you resist becoming fully Aristotelian, and remain Platonist – however couched – you will have to contend with those who claim that science/reason is just as incapable of founding morality as myth and stories.

    Yes, the burden of founding morality on objective reality might appear daunting. For one thing, one would have to avoid asserting that “justice, fairness, and impartiality” are axiomatic, since it is a tremendous temptation to accept those qualities a priori. One would have to dig deeper to find the foundation that, in turn, supports those qualities.

    However, the relief of shutting down the radiation from “the noumenal realm” makes the project easier, for a true Aristotelian.

  11. Saul Sorrell-Till says

    Most of the replies here are deeply disappointing. They’re either circular justifications for a kind of social Darwinism that places self-interest above all other factors – self-satisfied attempts to present selfishness as the new ideal – or they’re interminable recapitulations of theological casuistry from the middle ages, with regular name-drops of religious thinkers whose ideas have long since drifted into intellectual irrelevance. There is more bad faith and epistemic relativism than you’d find in the most opaque post-modernist textbook.

    Ignorance of and hostility/condescension towards science seems common, as does the instinct to dismiss Coyne’s arguments out of hand. One person stopped reading after the first short paragraph, another mocked the fact that Coyne is a “Chicago professor”(that this is considered a criticism says a great deal)…in previous comments on this dispute I saw one Quillette reader ask if there was a way to block notifications for any future articles Coyne writes, lest they upset said reader’s delicate intellectual constitution.

    Colour me unimpressed. This website seems to have become little more than an echo chamber for a particular brand of anti-left-liberalism and the lack of diversity of opinion shows in the staleness of the arguments BTL.

    • John Hunter says

      Agree with you on many points, especially about those who cannot stomach reading the opinions of others, they do not feel happy about however I would not condemn an entire website just because of some opinionated individuals, that would amount to committing the same narrow minded offence but sure understand how you feel.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till says

        Fair enough. I know some readers of this website who I respect enormously, but they are rare and I don’t know if they comment.

        But imo the good ship Quillette has listed since it emerged claiming to be a bastion of freethought. I’m not after an anti-SJW echo chamber, I’m perfectly capable of seeing how stupid they are without having it drummed into my head by article after article, and I have other, more imperative political concerns than students acting like twats on campuses.

        • Stephanie says

          The most insightful commenters are the ones who signal their superiority over the other commenters. Those are the ones that really add to the discussion.

          • Saul Sorrell-Till says

            Unfortunately for you, my being smug and condescending doesn’t actually make me wrong.

        • K. Dershem says

          I agree with you, Saul. If the comment section is any indication, about 3/4 of Quillette’s readers are right-wing ideologues like Stephanie.

  12. augustine says

    No mention in the article about the origin or workings of authority in Coyne’s humanistic values. Religious authority, even as a tangle of worldly and divine applications, is relatively well understood. Who decides and enforces secular rules and by what means? A rotating committee perhaps? The mind boggles.

    • @augustine:

      “Who decides and enforces secular rules and by what means?”

      People, by democratic election.

        • There is nothing but “the mob”. The preponderance of opinion moves values forward. e.g:. ‘Incest is not acceptable because it produces mutant offspring’. No one ‘decreed’ that before it was arrived at by experience.The experience of ‘the mob’. It only became codified after the fact.

      • KD says

        The oligarchs, by selecting toadies, and then by using money and media, selling their toadies to vulnerable low-information voters and media-indoctrinated, high-information voters in “democratic elections”.

        If “representative democracy” gets out of hand, make sure you have a judicial branch composed of elite millionaires who’s interests coincide with those of the oligarchs who can declare laws “unconstitutional”. It’s what Chomsky called, “Manufacturing Consent”.

    • Diana MacPherson says

      The rules and laws we live by in our societies are pretty good indicators as to our collective ethics. Not to mention our own sense of goodness. I don’t know about you, but I don’t murder because it’s not very nice and makes me feel bad, not because it’s illegal or Satan will get me.

      • augustine says

        Diana,
        You and Coel seem to be operating from Western chauvinism and also some kind of hidden, universal motive that applies to all peoples now and in the future. What other mutable assumptions are you relying on for your humanism?

        As for our own sense of goodness, it is in direct competition with our own sense of selfishness, retribution, anger, etc. Maybe it’s just me but I don’t feel I can rely on my own personalized moral imperative 100% of the time. I don’t think the answers to the inherent problems of human nature can be derived from human nature or intellect. Assisted, yes, but not resolved. As long as we see ourselves as mere subjects (or objects) of evolution– yet somehow omniscient in moral issues– we will be consigned to cycles of conflict and misery. That seems obvious to me.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till says

        Satan is a real worry for me personally. Next Sunday I’m due to gather sticks with my gay lover while talking back to my parents through a mouthful of shellfish.

      • rickoxo says

        Can’t believe I’m positively mentioning a Woody Allen movie, but in Crimes and Misdemeanors, he plays with this idea. The doctor in the movie kills someone and then realizes, he’d rather not have his life destroyed over it, so he covers it up. It works, he doesn’t get caught, and he gets to go on with his life. He has a conversation with Woody Allen near the end of the movie where he says something like, I kept waiting to feel bad about it, I’m supposed to, aren’t I? But I didn’t.

        Tons of people who have done awful things have found a way to see them as good or helpful (i.e. nice) and have felt completely fine about what they did.

      • Grant says

        @diana
        If murder was legal there’d be a hell of a lot more of it.

      • Stephanie says

        Diana, I don’t know, maybe you do murder people. Have you ever had an abortion?

        Secular values essentially take the legacy of tens of thousands of years of religious evolution, dismisses a few inconvenient mandates that are deemed unreasonably difficult, and claims the rest to be self-evident and derived independently from “rationality.”

        Let’s also remember that Satan is a metaphor for the unchecked ego and hell the state of mind induced by guilt and suffering.

        • Then, I propose that every taxpayer is a murderer. Yet Satan doesn’t really provide that hell for those funders of war, eh?

          (not looking for a conversation, just adding some icing)

        • S.Cheung says

          Stephanie,
          “legacy of tens of thousands of years of religious evolution”

          “Religion” that has any vague resemblance to how we use the word today is maybe 5000 years old. You’re expanding the definition of the word to the point of absurdity.

          Instead, i would say that humanity has survived for at least tens of thousands of years, and did not require any sort of “religion” in any common or “current” sense for the majority of that time. Without attributing a causal mechanism, “morals” and customs nonetheless developed and propagated throughout that time. So in the more recent past, perhaps “religion” was a means to codify, justify, summarize, or narrate those historical norms. And that is fine, since people of those times were still limited in their capacity to gain knowledge and understanding. But whereas “religion” may have been the best means at their disposal at one time, that is certainly and utterly no longer the case.

          So I’d take pre-religion as a phase. I’d take religion as a phase. And I’d take post-religion as a phase as well. I’m quite looking forward to that one myself.

          Now, you might speculate as to how ancient peoples developed their morals and customs. I wouldn’t say science in the contemporary sense, since that did not exist. But I can imagine some rudimentary version of “trial and error” to have taken place…and by extension, perhaps some fundamental use of reason, as afforded by the brain structure of our ancient ancestors.

          So I would instead speculatively summarize it thusly: Morals and customs developed on the basis of experience and maybe some primitive form of reasoning. Religion codified those morals and customs without having any means of actually explaining it (and perhaps had to reach for magical solutions, because they for some reason weren’t comfortable with leaving things as “I don’t know”). Now science takes over to explain some, but not all, of those things…and will continue to work on the rest.

          • Stephanie says

            S.Cheung, you’re mostly right. The only thing is that you can’t segregate religion that came after writing from what came before. Animism seems to have been present in all societies at least 40 000 years ago. Most societies took that notion that all things have a spirit and generalised Gods, which embodied archetypes. Some took it further and saw a single force behind it all. More recently, cults based on the individual teachings of wise people emerged.

            The trial and error process you describe is inseperable from religion, because before people understood why some actions yielded negative consequences, they attributed it to spirits, Gods, or God. After tens of thousands of years of distillation through oral history, the results began to be codified in the ancient sacred texts. As technology improved, these were modified, as you can see documented in the Bible.

            All this is one continuum that goes back to the dawn of self-awareness. I’d argue we’re already living in the post-religious era: science has demystified the world. However, while technological advancement and scientific understanding has allowed some additional changes (eating shellfish and anal sex can be safe now), we still rely on the moral framework provided by tens of thousands of years of trial and error.

            Science and reason are amoral: it can tell you how to clone people but not whether you should. It can tell you which behaviours are normal for monkeys like us, but not whether we should behave that way.

            The most scientific thing you could do to determine ethics would be to let millions of people do what they want, see the consequences, and self-correct, over the course of thousands of generations. Thankfully, we already ran that experiment, and we have the results. We shouldn’t dismiss such seminal work because it contains what we consider outdated terminology.

          • S.Cheung says

            Stephanie,
            if “religion” is of a vague deist nature based on verbal history, in the absence of written prescriptive edicts for most of its existence, that’s a pretty benign form to me.

            And if the morals derived therefrom are mostly just a compilation of wisdom passed on through the ages, that’s also just good common sense.

            But if those are the basis for the morals we should hold, then they are not and need not be immutable, they can be improved upon with reason, and theism needn’t even enter into the discussion.

    • Roo says

      The term “law enforcement” comes to mind. I am somewhat religious, but I feel far more secure in a building featuring security guards vs. posted warnings about the afterlife.

      It’s also worth noting that crime rates, especially for violent crime, are much, much higher for men than for women. If morality were genuinely imposed from without rather than being based at least largely on inner factors, I don’t think you would see this gap. As it stands, those who are already better at the things that presumably mediate morality – empathy, theory of mind, compassion, etc. – don’t need any special intervention to engage in more traditionally moral behavior, at least when it comes to crime.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till says

      “Who decides and enforces secular rules and by what means? A rotating committee perhaps? The mind boggles.”

      Have you heard of a ‘government’ before? Big thing, lots of people in it, you get to vote them in(and out if you’re lucky)?

      • augustine says

        Saul,
        Thank you for this honest insight. The idea of government establishing and enforcing ethics and morality (not to mention laws) is the ultimate dream of Socialism. It is the revolution some of us will always fight against. Friedrich Hayek has written cogently on this subject and I recommend his Road to Serfdom.

        • Saul Sorrell-Till says

          Excuse me if I roll my eyes at the shoehorning in of socialism.

          As for the terrifying government you speak of…you live in it already. You ride its trains, its buses, you drive on its roads, benefit from its clean air protections, from its parks, from its schools, and(if you’re in certain enlightened countries) from its hospitals and its healthcare.
          You are shielded from harm by its many anti-discrimination laws, by its free-speech laws, and you are protected every second of every day from libel and fraud and assault and murder and rape and etc. by governmental institutions. The only reason you’re able to type any of the words you just typed is because the government of the country you live in has gone to the effort of putting up widespread telecommunication networks.

          The fact that you’re too cosetted to acknowledge all of this doesn’t make it any less true,

          • augustine says

            Saul,
            I do acknowledge those things and am grateful for a large number of them. But those provisions and rules do not dictate my moral behavior or my neighbor’s ethics. Law (government) constrains behavior based on common culture and history and religion but its function does not dictate the positive ends of human activity.

          • Stephanie says

            Fantastic illustration of how secular humanists have replaced God with the government. Thank Government for all that is good in our lives. Government is all. Don’t say or do or think anything that will incur the wrath of Government.

            The government is not sacred. It is a bloated, stagnant monopoly, with some serious problems that are not improved by a reverant attitude.

  13. KD says

    Anyone with a High School-level education in scholasticism would understand that Aquinas and his successors based their moral and ethical systems heavily on natural law reasoning which came out of Aristotle’s philosophy. Western Christendom and its morality were entirely based on rational cogitation and philosophical perspectives. Even Christianity in its early days, in the writings of Paul expressly rejected Jewish law and Jewish ethnic customs and probably gave rise to the modern distinctions between morality and ethics. Paul seems to make a distinction between a universal ethics grounded in natural law (which Christians had to follow) and a morality which was specifically tied to ethnic identity as Jews (circumcision and Jewish dietary laws).

    Ironically, the reductionist framework arising in the 16th century, in rejecting formal and final cause (what something is and what something is for), destroyed the framework for moral reasoning. If nothing ultimately is and nothing ultimately has any purpose, you can’t make a distinction between something acting in accordance with its natural purpose (an acorn becoming an oak tree) and an unnatural act (an acorn becoming a belladonna plant). Hence, it is reductionism which gives rise to subjectivism in ethics, and fundamentalism is the natural shadow. If everything is subjective, then the only way to get social consensus is through the use of coercion. Further, if everything is subjective, then everything is arbitrary and capricious, and so one might as well coerce everyone to live like 13th Century Jewish peasants in Eastern Europe as coerce everyone to pretend that gender roles don’t exist and men can get pregnant.

    It is the assumption of moral subjectivism that inevitably leads to the position of moral fideism.

    Dr. Coyne references secular morality being based on looking at the consequences of actions, but this whole process presumes a teleology. Community X should be converging to a particular end state Y, so we should adopt rules promoting Y. End state Y is either natural and presumably accessible to universal reason (e.g. natural law), or end state Y is some subjective exercise in the will to power (e.g. some kind of Nietzschean idealism).

    Honestly, I don’t know why we are talking about faith, because we are not talking about faith, we are talking about the will to power. Dr. Coyne’s distinction seems to separate between communities that seek to preserve their historic form, and communities willing to sacrifice their existing form to attempt to realize some purportedly higher idealized future state. The problem is that the existing form of a community may not have some rational justification, but it has allowed for the survival of the community over generations in time. The scheme for the future may have some rational justification for it, but it is untested, untried and unproved in the real world, and may have unintended consequences.

    There is no rational justification for the genetic code for corn, but I would have more faith in a corn seed that has evolved over generations than some corn seed manufactured in a test tube with an entirely novel genetic code in accordance with someone’s belief that his or her novel creation will make a better corn plant. I certainly wouldn’t throw out the old corn seeds until the invention had been tried for some time and proved in the realm of human experience. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution has a lot to say to contemporary times.

    However, the above being said, if secular ethics concerns itself with consequences, my concern about most of the products of “secular reasoning” seem to result in subreplacement fertility, and disproportionately subreplacement fertility for those with higher cognitive abilities. The atheist city state would be destined to decay into idiocracy, only to be conquered by fecund fundamentalists with the will to expand their share of the gene pool and also impose their will by force on others. I think secular ethics can be pleasant in the short term, but I don’t see how in 5 generations it doesn’t end in disaster. [One only has to look at Europe and project current demographic and immigration trends 60 years forward.]

    • codadmin says

      Exactly. To summarise the situation in Europe: “God is dead, long live ( someone else’s ) god.”

    • K. Dershem says

      Western Christendom and its morality were entirely based on rational cogitation and philosophical perspectives.

      KD, are you suggesting that interpretation of and extrapolations from purported divine revelation played no role whatsoever in the development of Christian ethics? Also, are you claiming that secular systems of ethics invariably collapse into subjectivism?

      • KD says

        Q1. No. Historically, secular concepts generally derive from religious concepts, the same way secular myths are usually a variation on religious myths. Christian ethics was based on purported revelation, but interpreted specifically through the lens of Classical philosophy, and in scholasticism, most of the ethical positions were justified in terms of natural reason and not simply citations to scripture.

