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

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.

 

77 Comments

  1. Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    The thing about Quillete though, a rebuttal to this article is either already underway or would be readily accepted.

    • Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      Well, I tried to call attention to the rebuttal above, but they rejected my comment. (I was polite, too.)

      Also, my question was why they published this misguided screed in the first place? It obviates all standards of rational and thoughtful discourse; it’s a hit piece on nonbelief. It’s no praise for Quillette that they publish junk like this and then allow a rebuttal.

      • Posted April 12, 2019 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        It also does not speak well for them that they rejected your comment.

        • Davide Spinello
          Posted April 12, 2019 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

          I currently see the comment from whyevolutionistrue:
          I don’t think I’ve seen an article as bad as this in Quillette before: the logic is tortured and the conclusions flat wrong. The author clearly has both a conservative and and anti-religious agenda, and it shows. I won’t write a long comment here as I’ve dissected this article in extenso on my website: http://bit.ly/2G2lSpm

          • Davide Spinello
            Posted April 12, 2019 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

            Sorry for the repeated post, I thought I had accidentally deleted the first one.

  2. Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Let me respond to the very first part:

    In general I like the articles in Quillette: they’re generally left-wing but also critical of the Left’s excesses

    I’d put Quilette towards right libertarianism, and “intellectual dark web”, which is some sort of Sillicon Valley libertarianism: part reactionary right wing, part socially liberal, with roots into the truther, conspiracy and alternative media scene.

    Founder Claire Lehmann has worked for Rebel Media in the past, which is generally seen as Far-Right. She personally has expressed idiosyncratic views, however. Associate Editor Toby Young is a journalist and editor of a number of British conservative outlets, like The Daily Mail.

    The content of Quilette can be good and interesting and some writers and articles have been left, as you say, but it’s not accurate to consider the general direction as left wing.

    • Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      I won’t argue about the intellectual direction of Quillette. Perhaps you’re right and I read just those articles that appeal to my sensibilities. But this doesn’t matter in the case of this article.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      I think a lot of people actually trusted Quillette would follow through on its initial promise to be a free-thinking website that had no particular political bent. I was naive enough to think it would, and I was disappointed to see it slide away from political open-mindedness. It quite rapidly evolved into an upmarket version* of those websites that do nothing but aggregate stories about SJWs.

      It’s become a safe space for right-wingers who want to feel morally superior to the left while not having to deal with the dissonant notes produced by their own side. So there are virtually no articles critical of Trump or the American right, but there are endless(increasingly comical) victimhood articles, attempts to reconstitute right-wing political beliefs of the past in modern clothing, Chicken Little disquisitions on Cultural MarxismTM, etc.

      It also operates in much the same way Templeton does: by publishing people from all across the spectrum but only if they have written something critical of the modern left or modern liberalism. That’s how Templeton manages to hoodwink a lot of people into thinking it’s not that bad: ‘look, a whole bunch of atheists have worked with us, therefore we can’t have a religious agenda’. Quillette does the same thing.

      *To be clear, plenty of its content is(or was last time I looked) excellently written.

      • Posted April 12, 2019 at 11:11 am | Permalink

        The present article notwithstanding, it seems pretty clear that Quillette has an angle. I don’t really see a problem with that. It is hard to imagine any publication not having a collective personality and opinion. The question is more about whether that opinion is a legitimate, truthful, and helpful one.

        It doesn’t bother me at all that Quillette doesn’t carry anti-Trump content. There are plenty of other sources for that. Quillette’s stated editorial goal is to counter the excesses of the Left. It is not their only goal but clearly the main one. That seems like a worthy goal to me. It is arguable that those excesses over decades is what has given us Trump. They are in dire need of being countered.

        If anything, this bad article about science as religion appears to take Quillette away from its main goal. Perhaps it is running out of material that furthers that goal. I also worry that it needs to cover this with some new angles in order to remain relevant. Portraying science as religion seems to take it in the opposite direction.

        • Saul Sorrell-Till
          Posted April 12, 2019 at 11:49 am | Permalink

          “Quillette’s stated editorial goal is to counter the excesses of the Left.”

          If that had been their stated editorial goal it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest. But it isn’t now and it certainly wasn’t back when they began.

          Their stated goal in the about section is to be a “platform for free thought”. There’s nothing about ‘countering the excesses of the left’ in there at all.

          Which is precisely why I find it disappointing that their remit has narrowed to such a tiny point. If they’d ever advertised themselves as openly skewed towards a particular political agenda, fine; but they don’t.

