John Staddon and I have been having “words” in Quillette. It began with Staddon’s piece “Is Secular Humanism a Religion?“, a question he answered in the affirmative, even though secular humanism violated two of Staddon’s three defining traits of religion. I thus responded both here and then in a rebuttal in Quillette, “Secular Humanism is not a religion“.
Now Staddon has written a short reply to my critique, also in Quillette. See below; you can access it by clicking on the screenshot:.
First, Staddon denies that he ever claimed that secular humanism is a religion. That’s just not true, as you can see not just from his original title (which, he claims, was “misleading” and was chosen by Quillette), but also from the very first sentence of his article: “It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion.” Apparently the man cannot read his own piece! Or perhaps he reads it like he reads his Bible, picking and choosing the parts that support his argument while ignoring the rest.
But leave that aside, for in his new piece Staddon wants to emphasize the main point of his first piece: that, like religious ethics, secular ethics are based on faith and cannot be “proved”:
. . . 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.
In fact, Staddon sees religious morals as superior to secular ones because they rest on religious stories, stories that he admits are myths. But at least religious morals rest on something. Secular ethics, so he claims, are based on nothing:
My argument is simple: religions have three characteristics: spiritual, mythical/historical, and moral. Secular humanism lacks the first two and is often quite critical of these aspects of religion. But they are largely irrelevant to politics. Hence the truth or falsity of religious myths is also irrelevant, as are Coyne’s disproofs of the existence of God. 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.
. . . In other words, in all the ways that matter for action, secularists and religious believers do not differ.
I’m not going to give my counterarguments here, as I’m putting them in a short piece in Quillette, but I’ll let the readers have the pleasure of arguing whether secular ethics are indeed based on the same kind of faith as is religion, and that secular ethics “are connected to nothing at all.” I will show, as briefly as I can, that secular ethics are not connected to “nothing at all.”
Have at it.
63 thoughts on “Once again, John Staddon maintains that religious morality is superior to secular morality”
At the risk of stating the obvious, absence of god isn’t the same thing as nothing. If that isn’t what he means then he should be more precise lest everyone suspect him of sophistry.
Anyone who pretends their morality comes from religion and that is the good morality is not living in reality. You have to do a lot of selective picking through the christian bible to justify it. If you think mass murder and dictatorship is moral then you have a case. Examples today could be Pope Francis and his church hiding the facts of much less than moral behavior or Abu Bakr Baghdadi and his Islamic state with Sharia law. The real phony group today here in America are the republican religious right and their leader and moralist Donald Trump. As long as we stop abortion and make sure they have no health care everything is great. Make America great again by sucking up to Putin, another guy with great morals.
Beautfully said. I am beyond depressed that ~40% of American citizens continue to support Trump (assuming the polls are accurate). If he gets reelected, I will conclude that there is no longer any hope, or any way to save this country from fading into oblivion.
Oblivion has been the destiny of all great civilizations of the past, so it wouldn’t be a big surprise if the USA has crested and is now deteriorating toward that end. But, maybe this time we will manage to trump history? 😎
Thanks. That ALMOST made me less depressed (and, did I mention, extremely angry?).
Let me help you through this. The optimistic, glass half full, appraisal has tRump being trounced in ’20, Dems taking the Senate, Obama care enhanced, serious federal support for global warming initiatives, and lots of ducks, kittens, and squirrels. 😎
Grist for the Soylent … yellow? mill?
Wait till you see what “I am become Death, Destroyer of teddy bears” made me think of.
Well said Randall.
Further, you just have to look at Christianity and the plethora of sects within it, each of which has a different set of morals. You can belong to one sect and think abortion is okay, and belong to another and think it’s murder. Those who think it’s murder say they base their decision on the Bible, even though the Bible actually makes it clear that abortion isn’t murder. (It proscribes no punishment for abortion but death – a life for a life – for murder.)
The Bible (including Jesus) has no problem with slavery, but except for some (not all) white supremacists, no Christian sect supports slavery these days.
My point is that when a person leaves their religion for another one, it’s because they’ve decided the morals of that sect are wrong, but the interpretations of another sect are correct.
