My article in Quillette: A rebuttal of John Staddon’s claim that secular humanism is a religion

April 24, 2019 • 8:45 am

Since I’ve now published in Quillette, I guess I’m not only a member of the Intellectual Dark Web, but also an alt-righter and a white supremacist. Or so the Perpetually Aggrieved might say.

At any rate, if you click on the screenshot below, or go here, you’ll see my 1900-word response to John Staddon’s essay, also in Quillette, “Is secular humanism a religion?” Staddon’s piece, which was deeply flawed and misguided, answered the title question with a “yes”, but only by re-defining religion to mean “Anything that has a moral code.”

Tired of seeing everything from atheism to science to environmentalism deemed as “religions,” I wrote a critique of Staddon’s essay on this site and tweeted it to Quillette, saying that it was perhaps the worst piece ever published on their site. They invited me to respond to Staddon. After ascertaining that they offered a soupçon of dosh, I reworked my original piece for the site and published it under a declarative title:

I won’t reprise the essay here; you can go to Quillette if you want to read it. All I’ll say now is that I thought my piece was pretty uncontroversial: nobody with two neurons to rub together would see secular humanism (which is, after all, secular) as a religion. Further, Staddon himself defined religion as having three parts, and admitted that secular humanism contravened two of them that involved the supernatural and divine. Writing the essay was, to me, like shooting fish in a barrel.

But I was surprised to see the degree of pushback on Quillette: those who argued that science is religious or based on faith, those who agreed with Staddon that secular humanism is based on faith, those who claimed that environmentalism is religious, those who averred that religion is a net good for the world and atheism a net bad, and so on.

I guess I was mistaken in thinking that because Quillette‘s readers were used to more intellectual essays and less Internet acrimony, and were disaffected liberals, they would thus be pro-science and anti-religion. I was wrong. One theory (not mine) is that Quillette is read by many conservatives who delight seeing the pretensions of the Left being taken down. Indeed, several readers here have characterized Quillette as a right-wing site. Conservatives tend to be more religious than liberals, and thus a strain of conservatism might have engendered comments like these:

This first one is a partial comment which is too long to reproduce here, but the reader needs to look at Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

This is a good one: the reader not only misunderstands science, but disses scientists as having “bland and uninteresting lives.”

And with these I’ll pass on. But I’ll add that there are also some very good rebuttals of these arguments—some by readers on this site. The discussion is not as riddled with ad hominems as that on many other sites, so you might enjoy going over there and doing battle with the apologists or science-dissers.


113 thoughts on “My article in Quillette: A rebuttal of John Staddon’s claim that secular humanism is a religion

  1. One theory (not mine) is that Quillette is read by many conservatives who delight seeing the pretensions of the Left being taken down.

    Yes, you are right, Quillette does indeed have a fair few American “religious right” commenters, far more so than here. Though there are also plenty of secular commenters.

    1. I get that some people here think I’m unfair to Quillette, but as a website it does seem to have slightly skipped under the radar in terms of criticism. There have been a few scattered articles critiquing it(one comically awful one in The Daily Beast, by an identity-politicking dimwit who spelled the founder’s name as ‘Claire Lemon’ – it’s worth googling for its comedy value) but mostly it’s been characterised as some kind of oasis of cool, reasonable neutrality. I think that needs to be pushed back against.

      “Yes, you are right, Quillette does indeed have a fair few American “religious right” commenters”

      Which would be completely unremarkable if Quillette was open about its agenda. But it’s not.

      No-one is surprised that The Spectator gets right-wing visitors, but Quillette has done a good job of advertising itself as non-partisan and ‘free-thinking’, so liberals and centrists are sometimes baffled when they visit it and see article after article that deals in a kind of unopposed right-wing/anti-SJW victimhood narrative. And they’re further surprised when they look BTL and see that plenty of the comments are pretty extreme.

      It attracts some brilliant writers, and some of them are centrists and liberals, but it overwhelmingly seems to commission those writers because they already agree with Quillette about politics.

      I’m glad they gave Jerry an opportunity to deconstruct that daft essay though. It’s the least they could do.

      1. Your critique is fiar, though I don’t think the articles are generally “right wing”. They are anti-SJW certainly, but I’d put them as more centrist (and ranging from centre-left to centre-right).