        Q2. No. I am claiming reductionist philosophies which gave rise to the scientific method, in specifically rejecting elements of Aristotle’s metaphysics, invariably lead to essentially subjectivism of some type or another. However, I think one can adopt a Aristotelian-derived metaphysics and remain within philosophical naturalism or, at least, deism (rejecting revelation and sect) and develop a secular ethical system that would not be subjective. Its not secularism versus faith, as both can be articulated both in terms of subjectivism. You need to posit something in the manner of forms and teleology in order to have anything like an objective ethics (but once again, the form and purpose of something would presumably not require revelation). To put it differently, you have to posit something along the lines of human nature, and the natural development of human potential to derive a line of objective ethical inquiry.

        From what I can tell of Dr. Coyne’s work, he, along with folks like Dennett, are deeply committed to reductionism as a philosophical framework, which I do not think adequate for understanding things like mathematics or a philosophy of mathematics. Certainly, the Neo-Darwinian synthesis presupposes reductivism, but its not actually clear that it is even holding up empirically these days. This is not to say Darwinian evolution is done (Darwin was not responsible for the Neo-Darwinian synthesis), it means evolution is more complicated than we previously thought. However, if reductionism is true, it necessarily follows that there is no human nature (humans are just things composed of parts) and there is no teleology, so there is no purpose in human life other than that imposed through the Will to Power.

        For other perspectives on Evolution, there is a group called the “Third Way” founded by physiologist Denis Noble. Noble and his scientific ilk are routinely criticized by Dr. Coyne and P.Z. Myers. I suspect that biology as a discipline has lacked anything like the mathematical rigor of physics, but as mathematical approaches are applied, much of the hand-waving characteristic of biologists will go extinct, and we will get empirical answers, not disputes.

        Nothing particularly new in my comments, Alasdair MacIntyre addressed these questions extensively.

      • KD says

        Looking at evolution, novelty is supposedly explained by random chance while any “direction” is determined by selection pressures, which is related to form (function/morphology). Certainly, there is no universal direction of selection pressure, it can change in an instant, but it probably falls within some kind of “strange attractor” shape of probability space, so its not completely random, being born with no head will never be adaptive.

        Obviously, an organism that can change its function or morphology in response to its environment is probably going to out-compete an organism proceeding by random change. Further, it seems like at least human organisms can do this, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we discover microteleology in nature on the organism’s side (and the only way to determine if a process is teleological or random is by using probability theory on a large sample). Someone is going to do some interesting work with yeast cells in the next 10 years.

        The other issue is that fitness operates at the level of form, so you need DNA to act like a machine to program the morphology and behavior, but we know it is more complicated than this with epigenetics and epigenetic effects sometimes surviving for countless generations. Haeckel’s work on embryos is good evidence that we are dealing with more than a machine, even if his hypothesis is universally rejected.

        Its more complicated than people originally thought, and because teleological processes will always beat random processes, I suspect we are going to discovery increasing empirical evidence for non-random variation based on solid mathematical methods. But it will be micro-teleology in communities of organisms or in multicellular organisms, not “Intelligent Design”.

  14. David Doyal says

    Morality is morality, by any other name. Naming it ‘fairness’ does not make it smell any better.

    • Farris says

      “Here, then, we have a secular ethics connected not to “nothing,” but to a preference for justice, fairness, and impartiality.”

      Fairness is about as vague as the word “stuff”. Fair to whom? Is it fair to require a woman to carry an unborn child to term? Is it fair to kill a child moments before birth when that child did nothing to bring about the circumstances plaguing the mother?
      Is the death penalty just or unjust and why?
      Secular ethics appear to be determined by the feeling at the moment.

  15. I believe that evolution is true, and that religious people are suffering from a delusion. I’m also an admirer and frequent visitor to Prof. Coyne’s website. However, in his ongoing debate with Prof. Staddon, I think he is not only wrong, but continues to completely miss the point.

    In his first reply, Prof. Coyne was much concerned with the question of whether secular humanism is a religion or not. In this second reply he at least seems to be aware that the question doesn’t matter one way or the other as far as the theme of Prof. Staddon’s article is concerned. Now he seems intent on demonstrating that secular morality is “superior” to religious morality. If, as he claims, he believes that morality is subjective, this claim is a non sequitur. The claim that secular morality is better assumes an objective standard of judgment. In other words, the assumption implicit in that claim is that good and evil exist as real things. If morality is subjective, as I believe, and as Prof. Coyne claims he believes, then this assumption is absurd. It amounts to nothing more serious than arguing over who has the best unicorn.

    Be that as it may, Prof. Coyne’s second response, too, is beside the point. At the risk of putting words in Prof. Staddon’s mouth, I submit that the real question at issue is whether secular humanists can cite any legitimate authority for their moral claims or not. Prof. Staddon answers that question in the negative. There is, in fact, no legitimate basis for the claim that Prof. Coyne’s moral “preferences” have the power to jump out of his skull onto my back and dictate to me what I ought or ought not to do. In other words, the point is that secular humanists seek to impose their preferred flavor of morality on others, including via the law, in spite of the fact that their moralities “are connected to nothing at all” in terms of a legitimate normative basis. They lack any authority for their moral claims that even rises to the level of the God fig leaf. In spite of that, regardless of whether they claim to believe that morality is objective or subjective, they treat Good and Evil as if they were real, objective things. It may be theoretically possible for a secular humanist to be a subjective moralist, but I have never encountered one who actually draws the logical consequences from that belief, and behaves as if they did. It is noteworthy that religious people can generally see that humanists have sawed off the limb they were sitting on, and the authority for their moral claims rests on nothing more secure than a vacuum. The humanists somehow never seem to notice.
    What Prof. Coyne refers to as “preferences” are actually the expression of emotions, and would not exist without them. His “preferences” are really just the outcome of his attempts to figure out what his moral emotions are trying to tell him. Darwin, too, believed that morality is an emotional phenomenon, and that the emotions in question evolved via evolution by natural selection. As he put it,

    “It may well be first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience.”

    Edvard Westermarck later elaborated on Darwin’s thought in his “The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas,” noting that,

    “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.”

    Westermarck put his finger on the source of secular humanists fantasy that their emotion-based “preferences” have somehow managed to acquire authority over others as follows:

    “As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity. The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments. The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.”

    If Darwin and Westermarck were right, there can be no logical or “scientific” basis for moral claims of the sort imagined by Prof. Coyne whatsoever. Hume realized as much long before Darwin, noting that,

    “…nothing can be more certain, than that it is not any relation of ideas, which gives us this concern (a sense of justice), but our impressions and sentiments, without which everything in nature is perfectly indifferent to us, and can never in the least affect us. The sense of justice, therefore, is not founded on our ideas, but on our impressions.

    “Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be derived from reason; and that becaquse reason along, as we have already proved, can never have any such influence. Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.

    “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.”

    While it is true, then, that moral claims are “connected to nothing at all” in terms of a legitimate authority, they are obviously “connected to something” in terms of the reason they exist to begin with. The thing they are connected to is emotions. Evolved emotions are the source of morality, and in their absence morality as we know it would not exist.

    If the emotions evolved, they did not do so “for the good of the species.” They did not do so for the brotherhood of all mankind. They did not do so to promote “human flourishing,” nor for the welfare of humanity. They did not evolve because they were seeking a goal, or because they wanted to serve some purpose. They exist because, in an environment that was presumably different from the one most of us live in now, they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. In other words, they exist for the same reason that a stone exists on the surface of some planet orbiting a star in some distant galaxy – as a result of a natural process. It follows that they lack any power whatsoever to dictate, or even suggest, what we ought or ought not to do. It is impossible for moral claims to have any intrinsic authority whatever. The point of the article is that secular humanists, universally and illogically, behave as if such an imaginary authority exists. In other words, Staddon is right, practically by definition.

    What would rational behavior really look like in light of the above? We are moral beings, in the sense that our behavior is influenced by emotions similar to those that arise in the brains of many other animals. As social animals, it would be impractical for us to live in societies without rules based, at least in part, on our moral emotions. As unusually intelligent animals, we tend to reason about what our moral emotions are trying to tell us. Suppose we conclude they are trying to tell us that we ought to behave in a certain way. Suppose we also want others to behave in that way as well. If we really wanted to act rationally, we might go to those others and say something like, “Look, I’m experiencing an emotion, and it suggests that I act in a certain way, and that it would be good if you also acted in that way.” The others might reasonably inquire, “Is there any connection between acting in that way and the reasons that the relevant emotions exist to begin with?” You might reply, “No, it’s just an emotional whim, and there’s no reason that it ought to have any connection with the reason it exists. After all, you can’t derive an ought from an is.” The others might then consider whether the behavior in question will satisfy emotional whims that happen to be important to them, and, if so, all parties concerned might negotiate what rules should be established to satisfy the whim.

    Is anything of the sort what actually happens in the case of secular humanists? Hardly! Consider the case of one of the more prominent and “enlightened” secular humanists, Steven Pinker. Pinker’s emotions have suggested to him that it would be desirable for him and for the rest of us as well to behave within the rubric of what he refers to as “Enlightenment Now.” His book is based throughout on the assumption that there is a legitimate basis for his insistence that the satisfaction of what amount to his emotional whims must necessarily take precedence over the satisfaction of those of others. As Staddon points out in his article, and as is obvious from the above, no such legitimate basis is possible. Pinker notes that Trump and Nietzsche have interpreted what their emotions are trying to tell them differently from him. However, he takes no notice of the emotions that are the root cause of both interpretations at all. Instead, he portrays Trump and Nietzsche as bad men. This reflects another innate aspect of human moral behavior well described by Sir Arthur Keith in his “A New Theory of Human Evolution” – our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. It is a trait that our past has abundantly demonstrated can be extremely dangerous, and yet secular humanists commonly ignore it. On the contrary, to all appearances universally, they portray those who disagree with them as “bad.” If anyone disagrees with them, they react with virtuous indignation, denounce their opponent, and relegate them to their outgroup. This sort of behavior is certainly normal and predictable for the species of ape we belong to, but beyond that there is certainly nothing rational about it. Just as Staddon claims, it assumes an authority that cannot possibly exist. That’s why, IMHO, he’s right and Prof. Coyne is wrong.

    • The assumption that a moral code must be grounded in, and policed by, an authority is wrong. The assumption that morality must imposed itself on people is wrong.

      Each person requires a moral code because — like it or not — we evolved into a species that can and must think. We have awareness of death. We need a set of principles for ourselves that sustain life and allow prospering. We have transcended the automatic; we must release the clutch every day and self-actuate. “My moral code and behavior is my guru.”

      The evaluation of a moral code is individual. “If I live by my chosen values, do I survive and thrive, or do I need to change my morals to live better.”

      There is a different branch of philosophy which concerns “others.” That is political philosophy. It’s main purpose is to rectify the crimes of one person thinking/acting as if their morality includes infringing on another.

      • Jack Roe says

        Who told you that you think, Ape? =]

    • Indeed. I mean no parody when I summarize your argument thus: Coyne denies there are moral facts but proceeds as if he were in possession of the moral facts.

      • Exactly. Just look at what he’s written:

        “Religious morals based on faith, scripture and authority are not subject to examination or reason; they are dictates from on high.”

        In other words, my authority is superior to your authority because I’ve devoted more effort to reasoning about the purpose and goals of my emotions, even though by virtue of the reason they exist those emotions cannot possibly have any purpose or goal, nor do they point to some higher “truth,” because, as Westermarck pointed out, “…the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.”

        Prof. Coyne continues, “But is secular morality really connected to nothing? Hardly! One example is John Rawls’s ethics as outlined in A Theory of Justice. Rawls sees morality as promoting justice, and presents a thought experiment about how to achieve justice.”
        In other words, my version of morality is good because it is good. This characteristic of secular humanist moral arguments is virtually universal. Here’s another example of the same circular argument: “Here, then, we have a secular ethics connected not to “nothing,” but to a preference for justice, fairness, and impartiality.”

        Prof. Coyne then continues with the following non sequitur: “Nevertheless, I submit that Rawls’s method produces societies far better than those derived from the dictates of any religious faith.” On what basis is it possible to claim that one society is “better” than another unless there is an objective standard upon which to base that judgment? Such an objective standard is impossible if, as Prof. Coyne claims he believes, moral judgments are subjective. Note, too, that he bases his “authority” on making “society” better, in spite of the fact that the emotions responsible for the existence of morality could not possibly have evolved “for the good of society,” or “for the good of the species.” This statement is also an affirmation of the Blank Slate, based on the assumption that human moral emotions should not only be redirected to accomplish goals that have nothing to do with the reasons the emotions evolved, but that the emotions are so malleable that they can easily be “spoofed” in this way. That assumption, too, is false.

        Finally, Prof. Coyne writes, “There are many other forms of secular ethics based on ideas similar to Rawls’s. By claiming that humanistic morality is connected to ‘nothing at all,’ Staddon dismisses the entire history of secular ethics from philosophers like Spinoza, Kant, Mill, Hume, Rawls, and Singer.” The “nothing at all” Prof. Staddon refers to is not a lack of philosophers stacked up like so much cord wood, but the lack of any path to a legitimate authority for secular morals if what Darwin and Westermarck taught about the emotional origins of morality is true. Have a look about what Darwin wrote about morality in “The Descent of Man,” Prof. Coyne. Then explain to us why he was wrong and Spinoza, Kant, Mill, Hume, Rawls, Singer, or any other army of philosophers you choose to marshal in your favor were right.

        • @HelianUnbound

          I’m sure Professor Coyne would thrash your long post with his little finger — it is already torn to shreds on its face. He possibly has made it a policy not to respond.

          I do not speak for him.

          I’ll just say that your “other words” are you own twists and have no correlation to the Coyne quotes you cited.

          The take-away from what you wrote is this: you have a powerful need to drive morality through a “path to a legitimate authority.”

          That is an error.

      • @Ken B

        Professor Coyne, by asserting the truth of the honorable moral qualities of “justice, fairness, and impartiality,” stands miles and miles above those asserting “morality comes from God and he is in control of reality and will send you burning in hell for all eternity if you don’t obey His moral commandments.”

        • @John Donahue
          What you ignore when you say Coyne asserts moral truths is that Coyne also denies there are moral truths to be asserted. That is Helian’s point.

          • @Ken B

            There are rungs of hell. Those preaching the existence of hell (and heaven) are on a lower rung, down where the fire is hottest. They envy those above them, who based their claim on justice, fairness, and impartiality, for humans living on earth.

    • augustine says

      Helian,
      Thanks for your interesting commentary and parsing. You say I believe that evolution is true, and that religious people are suffering from a delusion. You made a good case I think that secular humanists are suffering from a delusion also. If both of these are out, then we are left with morality derived from personal autonomy. This would naturally involve both emotions and reasoning. Surely there is some capacity for delusions there, too?

      • The illusions spawned by moral emotions are extremely powerful because that is the way in which they were most effective in enhancing the odds that the relevant genes would survive and reproduce. We now live in environments utterly unlike anything that existed when the emotions evolved. In spite of that, we blindly attempt to “reason” about what the emotions are trying to tell us, coming up with a bewildering variety of different solutions. In spite of that, we are cocksure that our solution is right. We react with virtuous indignation at the contradictory solutions of others, often responding with outrage. We consider them “bad,” and imagine we have a “duty” to fight them in order to serve the “good.” We assume we have an imaginary “authority” for behaving in this way. I do not suggest that we can get along without morality. Whatever morality we happen to end up with will function the same way morality always has, regardless of what I or anyone else happens to write about the subject. I simply suggest that continuing to construct our moralities based on blindly responding to emotions, without an appreciation of why those emotions exist, and with an almost complete lack of understanding of what kind of animals we are, is not only irrational, but dangerous. This is particularly true of the way the moral sausage is currently made in western societies; by monopolization of what Marx might have called “the social means of propaganda” by those most adept at manipulating moral emotions, forcing a particular version of “good” down everyone else’s throat, including, as Prof. Staddon notes, via the power of law.