Then there’s the fact that almost all Catholics think their Church is wrong on contraception and practice it anyway, whether or not they leave the Church,
Arguments such as Staddon’s — that secularism is a “religion” — are meant to put religion on an equal footing with secularism and science regarding truth claims, and so to protect ACTUAL religion from reasoned criticism.
That may very well be the truth of it but there is also the possibility that being religious requires him to find religion in just about everything. This may be how they find atheism a religion.
I read Staddon’s piece and was waiting for the rest of it, the bit with substantive examples. It’s like he has never heard of Hitchens’ Wager.
I think it is a bit rich stating that secular morals are based on nothing, particularly since religious morals tend to be somewhat malleable and ultimately comport with those of society as a whole (often with stern resistance and much citing of religious precendents). Witness the biblical justifications of slavery invoked in response to challenges of people like William Wilberforce.
The religious debate over slavery does indeed show the malleability of at least Christianity in regard to this issue. It must be remembered that Wilberforce was an evangelical and led the fight to end slavery in Britain. Likewise, in the pre-Civil War United States, most abolitionists, such as the most famous one, William Lloyd Garrison, were evangelicals and condemned the institution on moral grounds. But, surprise, surprise, the religious leaders in the South staunchly defended slavery. So, one must ask, what particular morality does Staddon favor? Religion can be used to justify anything. If religion created morals, people would be spouting the fifth commandment while smiting anyone perceived as an enemy.
Honor thy father and mother?
Sorry, sixth commandment.
If I remember correctly, thou shalt not kill is the 5th commandment in the Catholic Church.
Not just ‘a bit rich’ but so manifestly untrue as to be downright bizarre.
Morality as a pragmatic solution to the problems of living socially can be based on personal preference, which is itself determined by human nature, cultural inheritance, material circumstances and reason, none of which are nothing.
We don’t go round bopping people on their heads and taking their wallets, partly because most of us don’t want to (thank you nature and nurture), partly because we have no material need to do so, partly because reason tells us that if we can do it to others, they can do it to us. We try to act decently in expectation that others will act decently to us.
Interestingly enough, non-theistic morality based on reciprocity in the in-group can be found in both the Old Testament(the law of retaliation) and in the New Testament, the Golden Rule; both of these are found in many societies, not just Christian ones, as Staddon surely knows.
It would seem that moral arguments devoid of spirituality and myth/history would generally be superior as you can only rely on arguments that support the validity of the moral judgment. Yes, you must select an arbitrary starting point, but often in a way that is cooperative – “If we can agree that morals should maximize the general welfare …”. From there you are off to the races with reason and evidence to support particular actions, yet the starting point can change over time as it isn’t tied to history or myth but must be negotiated.
Ah, it’s great to see a revival of the cantankerous literary feud — an art that seemed lost to all but the occasional exchange of peevish letters in The New York Review of Books. 🙂
To me, it’s quite simple: cooperation is an adaptive trait. Some animals use other strategies, but cooperation worked out pretty well for our ape ancestors and spectacularly well for us. We all get our cooperative behavior from the same place, and it ain’t religion. If some people want to make up tales to explain why we maintain a social order — Burning Bushes, Arks, Resurrected Saviors, whatever — fine, let them. But those are all myths, fictions, and/or lies. So which theory is “connected to nothing at all”?
It seems to me that what Staddon really wants to do is troll secular humanists by using the word ‘religion’ in the same sentence as ‘humanism’,with no greater point to make than that. It’s the same move that Christians often make when they say “I didn’t have enough, heh heh, *faith* [smug pause] to be an atheist.”
Prof. Coyne was not claiming to be ‘above the fray’, but rather that the ‘fray’ should involve reason and discard arguments from authority.
I think Staddon needs to take a more (heh heh) *nuanced* approach to this matter.
…And he could have used reason to contest any of the supposedly “covert” values in secular humanism that he thinks fly under everyone else’s radar except his, but instead he backs off such debate by labeling it “a religion”… while of course not labeling it a religion at all, depending on which day it is.