        I also suspect that if other authors pitched to them they would get readily accepted.

        As for the commenters, the policy seems to be to allow all opinions, and that attracts some right-wing, pro-religious and anti-science voices. It’s surely up to others to go and argue with them if they wish to.

        1. I don’t think I said that the articles are generally right wing. I said that they are generally either right-wing or they are anti-SJW.
          It’s true there are lefties and liberals who write for Quillette, the question is whether they’d get commissioned if they wrote something about, say, the issue of the GOP’s volte-face w/r/t to being the party of ‘law and order’. They get commissioned when they write about how awful the far-left are, I can see that.

          Again, this wouldn’t be any kind of issue for me if Quillette hadn’t positioned itself as an openly free-thinking, pretty neutral website. If they do that I think there’s some responsibility on them to address the egregious behaviour by more than just the one side.

          Re. submissions; if the argument is that critics of the right are simply not submitting work to Quillette then I’d ask why not? Why would an entire side of the political debate simply not bother to submit their writing? I think it suggests that a lot of critics of the right have taken a look at the website’s homepage and concluded that it’s not worth submitting heterogeneous political opinions to Quillette.

          Which I’d argue supports my point – that Quillette has curdled into an echo-chamber for a particular kind of political narrative.

  2. It reminds me of the otherwise intelligent author Yuval Noah Harari in his rather dumb assertions that Humanism is a religion – the very thing that it is not.

      1. Numerous times in his book “Sapiens”, and mentioned it again in his later book “Homo Deus”.


        1. In Sapiens he says
          “If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.
          Islam is of course different from Communism, because Islam sees the superhuman order governing the world as the edict of an omnipotent creator god, whereas Soviet Communism did not believe in gods. But Buddhism too gives short shrift to gods, and yet we commonly classify it as a religion. Like Buddhists, Communists believed in a superhuman order of natural and immutable laws that should guide human actions. “

          1. He also says “The theory of relativity is not a religion, because (at least so far) there are no human norms and values that are founded on it. Football is not a religion because nobody argues that its rules reflect superhuman edicts. Islam, Buddhism and Communism are all religions, because all are systems of human norms and values that are founded on belief in a superhuman order”

            I don’t know exactly why but I would be tempted to call football a religion.

      2. Colin is right. Ch 12 of his book, Sapiens, is pretty bad on this point, equating all sorts of secular ideologies with religions while making some interesting distinctions among “sects” of humanists. There’s a bit of straw-manning to be sure. Although, thee is much to like elsewhere in the book.

  3. Is there a font change from
    “Since I’ve now published in Quillette, I guess I’m not only a member of the Intellectual Dark Web, but also an alt-righter and a white supremacist. Or so the Perpetually Aggrieved might say.” to the next paragraph?

  4. You cannot use your brain to prove your own brains validity… “A river cannot rise higher than its source.” CS Lewis

    Bread can rise higher than its source though. Oh look, I just proved atheism. I’m such an intellectual!

      1. Indeed. And besides, a volcano can rise higher than its source. As can airplanes and grasshoppers. Until CS Lewis can think of more things that can’t rise higher than their source, I remain unconvinced.

        1. And besides, a volcano can rise higher than its source.

          For the same reason as the bread does – expansion of volatiles.

        2. And think of all the elements that can rise higher than their source: helium, hydrogen, neon, nitrogen…hell even what C.S. Lewis is full of (hot air) rises higher than its source.

    1. Lewis seems to have a corner on lousy reasoning by analogy here. Not only is the “brain/river” correspondence dubious, so is the “prove (or explain, or understand, or whatever it is he’s after)/rising higher” connection. It’s the old “up is good” metaphor turned into the basis of an argument.

      1. Woah, that is a deep pun of many layers. (Back in the day before reliable yeast, bakers would “prove” the yeast first before going ahead with the proofing. Also, TV and youtube cooking show celebrities like doing it to look all fancy-schamncy haha.)

      1. Ah I suspected it but didn’t google it, thanks. I think pretty much everyone suspected he would be rong about that since he’s so horribly rong about everything else lol.

  5. The Quillette comment section proves, if nothing else, that the only thing that unites the religious is someone daring to attack religion.