    • John Hunter says

      Thank you for your summary giving more background to the debate. I feel Quillette should publish articles like this in a manner that present things more in context and perspective by providing some background. It did seem a bit of a disjointed response as a stand alone article.

      I would agree ingroups and outgroups as described by Sir Arthur Keith in his “A New Theory of Human Evolution” can lead to tribalism and all the negative “us and them” connotations that goes with it, the bloody history of Hutu and Tutsi conflict being an extreme example.

      However cannot agree with Hume’s “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.”

      Hume’s philosophy censures reason. I object basing my objection in terms of a contrast between a censure of reason and a critique of reason but moreover according to Hume, both Descartes and his critics are mistaken because the term “self” has no meaning.

      I would explore with some enthusiasm the relevance existentialists give to the “self” The essential self is seen not struggling to adapt but in existence. This is because existentialism is a doctrine of immediate involvement in existence. However, in a broader social context the self in existence presupposes the existence of others. In fact, the existence of self depends on the existence of others.

      And living with others, interacting with others, we do reason insofar it is possible to do so although we are not rational creatures we do attempt to act rationally at times and that is an evolving process.

      • I don’t think Hume censures reason. He merely says that, in order to reason, one must have something to reason about. He pointed out that, without a “sense of morals,” reason could never do anything more than chase its own tale, with arguments such as, “This is good, because it’s good, because it’s good…” and so on. Several other 17th century British, Scotch, and Irish philosophers, both secular and religious, published similar arguments. I think Francis Hutcheson did an even better job than Hume in this regard, essentially proving that morality cannot be derived from reason alone. In his opinion our “moral sense” was put there by God, but it really doesn’t make any difference as far as the argument from pure reason is concerned.

    • Andrew Roddy says

      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.

      If, as I do, you agree with the general thrust of this observation, is there not a clear implication that the ‘category of truth’ referenced here is utterly redundant and wholly unfit for purpose?

      • I think what Westermarck is saying is simply that one cannot make true judgments about things that don’t exist.

        • Andrew Roddy says

          The content of our emotions (the basis of our moral reasoning) don’t exist? Or is it that they have no truth function? They clearly do exist and will continue to in spite of any attempt we might make to define truth in such a way that it cannot accommodate them.

          • No, what Westermarck is saying is that good and evil don’t exist as objective things, independent of anyone’s subjective opinion about them. His book (“The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas”) is free online, in case you want it from the horse’s mouth:

            https://www.questia.com/read/6107878/the-origin-and-development-of-the-moral-ideas

            The essence of what he had to say about the subject is in the first chapter, so you don’t have to wade through the whole book.

          • Andrew Roddy says

            @HelianUnbound

            Thanks for the link. By instinct I agree entirely with Westermarck’s main idea that our moral ideas are primarily informed by emotion and attempts to clothe them in the garb of objective reason have contrived to obscure the truth of this – and continue to. I need no convincing here. It is a simple idea and for all that it might appear profoundly, existentially threatening. Perhaps rightly so.

            It’s not that that causes me to stand back. He tells us in his introduction; ‘By tracing them (our moral ideas) to their source it will be found that not a few of these notions have their origin in sentimental likings and antipathies, to which a scrutinising and enlightened judge can attach little importance;’

            Is he himself in thrall here to the very fallacy he so diligently anatomises? If these ‘sentimental likings and antipathies’ are the basis on which our entire moral edifice is founded; our concept of justice, the reasons we go to war etc, might not a scrutinising and enlightened judge take the view that they are of very great (literally fundamental) importance indeed. Does he ironically assign them no value because they cannot, by their nature, be contained in his enlightened, objective rational scheme?

        • augustine says

          Helian,
          You say, as has been said many times by many others, that good and evil don’t exist as objective things, independent of anyone’s subjective opinion about them. So if humans ceased to exist then presumably this observation would be borne out, but it wouldn’t matter at the same time. Yet the problem of good vs. evil is very real as anyone on earth can tell you. The granted subjective nature of this problem is not the problem. The development and maintenance of a scheme that will serve us in navigating our own vagaries, to promote flourishing and reduce suffering, is the problem. It is something we require. There can be different schemes for different populations, and cultural changes over time, and even some mixing of ideas, but reasoning alone will not get us there.

          One of the most profound entries in the Bible is the story of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge. A lot of people seem to miss the fact that “knowledge” in this case is, specifically, the knowledge of the difference between good and evil. Whenever and however we adopted this fundamental idea, by divine revelation or some natural selection process, it is profound and still inspires men to doubt and probe the idea of moral truth itself.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @augustine

            “the Tree of Knowledge”

            Thanks. Adam and Coyne agree that they will make up their own minds what is good and bad independently of God. They both choose rationality. God warns them that this won’t go well, and it hasn’t.

    • Roo says

      Regarding whether or not morality is entirely subjective in a postmodern, Alice in Wonderland, nihilistic sort of way, I think it’s only an issue if you frame the topic in unnecessarily (to my mind) binary, concrete, black and white terms. Somewhere between objective and subjective there is intersubjective. Somewhere between naturalism and idealism is quantum physics (or really, just regular ‘ol physics, which is also somewhere between the two – a world that appears to exist but doesn’t, really. But does. Sort of.) Between the empirical and the imaginary there is the formulaic. Etc.

      Putting that aside, though, I don’t understand your seeming focus on the fact that this conundrum – again, if you are inclined to view things in that manner – is somehow specific to secular humanists. If such a conundrum actually exists, in what way does God resolve it? Because he has smoting power? If that is the case, by your logic then really, smiting (smoting? smooting?) is the path to legitimate objective authority, and so all one has to do is follow might makes right logic in order to achieve objective morality. For reasons that only God knows about? Ok, I guess, but if God knows about them then presumably such reasons *exist, and humans need only figure out what the key to objective morality is. Because God is a God of ‘is-ness’? That puts you pretty much back in the postmodern camp with the secular humanists anyhow.

      If justifying one’s morality is a problematic issue, it is a problematic issue for all involved, no one group gets to claim they are somehow more objective for whatever reason. That is why, you’ll notice, most religions, somewhere within their texts, posit that external morality is not even particularly necessary, in the most ultimate sense, once all beings know God, develop a true relationship with Jesus, become enlightened, achieve moksha, realize their Buddha Nature, etc. This essentially just chucks the idea of conventional moral codes altogether, it doesn’t in particular give an ultimate answer on the topic.

      • @Roo

        The problem isn’t specific to secular humanists. I focused on them because that is what Prof. Staddon’s original article was about, and because I agree with him that the “because reason” authority for moral judgments is just as delusional as the “because God” authority.

        By no means does anything I’ve written chuck the idea of conventional moral codes, or imply moral nihilism. Our species will continue to have moral codes because we have an extremely powerful innate predisposition to make moral judgments, and to imagine that good and evil are real, objective things. The power of that illusion will continue regardless of what I or anyone else happens to write about it. I merely suggest that, whatever our personal goals and aspirations happen to be, it may be expedient to construct our moral codes in light of an accurate understanding of what morality is, and why it exists. To the extent that I am right about morality, and from my own point of view, it would decidedly not be expedient to continue to allow secular humanists to dictate behavior to the rest of us based on illusions about good and evil tarted up as “reason,” by virtue of an authority that, as Prof. Staddon has correctly pointed out, is purely imaginary.

        • Roo says

          @Helian,

          Thanks for the clarification, I wasn’t sure but when you alluded to secular humanists “sawing off the branch they were sitting on” it sounded as if you thought they had a solid branch in the first place.

          I still think your parsing of the topic equals nihilism or something close to it, but, as these are ethereal categories, just my opinion. You acknowledge that morality is deeply functional and consequential on the one hand, and then conclude it is “purely imaginary” on the other, agreeing with Staddon’s “based on nothing” view. To my mind you are putting everything that cannot be perceived directly with the five senses into *much too broad of a bin. Information, by such strict empirical standards, is also “imaginary”, but we would not say “Let’s let all information disappear tomorrow, or, anyone can make up whatever, from computer codes to the news to my memories of my phone number – it’s all imaginary anyways.” I would say that we certainly acknowledge that there are subcategories of that which is not sensorially based, and those categories are extremely consequential. Math and the imaginings of a child with a crayon are not treated as similar phenomena simply because of their lack of empirical status. Both exist somewhere in the ether and can only manifest through the five senses given human agency – but the wrong math will bring down an airplane while the ‘wrong’ crayon scribblings on a piece of paper bother no one.

  16. DNY says

    There is no rule of deduction that proceeds from a premise in the indicative to a conclusion in the imperative. The notion that morality can be derived by reason from observed facts is an absurdity. In every attempt, there is always lurking in the background some axiomatic “oughts” (one or mor of minimize human suffering or minimize suffering, maximize pleasure, the equal moral worth of all human beings, or maybe only of human beings who have had the good fortune to be born,…) that is accepted as self-evident, which acceptance is itself an act of faith, from which, together with observable facts more specific “oughts” are derived.

    Without some transcendent source of morality, what basis is there to choose between the morality our civilization inherited from Christendom, the moral project of today’s “Social Justice Warriors”, or the moral project of the Third Reich?

    And is the author really sure that attaching morality to a mythology doesn’t strengthen it? Man is the animal who tells stories. Stories are the way we communicate the sorts of truths that cannot be reduced to mathematics, moral truths among them. If you want some stories that bear on this discussion, but don’t want to read anyone’s scriptures, try Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamozov and The Demons (the proper translation of the title usually rendered as The Possessed) suggest themselves. If that’s too much, consider the commentary on them provided by Fr. Steven Kostoff at http://www.pravmir.com/article_678.html .

    • @DNY:

      “Without some transcendent source of morality, what basis is there to choose between the morality our civilization inherited from Christendom, the moral project of today’s “Social Justice Warriors”, or the moral project of the Third Reich?”

      The basis is human nature. The very fact that you think that that’s a telling question to ask shows that you are judging by the very same human nature.

      • DNY says

        Human nature? Are you making a Natural Law argument — a Western version of apprehending the good by the noetic sense — or claiming that somehow what the moral good is can be apprehended by observation of humanity with the material senses?

        Let me make my point sharper — absent a transcendent source of morality, what basis is there to choose between a moral code that encourages humility, kindness, solicitude for the downtrodden, the strong protecting the weak, the clever using their wits to benefit others (“slave morality” I think Nietzsche called such a code) and one which sees it as right and proper for the strong (or the clever or the “high born” or those born rich) to act after their own desires, to see the weak (or the stupid or the “base born” or the poor) means to ends, rather than as worthy of consideration? Observation of human nature over the span of history been quite consistent with both sorts of moral codes.

        So, I hope you’re making a Natural Law argument.

        • @DNY:

          “Let me make my point sharper — absent a transcendent source of morality, what basis is there to choose between a moral code that encourages humility, kindness, solicitude for the downtrodden, the strong protecting the weak, the clever using their wits to benefit others …”

          As above, the basis for choosing is human nature. Do you want to live in a society structured that way or not? If people do, then they can.

          • DNY says

            You say “human nature”, but seem to mean individual human desires. This then seems to be the unprovable, unobservable, “ought” on which you rest morality: that humans ought follow their desires.

          • @DNY: No, I do not say that humans “ought” follow their desires, just that they are free to follow their desires. So, no, secular morality does not rest on unprovable assumptions.

          • @DNY: No, I do not say that humans “ought” to follow their desires, just that they are free to follow their desires. So no, secular morality does not rest on unprovable assumptions.

        • S.Cheung says

          DNY,
          “absent a transcendent source of morality”

          How many such sources would, or could, there be? And how many such sources are there?

    • Saul Sorrell-Till says

      I have no problem conceding that morality is subjective, as are all values. Of course they are: if the human race dies out, they die out too. D’you think they’re going to linger in the vacuum as the heat death of the universe approaches? It’s such a childlike way to deal with reality, to fill it with ghost-ideas that linger on after we go.

      But crucially religious arguments about objective morality carry no weight either, for three very simple reasons:

      a. religious morality is cherry-picked from the bible(or whatever holy book we’re talking about). This is painfully obvious – it begins as soon as you ask a theist where their moral beliefs come from.

      b. religious morality relies on the existence of a god to justify it, and the existence of god(particularly a specific Christian/Islamic/etc god) is one of the weakest claims in philosophy. It is so riddled with absurdities as to be indefensible in conventional terms.

      c. most importantly the idea that god can make a moral claim true was dismantled by the Euthypryo Dilemma. A lovely, elegant piece of reasoning that no theist has ever managed to refute.

      Just accept reality – we’re alone in the universe, and we can’t rely on brute divine justification for our morality. Besides, how many corpses has that piled up over the millennia? We have to use something called persuasion and argumentation – I have to accept that I don’t have a divine warrant to push your arguments aside, and you have to accept likewise. That is what the Enlightenment was partly about and it has allowed human beings to flourish like never before.

      • augustine says

        we can’t rely on brute divine justification for our morality.

        We can rely on brute human nature justification for our morality instead, according to your philosophy. The 20th Century Communists would agree with you. They pushed plenty of “arguments” aside, along with the people who held them.

        • Softclocks says

          The last desperate stance of the faltering theist.
          “Look at Russia!”

        • Saul Sorrell-Till says

          This is what you said: “We can rely on brute human nature justification for our morality instead, according to your philosophy”

          And this is what I said before that: “We have to use something called persuasion and argumentation”

          How you got the former from the latter, who knows? You seem to think that if an argument doesn’t leave you any room to work then you can just make up stuff that the other person said.

      • rickoxo says

        I’m in your camp and points a, b and c are well made. But I’m surprised you’d make the final argument you made, about divine justifications piling up corpses.

        Since we don’t believe God, god or anything like that exists, all there are are people. So it wasn’t God that piled up corpses, it was people, using phony ideas to prop up their power. Whether they use religious ideas or secular ideas, people use ideas to prop up their power and corpses regularly follow.

        You can’t argue that religion doesn’t exist and that it’s just one of the many scams people pull and then turn around and blame it for causing problems.

        • S.Cheung says

          rickoxo,
          I believe Saul’s point is that god does not exist; religion(s) most certainly do, and they have scammed, do scam, and will continue to scam, those who are ripe for scamming.

          I do agree it’s people who pile up corpses. History is littered with examples of this being done precisely on the divine justification of which Saul speaks. And now, in western societies at least, we’ve taken that capacity out of the hands of those who claim to act on divine edict. But as Augustine suggests, that may not be a perfect formula either. Nonetheless, I accept that imperfection as the …ahem….lesser of two evils.

          • Saul Sorrell-Till says

            Yes, that was my point. Cheers.

          • rickoxo says

            We’re on the same page here and maybe this is too subtle of a distinction, but blaming the scamming on religions keeps making it sound like there’s something there more than just people. Religions don’t scam, people scam.

            Individual people and/or groups of people use all sorts of stories to scam. Organized religion has been a popular story used for scamming throughout history and many religions have been organized by groups of people to centralize power and maintain control. But the religion itself doesn’t do anything, the same way communism itself doesn’t do anything.

            Again, this might be too subtle of a distinction and maybe not even completely true, but I think a tenet of actual, accurate scientism is that ideas don’t act. They might contain truth and describe regular patterns of behavior, but ideas don’t do anything.

  17. A C Harper says

    I suspect very young children are exposed to ‘baby morals’ before they are old enough to think about them or remember being told.

    Baby morals such as:
    eat your food
    don’t eat that it’s nasty
    play nice
    don’t hit your brother
    do what I say

    and so on prepare the young mind for later ‘regularising of social rules’ just as young childrens’ speech “I falled over” becomes “I fell over” in time. But the ‘learning’ and determination of acceptable actions is hidden from introspection by older children and adults because no retrievable memories exist.