John Staddon is an incredibly sloppy thinker:
It is precisely the absence of “commandments” that distinguishes secularism from religion.
Reason is useful even when it’s not “by itself”.
Reason can certainly tell me how I ought to act.
Thinking that reason cannot tell us how we ought to act misses alot, especially by not specifying the goal the action is supposed to achieve. The “ought” is left in metaphysical limbo, with no goal attached to it. Sure, if you only mean some “ought” without a stated goal to achieve, then figuring out what you ought to do will be difficult. But how absurd is it to fail to specify the goal?
If you want to increase the well-being of conscious creatures, then of course we can say some things about how we ought to act in order to achieve that goal. Sam Harris makes the point that no one would give any credence to someone who says, “Yes, I should seek medical attention if I want to be healthy, but who says I have to value health?” Ultimately, no one does have to value health, but once we take health to be a starting point, and once we take the well-being of conscious creatures as a starting point, then we can talk about what we ought to do. And assuming that starting point is not really going out on a limb, is it?
According to the end of the article, our host, “Jerry A. Coyne is professor of ccology“. What is this discipline of ccology?
It was supposed to be “ecology and evolution”, but I couldn’t be arsed to fix it. It will be correct in my next piece.
It’s the study of copying people in on emails.
I like “ccology”, and I hope to take it up as my own academic sub-discipline. In fact, I would suggest to the Dean a whole new department of “critical ccology”, except that I already suffer from a bad case of emeritis.
How about “carbonitis” (or “copyitus”) and “emerititus”.
According to psychological theories, people are guided on a continuum between reason and intuition. Theory is it is a sliding scale. Much like introversion and extroversion. Most people are somewhere in the middle. Then there are extremes on both ends.
People solve questions of morality depending on how their brain works on the scale.
Writings on morals, religious or secular are the records of those. thoughts passed down.
The reality is that we develop a moral code, and then look to religion to support it; we don’t derive our morality from religion. If we derived morality from religion then there’d be no, certainly fewer, arguments over them.
I’m a secular humanist and my morals certainly don’t come from “nothing” and they certainly are not “connected to nothing at all”. They come from my own experience, my own decisions based on everything I’ve done, every place I’ve traveled to, everything I’ve read, every person I’ve had a relationship with.
There are just as many secular stories and myths out there as religious ones. Religious stories in the Bible are simply stories that someone made up or wrote down at some point, just like any other story religious or not. The only thing mystical about them is in the minds eye of the beholder, so to speak. The idea of holiness and sanctity in mystical writings only seems special to some because they are indoctrinated to believe that, usually from a young age. They simply haven’t analyzed critically why and how they have those mystical feelings.
I can experience awe and wonderment in many settings other than religious ones. In nature, from science, in a relationship, in the love a fellow human.
Staddon seems caught up in his own delusions.
So Staddon thinks, for instance, that the religious morals of an IS fighter -which are derived from religious stories- are superior to secular morality? I think that Staddon needs professional help.
“whether secular ethics are indeed based on the same kind of faith as is religion,…”
No. Secular morality is made by rationally evaluating the successes and failures of earlier codes of behavior. What’s not to like?
“… Mr. Coyne’s morals, which are connected to nothing at all.”
Obviously the proper point of attack. Secular morals are based on all the same things religious ones are but without the myths and imaginary beings. Those last two things get in the way of rational thought.
The good parts of religious morals are those co-opted from secular humanism. After all, even religious leaders are not entirely without reasoning and even the gods at times speak sense.
Morals are obviously connected to subjective experience, which is not ‘nothing’, unless one is a philosopher’s zombie or philosophically opposed to the idea that subjective experience actually exists (some people are, but I doubt Staddon is in that camp).
That’s not to say that religious morals, depending on time and place, might not have advantages. (I go on the working assumption that they evolved because they do have advantages for large groups of humans in many situations, and it’s only recently, in modern configurations that have never existed before, that this has shifted somewhat.) In a small, self-governed group responsible for its own survival and defense, for example, religion takes the locus of power away from any one individual (who might be tempted towards ‘might makes right’ or tyrannical or just selfish thinking in order to enhance their own subjective experience at the expense of everyone else,) and places it with forces outside the group – forces that insist on consistent codes of conduct from all group members. Conduct that generally focuses on cooperation between in-group members and defense (either actual or psychological) against out-group members.