      • nubero
        Posted April 13, 2019 at 3:41 am | Permalink

        Spot on, thank you! Quilette has the good article every now and then but – like Jordan Peterson with his critique of the control-left – they try to sell you a lie between two truths. They seem to me to be following a path akin to the creationist wedge strategy.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      Toby Young is associate editor?? Bloody hell, I didn’t know it was that bad.

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    I don’t ever know where to start with essays like this.

    I find myself pulling way back and asking if the writing process involved looking at superficial features of everything e.g. (books – secular and non secular ) and then turning on the sophisticated language machinery to see the two superficial things (e.g. the Bible and a Richard Dawkins book) as equal.

    There’s a Keynes quote … let me write it out in my next comment.

  4. Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I agree with your overall assessment of Quillette (mostly good articles) and of this particular piece (terrible). Although this is only one article, it makes me worry that Quillette’s publishers are seeking to “take it to the next level” in terms of readership size by deliberately publishing provocative articles like this one. And by “provocative”, I mean articles that they know are poorly reasoned but their choice of topic and outrageous opinions are sure to incite strong emotions and and have a good chance of going viral. If so, I am very sorry to see it happen.

    • Mike Cracraft
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      I would say that it looks more like pandering to a certain section of the population.

      • Posted April 12, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

        Yes. As I said in an earlier comment, my fear is Quillette is attempting to “expand their base” to use a political phrase.

  5. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    OK, I found the Keynes quote. I thought of it upon reading the “have a bearing on action” part of Staddon’s essay.

    “To believe one thing in preference to another, as distinct from believing the first true or more probable and the second false or less probable, must have reference to action and must be a loose way of expressing the propriety of acting on one hypothesis rather than on another. We might put it, therefore, that the probable is the hypothesis on which it is rational for us to act. It is, however, not so simple as this, for the obvious reason that of two hypotheses it may be rational to act on the less probable if it leads to the greater good”.

    -John Maynard Keynes, from “The Application of Probability to Conduct”, from “A Treatise on Probability”, 1921, which has a Wikipedia article:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Treatise_on_Probability

    I’m not sure what to make of the quote, so I’ll put it up as food for thought.

  6. Copyleft
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    The usual problem with attempts to include atheism, humanism, science, etc., under the umbrella of “religion” (and therefore discredit it*) is that you have to expand the definition of religion to include things that obviously and demonstrably aren’t. Staddon’s effort reclassifies all philosophies and even political platforms as ‘religions,’ for example.

    A friend of mine once pointed out: “If your definition of religion can include being a Dallas Cowboys fan, then you’re overreaching.”

    *It is interesting to note, though, that this approach includes a tacit admission… that the label ‘religion’ is a negative one that reduces credibility and truth value.

  7. Mike Anderson
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    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?

    I interpret Sam Harris’ position on objective morality as being simply that morality is subject to science. While we currently don’t have the tools to “weigh the well-being of animals versus humans when we cut down rain forest, eat meat, or use animals in medical research”, science is the best (only?) tool with which to answer such questions, and that these are theoretically answerable via science.

  8. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    I think this is another good example of religion getting in the way of clear thought. When someone is writing such an article, more than his degree should be out there and that is his religion. This way when we get such a puzzling piece we can know right away, oh yeah, now I know.

  9. Mike Anderson
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    John Staddon:

    Secular humanists also have blasphemy rules. Dressing in blackface as a teenager or actually saying the N-word, even in an educational context, can lead to severe consequences.

    That’s a cultural rule, not a secular humanistic rule. Not all cultures have that rule. Secular humanists (like most people) adopt many of the rules of the culture in which they exist.

  10. Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I will occasionally get a student (always a very religious one) who will try to tell me that science is ‘just another religion’. I suppose that if such a notion were to enter Staddon’s head he would be powerfully moved to conclude that science is a religion because it arguably fulfills TWO of his criteria. Science seems to have criteria #2 (science makes claims about the real world)and #3 (science has a moral code)!

    So I am a lapsed Seventh Day Evolutionary Developmental Biologist (lapsed b/c it’s been a while since I have published anything or attended an Evo Devo service).

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

      Science is just another religion like Math is just another religion, or engineering, or History….

  11. Roger
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Staddon: Get off my religious lawn.
    Nones: Okay stop dragging us on there then.

  12. Roger Lambert
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    “…Since absence of evidence is not, logically, evidence of absence,…”

    Um, it most certainly IS.