    Since people tend to improvise retrospective justifications for their actions (see The Mind Is Flat by Nick Chater) then people who have been raised in religious societies will believe that their moral dispositions come from a hidden source (god) and people who have been raised in more secular societies will believe that their moral dispositions come from a hidden source (reason).

    Which might go some way to explaining why morals vary from religion to religion, from society to society, from time to time… very young children learn more appropriate social rules for their time and place.

  18. Michael says

    “The fact that religious morals are derived from religious stories—myths in Mr. Coyne’s book—does not make them any more dismissible than Mr. Coyne’s morals, which are connected to nothing at all. In his own agnostic terms, all are matters of faith.

    What a thicket we must chop through here!”

    You must forgive me. I’m not sure I see the thicket. Religious morals are derived from stories, which makes them dismissible or not based on faith (I bet you could even apply reason to many of the foundational tenets).
    Mr. Coyne’s morals are derived from reason, which are dismissible or not based on faith, in this case perhaps based on the acceptance of premises.
    At some point, it’s turtles all the way down.

    “[T]heir connection to myths has promoted values many see as repugnant. The scriptures of Christianity and Islam, for instance, have been used to justify the oppression of women, gays, and unbelievers”

    Is that what makes them wrong? That a modern group misused the obvious cultural artifacts (oppressive rules about sex – these are not the foundation of religious belief. That’s simply a straw man part of your argument) that are a part of every religious text to justify hating who they wanted to hate anyway? Are you saying that no secular morality has ever been used to justify the hating, oppression, or killing of people who don’t fall in line (non-believers)? I’d just take a look around you at the secularly moral modern crowd to see how that is playing out.

    “There’s simply no reason why morality should be improved by connecting it to mythology.”

    Opinion. There is a lot of depth of truth that can be packed into stories and myths. As long as you don’t mistake the trees for the forest.

    “But is secular morality really connected to nothing? Hardly! One example is John Rawls’s ethics as outlined in A Theory of Justice. Rawls sees morality as promoting justice”

    Ironic. Where do you think the concepts of Justice as a higher order principle were first expressed? It’s fundamental in religious thinking. The idea that Rawls simply would have “come to the idea” without being steeped in a culture that emerged from a Judeo-Christian ethic is a steep claim to prove.

    Is your final suggestion that secular morality = Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance? Seems to be a hefty claim that rules out what other secular moralists might disagree with. How do you work out the first order principle? What is the better preference in the “not all preferences are equal?” How do you come to that?

    And do you think that religious thought was based in something else? Something besides a sense of the highest order principle? A good life? Justice? Submission to something greater than myself as an individual?

    Just not sure you’ve demonstrated anything interesting here

    • @Michael:

      “Mr. Coyne’s morals are derived from reason, which are dismissible or not based on faith, in this case perhaps based on the acceptance of premises.”

      No, Mr Coyne’s morals are not derived from reason, and they are not based on faith, nor on “acceptance of premises” — instead they are rooted in human values.

      And whatever you think of that, human values are all there is, all we have (since religion is invented by us, out of our values).

    • GreenCrane says

      “these are not the foundation of religious belief. ”

      What is the foundation of religious belief? How does one distinguish mere cultural artifacts from core, objective, eternally-true religious values?

      And is there a universality to these values? How would one go about proving/supporting it if there were?

  19. DNY, why do you jump to deduction? It is true that deduction does not proceed to prove the existence of anything. It only proves that a given thing, pointed to and already existing, is an instance of “this thing or that thing” as previously identified by induction.

    Just because you expect the wrong tool, deduction, to do the work of the correct tool, induction, does not give you the standing to dismiss the non-mystical foundation of knowledge and truth-testing, including testing morality.

    The entire Hume razor melts away when induction is un-banished.

    • DNY says

      Induction is a fancy name for the sloppy deduction of generalities from instances (there’s a joke about all odd numbers being prime that rests upon its use by engineers and physicists).

      No matter how many instances of facts we observe we cannot from them either induce or deduce an “ought”, a “should”, or a “must” in the moral sense without some prexisting notion of what is good, which cannot itself be observed, unless it is observed by what the Fathers of the Church call “the noetic sense”, the existence of which tends to be denied by secularists. Whether held as an axiom, regarded as ‘self-evident’ or observed by the noetic sense, knowledge of the fundamental “oughts” rest upon an appeal to a transcendent order.

      • @DNY

        Again, you blindly assert that “deducing” an ought is the issue. Stop doing that. No one ever claims they “deduce” a normative from the facts of reality.

        However, if you point to something that exists, and identify it with a claim of what it is, deduction will be your only method — and it will rely completely on existents proven to exist and identified by induction.

        Induction is the basis for reason, science, and knowing reality. You owe it an apology.

        • DNY says

          Obviously “deduce” is a loaded word for you. Replace it with “deriving” or some other word which can ambiguously mean “induce” or “deduce” in the sense you want to use them in all of my posts. Is that you sole objection to what I wrote?

          Avoiding the loaded word, let me reiterate my point: unless one admits, as I said, what the Fathers of the Church call “the noetic sense”, one cannot observe either moral principles or data in the imperative or normative from which one could induce (does that make you happy?) a moral principle. Nor can one by any combination of induction and deduction solely derive from observations in the indicative “is” any conclusion or general principle in the imperative “ought”.

          • Words have meaning. Deduction is a specific form of reason. Endless claims of not being able to “deduce” morality from that which exists adds up to a gigantic mountain of cynical destruction. Why? because it pivots on the denial of induction. Why? because induction only operates on existents that exist, and completely rejects all noumanal claims, including the wanderings of ecclesiastical minds amid the things of imagination and mystical existence (noetic dreams). It does not allow them onto the field of play in the first place.

            This makes The Church Fathers unhappy.

            A person’s moral code, if based only on things that exist, things which have been proven to exist by induction, is valid. The person checks the validity by

            Is dictates ought.

          • “…The person checks the validity by ” [accidental post too early.]

            A person checks the validity of his code by staring at objective reality, including all of his character, mind, decisions, and actions. As long as he carries the axiom of life, he will avoid contradiction.

          • DNY says

            @ John Donohue

            “Is dictates ought” is precisely the assertion I (and many thinkers you want to disregard) deny, or rather deny when “is” is limited to what you claim to be “existents that exist”, and the noetic sense is dismissed out of hand as you do.

            I refer you to my other posts on this thread for more critique of “is dictates ought”. (I do not feel like summarizing them here since you can search for them.)

          • Despite your hope, I decided not to deny that is dictates ought. Since “is” happens to be the default ostensive reality, the burden is on you to explain how morality should be based on something other than what “is.”

            I also confirm that I did not form my rejection of needing to base morality on mystical intuition “out of hand.” I studied it long and hard, because the evidence that some championed this notion was difficult to believe, and I had to let it sink in.

          • DNY says

            @John Donohue Of course morality is based on what is but the part of that which is on which it is based is apprehended by the noetic sense, rather than the material senses. Western Christendom phrased the moral apprehensions of our noetic sense in terms of “natural law”, but being an Orthodox Christian, I don’t usually use that formulation.

            But what is, is a reflection of the ground of being, prior even to the distinction between what is and what is not, which we theists conceive of as analogous to a person and call God (for a number of reasons, among which in my case is the fact that science when it works best reduces description of reality to the abstractions of mathematics, suggesting some manner of likeness between human reason and the ground of being, which likeness was once expressed poetically in the phrase ‘come let us make Man in Our image and likeness’), but which, when not thought of as personal (if you really don’t like that) might be called the Tao.

        • S.Cheung says

          John D.,
          as you recall, I’m with you most of the way.

          In this realm, I tend to fall back to Harris.

          So if “is” is good, it is reasonable to presume we “ought” to do more of it. How do we determine whether “is” is good? (my answer would be to slide in Moral Landscape at this point).

          • Well, “Is” is simply that which exists. All of the existents in existence. “Good” is a value judgment made by humans.

            Can you reframe your question in other words? I don’t get the drift of it.

          • S.Cheung says

            John D.,
            I would summarize your argument as: Objective reality demonstrates IS. OUGHTs simply follow, or is a natural consequence of IS.

            We want more Good than Bad. So we should promote following up of the Good, while suppressing follow-up of the Bad.

            But how do we distinguish Good from Bad? You mentioned “value judgement” which I think answers my question. But how do we make that value judgement? That’s where I would bring in Harris. You also mentioned constraints of laws to impede those who make such value judgments poorly, which I agree with.

          • @ S.Cheung

            “But how do we distinguish Good from Bad? ”

            A moral code held by an individual has a purpose: to guide him in the attaining the values he has chosen. This by necessity begins with life: sustaining and thriving as a living organism.

            How does he test the goodness of it? He examines the results. If he lives by his chosen code and is miserable and depressed, he should re-evaluate the code, and/or self-judge if he is (whoops) betraying it, causing it to fail. This is the “examined life.”

          • S.Cheung says

            John D.,
            “How does he test the goodness of it? He examines the results.”

            But i think this is where the skeptics come in. To a “bad” person, what he considers a “good” result may/would likely be considered “bad” by a “good” person (one would speculate that a “bad” person doing what “good” people consider to be “bad” things would actually not be miserable, and feel they “ought” to do more of it). You would then say that laws would constrain such “bad” people whose self-test fails to correct them. Then the skeptics would say: how then do you prevent the advent of a “bad” society full of “bad” people who will not be motivated to codify laws that constrain “bad” results? Cue references to 1930s Germany, Soviets, Mao, communism…I’ve seen that movie before.

            As mentioned, for me, this is where Harris beckons.

          • S.Cheung

            “… how then do you prevent the advent of a “bad” society full of “bad” people who will not be motivated to codify laws that constrain “bad” results? Cue references to 1930s Germany, Soviets, Mao, communism…I’ve seen that movie before.”

            Thus, the necessity for a powerful government that does nothing but vigorously retaliates against violation of one human by another, and has no power except that. And has zero power to proactively coerce its own people. This keeps the likelihood of totalitarianism low, and peaceful freedom for individuals high. Only a masterful philosophy of freedom, autonomy of the individual, personal responsibility, and clearly defined property rights can bring this worldview into existence, and sustain it. This rules out theocracy and political collectivism.

            I suggest there is no other path to civilization.

            “As mentioned, for me, this is where Harris beckons.”
            This is your third reference of Harris, and I assume you mean Sam Harris. However, i have no idea the content of this oblique reference.

          • S.Cheung says

            John D.,
            yes, Sam Harris. His book Moral Landscape. I will not do it anywhere near the justice it deserves. But from a neuroscience standpoint, he proposes an absolute worst state that can be perceived and/or conceived of. I transpose it to a Kelvin scale, at 0 K. Anything else is warmer, or less bad. Progressive good is less and less bad, or warmer and warmer, or higher and higher in his moral landscape conception. He proposes “good” essentially as a measurable neurobiologic state, and the pursuit of “better” as an evolutionary construct.

            +++++++++

            This morals question is a mental exercise that interests me insofar as I am curious how far it can be taken. But practically speaking, I am far more pragmatic. Take any “Good” Book, remove the theistic mumbo-jumbo, and treat it as any good bedtime story, written by humans, of a narrative passed on through the ages. Use the stuff that passes your own “reasonableness” test, then circular file the rest. The product of historical experiential trial-and-error filtered through the prism of modern scientific reasoning suffices for day-to-day application for me, without my worrying about whether my action today necessarily germinated from the neuronal synapses of ancient man.

          • @ S.Cheung

            You jumped right to “Harris” and did not respond to my post. This left hanging my assertion of “ethics as only personal, and law as the remedy for violation.”

            I’ll say that the Harris scale idea didn’t grip me in the least; it is vulnerable to self-dissolution, since it pivots on an assumption of being able to judge “goodness” a priori. Does Harris propose using this scale to make laws?

          • S.Cheung says

            John D.,
            ““ethics as only personal, and law as the remedy for violation.””

            I think that’s fine, when it is backed as you say by a very powerful government. But it does require said government to never corrupt itself. And the skeptics will say “what happens when this government turns itself towards nefarious tasks” or “how do you keep such a powerful government on the straight and narrow”. I skipped over it because, as I said, I’ve seen that loop before.

      • Peter from Oz says

        If you jump over a cliff you will die
        You do not wish to die
        Therefore, you ought not to jump over the cliff.

        Of course such is to ought deductions are discovered at an early age and are then stored deep in the mind so that they become like the sort of evidence that a judge can take as read under the common law rule of judicial notice. But the fact that these are notions that have become accepted as part of life and are no longer consciously uttered does not make them any less true.
        As to religion, it seemed to produce the morality that all these secular johnnies all believe in anyway. Please explain to me, all you clever clogs, how the last 6 of the Ten Commandments plus the Golden Rule as stated in Matthew 7:12 are not the basis of our modern moral viewpoint. Yes Rawls and his boring buddies will bore you witless trying to explain the basis of law and ignore what actually happened in history. Back to first principles they will go. And therein lies their error.
        Those who established our morals did not believe in natural law or behavioural psychology. Nor were they philosophers, who really only explained what was already in existence and tied to seek what was good within the confines of existing conditions. But most people until recently based their morality on religious exhortations and upon social practice. We have lost the religion, but much of the morality remains.
        A child born today in the West will grow up in a society that believes that stealing, cheating, killing and being nasty to others is wrong. That society will not justify those moral ideas with religion, but they will have derived them from the past when religion was the force that made those ideas stick.
        Morality is necessary because it is the binding agent that allows people to live together in safety. It is something that has appeared in all societies. But often people cannot accept this simple answer. So they invent some reason for the existence of moral norms. All such inventions are religious in my opinion because they seek not only to discover the root of morality but to censure those who do not agree. Is not calling someone a “racist” not the same as calling him a “heretic”?
        I am sure that if we could go back in time, the same people who are today’s progressives would have been the most prudish of the Victorians and the most dour of the Puritans.

      • S.Cheung says

        DNY,
        if your “oughts” are derived from some transcendent order, which you can never personally attain, nor test/examine in this reality, how do you know your “oughts” ought to be so? And on what basis do you accept them to be such?

  20. Coyne looks pretty dishonest here for he has misrepresented what Staddon said in the first article. Staddon did not endorse “the old story” that secular humanism is a religion. Instead he rejected that claim as overbroad, and narrowed it to just its moral claims.
    Imagine someone writing, “Its an old story now, Donald Trump is a genius” and then proceeding to quote people who say this, whilst calling them mistaken, and finally to conclude only that Trump is a brilliant name-caller. It would be wrong to assert that someone thinks Trump is actually a genius. Yet that is precisely the structure Staddon uses.

  21. David Doyal says

    John Donohue
    How does one test morality? Or the testing of the truth of morality?

      • [Okay, now they are appearing …]

        @David Doyal

        re: How does one test morality?

        A person chooses values that are worth living for. To attain them, they adapt a moral code. Sometimes all they do is accede to the code defaulted on them by parents and others, yet nonetheless they are responsible for the code they accept.

        How do they test the truth of it? They examine their results. If they live by their chosen code and are miserable and depressed, they should re-evaluate the code, and/or self-judge if they are (whoops) betraying it, causing it to fail. This is the “examined life.”

        If a person worries about whether his chosen code is a Universal Truth, he is off-kilter with his own reality, which is finite.

        • DNY says

          So the successful psychopath whose “values worth living for” are accumulation of power over others and material possessions, who uses people as means to his ends and never ends up miserable and depressed because his transgressions of society’s laws are never brought to light has a “true” moral code, while the Christian monk whose “values worth living for” are poverty, chastity, humility and obedience, undergoing the “dark night of the soul” has a “false” moral code because he’s miserable and depressed?