That said, in situations where the necessary infrastructure, education, abundance, security and attitudes are in place for more secular values, clearly they have the potential to do wonderful things. For example – would Staddon eschew liberal democracy to go and live in a dictatorship, seeing as how they are both based on ‘nothing’, in his reading? Somehow I doubt it. And to act on a preference is to implicitly admit, to my mind, that a differentiating variable – not nothing – does in fact exist. You don’t act based on the nonexistent.
Religious morals are just secular ones passed through the filter of old guys thousands of years ago writing them down and making up stories to go with them, and religious zealots reinterpreting them subsequently.
Maybe, but belief in the supernatural divinity of such morals does make a significant difference, to my mind. If Person X says “We should share because it will benefit the group” and Person Y says “I’m not sharing, and I’m taking your portion of food, because if you say no I’ll punch you”, then, assuming Person Y is a better fighter, Person X has little recourse. Adding a supernatural enforcer of such rules would: a) Possibly cause person Y to reconsider, especially if humans are to some degree ‘wired for religion’ and b) Facilitate group pressure so that the group would more likely jump in to enforce moral codes. Even if Person Y isn’t worried about a smoting, after all, they probably are.
That’s not to say that group morality can’t simply consist of an ethereal ideal that people see as overarching and important ‘just because’. I think you see that dynamic a good bit with the far Left – they can have very fervently held ideals / dogma without any sort of deity involved. But, given the prevalence of this sort of ‘supernatural law enforcement’ historically, my guess is that it did serve a pretty functional purpose. If something is presumed to be authored by God, it can’t be changed at the drop of a hat based on what might be the reckless or selfish insistence of group members. Historically, this was likely a good thing… it’s only more recently, as mores have started to shift quite rapidly, that it’s become more problematic. (Presumably it was always an issue to at least some degree, as various prophets and so on had to keep updating the morality even in ancient texts.)
There is plenty of evidence that religion can provide fitness advantages. The benefit of tribal binding and structure that religion tends to instill can be a massive advantage to the tribe (as is the stability of the Word of God and other things that you mentioned).
(So I’m not disagreeing with you, Roo, just digging into this vein.)
Often proponents of religion point to these fitness advantages, or point to the results of them, as evidence for the usefulness of religion.
However it should be emphasized that evolutionary fitness isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially in the context of morality. For instance, slave ownership is a massive fitness advantage for the slave owner (especially when you can have sex with the slaves).
I think it’s difficult to say that anything is a good thing (will return to this momentarily) in and of itself, and fitness advantage is no exception. Secular morality, as theists like to point out, can certainly go awry in any number of ways (if it changes too fast it can become a sort of Hobbesian power struggle of the whims of petty tyrants; people have gotten absolutely dystopian ideas about what is “rational” in their heads; or they’ve denied our evolutionary roots in attempts to impose unrealistic utopian moralities, etc.) There are also plenty of criticism to be made of theistic morality (even in, as you point out, an adaptive context), or, I imagine, pretty much any philosophy of morality if examined closely enough. They all have their strong and weak points – I think this is inevitable because what is a ‘pro’ in some circumstances will shift to a ‘con’ in others. Sometimes the ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances is a strong point, in other circumstances, it’s a liability, for example. Sometimes focusing on survival is a necessity in order for a species to even continue and thus continue having any kind of subjective experience at all; sometimes a focus on survival leads to a world that no one should really want to live in anyways.
