The worst article ever to appear in Quillette: Psychologist declares secular humanism a “religion”

April 12, 2019 • 9:45 am

In general I like the articles in Quillette: they’re generally left-wing but also critical of the Left’s excesses—a theme that has led some misguided ideologues to call the site “alt-right.” But this time the editors screwed up by accepting a piece that makes very little sense, and arrives at its conclusion by some risibly tortuous logic (click on screenshot). The author, John Staddon, is identified as “James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at Duke University”. His answer to the title question, by the way, is “yes”.

This may in fact be the worst piece that Quillette has ever published:

Staddon begins by claiming that there are three elements common to all religions (his defining traits are in bold). I won’t argue with him except to say that the first and second claims show substantial overlap:

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

I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether this claim is true of all religions (Staddon mentions no exceptions). But this characteristic is certainly not true of secular humanism, which is SECULAR.  So on this count Staddon shows that secular humanism doesn’t share an important feature of religion.

However, he fails to realize that claims about God, miracles, the soul, and so on, can indeed be testable under some circumstances. I summarized in Faith Versus Fact how there could be evidence for God and miracles (all provisional, of course, because this is empirical and semiscientific evidence). Carl Sagan also wrote about the conceivable but unobserved evidence for God.

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

First of all, this overlaps almost entirely with claim 1, for things like resurrections and miracles and the soul are claims about the real world, and some are testable. There could, for example, be a soul that is somehow detectable (people used to weigh dying people to see if they lost weight when they died and their “souls” left the body). In fact, I’d say that claims about heaven are in principle more testable than claims about literal transubstantiation, which the Vatican has immunized against disproof by making the “transubstantiation” undetectable by empirical means.

But we see in the last sentence of #2 what Staddon really wants to see as the defining trait of religion: something that “have a bearing on action”. That brings us to #3:

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

Secular humanism lacks any reference to the supernatural and defers matters of fact to science. But it is as rich in moral rules, in dogma, as any religion. Its rules come not from God but from texts like Mill’s On Liberty, and the works of philosophers like Peter Singer, Dan Dennett and Bertrand Russell, psychologists B. F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud, public intellectuals like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and “humanist chaplains” everywhere. “

Yes, most religions do have a morality, at least the theistic ones. But Staddon doesn’t seem to realize that the morality of religion has two features which differentiate it from the morality deriving from secular humanism. (I’ll add here that there isn’t really a morality of secular humanism beyond “Do what benefits other people.”) The variety of secular-humanistic morality makes it far less comprehensive than the morality of religions, for secular humanists differ drastically from each other in how they construe ethical action beyond the Golden Rule. Indeed, Staddon recognizes this:
Because secular-humanist morals cannot be easily identified, they cannot be easily attacked

First, much of religious morality, as Maarten Boudry and I argued, derives directly or indirectly from its supernatural claims. So the view that abortion is murder, for instance, comes from the view that fetuses, like adults, have souls, and therefore aborting them is murder. The prohibition of homosexuality comes from scripture, both in Islam and Christianity. And so on.

Second, religious morality largely comes from interpreting what is God’s will—sometimes in the “divine command theory”: the view that whatever God says is good is good. (This overlaps, of course with my point above.) In contrast, the morality of secular humanists usually (and should) come from some basic non-divine principles about how we ought to act—principles based largely on reason but in the end are grounded on preference. While the foundations of secular morality are subjective, they largely coincide for most of us, and encompass some version of Sam Harris’s view that “objective” morality means maximizing well being.

I’ve objected to Sam’s view not because it’s not a good guideline for action (it almost invariably is), but simply because it’s not as objective as he thinks. You have to sign on to the idea that “maximizing well being” is the highest good, and not everybody might do that. How do you show people who reject the well-being criterion that they’re objectively wrong?

In other cases Sam’s criterion is not practicable. How do we weigh the well-being of animals versus humans when we cut down rain forest, eat meat, or use animals in medical research? How many mice have the well being equivalent to one human? How do you trade off wealth versus health? My objection, in other words, is not that Sam’s utilitarian rule is not generally the best one, but that it’s not objective in its claim that science can decide the most moral thing to do. (Given some constraints, science may be able to decide what will maximize well being, however.)

If you do accept the idea that most secular humanists have a similar morality that derives from an intuitive grasp of maximizing well being, a view that goes hand in hand with liberalism and empathy, then you get a very different morality from secular humanism than you do from religion.

Most important EVERYONE has a moral code, but that doesn’t make everyone religious. For, in the end, Staddon decides that only item #3, rules for behavior and right action, counts as religion. Thus everyone in the world is religious save sociopaths and others who have no moral rules. That makes Staddon’s characterization of secular humanism pretty much of a tautology. To wit:

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

This is about as dumb a claim as you’ll see a respected academic making. It completely evades both the dictionary and the vernacular conceptions of religion, and makes everybody religious who has a view of right and wrong. It also ignores the diversity of moral views among secular humanists. I’d take issue, for instance, with Staddon’s argument that secular humanism makes moral claims as strong as that of, say Sunni Islam or Southern Baptists.

So the whole piece is bogus, resting on a nonstandard definition of “religion”. But why does Staddon twist language this way?

Apparently because he doesn’t like the kind of morality that he sees flowing from secular humanism, which contravenes what I think is his own conservative view of morality. He gives three examples of how secular humanistic “faith” has affected people’s actions and the law in ways he clearly disapproves of.

One is the legalization of same-sex marriage. The second is the existence of “blasphemy rules,” like “it’s immoral to dress in blackface or use the “n-word”. I myself object to the extreme censoriousness affecting some of these actions (though the two cited are abhorrent), but I see this as the result of people trying to create a harmonious world (sometimes in misguided ways), and not at all the same thing as a religious dictate. The passion of opposing blackface may be of the same intensity as the passion of opposing abortion, but that doesn’t make the former religious, except insofar as you use “religious” as a synonym for “passionate.”

Staddon’s third example is weird: humanist Fred Edwords’ (Staddon misspells it as “Edwards”) opposition to the erection of a 40-foot cross in Maryland on public land. Not realizing that opposing that is simply enforcing the First Amendment (an Amendment supported, by the way, by many believers), Staddon argues that “It seems to be the faith of a competitor that Fred objects to.” In other words, by allowing people to erect nonreligious monuments on public land but opposing religious ones, Edwords is supposedly showing the religious side of secular humanism:  no competitor monuments allowed. To make a pun, this is monumentally stupid.

Staddon goes on objecting to asking political candidates about their religion, something I think is fair if their faith would influence their actions as an elected official, but I desist. In the end, Stodden fails to prove his thesis since he admits that secular humanism lacks two of the three defining traits of religion, and then he implies that anybody with a moral code is religious.

That reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s weaselly reconciliation between science and religion in his book Rocks of Ages. In that book, Gould’s NOMA Hypothesis was that science is about finding the facts of the universe, while religion’s bailiwick is meaning, morals, and values. Gould ignored the long tradition of secular ethics, and, addressing that lacuna when I reviewed the book for the Times Literary Supplement, I said this:

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

Gould was wrong, and so is Staddon. Why did the editors of Quillette publish this odiferous serving of tripe?

h/t: Michael, who says, “I remember this same guy rabbiting on about ‘scientific imperialism’ a decade ago.  I found a video of Staddon doing that; it’s only two minutes long, and I’ll leave it to you to react/rebut.