          I’m torn between likening your position to bovine excrement and calling it damnable nonsense. I think I’ll go with the latter.

          • No, DNY, your totalizing is rejected. As well as the well-couched insulting usage at the end. You must be terrified to hurl such invective.

            If anyone attempts to live according to a personal code of violating others, a second branch of philosophy kicks in: political philosophy. AKA: he is a criminal and will be stopped. Any such person who “gets away with” a life of crime is rare. Perhaps you will admit that a bullhorn on the corner blaring out the warning of eternal burning in hell for crimes will not deter this sly evil person.

            I make no claim about the “truth/falsity” of the moral code chosen by the monk. He will be happy and thrive under it … or not. The obsession with “true” or perfect in regard to morality is a hallmark of the theist.

          • DNY says

            @ John Donohue You made a claim about the truth (or falsity) of moral codes:

            “How do they test the truth of it? They examine their results. If they live by their chosen code and are miserable and depressed, they should re-evaluate the code,…”

            to which I was responding, and which applied I applied to the two examples. The monk was miserable, he was in the “dark night of the soul”.

            Fobbing off the problem with psychopathy to “political philosophy” isn’t very helpful. It is a cute trick, though, you get to have your moral subjectivism and recreate moral universals and the benefits they provide as “law” and “politics”, but not as morals!

            And yes, I am a theist. An Orthodox Christian to be more precise. Anathematizing moral relativism hardly something undertaken out of terror, but out of conviction. Your views, if they really are as they seem from what you have written, are bad for humanity.

          • @DNY

            My use of the word “truth” was on purpose, to resonate with the respectful question asked by David Doyal – I put my point in his words. It means “did your moral code serve you well in survival and prospering of your life.”

            Not TRUTH, such as sought and demanded by theists. I am aware that the insatiable quest to believe in universal absolute moral truth by Christians is relief that they get told how to live and don’t have to go by the judgment of their own mind. It is often closely followed by the corollary, “so, shouldn’t it be the law of the land?”

            Psychopathy: some of them harm only themselves, stewing in hate for everything. Some of them carry it out to the street and commit crime. Political philosophy (government, courts, rectification of crime) is the proper response to the later form of psychopathy. That is not a cute trick.

          • DNY says

            @John Donohue Separating law from morality is indeed a cute trick. As I said you get to keep subjective, relativistic morality and get the benefits of universally applicable morality from law instead.

            Some of us regard laws that are not grounded in some moral principle as illegitimate and tyrannous. We regard as most legitimate laws which make crimes of acts which are immoral, though that position does not require us to hold that all immoral acts should be criminalized — indeed I shudder to think about what would become of society if we criminalized covetousness. Mind you the grounding in moral principles may be at some remove and the specifics of the law may involve some arbitrariness — traffic and taxation laws come to mind.

          • @DNY

            “Separating law from morality is indeed a cute trick. As I said you get to keep subjective, relativistic morality and get the benefits of universally applicable morality from law instead.”

            Ethics:
            The only recipient from a person adopting a given moral code is the person. No one else is directly harmed or helped. You can call this subjective and relativistic if you wish, but it is up to the person to judge if their chosen moral code is rightly working for them to gain and keep their chosen values. Yes, they (not God or society) are the ‘subject’ and this engagement is “relative” only to them.

            This obviates the need for a “perfect” divine, absolute universal morality that settles like a blanket over all people, or is coerced onto them. It does not forbid one person attempting to persuade others to adopt a given ethics.

            Politics: (law)
            Since law is not involved in imposing a moral code on everyone, it can constrain itself to rectifying the acts of individuals who violate others. That is a “should,” of course, but the only one law need heed. The job is to destroy attempts to “spread badness.”

            This is called civilization.

          • S.Cheung says

            DNY,
            “We regard as most legitimate laws which make crimes of acts which are immoral, though that position does not require us to hold that all immoral acts should be criminalized — indeed I shudder to think about what would become of society if we criminalized covetousness”

            This is one area where theism faceplants in practical application, separate from founding issues with its own hypothesis. While I find fundamentalism deplorable in all iterations and guises, at least I concede that to be intellectually consistent.

            But in your case, quite literally, who made you god to pick and choose which of the moral codes from that transcendental order to codify in law, and to which to turn the other cheek?

            Going back to Staddon’s initial post and his initial objections, this would precisely be the reason why religious folk who run for political office need to be vetted up the wazoo.

          • S.Cheung says

            DNY,
            “So the successful psychopath whose “values worth living for””

            Likening secular morality to simply “doing what feels good is right” is silly. Because no person is an island. And that person’s actions have consequences. For some people, for example, killing feels good…and they have pursued that good feeling, and paid for it by being killed in the end. And in order to prevent it simply from being “every person for him/her-self”, we codify laws to disincentivize that sort of thing, so people can go to sleep at night. So the law absolutely is a check on individual secular morality run amok, but that law needs no transendental inspiration.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @John Donohue

        “Test: my posts are vaporizing.”

        If, after posting you find yourself at the top of the article, then the post hasn’t been received yet. Wait a couple of seconds and reload, or just proceed where you were cuz your post will show up eventually. I leave my mouse pointer on the slider bar at the point where I was, so I can click back to where I was.

  22. bumble bee says

    What these so called “learned” men fail to comprehend in their on going battle as to whether secular humanism is or is not a religion is that religion is a structure, while faith is not.

    With all structures be they religious, government, corporations, groups, they are all hierarchical by design. Faith, has no structure beyond what is believed. You can disavow the structure and criticize all its failings, but as far as ones faith, especially when it applies to ethics and moral, that is purely subjective. What is glaring however, with not only the author but with commenters as well, is their lack of understanding about religious faith vs religion. The author even omits the longest enduring religious faith in his contemptuous characterization of religion, that being Judaism. Do they not also have the same “failings” the author attributes to Christianity and Islam with regard to women, homosexuality,etc? His referring to religion, and religious beliefs as mythology rather than faith(s) is indicative of a person who feels they must render their own personal stumbling block with faith to the absurd in an attempt to disqualify any redeeming qualities.

    In his attempt to “crucify” religion and religious beliefs as being the bringers of everything unjust and oppressive, he apparently does not want to mention those same qualities which have occurred and are occurring within the scientific realm. It too is rife with abuses against women, homosexuals, people of color, children, infants, mentally handicapped. One can even say that science has done as much damage and caused just as much suffering as all the faiths combined.

    If one was going to critique the moral and ethical codes of science, what is the foundation that these spring from? What exactly is scientific moral/ethical codes derived from if not from religions of faith. Every ethical and moral code in existence, at one time or another is directly birthed from religious beliefs, and to ascribe some sort of moral/ethical elucidation devoid of religious influence is beyond foolhardy and down right ridiculous.

    Everything that has come from science until the modern age, has come from not only the scientific method but from people who also practiced a religious faith. What many seem to believe, and is apparently held by the author, is that they are mutually exclusive which is out right poppycock. Science is a METHOD of studying the known world, where we can better understand how things work. One can believe in a faith, and still believe in the scientific method. What the author and those with similar views believe is that they can manipulate ethics and moral to suit their own agendas when convenient. In fact, I will go so far as to say that even morals and ethics will eventually be discarded if people such as the author had the clear path they truly desire.

    What really is obvious, is that the author and his acolytes are so anti-religious, anti-faith, that they have come up with another false utopia in an attempt to remove them from society. So what we have in reality is just another hate group disguised as rational reasoning trying to sway others into believing they can save the world from itself. We just have to stop believing in a God and all the traditions associated and put our faith into science, not the dispassionate scientific method, but science the new religion.

  23. UJN says

    I think the author’s definition of faith is a strawman.

    • DNY says

      I agree. One can see that faith is rather broader than what the author uses it to mean by looking how St. Cyril of Jerusalem comments on the word in his Fifth Catechetical Homily, or by realizing that even secularists need faith in the laws of physics to undertake fire-walking (which, because of the laws of physics is a perfectly safe activity if the fire is hot enough, one is barefoot, and walks with a measured tread, neither pressing one’s feet down forcefully to hurry, nor lingering at all at each step).

      • Andrew Worth says

        “. . . even secularists need faith in the laws of physics”

        More like an expectation that the laws of nature aren’t going to suddenly change, which is itself based on the history of all the scientific evidence available. And if the laws of nature were so unpredictable fire walking would be the least of our worries, we could all suddenly disappear into nothing in the next instant with inconstant laws of nature. So logic dictates that we assume consistency in the universe and that’s all we’ve got evidence of since the Big Bang.

        • DNY says

          But indeed, we could. There nothing in our understanding of physics that precludes the Higgs field suddenly collapsing, and yet by faith, we continue living without worrying about that possibility.

          The point of my example is to get the reader to think of the word “faith” as meaning something broader than doctrinal (to the secularist irrational) belief, something including trust, just this was what St. Cyril of Jerusalem was driving at in his Fifth Catechetical Homily (yes, it can be found in English translation online).

          • Andrew Worth says

            Comment disappeared, I’ll try again.

            I define “faith” as believing in something without solid evidence (“solid” you say, what counts as solid??) So far all the evidence I’ve seen and that I know of supports the evidence of consistency in the laws of nature and the nature of the universe, of course in science there is rarely certainty, but I’ll accept what I consider to be the best evidence for now until better evidence comes along.

          • S.Cheung says

            DNY,
            indeed, you would need to define “faith” extremely broadly to capture both religious doctrine and the laws of physics under one umbrella.

            Suffice it to say that the latter believer can test his faith, whereas the former can’t.

            And at the other extreme, if Newtonian laws changed tomorrow, everything changes, whereas if religious doctrine changed tomorrow, nothing would.

            I will concede that the possibility of the laws of physics changing does exist, but it is such a preposterous implausibility so as to be not worth worrying about.

      • prinzler says

        There is an equivocation on the word “faith” that we should avoid, and which Coyne has recognized (in “Faith vs. Fact,” I think). “Faith” can mean either blind faith, or confidence in previous empirical conclusions. While the religious can use the word in both senses, secularists should properly only use the word in the second sense, at least when constructing an epidemiology.

        One can believe certain religious tenets (for instance, belief in the aferflie) on blind faith and not get any (dis)confirmation from reality, whereas confidence in previous empirical conclusions are subject to adjustment based on what reality shows.

  24. Can We Move On Now Please? says

    In anthropological terms it’s entirely valid to regard “religion” as a sort of social “binding agent” that has nothing necessarily to do with what you actually believe (cf. ‘orthopraxis’ versus ‘orthodoxy’), and in no way automatically implies any belief in any supernatural or paranormal phenomenon, or any particular attitudes to mythological narratives. In this sense there is no problem in describing ‘secular humanism’ as a “religion”.

    “Religion” does not imply belief in God, or the supernatural, or the immortal soul, or any of that, in the most basic anthropological sense. It simply means a system that provides some kind of shared ethical foundation that permits or enables people to live together in some way that is larger than a single family unit. This basically implies shared beliefs and practices, and (at least on a local level) a shared language.

    “Religion” usually involves some common stories that bind people together — ‘myths’ in other words. It is possible for a “myth” to be 100% true and based entirely on verifiable fact, if by “myth” you mean a ‘foundational narrative that shapes and directs attitudes towards reality’. If you regard Galileo, Newton and Darwin uncomplicatedly as heroes and prophets, and the stories of their lives as heroic narratives, then you see that there might be such a thing as a wholly un-mythical ‘myth’. Though ‘myth’ is not always essential in a ‘religion’. It is probably a common feature rather than a defining one.

    If you believe in the scientific method and the foundational importance of mathematics, and consciously reject public and private rites and rituals that fail the test of logic, reason or the scientific method, then chances are your religion is secular humanism (even if you reject Rawls and Singer as “prophets”, as I emphatically do).

    As for “Faith”: let’s call this “trust” instead.

    It is possible for a reasonable person who is a ‘secular humanist’ to trust completely in the truths of aerodynamics, astrophysics, evolutionary biology and all manner of aspects of human technical and scientific knowledge, even when they go beyond his education, knowledge and intellectual capacities.

    This is not blind faith, just reasonable trust, along with the realisation that none of us will live long enough to test all scientific theories and hypotheses ourselves, or master all scientific disciplines, or answer all questions about the physical world. There is nothing irrational about this, surely.

    No “magic” or hocus-pocus is implied by any of this sort of trust either, unless you mean one’s trust in the “magic” of the iPhone and the hocus-pocus of code (I hope we can agree that neither is really magic or hocus-pocus).

    If we just say “trust” in the truths of mathematics and the sciences rather than “faith”, and allow for the possibility that “religion” does not instantly, automatically mean belief in God, Scripture, Tradition, Revelation, Transubstantiation and everything else that Professor Coyne so vehemently rejects, does that change things?

    Because I’m tired of this stupid conversation already. No more of this, please. It’s very boring.

  25. S.Cheung says

    This back and forth between Staddon and Coyne is amusing, and certainly fantastic click-bait, but it just seems like they are talking past each other. Perhaps Quillette should organize a podcast debate of the two of them, so they can respond and clarify in real-time.

    Staddon doesn’t seem too concerned, on the whole, about whether science is a religion or not. He seems more concerned that in politics, a person’s religious or secular beliefs shouldn’t matter. His main beef seems to be that religious politicos get their beliefs dragged onto the mat, while secular politicos get a bit of a free pass. I would partially agree. While a politician’s beliefs “shouldn’t” matter, they DO matter, or at least they COULD matter, because that person with those beliefs will be voting on policy matters that affect those besides him/her-self. So those beliefs should be examined to ensure that they have the minimum chance of clouding their ability to vote for the greater good, and not just their own. Even then, one has to take a leap of faith, if you will, but you might feel better after you’ve shoved a proctoscope up into those beliefs. So I have no problem with religious politicos getting examined to the n-th degree. I would agree with Staddon on the logical extension, though, that those with secular beliefs should be subjected to the same examination.

    Coyne’s contention to the criticism of an absence of source for secular morality seems very in keeping with Harris’ approach. I’m more than fine with that approach. However, whereas you would think any rational society would CHOOSE to be just, fair, and impartial, I think the concern lies in how you could simply assume that to be the case, and in every case. You inherently cannot “prove” such a preference to be better, as he submits. But he does need to show why this preference would be the chosen one. i think he needs to channel more Harris here.

  26. Andrew Worth says

    My 2 cents, on the title rather than the bickering of the article.
    My morality is principally based in my human instincts, these instincts are common to all humans, and the instinct based moral rules are the same the world over, which are protect the in-group and sticking to the in-group rules, out-groups should be treated with skepticism, increasingly so if there’s hostility between your in-group and the out-group. How we define our in-group and who are members of out-groups is based on our personal view of the world, nationalistic types often see there in-group relatively tightly, others want to encompass the whole world in their in-group. There are ill-defined layers in perspective not hard lines.

    Other moral codes I see as being super-imposed on these innate human codes, these other codes are the product of the specific environment our tribe exists in (including things like religion, wealth, technology, external threats and of course history), unlike the innate moral codes that are a product of evolution, these cultural moral codes vary over time and between and within societies. So homosexuality can be immoral to one generation and moral to the next, eating animals can be moral to some people within a society and immoral to others in that same society.

    So I don’t need faith for my secular morality.

  27. Show me a philosophical argument that gets to “all men are created equal” without starting from “man made in the image of God”. I have yet to see one.

    If you truly like things like “fairness”, “justice”, and “impartiality”, you must accept that these terms are fundamentally grounded in those “religious myths” that you so abhor.

    On a more practical level, secular, atheistic societies (leg: 1800’s France, 1920’s Russia, 1930’s Spain, 1940’s Germany) have rarely ended in a Rawlsian utopia.