I think the crux of the matter is always finding some sort of agreed upon standard for what “The Good” really is. If there is such as standard, then we can always tweak and adapt the tools we use to reach this outcome. I personally do think there is a common, self-evident “Good” that can be learned about and discovered, and since it is common to all people, it will naturally be converged upon. I find it a bit perplexing that Staddon goes into what sounds like almost nihilistic thinking in his article – secular morality is based on pretty much nothing; and theistic morality is based on myths. If one really believes that is the case, it sounds like a pretty bad situation all around, one that could be summarized as “Well… (shrug) and… (shrug) and… (more shrugs)”. If it’s not, then I think the actual conversation is what we mean by “The Good”. Maybe Staddon doesn’t have quite the mystical view I do on the topic but I would hope he at least sees some guideposts there – subjective experience being the most obvious one, I would think.
I think at the core of what you are saying is that secular morality is a product of a dynamic political process. I think that’s true. Theology is, or tries to be, a set of standards of “the good”, whether agreed upon or not, that are unchanging. I think common sense leads us to prefer the former. I think morality will always be in flux. Potentially, maintaining it’s historical trend of improvement (more people happier with their lives). Law governing behavior of individuals in society is the practical knife edge of a shifting morality.
I think a large part of it – not all, but part – depends on time and place. If I was in some sort of Hobbesian anarchy situation, I might welcome the introduction of a morality that people felt was written in stone and couldn’t be overthrown by whoever had managed to grab power for a moment (While I suspect ethics are, as you say, much more dynamic now, this principle is still at work in our thinking – we wouldn’t want a rule of law that changed on a whim, for example, as that would be no rule of law at all.)
But my more central point is that to say morality is not based on anything in particular, as Staddon seems to, is really an extreme sort of postmodern thinking. To my mind, if it’s not really based on anything, there’s not much to say about it. Everyone make up what they like and may the best promoter of his or her morality win. I think an alternative is to say that morality does not have to be based on something entirely concrete and objective to be based on something we would consider ‘real’. Subjective experience; human nature; group cooperation; decreased suffering, etc. – those are not objective in the sense that they can be measured with a ruler, but they do exist in some sense. And yes, one can always say “Well, a person doesn’t have to value those things, objectively” – that is true. But, architects don’t have to value houses that stand up rather than fall down in a heap. However, when we talk about architecture, we talk about the common goals of 90%+ people on the topic. I would say morality also has an underlying set of correlates that we can indeed talk about, whether they are objective in the most ultimate philosophical sense or not. It is possible we haven’t discovered all of those correlates yet and that there is much more to know, certainly, but I do think they exist.
Sounds reasonable. I’ve never been comfortable with the term “objective” morals. Are morals “out there” in the Universe waiting for discovery? Is that what objective refers to? Certainly for a moral system to exist it takes a society with shared values. So, are shared values objective? Not sure. Anyway, I think “secular values derive from agreed upon rules of behavior”, is sufficient.
In a limited sense, Staddon may be right in his conclusion that religious morality and secular morality derive from the same source (but his reasoning (to the extent that one can charitably call it that) is flawed.
As discussed by Plato in the Socratic dialog with Euthyprho, ca. 400 BCE.
Does Staddon think that slavery is moral because it is endorsed by the god of the Torah and Bible (with different rules for Hebrew and non-Hebrew slaves) [Sh’mot (Exodus) 21:2 vs. Vayikra (Leviticus) 25:44-46]? If not, Staddon’s position on the morality of slavery must come from some source other than Judeo-Christian religion.
Or consider any of the contradictions in Judeo-Christian religion, e.g. “Thou shalt not kill” vs. “ye shall stone them with stones that they die” (and a slew of similar entreaties to kill). In a few places, murder is prohibited; in many others it is commanded. If Staddon has an opinion on the morality of murder, he must get it from some source other than the self-contradictory Judeo-Christian holy books.
The source, however, isn’t faith; it has its basis in facts. Facts, such as the fact that humans, like other primates, are social animals, and as such, cooperation and fairness are socially acceptable, while murder, rape, and theft (for example) are not. Facts are not, as Staddon asserts, “nothing at all”.
I add the conjecture that Staddon (“John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at Duke University.”) is likely well aware of the behaviour of social animals.
I just picked up Beyond Religion by Tenzin Gyatso in which the case is also argued for secular morality.
If nobody has heard of the author Tenzin Gyatso, perhaps his other name is more familiar : H. H. The Dalai Lama.