  6. It is a continuing source of laughter, to see how far the religious will go to convince themselves they will not die.

    1. And that’s ultimately what most contemporary religions are for- convincing people they’ll never die. Without that “promise” religion falls like a house of cards. The fear of death is a fierce manipulator.

  7. Well done, Jerry! I couldn’t have said it better myself, or even as well, which is why I don’t submit articles to places.

    The comments are a hoot. What pretzels humans weave from the dough of religion.

  8. I’m at a loss to formulate a long comment, but as a substitute, for some reason, possibly exasperation, I feel compelled to repeat the familiar idea :

    Imagine no religion

  9. Ugh.

    Identifying “X” as a “religion” seems to be some badge of intellectual honor. I’m tired of that one.

    I’m even more tired of the strawman tied up with a trope bow, seen in “Victoria’s” response: that atheists/secularists have a utopian view they are trying to dogmatically push down people throats, which includes the assumption of human perfectibility.

    Run! Keep your families close! We know what happens at the end of that story, don’t we?!!

    This damned claim is so lazy it doesn’t even deserve a response.

    1. +1

      Next they bring up Pinker and accuse you of being Panglossian. Human perfectibility is a religious concept; humanism is about human betterment.

      Secular humanism is not utopian, but rather an acceptance of our complex origins and nature. Burning this straw man, Stephen Law writes this in his Short Introduction to Humanism:

      …while some Enlightenment thinkers were indeed utopian, and some, such as Kant, supposed morality could be founded upon reason alone, notice that neither of these beliefs is entailed by Kant’s characterization of Enlightenment. To believe in the importance of raising Enlightened citizens in Kant’s sense of the term – citizens who dare to think and question, who apply their powers of reason as far as they are able rather than just passively, uncritically accept what they are told by some religious or other authority – is not to sign up to utopianism or to suppose morality and society can be given wholly rational foundations. Modern humanism clearly involves a commitment to Enlightenment in Kant’s sense. That does not mean that today’s humanists are utopians, or that they inevitably overestimate what reason is able to do (though both charges are regularly levelled at contemporary humanism).

      – Law, Stephen. Humanism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (p. 19). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

      Sadly critics of humanism, while decrying simplistic critiques of religion, often supply simplistic critiques of humanism.

  10. One theory (not mine) is that Quillette is read by many conservatives who delight seeing the pretensions of the Left being taken down.

    That is likely true, but keyboard warriors are always on the lookout for, and will do daily searches to find, any blog or site that writes about their pet cause.

  11. I think Quilette has failed as good site for longform articles. I was really excited when it first opened and you had some great minds writing really interesting pieces there.

    but, slowly it became site for very poorly constructed articles. Articles are usually well written, but data is almost always cherry-picked or they just flat out ignore data that goes against data in the article.

    Some articles even have odd potshots against left wing when politics isn’t even the issue. Usually reason is that there is already billion sites that criticises right wingers, so it’s ok to take shots at left wing. And I agree, long as they are in context of the article. Random shots just devalues the information in my eyes and makes it harder to think the author as fair and balanced.

    Yet, there are still some great authors and articles so I check it out every now and then. Thankfully Jerry posts some of the good ones here, saves time.

    1. There are just as many sites that do nothing but aggregate stories about how awful the illiberal left is though.
      And that’s before you get onto social media, especially Youtube which is rife with anti-SJW channels/pages.

      A week ago or so I was watching some pretty random YT video(possibly one of those ones where a mad eastern European guy sets fire to household objects in the name of ‘science’)

      …the next video that autoplayed was ‘Dumb Captain Marvel Feminazis Get Pwned’ or something like that…and I saw that the next one after that was going to be an interview with Tommy fucking Robinson.

      Youtube’s algorithm has a habit of pushing people down extremist rabbit holes, many of which tend to be far-right. I’d imagine the same escalation in extremity happens with far-left videos(‘vegetarianism is good’>’veganism is great’>’STALINISM RULES’, that kind of thing) but not with me for some reason. It’s all alt-right/far-right crap. YouTube recommendations move in mysterious ways.