    Is it just me who cringes at this logic fail and misquote? I see this and stop reading…

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      So many people say that absence of evidence is not, logically, evidence of absence, apparently trying to make it true by consensus.

      However, you are right, it most certainly is. Here’s a formal proof:

      Absence of evidence *is* evidence of absence.

      In any case, a well-argued blog post by Rosa Rubicondior points out: “However, absence of evidence *is* evidence (not proof but evidence) of absence where evidence is to be expected. For example, the absence of evidence for any wild elephants in England is normally taken by sane people as evidence of the absence of wild elephants in England. No sane individual would behave as though there *are* wild elephants in England despite this lack of evidence for them.”

      And, further, I’d add that secular humanism is a religion like “off” is a TV channel.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Chrissake, this again? And this time around from an academic?

    Wasn’t so long ago that school boards across the bible belt were trying to remove evolution courses from the science classroom by arguing that it was a tenet of the “religion” of “secular humanism,” and that its teaching in public schools, accordingly, violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

  14. Bruce Lilly
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I saw the Quillette piece earlier this morning; thanks for taking the time to share your criticism.

    I found the piece laughably silly: the author starts with the premise that secular humanism is a religion, goes on to list three characteristics that he says all religions have, then notes explicitly that secular humanism lacks two of those (and his case for the third is, to put it charitably, weak). At that point, from a logical, philosophical, or scientific perspective, he must have concluded that his premise was false. At minimum, the Quilette editors should have sent that self-contradictory article back for a rewrite.

    From there, Staddon goes completely off the rails, stating that secular humanism is based on dogma, and cites issues of abortion, sexual orientation (complete with scare quotes), and supposed blasphemy issues. He is apparently unaware that secular humanists may hold various opinions on such matters. He goes on to discuss legal issues; he decries the principle of equality under the law as “the essential sameness of men and women (scientifically false, but having many legal implications)”. Evidently Staddon is not in favor of equal treatment under the law.

    Adding to the silliness is the author’s repetition of the tired old trope “absence of evidence is not, logically, evidence of absence”. As the late Victor J. Stenger has noted, absence of evidence, where such evidence should exist, is in fact evidence of absence. Staddon goes on to claim that belief in invisible beings has no implications for actions; that is demonstrably false, as there are countless instances of people who have committed atrocities (including murder) supposedly because some imaginary deity commanded them to do so. One example: https://www.skagitbreaking.com/2018/08/29/disturbing-details-emerge-in-mount-vernon-homicide-case/

  15. Caldwell
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    For, in the end, Staddon decides that only item #3, rules for behavior and right action, counts as religion.

    My religion was Chinese checkers.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Exactly. But it is a characteristic of all humans (all social organisms actually) to have rules for behavior.

      Incredibly weak thinking throughout that Staddon article.

  16. rickflick
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    It sad to see stuff like this Staddon piece published anywhere, let alone in a promising new forum. If you want to read consistently good stuff, read WEIT.

  17. Posted April 12, 2019 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    “Religions have moral codes so anything with a moral code is a religion.” I’m not sure there’s a more rudimentary example of a logical fallacy than that.

    By far the most common usage of religion specifies belief in some kind of supernatural, not just something unseen. Secular is specifically contrasted to religious. It’s the word we use when we want to say something is not religious. Arguing that secular humanism is a religion (in anything other than a legal sense*) is equivalent to arguing that red is green because they are both colors.

    *Secular humanism is a religion in much the same way that a corporation is a person.

    • davelenny
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      In terms of moral rules, secular humanism is indistinguishable from a religion.

      Yes, both factually untrue and logically fallacious.

      The opinion piece is taking a thorough drubbing in Quillette’s comments.

  18. Mike Anderson
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Quillette doesn’t have problem delving into bible-thump nonsense:

    https://quillette.com/2019/04/09/conservatives-need-to-start-taking-art-seriously/

    and even a little climate denialism:

    https://quillette.com/2019/04/01/academes-global-warming-echo-chamber/

    so this recent half-witted article that characterizes science as a religion isn’t that surprising.

  19. Steve Pollard
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Dreadful article, well filleted by many of those above.

    Thanks for taking the trouble to bring it to this community’s attention, boss, and for your detailed comments.

    But I guess you had no choice.

  20. Jenny Haniver
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    “‘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.”

    ‘Intellectual’ defenders and proselytizers of religious belief are growing far more vocal and, I think, defensive and downright desperate. Religious tolerance doesn’t usually extend to the rights of non-believers.