  28. chrism says

    Instincts? Let’s tease it out a little. We might agree on three possible origins for our moral sense, which we have to agree is remarkably consistent across cultures and the ages: not perfectly so, but certainly more consistent than if each culture dreamed up moral codes independent of any common cause. They would be:
    1. God did it. Presumably a single god given the consistency mentioned above, and presumably instilled in us at birth as the revelations of the Judeo-Christian tradition would have left H. sapiens with no morality at all for the preceding 98% of the species’ existence.
    2. It’s an emergent effect of our consciousness. Not instinctive, not instilled by a god, but something that most human brains agree on when and if they think about it.
    3. It’s an evolved behaviour that remains with us because it confers survival advantages. That would be the instinct part.

    Given those options, and I’d be delighted to hear suggestions for other causes, I find it hard to believe that someone would vote for any one other than #3. I delight in metaethics as much as the next man, but I can see that’s just a fun mental exercise. Surely morality has to be an evolved trait?

    • GreenCrane says

      Exactly. Morality is an evolved trait; a tool for promoting fitness. Moral questions do not admit answers of “good” or “bad,” but of more or less survival value. Any conception of morality as “objective truth,” whether secular or religious, is doomed to be vague, unsound, and incoherent.

      • codadmin says

        @GreenCrane

        If morality is about promoting fitness when why isn’t it considered moral to cull the disabled and the diseased?

          • Andrew Roddy says

            @Chrism

            For the most part I don’t see your three options as mutually exclusive at all. I’d like a small helping of each. Just a small helping because I have an idea that my existence is not fundamentally dependent on rational, moral justification.

        • @codadmin

          The fact that morality exists because it promoted fitness in a particular environment does not mean that promoting fitness is either good or evil. That is what G. E. Moore referred to as the naturalistic fallacy. One may consider it moral or immoral to cull the disabled and the diseased, but one would be wrong in both cases, by virtue of the fact that the moral categories one is referring to simply don’t exist. One can also consider that unicorns are green, or that unicorns are not green. Obviously, neither opinion is correct, because there are no unicorns.

          • codadmin says

            @HelianUnbound

            I didn’t mention good and evil. But it’s clear morality doesn’t promote fitness for the group.

            Morality, if anything, is about individual survival. The person looks at a disabled or diseased person and says: ” Oh shit, that could be me one day, so I better not call for their culling.”

            But of course, that position is dysgenic. Humans would be like supermen by now if morality served to further their group fitness.

          • Andrew Worth says

            @codadmin: “Humans would be like supermen by now if morality served to further their group fitness.”

            Humans are like supermen when compared to all other organisms – due to the power of our tools (not the tools you obsess over).

          • codadmin says

            @Andrew

            Relatively speaking, that may be true. But from our own perspective, there’s a lot of room for improvement, both physically and mentally, to put it mildly.

          • Andrew Worth says

            @ codadmin

            Humans evolved in social and technical environments very different to the one in we have now, I’ve no idea what characteristic your ideal of “supermen” is supposed to possess, but I suspect if s/he were transported back to the stone age s/he’d be toast.

          • codadmin says

            @Andrew

            By ‘supermen’, I mean a humanity that is largely disease free, both physically and psychologically, with an average, active, lifespan pushing our biological limits, which is roughly 120 years I believe.

          • codadmin says

            …and that’s just the physical fitness.

            A morality that promoted fitness would also increase intellectual fitness as well. And no one knows where the upper limits of that are.

          • Andrew Worth says

            codadmin, where’s the evolutionary advantage in living to 120 years when you live in an environment that supports a fixed number of people – as has been the case for the majority of human evolution?
            I think in terms of natural ability to combat pathogens we’re doing as good as can be expected, quickly adapting to new diseases that have been introduced from one human population to another, if anything it’s surprising that there have been no deadly worldwide plagues in the last century. In terms of congenital diseases I also think things are as can be expected, all animals are affected by gene mutation, most suffer increased risk of cancer as they age, How could humans be expected to be different?

            “A morality that promoted fitness would also increase intellectual fitness as well.” Again whose morality is that? Maintaining physical fitness is important in more primitive societies, and in those societies there is no shortage of physical fitness, humans also not surprisingly have an ability to store considerable energy in the form of fat, this is protection from the hungry times, so for our ancestors also an evolutionary advantage. Your forever fit supermen would consume far more energy (food) than typical humans just to stay fit and die off quicker when nature turned against them in the form of drought or other disruption to their food supply. They wouldn’t last long in the environment we evolved in.

  29. You can label a social contract “ethics” or your internalization sense of said social contract as “morality” if you like, but those terms originate as descriptions of concepts with a connotation of objective truth.

    Materialism (implicitly atheist) is always moral nihilism in the end. If there is no immaterial aspect to existence, which transcends the limits of physical existence, then no choice has any real consequence in the long run, because everything ends in nothingness.

    • Andrew Worth says

      Victoria: “If there is no immaterial aspect to existence, which transcends the limits of physical existence, then no choice has any real consequence in the long run, because everything ends in nothingness.”

      Someone else might have a clever rebuttal to that, mine is only that humans aren’t particularly rational, they’re rationalizing, and they rationalize to maximize their chances of survival and the survival of their offspring and families, so while logically we individually end in nothingness after a few decades our offspring and community lives on so we keep on hoping – apart from those that don’t and kill themselves.

    • S.Cheung says

      Victoria,
      every one of your choices has very real consequences…in your lifetime. But after “you” end, there is no more “you” to carry on worrying about what happens thereafter. That’s not anywhere approaching “ends in nothingness”, however, because those consequences may well outlive your lifetime.

      In your framework, where is “the end”? I thought celestial north korea (in the words of Hitchens) was eternal.

  30. Andrew Roddy says

    Some people imagine that belief in the afterlife is a childish, age-old human invention that protects us from the existential terror of our own mortality. I suggest that they are deluding themselves because they cannot bear that possibility that this conversation might actually continue for ever and ever and ever and ever.

    • S.Cheung says

      Andrew R.,
      That “belief” is not worth fearing unless or until it is proven to be true. Until that point, the delusion is believing the afterlife exists.

  31. Surface Reflection says

    Morality and ethics are a product of two million years of history, living and evolution of hominid species.

    It goes even further to all living organisms on this planets, from the earliest to current, since we are all connected in our existence and hominids are a part of organic life on this planet.

    The morality and ethics are results of every struggle, every atrocity, every kind of suffering possible that any single individual being experienced, known or unknown, remembered or forgotten as well as of all possible modes of behavior that any of us ever exhibited and every effect of our whole science, inventions, technologies, psychology, philosophies and religions that change they way we live and behave.

    Its a slow, constant evolving and adapting super meta experiment of behavior and any possible effects it has or may have either or other individuals directly, or on environment that then affects anyone else or even ideas that then affect other individuals and nations or groups.

    And it is not finished.

    Every bit of morality we have has been paid for in blood, tears, and suffering of literally countless generations. And further and deeper through time – by every living being that ever existed.

    As such it is immeasurably more precious and valuable then any kind of imaginary already finished, pre-existing morality supposedly descending from “heavens” – that we just cant properly understand. Unless we do exactly what the priesthood tells us to do.

    Thats just a pathetic and disgusting attempt of organized religions to establish ownership over something that doesn’t belong to them (as evolution of morality and ethics existed long before any of religions appeared) through emotional blackmail and often, direct violence.
    And so to gain control over our whole existence.

  32. Peter says

    The evolutionary utility of religion does not lie in its moral dimension, but in its recursive character. Religious life much more than anything else teaches us milestones, the look back, finality and with prayer it imprints these big and small milestones and what was before and comes after deeply into our conscience.

    This task is of highest importance for every society and civilization because recursive thinking is equal to planful thinking. And you cannot built public infrastructure without being able to propery plan. You also cannot create institutions of social and political life that are sustainable over-generationally which do not follow a clear plan that decendants can learn.

    Religion is the only institution that literally teaches everyone this recursivity as the foundation of civilization and it des so in a highly intense way. The only other institution that comes next but not even remotely close is the military as it has comparable milestones and is about profound matters in life.

    Remove religion from society and you eventually you will remove the skill for recursive thinking from society. As soon as that happens the population will not anymore systematically plan based on their past experiences, but they will meander in the present and focus on vague scenarios the future might hold for them. Finally, they will forget where they came from and take a godless, blind leap into the nothingness ahead.

    • Surface Reflection says

      “Remove religion from society and you eventually you will remove the skill for recursive thinking from society.”

      Thats blatantly untrue and a ridiculous claim. Another absurd example of how religion and human faults exhibiting through it try to falsely establish ownership over something it has nothing to do with.

      Our memory and learning from experiences and memories does not depend on religion in any way and has existed independently from it as far back in time as you want to look, to the very origins of organic life. And our history has plenty of examples of recursive thinking about society as well as many examples of religions directly attempting to prevent it.

      • Peter says

        “Thats blatantly untrue and a ridiculous claim.”

        Well then please tell me which other social institution has that much of a reach into society and teaches it the virtue of recursive thinking. And also what you think would happen if let’s say 60%+ of society never learn the skill for recursive thinking while the rest by chance discovered it for themselves.

        “Our memory and learning from experiences and memories does not depend on religion”

        You are right, but I do not dispute that. All I am saying is that religion helps facilitating and refining this skill (of course depending on the premise of the given religion). On top of that religion makes sure that this skill spreads to (almost) the entirety of society which leads to an overall higher level of competence of that society than in other cases where this is let to chance.

        “And our history has plenty of examples of recursive thinking about society”

        Again: Which ones would that be beyond the military and which ones have the same scope as religion has.

        “…as well as many examples of religions directly attempting to prevent it.”

        I did not claim that religion does not have a negative influence as well. It’s just that the long-term cost/benefit ratio is in the most cases (more) positive with religion than without it when it comes to developing planning techniques that are necessary for features that sum up to what is commonly referred to a civilization.

        • Surface Reflection says

          “Well then please tell me which other social institution has that much of a reach into society and teaches it the virtue of recursive thinking.”

          Im talking about the history and evolution of hominds and homo sapiens and of all organic life, mate.
          Not “social institutions” in last two seconds of history.

          Plus, naturally the main goal of organized religions is to teach its dogma and force it on everyone while rejecting any new developments. As evidenced by history.

          All I am saying is that religion helps facilitating and refining this skill”

          To some meager extent while most of its teaching is suppression of new knowledge and attempt to fossilize the dogma as eternal and never changing.

          On top of that religion makes sure that this skill spreads to (almost) the entirety of society which leads to an overall higher level of competence of that society than in other cases where this is let to chance.”

          this is blatantly untrue and another absurd claim contrary to evidence.
          Plus, none of it is left to “blind chance” in absence of religion.

          Its a evolution of our thinking and behaviors (as one influences the other) that has been going for two million years with specific direction of – making things better.

          The religions, all religions that ever existed – are a small part of that grand attempt and living experiment, that often work against it – but are always overruled and changed themselves.
          Evidenced by history.

          • Peter says

            @ Surface Reflection: Uh Oh!

            “Its a evolution of our thinking and behaviors (as one influences the other) that has been going for two million years with specific direction of – making things better.”

            For that I would like to see prove. I hope you realize yourself what is wrong with this statement. After all, you seem to be the expert on evolution here..

          • Andrew Worth says

            Peter & Surface Reflection, as I see religion is an evolutionary advantage in that it ties a society closer together with a common belief system while simultaneously differentiating between competing societies, and if one tribe defeats another and spreads over their territory, religion then can serve to hold those genetically related groups together with a common identity – continuing to unite the expanded tribe despite geographical dispersion, making them stronger as a whole. However, there’s still good modern day evidence that religion is not the be-all and end-all, in the modern age we can put religion aside and not go to war with our neighbors over religious differences, other in-common social practices and beliefs (reasons for being patriotic) can also do the job of binding a country together and differentiating between its people and foreigners in the event of hostilities

      • Daniel V says

        @Surface But our memories die with us and therefore we used our linguistic abilities to create external memory storage via narratives and symbols. That way a new human could pick up past knowledge and I’m sorry to say this is one of the functions of religion. Without this we would still be existing in a social structure as complex as what we see with apes or other animals unable to so effectively store knowledge.

        • Surface Reflection says

          @Daniel V

          Various methods of transferring knowledge to our offspirng have always been a part of humanity, ever since we became something that can be called humanity at all.
          Even much less complex animals do it – and it transfers through our very genes.
          One way or another.

          Then there is physical learning, learning by observation what happens to others, learning and keeping lessons alive through oral stories and onward to modern technologies.

          Religion has no ownership over that and to claim is is simply absurd nonsense.
          Especially since organized religion is a very late addition to human cultures.

    • Andrew Worth says

      @Peter: “This task is of highest importance for every society and civilization because recursive thinking is equal to planful thinking. And you cannot built public infrastructure without being able to properly plan. You also cannot create institutions of social and political life that are sustainable over-generationally which do not follow a clear plan that decendants can learn.”

      So religion is just like communism, got it.

      • Peter says

        Why would that be? I presume, you refer to Communism as central planning. That is not the case for religions as everyone is taught to make his/her own plans, which is the usual in most theological practices.

        • Andrew Worth says

          @Peter “That is not the case for religions as everyone is taught to make his/her own plans, which is the usual in most theological practices.”

          No, democracy and free markets teach people to manage their own lives, religions teach submission to the central figure and religious authority (just as communism teaches subservience to the state) but far less so today in the West because religions have been weakened by the flood towards secularism, the fear is that people will replace their religious addiction to the other addiction that provides people with the service of having other people tell them what to think and how to behave.

          • Daniel V says

            @Andrew Certain Protestant denominations actually advise against a central authority and encourage a personal relationship with God. Ideas which lead in turn to capitalist ideas and eventually, once the idea of God fell away, to what you believe today. It’s not tbag religion weakened, it’s that it evolved as society moved forward.

          • Peter says

            “religions teach submission to the central figure and religious authority”

            My mean reply: As do other concepts like atheism with its strict submission under god Darwin and his evolutionary imperative.
            My balanced reply: Not all religions and on average there is an evolutionary stable state between dogma(+recursivity) and innovation(+potential loss of it).

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Andrew Worth

        “So religion is just like communism, got it.”

        That’s not strong enough. Communism is a religion. It has a world-story, a grand narrative, a creation myth, saints, holy books, liturgy. I promises heaven in the future. It has true believers all over the place. It has a moral code stricter than most other religions. It lacks only a deity, and even there Stalin might disagree, as would Kim.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Peter

      “Religion is the only institution that literally teaches everyone this recursivity as the foundation of civilization and it des so in a highly intense way.”

      Reading right thru the comments, this one stand out.

      Religion is to morality what The Queen is to politics. HM has no real power, but she provides a focal point for our instinct to revere the nation (that existing as a large in-group for our protection). One could call HM a ‘myth’ because tho Mrs. Mountbatten is real, HM The Queen is a myth. But she’s a myth I believe in because it is useful. When I say I believe I do not make a truth claim, I make a belief claim and they are not the same thing.

      In the same way I believe in God. And I understand that religion is a focal point for group cohesion. As others have noted, man is the animal that tells stories. Can we exist without our stories? I’m not even going to try. Coyne supposes that we can, but he demonstrates that all he can really do is just pronounce his story as the right one. You know what’s wrong with our civilization? We have a generation or two who did not get Bible stories, nor Grimm’s fairy tales, nor Aesop’s fables.

      • Peter says

        @Ray: I understand what you mean with the comparison. Just as the ideal of god gives you a never-shifting point to begin with or focus towards, a monarch can provide the same for a system to readjust itself if necessary. Thailand is perhaps the best current example for that.