      1. The video you mentioned was created by Dusty Smith, who for lack of a better term, is an “Anti Anti SJW”.

        That particullar video ridiculed the typical Anti SJWs who whine and cry about every super hero movie which has any characters whatsoever who are not White Males. They complain about how Hollywood is shoving SJW beliefs down our throats, etc. O total over reaction befitting an MRA.

        Just thought I’d let you know

  12. These religious arguments are so tiring – the atheists are bad because Marxism or Pol Pot or whomever. It’s exhausting.

    1. It is tiring.
      Very tiring, especially as it is selective and misleading.

      Also just commenting on the 20th century while ignoring the relentless slaughters by the religious all through history is a bit tricky.

      Sometimes they like to throw in Hitler and get all upset when it is pointed out that Hitler was religious and that some of the motives for the mass murdering were from Christianity.

      1. I had a random person on Twitter reply to a tweet I made on Atheist Day supporting those who cannot come out as atheists due to social reprisals or the threat of death depending on where you live. Some goddy just kept sending me non-sequiturs and wouldn’t address anything I said in response so I stopped discussing it with him. His response to me pointing out that Hitler was a Catholic was that he was only baptized as a Catholic. His response to me pointing out that many atheists are hounded (with an example) or put to death was that Pol Pot and Stalin killed more people (presumably he feels they did so in the name of atheism or because they are evil since their ideologies were free of superstition). It’s just not worth the time with some of these boneheads.

        1. To be fair, some killings and imprisonments were motivated by atheism, regarded by marxist dictators as a prerequisite to their rule. An NGO where my father was a member has compiled a list of 67 Bulgarians killed because they were Orthodox Christian priests. Divided by the population number, this gives 1:100,000 mortality for being a priest of the traditional religion in the country. Catholic priests were persecuted even more severely.

          1. Can you really say the killings were motivated by atheism or motivated by hatred of religion? The French Revolution saw lots of Catholics executed too but no one ever says that Republicanism or Enlightenment ideals killed people.

              1. Which is much different than being carried out for the express purpose of atheism or because atheism has a doctrine that requires it to be done….as there are no doctrines in atheism.

          2. Can you really say the killings were motivated by atheism or motivated by hatred of religion? The French Revolution saw lots of Catholics executed too but no one ever says that Republicanism or Enlightenment ideals killed people.

    2. And James below Victoria who writes: Without religion, people still know what not to do (murder,rape,kill,steal) but are unable, on the whole, to figure out what is worth doing…The result is rat-race materialism and boundless tolerance, both evidence of nihilism…

      It seems one underlying feature of the religious mind (which is evidenced in these comments) is a severe lack of imagination and a need to patronize.

      1. Somehow got the italics reversed…why can’t I just highlight and click the “I” like I’ve been doing in other programs for decades… I know, WordPress.

      2. Yes…and I’m convinced by the argument that you can have secular religion (ie: religion without superstition) so what these doofuses are saying is that it takes a magical being to tell us humans what to think and do and if we don’t hav the magic being then we’re pooched and we’ll just lose our minds. Of course, the atheist countries of Scandinavia and elsewhere show that non magic believing nations are quite successful but I see the commenters on that site reject that as just a lie.

  13. Excellent article Prof. CC(E). I wrote to Staddon after his article came out and he responded to me. A main point he was trying to make (and I am paraphrasing/out of context):

    “My point was that in those respects which lead one to action, the secular humanist is just as inflexible as the religious person. The only difference is where the beliefs come from.”

    The vast majority of secularists are not like Weinbergs or Dennetts or Coynes they are people who have mostly an emotional response to religion and its effects on civilization. To that degree, actions can be indistinguishable from those derived from obstinate beliefs. But to suggest secularism is a religion is misguided.

    Nature has no conscience, no kindness, or ill will. A handful of sand does not have beliefs and neither does secularism.

  14. like shooting fish in a barrel.

    Every time I see that phrase, I wonder, “how did such a silly image get started?”

      1. Well, I’ve certainly seen (monochrome) photos of “fish wifies” packing the annual herring bonanza into barrels (later of crushed ice, layer of gutted fish, layer of salt) in various West Coast fishing ports – for shipping on to a railhead, this being before the roads were worth the effort. Barrelled fish is well attested.

