My newest piece in Quillette: Another response to John Staddon

My contretemps in the pages of Quillette continues with the psychobiologist John Staddon. I hope this is the end of it, as it’s no fun to write what I’ve written many times before to criticize a man who’s repeating old and tedious arguments that have been rebutted many times before. But so great is Staddon’s animus against atheism that he simply can’t learn.

As you may recall, Staddon originally wrote a piece in Quillette called “Is secular humanism a religion?” His answer was “yes,” even though his own concept of religion didn’t fit secular humanism in two of its three defining characteristics. But his main point was that secular humanism is religious because it has a morality—a morality that, as a conservative, he considered odious. (One of the supposedly repugnant aspects of secular morality was gay marriage.) He also argued that, like religion, secular humanism has “blasphemy rules,” like the criticism of those who wear blackface. That’s what’s known as “straining to support your argument”, and it causes mental hernias.

Well, I couldn’t let his piece stand, and so wrote a substantial reply, “Secular humanism is not a religion.” I won’t reiterate it here, as you can read it at the link or read about it on my website (here and here).

Staddon was apparently peeved that I didn’t swallow his half-digested pabulum, and so wrote a response to me called “Values, even secular ones, depend on faith: A reply to Jerry Coyne” (you can read my note about it here, which didn’t give a rebuttal because I knew I’d write one for Quillette). In this response, without admitting it, he retracts his original claim that secular humanism is a religion. He first argues that he didn’t choose the title (and that may have been true), but neglects to add that the very first sentence of his first piece, a sentence that he surely wrote himself, was this:

It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion.

Oh well, let the readers be deceived. But he went on to claim that well, maybe secular humanism and its morality really isn’t religious, but they do have religious aspects: they’re based on faith. As Staddon said,

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.

I couldn’t let that stand, either, as “faith” means something very different in secular humanistic ethics and religious ethics. And the claim that secular morality is based on “nothing at all” is completely stupid.

I explain the difference in the construals of “faith” in my article, while noting that, at bottom, any ethical system is based on “preferences”. In religion it’s for following the dictates of your particular sect, while in humanism it’s usually based on what kind of world you’d like to see and inhabit. There can be no claim that this and that morality is “objective and scientific” as all are grounded on preferences. (Some differ from me: Sam Harris and Derek Parfit, for instance, think that we can construct a perfectly objective morality.)

Nevertheless, secular morality can be based on a rational and coherent set of principles (I give one example in my piece), can be informed by science, and can also change based on changing mores. (When religious morality changes, that’s not based on changes in theology but on changes in secular morality that then force changes in theology. The Euthyphro Dilemma applies here.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You can read my response by clicking on the screenshot below.  And thanks to Rebecca Goldstein for discussing the issues with me; one can have no better critic.

As I found before, the commenters on my piece, already active, are disappointingly unthoughtful.

35 Comments

  1. Posted May 11, 2019 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Taking on this Herculean project of unwinding a lifetime of programming, self delusion, and the emotional baggage that accompanies all of that is commendable and a stellar example of secular morality – that people matter, no matter what.

  2. bjornove
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    “As I found before, the commenters on my piece, already active, are disappointingly unthoughtful”

    You are in the USA, which explains the reactions to your piece. If your article had been in a Scandinavian magazine/newspaper the vast majority of comments would be in favor of your view.

    As a Norwegian, I find that, in 2019, this kind of arguments from the religious (or those that have faith in faith) are quite absurd.

    We do have them in Norway too, but they are so few they should almost be considered a fringe phenomenon, like the flat earth society. Most people here just shake their head and go on with they (in)moral lives here in horrible immoral Scandinavia (irony alert everyone)

  3. Frank Bath
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    As in Norway so in the UK, though I believe to a lesser extent. Among the educated anyone bringing god or Jesus into a conversation will mark the speaker as slightly unhinged. It isn’t done. For myself I have no truck with religion and the supernatural, it’s one damn piece of nonsense after another.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    The very fact of morality or ideology based on religion is pretty easy to see and understand and also why it is much different from secular morality and ideology. Religious morality is primitive, old fashion or however you want to define it. For secular morality to be different, and it is, it is updated throughout history. It is not tied down by religion to such old and out of date ideas. To call secular morality a religion has no credibility at all.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted May 11, 2019 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      None, indeed.