        To your list of what is missing I would add calender mottos. I’m not familiar with the ones in the English language, but in German there are countless ones with a dense message providing simple rules for (success in) life. They are the true origin of memes long before the name was created. I like the ones with horses best: “A horse never jumps higher than it has to.” And so should you…

        It’s truly sad how rich our heritage is and how little regard we have for it today. We don’t understand ourselves anymore and so we neglect these little functions, we forget them and eventually we will fail and fall over that.

      • @Ray: In case you’re interested I found that perspective of religion’s true evolutionary purpose in a short book called “The Philosophy of Recursive Thinking” which is more about how to get out of the current postmodernist dead-end philosophically but one passage is about religion in its recursive meaning.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Peter

          You have a very interesting perspective, thanks again.

  33. Surface Reflection says

    I would say that religion is a part of the evolution of morality and ethics humanity has been experimenting on and fine tuning through our very lives, by living, feeling, thinking and behaving for last two million years (and more really) – and still works on.

    Not the other way around.

  34. Peter says

    More than three decades ago I listened to a radio show featuring a prominent communists politician, then in power and feared by many. He held a lecture about the »Socialist Morality«. There was very little substance in his speech until he finally proclaimed:

    »To be a moral person means that one follows and implements the policies of the Central Commitee of the Communist Party.

    There you have it: socialist morality explained in one short and simple sentence! One rule, not Ten Commandments or more.

  35. dirk says

    Did John Rawls start with a fresh slate, before writing his works, or was he inspired by an age-old christian tradition and education?
    Did Djengis Chan pray (to his God(s)) before mounting his horse and heading his troops to the West to conquer and massacre the tribes there?

  36. The reason secularist ethics don’t work is because for many, a man in a skirt can claim to be a woman. Patently absurd, but disagree and you will be investigated by the Police for pronoun crime or prioritising truth over secular religious belief. They also claim homosexuals can have babies which is another statement of ethical lies. At least we all know we don’t have to obey religious rules, the secularists are totalitarian bigots, for if you disagree with them they will smash you. That is not a healthy society. Give us Christianity any day, they just send you to hell and you can repent at any time and wipe the slate clean. The case of Roseanne shows that the secularists bigots can never forgive. If you transgress they will hurl you down the abyss and toss jockers down to make sure. Give me Christian forgiveness and turning the other cheek any day.

    • Andrew Worth says

      David Chandler give me an authoritative definition of secularist that describes them as you do (which just about means one from a real person other than yourself).

    • Saul Sorrell-Till says

      What self-pitying hysteria. I disagree with the pronoun law as much as you, but its impact has been absolutely microscopic. As for your elliptical references to Christian shop owners refusing to serve gay people for fear of getting sin-cooties; those are called anti-discrimination laws. They protect everyone, including you.

      Every day, all over the world people are stoned to death or butchered, or ostracised or made to live in terror because of theistic beliefs, from Christianity to Islam to orthodox Judaism to fundamentalist Hindus and even Buddhists. Your characterisation of a society that requires you not to discriminate against people based on their sexuality as somehow worse than a theocracy is just absurd.

      And it’s so frustrating to see the word ‘secular’ misused so egregiously. It’s not a synonym for ‘atheistic’ – it’s a synonym for ‘religiously neutral’, ie. no religious(or irreligious) worldview is allowed to get the whip hand in society. That is a very good thing indeed, and has given us more freedom than almost any idea we’ve come up with as a species.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Saul Sorrell-Till

        ” They protect everyone, including you.”

        I wonder if that’s quite true. In the case of the famous gay cake, I wonder if a Christian couple asked a gay activist baker to make a cake with “Preserve the sanctity of heterosexual marriage” on it, and the gay activist refused, I wonder if we’d even hear about it. Frankly it seems to me that that kind of deliberate entrapment is the sort of thing that Christians simply don’t do. But if they did, I suspect that you’d not support their right to force the gay baker to decorate their cake.

        • Andrew Worth says

          Ray Andrews
          I think when society changes from persecuting a group to believing it has immorally persecuted that group people can get all stupid and carried away and start pandering to that group, the group become special and protected, some members of the group exploit their special status, and the media does what it can to make more money by promoting coverage of imagined (sometimes real) injustice. Eventually people wise up and get sick of all the kowtowing and the protected group gets to live in the same reality as the rest of us.
          I don’t think it’ll be much longer before the wave breaks of the special status of trans-folk.

        • Saul Sorrell-Till says

          Actually I would support their right to do so. Why on earth would you think I wouldn’t? That’s the whole point of secularism and liberalism – the government is supposed to remain neutral on issues like this, so that neither side is privileged. If a gay couple refuses to serve Christians based on those Christians’ religious opinions then they would be as subject to anti-discrimination laws as anyone else.

      • Andrew Roddy says

        @Saul Sorrell-Till

        And it’s so frustrating to see the word ‘secular’ misused so egregiously. It’s not a synonym for ‘atheistic’ – it’s a synonym for ‘religiously neutral’.

        This could be useful as a concise statement of an almost universal foundational tenet of secular faith. Worth looking at. To believe this it is necessary to believe that secularism and religion are entirely discreet entities. The extant to which secularism may in fact resemble a religion( not semantically but practically and dynamically) cannot be explored impartially by someone who is religiously invested in your idea.

        At stake also might be the sacred cow of separation of Church and State. If secularism could be demonstrated or acknowledged as religious in character then it’s congregation may be reasonably considered a church. An appalling Vista.

        • Saul Sorrell-Till says

          All you’ve done is misuse the word ‘secular’ again. It does not mean ‘atheistic’. It means ‘not privileging any particular religion’. It’s often used as shorthand for ‘atheistic’, true, but its specific definition is completely different. You just haven’t understood my point, eg.:

          “At stake also might be the sacred cow of separation of Church and State. If secularism could be demonstrated or acknowledged as religious in character then it’s congregation may be reasonably considered a church.”

          The separation of church and state is secularism. That’s what secularism means. (Seriously, just google it.) Talking about secular “congregations” demonstrates that you have missed my point entirely and that you’re still using the word secular as a synonym for ‘atheistic’.

          • Andrew Roddy says

            You think I am missing your point. I’ve being getting that a lot lately. I thought I had your point loud and clear. I could be wrong though because there was a man at my door on Saturday morning who insisted I was missing his point too. He framed it differently than you though. He insisted, very calmly and patiently, that I was merely contriving to disagree with him because I was afraid to let the truth of the Divine revelation into my heart. Perhaps he was right but I had to bid him good day because I smelt the sausages burning.

            My point might be that secularism was a pragmatic response to an historical necessity. And yes, to describe it as socially useful and liberating would be an understatement. But just as religious institutions prove themselves prone to temporal corruption so too do are secular edifices succumb to ideological corruption. Practically speaking they become historically interchangeable. Separation of Church and State moves inevitably closer by the day from something that is to something that was. Your response here and your clear ideological investmest tends to confirm this for me. God knows, I may be wrong. I even hope I am because, frankly, I feel out of my depth here. But if there’s any truth in this it seems truth worth considering.

    • Daniel V says

      David which Christian denomination did you want to ha r prominence? Unless you pick one specifically you’re moving awfully close to secularism where is state remains agnostic in the subject of particular religions.

      Also it’s laughable to act as if what happened to Rossane is something Christians would never ever do. As if WASPs don’t have purity dildos so far up their arseholes you can see them when they smile. Wasn’t so long ago looking at a WASP woman the wrong way could see a black man lynched.

    • Surface Reflection says

      Those kinds of distortions happen because ethics and morality are still evolving and adapting to any new circumstance.

      Your mistake is to think about ethics and morality as already finished products, either secular, religious or anything else. Which is something a lot of people do and then argue over two binary extremes of it.

      Its not finished or solved, we are still working on it and the examples you listed are just a few of novel facts and issues or problems that we are trying to incorporate into the whole in some way that will be acceptable to majority of people.

      Its an ongoing process and none of it is perfect.
      Often its quite difficult and dirty and sometimes we cant even come up with right solutions right away.

      Just like Christianity couldn’t and still cant.

    • S.Cheung says

      David,
      to say that “secular ethics” don’t work because SJWs exist is akin to saying Catholicism doesn’t work because bad priests exist.

      Now don’t get me wrong. Catholicism doesn’t work. But I can get there long before the first bad priest need enter the discussion.

  37. Philip says

    I’m sorry but this argument just won’t do. It does nothing to address Hume’s point that you can’t derive an ought from an is. Simply to say “we have a secular ethics connected not to “nothing,” but to a preference for justice, fairness, and impartiality” does nothing to explain why you choose justice, fairness and impartiality? Why not injustice, unfairness, and bias? They are just as valid as a basis for ethical behavior. Any appeal to say these are ‘better’ just begs the question. Darwinian survival could just as easily argue for a differnt ethics. What you have failed to do is justify your choice.

    • Surface Reflection says

      Hume was wrong, you can derive and ought from is.
      Because the “is” contains all the consequences any of our actions cause. As it contains all of our actions too. And every though and feeling any individual ever had or will have.

      You choose justice, fairness and impartiality (and many more positive things) because they cause the most positive consequences over a long term on an individual and wider group of people, tribe, nation or race or whatever.

      While the opposite choices destroy the individual and the wider group he belongs to and spread negative consequences to other groups.

      Its not really rocket science or some crazy unsolvable conundrum.

  38. Steve says

    Jerry Coyne is a fundamentalist in a manner analogous to extreme religious dogmatists. Any value Coyne’s views might have had is extinguished due to his complete lack of curiosity about anything that seems to contradict his rigorously reductionist rubric.

    People like Coyne are incapable of even comprehending that their world view is constructed on an unarticulated and unexamined axiomatic foundation. Coyne simply takes on faith that the cosmos is consistently comprehensible to empirical investigation.

    The materialist/atheist case has been logically dismantled so many times in so many places that one is forced to conclude that Coyne and his fellow-travelers are interested not so much in truth, but rather in defending their sacred cause. Just like any other fundamentalist.

    • @Steve

      “… faith that the cosmos is consistently comprehensible to empirical investigation.”

      Can you teach us how the cosmos can be known (factually) in some way other than with empirical investigation (reason?)

  39. Steve says

    I’d pay $500 to watch David Gelertner of Yale eviscerate Coyne on the topic of Darwinian macroevolution. Recent advances in molecular biology in concert with plain old mathematical calculation have made it clear now that Coyne’s core beliefs (and those of millions of people) are almost certainly wrong.

    Let loose with the howls of derision and snorts of contempt, Coyne acolytes, but unless you have an actual logically and mathematically sound rejoinder, you’re no different than those who bemoaned the end of Copernicus at the hands of Galileo.

    https://www.claremont.org/crb/article/giving-up-darwin/

    • You haven’t the slightest idea how Darwinian evolution works. Gelertner’s laughable (and ID-creationist) “refutations” of Darwinism depend on a pre-specified kind of folding, and also unjustifiably multiply probabilities together. He’s just following Intelligent Design creationism, and Gelertner’s “calculations” have already been refuted in the literature. Why do you suppose evolutionists reject them? Because we’re somehow wedded to our narrative?

      Sorry, that’s not the case. And you should be embarrassed by your ignorance–unless you’re already wedded to some creationist view of protein evolution. I’ve let loose with howls of derision and snorts of contempt, but at your palpable and risible ignorance of how evolution works.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @whyevolutionistrue

        Like all fundamentalists you react emotionally when your faith is challenged. You attack the doubter. He must be stupid and evil and ignorant and deluded and maybe even insane. He is guilty by association with known apostates and heretics. Such straw heretics will be constructed and burned all in the same sentence.

        “Gelertner’s “calculations” have already been refuted in the literature”

        Marvelous. Do you have a link?

        “Because we’re somehow wedded to our narrative?”

        Yes, as you demonstrate. Were you not wedded to it, you’d welcome challenges such as those offered by Gelertner and Behe and others. In the spirit of science, you’d understand that all such challenges are to be encouraged, and you’d refute them with a friendly smile … or perhaps admit that these challenges have, really, not been met at all and that evolutionary theory has much work to do in coping with these mathematically and genetically based challenges.

        The true scientist understands that her theories are always open to modification and improvement. The fundamentalist believes that his faith has been perfected and that only the Wicked would raise objections. He lets loose with howls of derision and snorts of contempt. The scientist would welcome the opportunity to educate. But that’s clearly not you.

        • Saul Sorrell-Till says

          The article you linked to arbitrarily multiplied the probabilities of a huge number of unconnected mutations and then came up with a ridiculously huge number. It’s a common trick used by the dishonest to hoodwink the ignorant – ‘look at the shiny big numbers!’ – and you’ve just been called on it. Your response was not to defend your position, or explain how it’s actually a valid way of calculating probabilities – your response was just more smug sanctimony and intellectual dishonesty. The only thing missing was “I’ll pray for you”.

          As for welcoming the “opportunity to educate”, I can’t speak for Jerry but I know I have an instinct for when someone is willing to learn, and I can tell already that you aren’t.

      • X. Citoyen says

        Knowledge and the literature count when it’s your discipline, eh Jerry? You haven’t the slightest idea how logic works—e.g., normative statements, the foundations problem, etc. Yet you could read about such things in any of Copi’s introductions and you could read free at Stanford’s online encyclopedia of philosophy. But you prefer howling and deriding those who know to revising your own palpable and risible ignorance.

  40. Daniel V says

    I’d have to say I agree completely it’s silly to suggest secular humanism comes from nothing! How could a religion possibly come from nothing? To be a religion it would have to come from ideas expressed in symbols and narratives that help formulate a reality that establishes moods and motivation that seem uniquely real. For example like how Christianity tries to teach the universal ethic, the golden rule, via narratives like the the story of the good Samaritan. I don’t see why anyone would try to argue secular humanism is a religion by dismissing the idea it finds a foundation in narratives and symbols like other religions. There must be examples of this happening.

    But is secular morality really connected to nothing? Hardly! One example is John Rawls’s ethics as outlined in A Theory of Justice. Rawls sees morality as promoting justice, and presents a thought experiment about how to achieve justice. Imagine, he said, that we choose our ethics from behind a “veil of ignorance,” in which we do not know what position in society we’ll assume—male or female, black or white, rich or poor, straight or gay. We then choose our principles based on this ignorance. This scenario produces a liberal and ethical society without any faith, as well as a rational way to decide moral questions.

    And this is a perfect one! I do like how post modern the idea is by encouraging each individual to imagine their own narrative instead of using a specific one. Ultimately the desired psychological effect is the same: by imagining ourselves as the other we make the other a part of our in group.

    The only real difference between the two and the only “new” aspect of the way secular humanism is imparting the golden rule is the format and language. Underneath that it’s the same mechanics of someone hearing, or imagining for themselves, a story that in turn creates specific moods and motivations towards the world outside of themselves.

    And I fully recognize there has never been a time where a religion really and truly embraces the universal ethic whereby their society has no out group. However if you judge each axial religion, which is where we will find the golden rule emerge most fully across cultures, within their own historic context they are without exception vast improvements over what came before them.

    And insofar as religious morals are subject to scrutiny and revision as society changes, then, as Plato recognized in the Euthphryo Dilemma, they become secular. There’s simply no reason why morality should be improved by connecting it to mythology.

    Ancient Greece is actually a good example. Yes Plato might have argued that just because someone appears beloved by the Gods because of their lot in life doesn’t mean they’re also pious. In light of the Greeks of that time seeing someone rich and powerful as someone loved by the Gods because of their good fortune the argument becomes more about saying these same people are not automatically pious or good. There was no real argument being made against the existence of a God and Plato in fact has many opinions on a single divine good. Just because his idea of the good doesn’t take the format of a sky daddy doesn’t mean it’s not an argument for monotheism. Islam doesn’t define Allah as a person either and sees Allah as infinity. The God head in Hinduism has infinite faces as well.