  15. There was a time when religion—specifically, Christianity—was what Ortega y Gasset called the “dominant mythology” or “collective belief” of Western civilization. Barbara Tuchman, in A Distant Mirror, describes it thus:

    Christianity was the matrix of medieval life: even cooking instructions called for boiling an egg “during the length of time wherein you can say a Miserere.” It governed birth, marriage, and death, sex, and eating, made the rules for law and medicine, gave philosophy and scholarship their subject matter. Membership in the Church was not a matter of choice; it was compulsory and without alternative, which gave it a hold not easy to dislodge.

    I would argue that secular humanism and science have replaced Christianity as what Tuchman calls the “matrix” of modern life. So it’s not so much secular humanism being a religion as it is both secular humanism and religion serving the function of a “dominant mythology.”

    Just my two cents.

    1. … even cooking instructions called for boiling an egg “during the length of time wherein you can say a Miserere.”

      When I was a kid, my maternal grandmother and a couple of my more-staunchly Catholic aunts — my mom having been born into a big Irish clan of seven kids — could measure the time interval it took to do almost anything by how many beads of the rosary it took to say. 🙂

  16. From a legal standpoint, treating Secular Humanism as a religion would present a mixed bag. It would afford Secular Humanists certain protections and privileges now available only to the religious under the First Amendment’s “Free Exercise” clause. But it would also invigorate the anti-science evangelicals who claim that teaching evolution and climate change (and some other scholastic subjects they associate with Secular Humanism) in public schools constitutes a violation of the First Amendment’s “Establishment” clause.

    Personally, I’d like to see the rights secured by the Free Exercise clause subsumed into a broad interpretation of the First Amendment’s “Free Speech” clause that would afford a “freedom of conscience” to everyone, religious and secular alike. Unfortunately, though the nation’s made some progress in this direction, we’re not there yet.

    1. It would make it more complex to argue, but I think you could simply say that there Humanism respects science and rejects supernaturalism but that does not mean that the science itself is a religion. So, you could have your cake and eat it too with some work though I get it would be a hassle and it could go the wrong way if done poorly.

  17. I’ts too bad that Quillette’s commenteriat has tended to lean right, although they don’t seem as spiteful and dumb as you find on some right wing sites.
    I don’t think it’s fair to accuse the editors of an agenda though, based on what I’ve heard from their podcasts, which are hosted by three of Quillette’s main editors, they all sincerely seem like left-centrists who are trying to pull the left from the clutches of its illiberal, regressive strain.
    A certain amount of gloating attention from conservatives is to be expected.
    There are a lot of smug, climate deniers who hang out there though, it would be nice if some well credentialed climate wonk were to take them on, I don’t have the time or the chops.

    1. SweetPeavey – Spot on. I can just about list the handful of centre-right commenters on Quillette who argue in good faith. But there are a ton of plain blood and soil conservatives with thinly-veiled bigotry. You’d be amazed (or not) at how immediately any idea of collective problem solving is equated to Venezuela and Marxist hell.

      There are a few centre-left voices fighting back, but who has the time?

  18. Doesn’t seem to matter where you do it or among what group, if you criticize religion a significant amount of people will take umbrage. And they’ll toss any allegiance to reason they may have in any other context right out the window. Just like Staddon in his article. Otherwise intelligent people making transparently stupid arguments in support of an Iron Age belief system that was cobbled together with bits and pieces of Bronze Age, and earlier, belief systems and then honed for centuries into what may be the finest means of controlling and exploiting the masses ever devised.

    1. “what may be the finest means of controlling and exploiting the masses ever devised”

      After ‘Top Gear’.

  19. Commenter Bob says “This is why almost every western ideology, from utilitarianism to socialism to secular humanism, is essentiallly secularized Christianity.

    Since Christianity has changed so much in the past few hundred years (e.g. the first four of the 10 commandments are completely ignored), actually Christianity = religionized secular humanity = religionized human nature.

    They all believe in inherent human dignity and a morality that they hold to be objective and universal

    I sure don’t believe that. Ideas like “dignity” and “rights” are useful fictions.

    but could never have even arisen were it not for Europe’s Christian civilization.

    Except they “arose” in societies without any Christianity, e.g. China, India.