    I see Staddon as one of those defenders and proselytizers for whom Faith is a zero-sum game (and I guess it is, except to agnostics – pace, agnostics), who deploys fallacious sophistry and a Procrustean Bed to try to cozen secularists, agnostics, and atheists into professing a personal religious and spiritual belief, just as others try to broaden the definition of the spiritual in the hope that some atheists might be tripped up into giving credence to the spiritual.

    I realize that numerous atheists do accept a kind of godless spirituality, and that’s okay with me, event though I don’t; but to me, trying to cajole a person who has no subjective knowledge of spirituality to cop to being a spiritual person by broadening the concept and declaring, say, that being awed by a magnificent sunset as proof of that atheist’s spirituality, serves as a camel’s nose under the tent (Is that an Islamophobic slur?). This is what I invariably experience when a person of faith and spirituality, even an agnostic, tries to get me to cop to accepting my awe of a sunset as evidence of my spirituality.

  21. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    “People used to weigh dying people to see if they lost weight when they died and their “souls” left their bodies”. I think that ‘people used to’ is stretching it a bit. Duncan McDougall did that in 1907, and came up with 21 grams (IIRC), but this was a kind of unique experiment. To his credit he discovered d*gs have souls too, but to his discredit he did not investigate cats. 😒
    Len Fisher wrote a delightful little book about it: “Weighing the Soul: Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the Bizarre”.

    • grasshopper
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

      For a long time now I have been suggesting that trying to detect a soul at death through loss of weight is the wrong way of of doing it. What we need to do is weigh a sperm and ova before they fuse to become a zygote. I expect that the actual arrival of the soul should tip the scales quite markedly. We have the technology.

  22. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I also note that Mr Staddon’s point 3 is a perfect example of ‘begging the question’.

  23. Posted April 12, 2019 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Running roughshod over secularists he is denying realism, reality and all claims are equivalent to myths. No joy will ever come of this, just more fog and mirrors.

  24. Roo
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    The “secularism is a religion” part is a gimmicky ‘playing with semantics’ trope that became too cute awhile ago (“Do you see what I did there? See, I said atheism is a religion.) That said, I think this premise would have been interesting if it was fully hashed out:

    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.

    If there is any evidence that simply being seen as ‘secular’ in and of itself, is a source of favoritism when it comes to making ought’s out of is’s in the legal system, then yes, that would be an interesting discussion. But aside from a few pet peeves involving secularism (which could be easily countered by someone pointing out cases where religious sensibilities impact laws, as in the case of abortion,) he doesn’t really give evidence for this claim. Everyone thinks their favorite villain – secularists, lobbyists, corporations, bleeding hearts, etc. – has unfair and undue influence in the government. Kvetching about such an idea is just kvetching, without supporting evidence.

  25. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 12, 2019 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    I don’t buy the whole definition of religion. Why does religion have to be theistic (overlapping points 1 & 2)? There are lots of atheist Jews and they are still identified with a religion….people call them Jews.

    • murali
      Posted April 12, 2019 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      At least they are atheists. There are many Buddhists who do not believe in any god, do not pray, but believe in a karmic force and reincarnation — very, very religious.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 13, 2019 at 9:53 am | Permalink

        Yeah I figure they are out of non-theist club when they start with that.

  26. CCCommenter
    Posted April 13, 2019 at 2:44 am | Permalink

    Hi!

    Two quick comments.

    1. I believe that some words were accidentally left out of the following passage. (To me, it almost sounds like J. is against same-sex marriage ;))

    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.

    Then again, I may just be nit picking.

    2. I was really surprised to see Quillette described as “generally left wing.”

    In my own experience, there’s an endless stream of articles of right or alt-right people telling the lefties to “get off their lawn.” And the comment sections are, generally speaking, much, much, much, much worse than that. (I know this, because I force myself to read the posts and because I force myself to interact with the commenters.)

    The converse seems to be the exception (and I can’t immediately think of any good counter-examples).

    In fact, I don’t even see Quillette as “aiming to place current tendencies and ideas of the left in a more appropriate context in order to help people get a better understanding of the Left.” Wouldn’t it be better to describe the magazine as “primarily anti-left/anti-change and highly-reactionary in content, while almost entirely written with excessive condescension”?

    I am genuinely not trying to insult: I think that’s actually the aim, not an unfortunate by-product of circumstances. Am I missing something here?

    I’m very happy to be corrected.

  27. peepuk
    Posted April 13, 2019 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    In a certain way I agree with John Staddon; if people are deriving ought’s from science they make the same mistakes as religious people do (making unjustified claims to justify their actions). In the absence of an evidence based scientific theory of human action, secular humanism is also unverifiable fiction.