    The purpose of connecting ethics to mythology is the same as connecting secular ethics to thought experiments. It’s the best way to impart the ideas and human being are in fact primed to receive the information this way. It’s how we communicate social information. Before we were fully verbal we would have been using actions and apeing each other. Our linguistic abilities took things to another level and surly are owed some credit for out success as a species. Because with language we were able to share that social information among large groups of people and get them on the same page.

    It’s worth noting here that religion is part of a gestalt that includes culture, politics, ideology that operates together to define our reality. Particularly, but not exclusively, our social reality. Scientific knowledge, which for the vast majority of us not employed or trained as scientists, is primarily taught via narrative as well and we don’t teach our children about the big bang by showing them evidence of background radiation. We tell them a story about it. Stories which in turn influence how they will approach their culture, politics, religion, and ultimate ideology.

    Religious morals based on faith, scripture and authority are not subject to examination or reason; they are dictates from on high.

    Do you think it would be okay for someone with little to no background in science to criticize evolution? Not likely and I’d tend to agree we shouldn’t listen to people talking about the divine perfection of bananas. Likewise while religions are open to examination and reason they absolutely limit who is allowed to do that examination and take steps to make sure they are capable of reason. For example Islam has specific educational requirements and requires anyone trying to interpret the Qur’an to be well versed in law and logic. You’d be hard pressed to find much difference in Catholic theology and secular philosophy except for some a priori statements of faith. Buddhist have a very old tradition of student and Master apparently stretching all the way back to the Buddha. It’s done for the same reason Ray Comfort won’t be getting an honorary PhD anytime soon for his insights into evolution.

    In fact, their connection to myths has promoted values many see as repugnant. The scriptures of Christianity and Islam, for instance, have been used to justify the oppression of women, gays, and unbelievers—not to mention various rules about sex that are oppressive and ridiculous.

    I’d encourage you to read the recent article here about men and the special clubs the form where they play with their magic flutes. It paints a pretty depressing picture of how women were treated in our most basic societal structure. A situation that only marginally improved when polythestic city states emerged. The type of oppression women experienced under Christianity and Islam was a vast improvement over what they experienced before. Being half a person is better than not being one at all.

    You’re correct to say religion justified oppression and imposed social order because that’s exactly the function of it. By definition nothing else could. Just like nothing else could justify freeing people of oppression and imposing a social order with different expectations. When Christianity was emerging in the Roman empire there were huge political implications behind many of the beliefs and it’s worth noting at the time political ideologies like we have in modern times did not exist. Someone questioning the state would be killed for being a heretic, even if what they were truly questioning was political in nature.

    The ethical principles are objective in the sense that they’re what people would agree on behind the veil of ignorance, but of course we cannot prove a priori that a preference for fairness, justice, and impartiality is better than a preference for inequality, bias and injustice.

    No we can’t prove that so we have to have faith in those principles. Which I would argue should not be defined as belief without evidence because it is not universally defined that way. There is often evidence for what’s being claimed and often the real proof won’t come until after doing whatever is being asked.

    It’s hard to prove to someone that mediation can end up making physical changes to your brain or that mindfulness can have a hugely positive effect on your mental health. So the Buddha asked people to have faith his prescription for suffering because he knew first hand the results and had likely observed it in his pupils. Yet he couldn’t prove it with brain scans or clinical results like we have today.

    Faith in Buddhism is also about trusting the authority of the enlightened in the same way we are taught to trust the authority of a scientist when it comes to matters of science. When someone first learns about evolution it might be hard to grasp a modern bird traces it’s roots back to the dinosaurs but if we have faith in the teacher in time we’ll understand.

    And finally I’m going to end this screed urging you to remember the words of Socrates when he said we must know ourselves. How you view religion and faith is heavily influenced by where you happened to be born and the other systems in the gestalt. I know in parts of America, and over the world, people behave wildly irrationally and that appears to be caused religion but that’s not how religion functions everywhere or for everyone. It’s also not something we can get rid of or not participate in unless we are either living in isolation or incapable of thought.

    • augustine says

      Daniel V,
      Thanks for these insights.

      You’re correct to say religion justified oppression and imposed social order because that’s exactly the function of it.

      No, the purpose of religion is to liberate people from enslavement to material existence alone.

      I know in parts of America, and over the world, people behave wildly irrationally and that appears to be caused religion…

      Doesn’t irrationality show up in all times and places, with or without religion? The common denominator in both these cases is human nature, which cannot be transcended by secular humanism.

  41. Saul Sorrell-Till says

    The calculations made in that article are simply wrong. They calculate probabilities of certain mutations by multiplying those mutations together and then assuming that the resultant figure is relevant. That’s just not how probability works in this case. You don’t just assume the whole biological feature has to mutate all at the same time. For all its length and use of scientific vernacular it’s just a gussied up version of the irreducible complexity argument, which was itself just a gussied up version of Paley’s watch argument.

    Of course it’s a piece of creationist apologetics that references the Discovery Institute, so that should set alarm bells ringing anyway, but putting that aside it’s awful entirely on its own merits. I don’t think your 500$ would be well spent.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Saul Sorrell-Till

      “it’s just a gussied up version of the irreducible complexity argument, which was itself just a gussied up version of Paley’s watch argument”

      Yes, and an argument that has yet to be refuted really.

      “creationist apologetics”

      Alas, it doesn’t matter how you style it, it matters that it succeeds. Or, perhaps I should more carefully say that it has yet to be properly refuted.

      “You don’t just assume the whole biological feature has to mutate all at the same time.”

      No, but you have to accumulate sufficient mutations such that ‘junk DNA’ has reached the threshold of usefulness and you must do so with no ‘selection’ since until the DNA has produced a useful protein, there nothing to select — just random mutations in ‘junk’ DNA. Thus nothing whatsoever is gained by stretching the process out. Mind, this argument is entirely confined to the ‘new proteins from junk DNA’ hypothesis. Single, cumulative mutations within working genes is another matter. That can and does explain variation and selection of some trait. But it has yet to explain macro changes. 100% of macro changes are fatal.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till says

        Your comment about junk DNA is just gibberish. As far as I know junk DNA just isn’t particularly important in adaptive evolution, by definition. I’ve no idea why either you or the article in question believe it’s some kind of fundamental part of natural selection of adaptive traits.

        “Yes, and an argument that has yet to be refuted really.”

        Every evolutionary paper of the last 150 years has been an implicit refutation of Paley’s idea. It has been deconstructed so many times that even creationist apologists like yourself had to invent a new version(which was itself subsequently deconstructed with just as much ease).

        “100% of macro changes are fatal.”

        I don’t know whether this statistic is even true since you seem quite fabulously dishonest, but either way of course macroscopic changes are going to be overwhelmingly fatal. That’s why evolution proceeds by micro scopic changes. Huge changes are much less likely to be positive for the same reason that one small change to an engine won’t break it, while forty small changes at once will break it. There are extensive discussions of this exact topic in many, many books on evolution, none of which you will have read.

  42. Mr Coyne, you begin your argument with a lie. You say Mr Staddon “admits” that the religious stories are “myths”; whereas what he said is that they are “myths in Mr Coyne’s book”. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    When your interlocutor really gets under your skin, that’s just the time to sit still, breathe deeply, and look afresh at the conversation. Then marshall your thoughts; not before.

  43. Apologies, I see that you are not Mr but Professor Coyne. I’ve also now read the rest of your piece, which really cracked me up. Still chuckling. I guess you’re good on evolution, but your grasp of the millennia of religious thought Is tenuous. How can you imagine that the religious life, embraced by almost everyone from the dawn of history, and still embraced by an overwhelming majority of people, has not been subject to examination or reason? There are thousands and thousands of texts of commentary and disputation in all of the world’s religious traditions. Aquinas, Maimonides, Ibn Arabi, Pico, Erasmus, Akbar, Milarepa were all so much stupider than you?

    A wee clue. There’s an argument that the world must have had a maker because if we came upon a watch we would adduce a watchmaker, and the world is intricate like a watch. It is not a religious argument, but very much a post-enlightenment argument. Watches being a bit recent. And the world not being intricate in anything resembling the same way. And it actually leans toward making God in the image of man – He must be as clever as we are.

    I think your proposition has whiskers. But it’s arguable – if you take the trouble to get your head around the opposite case.

    Instead you have misrepresented what your opponent said, and demonstrated a complete lack of awareness of the immense body of thought where he’s coming from.

    Read Jonathan Sacks.

  44. Ron Bruno says

    This has been an interesting discussion on the tension between faith and reason, which has a long history in philosophy as many commentators have pointed out, dating back to the Platonic/Aristotelian dichotomy. I am immediately reminded of the third section of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, which specifically addresses the emergence of reason and science as a replacement for faith and religion. Continuing the tradition of David Hume, Nietzsche argued that confidence in reason and rationality is a type of faith, that a priori reason is in fact induction, best described as the assumption that events that have occurred in the past will continue to be observed as identical in the future, which is in its essence an assumption based on faith. To be clear, this type of scientific faith is dissimilar from religious faith, but is still based on assumption.

    As far as morality is concerned, moral claims of all types can not be evidence-based. They are an expression of the individual’s will to power, whether that individual is a scientist or a priest. For example, one might argue that homosexuality is moral or immoral, but that argument is ultimately based on faith, not science. The same predicament is true of abortion, capital punishment, and many other divisive topics. Humility and respect for other faiths, as long as they are argued in good faith, is the best outcome one can hope for.

    I would like to thank Quillette for addressing challenging topics and bringing thoughtful readers to discuss them.

    • @Ron Bruno

      “… induction, best described as the assumption that events that have occurred in the past will continue to be observed as identical in the future …” = “faith.”

      No.

      Induction proceeds on the basis that the human mind is capable of discovering and establishing facts. It declares the boundaries/limits of its scope of truth investigation, then identifies the characteristics of that which it claims to exist, and submits the evidence to the world of rationals for corroboration.

      Faith proceeds on the basis that no interaction with objective reality need appear in its truth claim.

      Never the twain shall meet.

  45. CA says

    “But is secular morality really connected to nothing? Hardly! One example is John Rawls’s ethics as outlined in A Theory of Justice. “

    Oops – very bad example.

    Rawls posits what he calls our “Original Position” which is sort of a modern substitute of the so-called “State of Nature” as posited by the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau etc. Unlike the State of Nature which acknowledges the empirical fact that we are creatures living in and in conflict with the forces of nature, Rawls’ Original Position is a complete mental construct which has no correlate in reality.

    Rawls is simply affirming that we can know nothing, indeed this is the only thing which we can truly know. Rawls is insisting we acknowledge nothing as our starting point in all ethical considerations. In Rawls’ teaching secular morality is little more than a vast social experiment. This sounds a lot like nihilism.

    Rawls’ so-called Theory of Justice is the poster boy of a secular morality imagined out of nothing. This is why Alan Bloom ridiculed Rawls’ Theory of Justice as “A First Philosophy for the Last Man”.

  46. Andrew Elsey says

    This article says nothing profound, beyond re-defining Kant as secular. Bravo.

    And, to comprehensively sum up the article, liberalism can cherry pick the socially acceptable parts of religious morality that it finds useful, take credit for it without giving any, find justification for doing so because a few other people said to do so, and hopefully scrub the history books in a few hundred years when enough people have forgotten. Or basically, what every other liberal says and wants.

    My favorite quote was “Religious morals based on faith, scripture and authority are not subject to examination or reason”, as if various Gods actually handed down these irrational mandates that were conceived in a revelative vacuum that the liberals must now save us from.

    I will be waiting for author’s appearance on The View to discuss his upcoming coloring book

  47. bill53 says

    “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” – Thomas Aquinas

    • Surface Reflection says

      Even Thomas Aquinas was a victim of “Tendency to think in binary extremes” which is one of the Fundamental Faults of humanity.

    • dirk says

      Interesting observation,Bill, reason and faith, and their positions in ethics , policy and morals. reminds me of the discussions between John Rawls and pope Benedict, the secular humanist against the christian and universal moralist. I go for the last one, and for Staddon. No argumenting please, quite useless, all just and only rationalising. A stance, a basic axiom is enough in these issues.

  48. Rami Friedman says

    I wonder about Rawls’ thought experiment: if none of us knew if we might be the woman with an unwanted pregnant or the fetus facing dismemberment, how many would continue to be pro-choice?

    • dirk says

      Dismemberment? Is that really the way to deal with it? In fact, I,ve no idea how things go in abortion. I thought, it’s a matter of removing kind of human cell cluster, a cancer or something of the sort, may we see that cluster as a human being? With a soul?? Even Augustine, the old church master, could not see a human being in a a fetus before the age of 3 months.

      • augustine says

        Sorry, dirk, but Rami F. has got it right. The “industry” has obscured the horrors involved, both psychic and physical, and focused exclusively on a woman’s rights over her body. The fact that you say you have no idea how things go in this subject is a testament to the success of this campaign. If you were to explore further I doubt you would be unaffected emotionally, and you might end up with a different philosophy.

  49. Donald Collins says

    If not based on faith then based on what?

    Why is it good not to murder or steal, as a matter of fact there are great reasons for both, but without faith that there is something bigger than we mere mortals and we must only answer to ourselves then why have any ethos other than what our own individual power can grant us.

    One could say the mob is bigger than the individual thus their ethos at the moment is correct to them all, except those outside of it thus it is ok until we are successgul or till we are degeated. Thus tyrants deem the ends justify the means until their reign ends then the once disempowered get to stand up and redefine it as evil as happened in Germany and the USSR.

    I really do not care about this argument in the sense it can change my mind, I am to old and have had it to many times and this series of articles have done nothing except make me understand my faith is what keeps me in check, not my fellow man, if nothing else and I believe history proves the point, your fellow man and secularism will destroy anything in its way that it deem unrighteous even faster than faith has done in the past and in much larger numbers

  50. Hmmm says

    @Coel — Nazi ideologists were contemptuous of Christian ethics.

  51. Jochen Schmidt says

    @ Jerry A. Coyne

    Short and sweet. Convincing!

  52. John Greholver says

    Here’s a thought: We are created in the image of God, and there is nothing we can do about it. The human story is about coming to terms with good and evil, and how we are ultimately accountable to a power outside of ourselves who will be our judge. We are drawn to stories of love and redemption because being created in God’s image creates in us a terrible need to be loved and redeemed. Intellectualizing what a child instinctively understands takes us in circles with no ultimate relief (answers).

    • Andrew Roddy says

      Jesus is reported to have advised us, ‘Judge not lest we be judged.’ If we were created in the image of the Father of Jesus then, by your reckoning, they weren’t quite on the same page.

  53. peanut gallery says

    Not convinced. Author spends more time talking about religions than the root of the “secular” system. To say that one have a “objective” system of ethics requires you eulicidate them to a much greater degree. A lot of words have been written on this stuff, what you provided is… lacking. YMMV.

  54. Tony says

    What is “justice” and who decides what “justice” is?

  55. Doug F says

    “a preference for justice, fairness, and impartiality”

    Why do you think these 3 characteristics are good? Because you believe it. No matter how you approach it, the basis of what we think is right and wrong cannot be derived through reason. Even if you decide to try and determine good characteristics as those that create the best society you have just kicked the question down the road. What is the best society? Why is that good?

    I am not religious, but I have great respect for Judeo-Christian morality. It has created a culture that has successfully competed and survived, and individuals have generally prospered. The truths it claims have been tested against reality.

    Now you may not agree that societies where individuals have prospered is “good”, but I do. I don’t mean to suggest that these truths should not be examined, but I think the exercise should be approached with caution. Unless you understand all the linkages between the truths and the culture it created you risk throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Comments are closed.