“Secular ethics, so he claims, are based on nothing”.
Secular morals are based on superior usefulness, based on developments during the Enlightenment, and enshrined in such codes as the UN Human Rights Declaration. QED.
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
don’t hit your brother
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. I see no magical(!) morals arising from religion, or morals arising from earnest debate, – the morals are already there waiting to be developed further.
Which came first religious morals or secular morals? Answer: Neither, they were already started by socialisation of babies and children.
Secular morality is based on the need to foster the wellbeing of human beings (and other animals). About as real as you can get.
Religious morality is based on serious misconceptions about the nature of matter and time. Let alone the proported edicts of mythical super beings.
I will put on my already too long To-Do List researching Staddon’s take on the morality of Abraham contemplating slaying Isaac; of the Israelites’ treatment of the Midianites and Amalekites; and the morality of slavery in the U.S.. I’m also interested in what he says is the age of the Earth and on what basis
Also whether he believes that the sun actually stopped moving in the sky when Joshua commanded it to do so.
How tiresome is this? Staddon reduces centuries of secular thinking about metaethics to “Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith”. Forget about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, Kant’s duty based ethics and Bentham’s and Mill’s Utilitarianism; Staddon concludes it all depends on faith. Thanks for letting the philosophical community know.
Even today, when I consult Alexander Miller’s An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics, I find discussions of Cognitivism, which includes Railton’s reductionism, analytic functionalism, Mackie’s error theory, Cornell’s realism and Moore’s non-Naturalism; and Non-Cognitivism, which includes Ayer’s emotivism, Blackburn’s quasi-realism and Gibbard’s norm-expressivism.
And theists should be offended too, since advocates of Divine Command Theory and Divine Motivation Theory think their metaethics is solid, and have thought deeply about it. Thomas Aquinas based his metaethics on Augustine’s thoughts on the subject, and they were no slouches in the reasoning department, even if they were barking up the wrong tree.
Why are they bothering? It all depends on faith, apparently, and there’s no point in thinking about one’s values, according to Staddon. Is-ought is a serious problem, but it doesn’t put a stop to reasoning about our actions. Quite the opposite.
philosophy? But what’s the science?
philosophy? But what’s the science?
“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.”
So secularists connect morals to capacity to suffer or thrive of real human beings.
And theists connect morals to a non-existent Being.
And Staddon declares no difference, both are based on “nothing.”
He’s not even trying. He’s trolling.
Sounds about right.
Religious ethics exists because “the selective pressures of Evol favor it.”
Secular ethics exists for the same reason.
So, what’s the diff? Why discuss it?
Here, in Ohio, talking against Trump doesn’t get you very far. Selective pressures favoring him are high, even I can feel them, unless that’s just more constipation: I hope, for the sake of the nation, that’s it!
(sorry for the double click earlier)
In the good old pre-internet days, John Staddon’s barstool musings wouldn’t get published anywhere anyone could see them, and there would be no reason to engage with them. Is it really worth the mental energy to do it now?
A lot of people, even academics, somehow think that ethics is not a field of study.
If religionists argue that God is good (a pretty basic tenet of their faith), you can ask how they know it. If he is good because he consistently does good things, then they are admitting there is a standard apart from God by which they can judge his actions. IOW, they acknowledge some type of standard that would presumably exist even without God.
Of course there are always those who try to weasel out of this by claiming that anything God does is good by definition. If your claim only holds up by attaching a tautology to it, that seems pretty weak.
For secular morality, however, my argument is that the existence of sentient beings in our world (and anywhere in the Universe) provides an objective basis for concepts such as justice and fairness. If my life matters to me and your life matters to you, then it makes sense to recognize that lives matter generally, and that it would be inconsistent (unjust) for me to treat you as though your life didn’t matter.
Many moral philosophers have argued that morality is inherent in the nature of the world of sentient beings; that acting in a way that increases happiness and well-being is inherently good, and its opposite inherently evil. Good and evil exist in the world – that doesn’t mean the beings I imagine to be perfectly good or perfectly bad also exist.