    I believe however that naturalistic science can be used to point out errors in our reasoning and make a belief system less wrong by eliminating these errors (secular humanism is less wrong than those religions I know about).

    And some comments on John Staddon’s reasoning:

    “Since absence of evidence is not, logically, evidence of absence”

    But , when there is “complete absence of evidence” it is still an error to say that something exists.

    “In any case, few of these claims have any bearing on action.”

    But those false claims that have bearing on human action undermine the validity of a belief system.

  28. Posted April 13, 2019 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry.

    Apologies your comment didn’t appear beneath John Staddon’s piece . We don’t know why that is and we’re looking into it.

    If you’d like to write a reply in Quillette to John staddon’s piece email me at toby@quillette.com. We’d love to publish something by you.

  29. JonLake
    Posted April 13, 2019 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Not even close to “worst article in Quillette”, which has waaaaaaay crappier (being generous here) articles on a regular basis.

    They’re definitely not “left-wing”.

    Basically, seems it is the first time you took time to analyse their articles?

    Well, prepare yourself if you plan to dive further, it only gets more… uh, let’s say “interesting”, as in the Chinese curse.

    • Posted April 13, 2019 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      If you’ve read this site, you’ll know I’ve highlighted and analyzed their articles before, but only the ones I thought would interest my readers and me. You’d know that if you had read this site before, so your third sentence is a bit snarky.

      • JonLake
        Posted April 13, 2019 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        I used to read more or less every post until a few years ago when stopped checking my RSS Reader (due to “information overload”, at least that’s how it felt, I had thousands of RSS feeds).

        I don’t read regularly anymore, so no, I didn’t know about previous posts in recent years, and the question in my 3rd sentence was serious.

        Again, I don’t think Quilette is “left-field”, hence my doubt on why would you write that.

        • Posted April 13, 2019 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

          Please brush up on your civility. Questions like “Basically, seems it is the first time you took time to analyse their articles?” is not only ignorant, but rude.

          • JonLake
            Posted April 13, 2019 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

            OK, got it.

    • Posted April 13, 2019 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      It’s a fairly content-free comment that mentions there are worse Quillette articles but fails to mention any. Am I going to read them all to see if I can guess which one? Nah.

  30. Jason Thompson
    Posted April 13, 2019 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Not going to lie, this is the tipping point for me re:Quillette. They define themselves by the battles they keep choosing to fight.

    • Posted April 13, 2019 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      Don’t we all?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 13, 2019 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      I’m mostly appalled, not by the subject, but by the poor argument that is, right from the start, flawed.

  31. Posted April 13, 2019 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    So, how is Secular Humanism not a religion? It’s higher power is man. It’s metaphysics—what you were describing in part 2—are based in presuppositions about human worth. And it has its tenants which its adherents have to follow.

    I do think of Secular Humanism like it’s a religion. Instead of God, it elevates man. It creates its own set of values, kind of arbitrarily, and there’s a presupposition of faith in those values. That sounds like a religion to me.

    • Posted April 14, 2019 at 5:06 am | Permalink

      It’s “tenets”, Jake. And it’s not religion because it doesn’t have magic or superstition. But your next comments give away your game: you’re a Christian who wants us all to accept Jesus.

    • Posted April 14, 2019 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      This is just the “Anything believed strongly is a religion” fallacy.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted April 14, 2019 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        I like it!

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted April 14, 2019 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      So, how is Secular Humanism not a religion? It’s higher power is man.

      Wrong. Neither myself not my fellow humans are higher powers.

      It’s metaphysics—what you were describing in part 2—are based in presuppositions about human worth.

      A presupposition of human worth doesn’t make a religion.

      I do think of Secular Humanism like it’s a religion. Instead of God, it elevates man. It creates its own set of values, kind of arbitrarily, and there’s a presupposition of faith in those values.

      On the contrary, it’s the absence of faith, or the rejection of faith, that is fundamental.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 14, 2019 at 10:55 am | Permalink

        I agree that I don’t think Humanism venerates humans as a higher deity. It does have tenants. It could be a proto religion in a way as I don’t think you need veneration of a deity to be a religion (secular Jews) but I don’t think it’s quite there as a religion.

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted April 14, 2019 at 11:12 am | Permalink

          I don’t think you need veneration of a deity to be a religion (secular Jews)

          Secular Jews aren’t religious. If they were religious they wouldn’t be secular.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted April 14, 2019 at 11:20 am | Permalink

            But many call themselves Jews and go to temple. They don’t believe in God but they do everything else God believing Jews do.