  20. Why does it need to be about being pro-science and anti-religion at the same time in the first place? Is it really impossible to be pro-science and pro-religion? I know the religious like to state this and I know this is a very specific distinct idea as well that is not intrinsic to all religions. I also know it’s most commonly held by protestants and that America is the largest Protestant country in the world.

    As a Canadian born to a Catholic family it has always been clear how things operate in America is not the same as how we do things here. My religious upbringing, the majority of which was via our public Catholic schools, constantly reinforced concepts like critical thinking and the importance of evidence in that process. Science was celebrated.

    The Town square for the city I live in features a piece of art work called the Keplar Bell that symbolizes the contribution of both religious faith and science to the region’s culture and success. It sits within view of a large chruch, a think tank for international governance, and the world renowned perimeter institute. My point being the culture here is distinct from American culture and there is no real opposition to something like teaching evolution in the class room. A big reason for this is we’ve always been too diverse for any politician to capitalize on the narrative of science (reason) being hostile to religion (faith) where such an idea could take hold. When you have a split between Protestants (Conservatives), Catholics (Liberals), and the non religious (NDP) such a specific idea does not hold enough importance to be useful so it doesn’t get nurtured. Or to put it another way as the culture evolves the idea falls away and doesn’t get included as the narratives the culture consists of replicate since it’s not useful.

    The culture of our two countries are distinct in the same way two finches from different islands would be distinct. They have evolved in different, yet very similar, directions and are an example of the idea that narrative systems (religions, cultures, ideologies, etc) are subject to evolutionary forces. I would also argue our brains make no distinction between the various narrative systems either.

    I’ll try to wrap this up since I’m starting to ramble too much and try to get to a final point. How does someone become a secular Humanist? What does it mean to be one? I would argue it’s nothing more than a process of learning specific narratives. While it’s true those narratives are not limited to one book it’s not like your brain is handling it differently than if it was.

    As a secular Humanist myself I can’t help but conclude by secular humanism is being handled in exactly the same way my neighbours Islam or Christianity is being handled. I see no distinction between us and I don’t think in somehow superior to them because I don’t hold a belief in God. I also know they are as capable of critical scientific thought as anyone. I recognize the history of what I believe and am comfortable with the fact my secular humanism represents an evolution of previous narrative systems.

    But again I’m from a place where we erect a Keplar Bell for our public space instead of the ten commandments or a statue of Satan. We have more than two political parties and are overall more moderate. So maybe the problems you have religion are less about religion and more about the culture you’re stuck with.

    1. Please try to write shorter comments in the future (see the rules). But thank you for your thoughts. I’ll just respond that if you think Catholicism is pro-science, take a look at what it takes to be literally true: that Jesus was resurrected, that Adam and Eve were LITERALLY the ancestors of all humans, that we have souls, and that the wafer and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus during the communion. Those are profoundly antiscientific views. Catholics believe things for which there is no evidence; scientists don’t. I suggest you read my book Faith versus Fact to see what my thesis is.

      If you think Catholics and Muslims are, on average, just as capable of scientific thought as anyone, take a look at what they believe to be true about God and religion. Secular humanism is not a continuum or a derivative of religion; it’s a break with religion.

    2. I don’t know…as a Canadian I say we can’t get too high up on our secular horse when Catholic schools are funded by public money in several provinces, including Ontario (home to the world famous Perimeter Institute you mention). And you may argue that the Catholics accept evolution and many tend toward a more humanist stance but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the evolution the Catholics endorse is a theistic one all kicked off by god, and this Catholic evolution just ain’t true. Let’s also remember that when we give our tax dollars to Catholic schools, they make sure to higher only Catholics to do their teaching.

      Yes, religion isn’t so cray in Canada, but I think that’s just because we got lucky. The Catholic Church still has too much influence for my liking.

      1. And I made a homophone error again – higher is meant to be hire. Good grief. I don’t know what happens with my brain and homophones but it’s so embarrassing.

  21. Hitch once said to Hannity, “You seem to me to be someone who has never read a single argument against your position.” This is my reaction when reading the comments in Quillette. “But Hilter was an atheist!” “Then what created all this stuff?” “It’s turtles all the way down…”

    1. Hannity … Hannity … you mean the brilliant investigative journalist who discovered that it wasn’t the Russians, but a young DNC staffer named Seth Rich, who hacked the Democrats’ computers in 2016, before getting revenge-croaked by Killary Clinton outside his DC apartment?

      That Hannity? Now that the redacted Mueller report is out, I’m sure Seth Rich’s grieving family will want to apologize to Hannity for ever questioning his judgment on this matter.

  22. Quillette commenters are having a field day because of Quillette’s commendable open mind and pages and readiness to publish dissent. But their ad hominem attacks have not diminished, nor have those on Jordan Peterson’s blogs. The comments emanate from the right and from libertarianism, and are almost always uninformed on science, logic and reason. I guess this is the price we pay for free speech! Let’s not blame Quillette or Jordan Peterson (whose views on climate change are tragically misguided). But it’s too late to celebrate. The foolish and regressive errors of the left and the Identity Politics/PC gangs unfortunately give lots of ammunition to the regressive right, the religious and the climate deniers. It’s unpleasant to end up sharing their views of the left but since the left continues on its death march to intellectual oblivion we have no choice. Let’s hope the SJW and their ilk
    have a brief existence. Meanwhile, we just have to put up with nonsense on left and right.

  23. Does Dr. Jerry welcome feedback on typos, and similar peccadilloes? I have no personal need to burden him with an unwanted demonstration of prowess gleaned thru decades of letterpress typesetting, but do perhaps detect more than today’s thumb-wielding texters would ever bother with. There is at least one in the Quillette piece: “…. but these acts violate cultural rather than religions norms.”

    1. I welcome feedback on website posts and things that I can fix. Fortunately, the Quillette piece can be fixed, so I’ll email this typo to them. Just contact me by email (easily available) if you see errors like this. And thank you!

  24. It seems that many people who comment on Quillette articles have an ideological axe to grind. I guess that the majority of readers(like moi)are mostly secular and don’t need to vent their particular delusions or quibble about ancient texts.

    A great article, Jerry.


  25. Great rebuttal. Good job.

    This is a comment by Bob over on Quillette:

    There is no way to derive morals from a scientific or falsifiable way. Any moral code rests on assumptions, like inherent human dignity, that are essentially religious in nature.

    It’s a common (and IMO one of the better) argument among religious apologists, but it’s wrong. Even if science cannot support the claim “my daughter’s well being is extremely valuable”, I don’t need religion to fill that gap. Even if it boils down to a *feeling* (a feeling tuned by millions of years of evolution), no mysticism is needed to support it: it is simply a fact of my existence.

    Now a group of people can get together and agree “our children’s well being is extremely important” (still no science and no religion) and agree to act on that value.

    At this point we can turn to science or religion (or a mix) to determine how to act on that value, but holding that value doesn’t require religion.

  26. I think you’ve missed the point. Staddon doesn’t actually answer the question in his title in the affirmative. We could ask him, but as far as I can see, nowhere does he make the positive assertion “Secular humanism is a religion.” As you note yourself, he only claims that SH meets one of the three necessary “elements” that make up his definition of religion. According to his first sentence, “It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion.” Perhaps he’s expressing himself imprecisely, but to me this means, “It is commonly said that SH is a religion,” not “I agree that SH is a religion.”

    It seems to me that the point of the article is that secular humanists have no “authority,” for their moral claims – not even the fig leaf of a God. In spite of that, as he points out, they are in the habit of insisting that their various versions of morality apply to others. They even insist that laws be created and changed accordingly. As Hume pointed out, and many others before him, morality is the expression of “passions,” or emotions. As Darwin and Westermarck noted, these emotions exist by virtue of natural selection. It follows that it is fundamentally irrational to insist that morality be reprogrammed to serve such causes as a vaguely defined “human flourishing,” or “the welfare of all mankind,” or “the benefit of others,” and then expect others to obey without question, on penalty of being vilified and shamed or, in many cases, punished by the law.

    I would go further than Staddon. Secular humanists do believe in imaginary things – “Good,” and “Evil.” They speak and behave as if these illusions are real things, regardless of whether they claim to believe that morality is subjective or not. In fact, secular humanism and subjective morality are mutually exclusive.

    1. In fact, secular humanism and subjective morality are mutually exclusive

      Utter nonsense. Many secular humanists are moral relativists.