            • Mike Anderson
              Posted April 14, 2019 at 11:32 am | Permalink

              I participate in quasi-religious cultural events like Christmas while being an atheist.

              It’s really unfair to label secular Jews as religious when they would vehemently disagree with that characterization.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted April 14, 2019 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

                I’m not labelling them religious. But the secular Jews I know are calling themselves Jews not atheists. Indeed, when asked they firmly identify as Jews not atheists. No where did I say they were religious Jews. Everywhere I said they were secular Jews. However, I think the religion is still the religion and atheists are participating in that religion. And the term “religious” perhaps needs to become separated from “theistic”. This isn’t me saying this – these are the secular Jews saying this. Therefore atheist religious practices exist. I suspect there are lots of Christians who call themselves Christians who don’t believe in God as well. It’s just that they hasn’t been examples like their are with Jews and Christianity seems rather more insistent on accepting Jesus as your personal saviour so it makes it more problematic. However, Jews have no such restrictions and happily choose not to venerate a God but carry on with the other aspects of Judaism.

  32. Posted April 13, 2019 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    I see you didn’t approve my comment, so I must have gotten your goad. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.

    Let me just say, yes. You have faith in the tenants of Secular Humanism. That is what faith is. We observe it, but we can’t accurately say what it is, or where it comes from. You see clearly there is a right and wrong. That’s kind of the premise of Christianity, is that if you look at the law of Christ, it will align with the moral law we already observe to exist.

    Try it sometime. Even the Old Testament. Just look at that, and say, “Well, if I follow this law, I am going to die. But, here, in this law, it says that it can forgive my death sentence.” Because Justice is the penalty for a crime. A thief needs to pay a fine. Mercy is the mitigating circumstances. They were hungry, and couldn’t find work;—therefore, they only have to pay back a small portion of what the stole. That’s the Old and New Testament in a nutshell. The Old is the penalty of perfect Justice. The New is the mercy given to the people who transgressed those laws.

    • Posted April 13, 2019 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

      And if you’re honest, you’ll know that you need a Savior to give you mercy. That’s all Christ is. He’s the mercy branch extended out to you by God so you don’t have to suffer your entire life for sin.

      • Posted April 14, 2019 at 5:10 am | Permalink

        Ah, they’re letting the inmates have a weekend pass. I am honest but no, I don’t need any savior to give us mercy. I have no evidence for either a divine Jesus or for God and you haven’t given me any. All you’ve done is come over here and bawl at me like any brainwashed preacher on a street corner.

        • CCCommenter
          Posted April 14, 2019 at 7:27 am | Permalink

          Hey, Jerry.

          Thanks for offering this website and for carefully monitoring the content of the comment section over the years. It’s clearly a lot of work and many of us appreciate the results. I also understand how frustrating it must be to always get the same annoying and rude messages from commenters.

          Having said all that, I just wanted to ask whether you think it’s good to label this brandonseifert an “inmate” (in a prison or an asylum?). Would you say the choice of terminology is correct? Would you say it is kind? Are there perhaps more constructive ways of interacting with commenters like him?

          Am I being too preachy? =)

      • Posted April 14, 2019 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        I’d rather have my Sunday mornings free, thank you.

    • Posted April 14, 2019 at 5:08 am | Permalink

      Okay, so before we proceed, since you say in your next comment that we need the salvation of Jesus

      1. What EVIDENCE do you have that the Bible and your Christianity is true? And don’t tell me that the Bible is true because you feel it’s true.
      2. Why are you so sure that Christianity is the right salvific religion as opposed to, say, Islam or Hinduism? Convince us all that Jesus will save us, but not just because the Bible tells us that.

  33. Helen Pluckrose
    Posted April 14, 2019 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I found this piece very confused and was surprised Quillette saw worth in it. There are good arguments to be made for some secular ideologies sharing some of the most worrying qualities of religion, but this simply wasn’t one. I addressed it here:
    https://areomagazine.com/2019/04/14/no-secular-humanism-is-not-a-religion/

  34. Lorna Salzman
    Posted April 16, 2019 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Why do I get a wordpress page asking me to sign in with a password whenever I try to post a comment to this blog? If I bypass this and press Send on the WEIT comment, it says I have posted a duplicate. As a result there were two recent comments of mine that never appeared. Am I doing something wrong? Can someone explain? THanks…LS


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  1. […] 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 […]

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