      1. No doubt there are legions of secular humanists who claim to be moral relativists. It is “utter nonsense,” however, to believe that they actually are. I know of not a single example of a secular humanist who acts as if they seriously believed this claim about themselves. Look at Dawkins, tweeting away about his moral whims of the moment. Unless he seriously believes that his moral emotions have magically acquired the authority to dictate behavior to everyone else on the planet, this behavior is rationally incomprehensible. Look at Pinker, insisting that “orange man bad,” that Nietzsche got out of bed every morning wracking his brain to come up with a list of bad deeds he could do that day, and gratuitously suggesting that we expand our empathy to embrace everyone on the planet, as if that suggestion were “good in itself,” and didn’t fly in the face of the reasons that moral emotions exist to begin with. Attend a meeting of secular humanists wherever you happen to be. I’ve been to many, and in every case I’ve found them promoting moral “goods” and attacking moral “evils” without qualification, as if they were objectively true. There’s nothing surprising about this. As Westermarck pointed out long ago, moral emotions spawn the powerful illusion that good and evil are real things, but there are obvious reasons they do so if one takes Darwin seriously. What is surprising is that not even the most intelligent secular humanists are capable of stepping back and considering the possibility that moral emotions that evolved because they happened to increase the odds that the relevant genes would survive and reproduce in small communities of hunter gatherers may not accomplish the same thing in the radically different societies we live in today. Indeed, blindly responding to them now the way secular humanists invariably do is dangerous, assuming one still has any interest in things as mundane as survival.

        In short, Staddon’s “point” is not that secular humanism is actually a religion, but that secular humanists universally make moral claims that they seek to impose on others, often via the law, and that they do so without any legitimate authority whatsoever. He’s right. IMHO his article is hardly the “worst” ever to appear at Quillette. In fact, it is one of the best.

        1. I know of not a single example of a secular humanist who acts as if they seriously believed this claim about themselves.

          Well if you don’t know of any, they must not exist. Right?


        2. In short, Staddon’s “point” is not that secular humanism is actually a religion, but that secular humanists universally make moral claims that they seek to impose on others, often via the law, and that they do so without any legitimate authority whatsoever.

          The technical term for this is “the human condition”.

  27. The most insidious argument that we see used there is that secularism and Western science would not have been possible without the Catholic Church or Christianity.
    I think the Greeks, Hellenists and Romans were well on their way.
    I posted some comments there, slightly expanding on that, the fact that Christianity (and ‘Barbarians’ turned Christian) postponed that for a millennium etc., but of the more than half dozen comments only 2 appeared (I think it a technical glitch, nothing sinister), which is quite discouraging. At any rate the detractors of Jerry’s article get pretty well blasted in the comments.

    1. The most insidious argument that we see used there is that secularism and Western science would not have been possible without the Catholic Church or Christianity.

      Agree. I think Europe was advanced in science because of its centuries of war. War compels arms races, arms races compel technology, technology compels science.

      Having said that, the church being a unifying backdrop to all those warring Christian nations might have been a factor in sharing information.

  28. All I can add is my disappointment with many of the Quillette commenters. They seem so uninformed I worry they are not subject to new learning.

  29. The byline at the bottom of the article starts with:
    “Jerry A. Coyne is professor of ccology and evolutionary biology…”

    Pretty sure that should be ecology, unless our host is also a master of cc:’ing emails.

  30. Comment sections (current company excepted) are rarely a showcase for the wisdom, sensitivity and open-mindedness of our species. Just look at how much effort you put in here, Jerry, to police the commenters and keep things semi-civilised. Most sites are well aware that the policy of unrestricted comment warfare is what gets them clicks: the articles are like a piece of meat thrown out to stimulate a feeding frenzy below.

  31. The slave argument of the last comment always makes me sad.

    Else I was especially noticing the erroneous claims on biology of the first comment. *Modern* genetics hails from the discovery of DNA, and you can obviously have either biology or “Adam and Eve” myth but not both.

    I assume the Mendel claim rests on (post modern?) bad reading of literature. As is the idea that lack of evidence in religion is a question of etymology instead of empirical science.

  32. It is hard not to think of religion when a group is formed for the purpose of spreading their beliefs about what is moral and what is not……and gathers their members as fellow believers.

Leave a Reply