  5. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I posted a few comments on that Quillette post, but they do not appear for one reason or other. so I’ll post one here.
    I liked my comment:

    “There are quite a few apt comparisons.
    Atheism is like religion the same way that:
    – Baldness is a hair colour
    – Abstinence is a sexual position
    – “Off” is a TV channel
    – Watching sports on TV is excercise
    – Nakedness is fashion clothing
    – Not collecting stamps is a hobby
    We can all think of some more there.”

    I must say that I particularly like the ‘not collecting stamps’ one, because it is so apt, and the ‘baldness is a hair colour’ one, since my head is as hairy as a billiard ball.
    🙂

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted May 11, 2019 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      Watching sports on TV is excercise

      Your dismissive mocking of one of my deeply held convictions is uncivil, arrogant, and insulting.

      (seriously: great list)

      • Posted May 11, 2019 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        Yes… We should take a more *nuanced*{smug pause] view of this.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 11, 2019 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      “Nakedness is fashion clothing”

      That was the ironic premise of the closing catwalk scene in Robert Altman’s film Prêt-à-Porter.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:10 am | Permalink

        Yes Ken, maybe I should have made the effort to find the originals; the bald one is from Don Hirshberg(?).
        The only one I made myself was the watching sports on TV’ one.
        However there are so many more:
        – Barefoot is a kind of shoe
        – An empty plate is a dish
        – Unemployed is a job
        Etc., etc.

      • Posted May 13, 2019 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        Or _The Emperor’s New Clothes_.

  6. Caldwell
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Of the “ten commandments”, the first four, which are the most important because they define how one is supposed to interact with god, are almost completely ignored by nearly everyone.

    The remaining “commandments” could define the moral behavior of wolves and chimps:

    Don’t eat your children.

    Don’t kill your mate.

    Don’t fight or steal without a good reason.

    And even “don’t commit adultery” applies to wolves.

    • Caldwell
      Posted May 11, 2019 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Oops, forgot to mention: wolves and chimps have moral behavior similar to that of humans, but do they have “faith”?

      • Posted May 11, 2019 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        True. Many of the preferences which define our morality are not learned but are reflected in our DNA. Same for those animals, though their preferences are likely different in some respects. Male lions killing cubs in order to make their mother available for sex comes to mind.

      • Murali
        Posted May 11, 2019 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        … but do they have “faith”?

        No clue; but I guess not. We should point this out the evangelical Christians. Maybe they will run off to the jungles to convert our cousins and leave us alone.

    • Posted May 11, 2019 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      “Don’t eat your children” is not one of the Ten Commandments. That means it’s OK to do it, like slavery and rape.

      • loren russell
        Posted May 11, 2019 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        There’s a fair amount in the OT of “do sacrifice your children” though..

        And some, if not all, sacrifices seem to make it to the table.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted May 11, 2019 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

          Just be sure to only worship Yahweh. That’s the important take away from the 10 commandments.

          • Michael Waterhouse
            Posted May 11, 2019 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

            Or?

            • rickflick
              Posted May 12, 2019 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

              Or else!

              • Michael Waterhouse
                Posted May 14, 2019 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

                Or you will be smote.

  7. Posted May 11, 2019 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    A strong argument against a stupid idea: secular morality is based on “nothing at all”.

    In fact, religious morality is ultimately has the same origin as secular morality. People created those religious myths and the morality they incorporated is based on their preferences. The real difference between secular morality and religious morality is that the latter is filtered through an authority maintained over centuries for most religions. Religion can be viewed as an efficiency with a cost. Religious people can’t be bothered to reason their morals from scratch so they borrow them from their religion. The cost is that the religious authority, in order to maintain their power and continued existence, insists that the morals not be questioned and must be taken on faith. This prevents their morality from evolving and staying current. It also makes it open to abuse from the religious authorities.

    Of course, secularists defer to authorities too as a matter of efficiency. However, the process is much more open and fair.

    • Posted May 11, 2019 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. I should have made the point more clearly that religion gets its morality from humanistic impulses, not the other way around.

      • Posted May 11, 2019 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        I made that point in the comments.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:19 am | Permalink

      I think Penn Gilette illustrated that succinctly: “I murder and rape exactly as many people as I want to.”
      Of course, I know there is something missing there (punishment, retribution, etc), but it is a good start.

  8. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  9. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Part of it is people are just ignorant. We get spoiled here. I’m misanthropic by nature and try to avoid stupid people like the plague so I forget just how many doofuses are in the world until I see something like a reaction to a tweet or a Facebook post. Compared to those, the commenters on quillette are angels.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      They’re more polite than the people on, say, Youtube comments’ sections but the quality of argument under that piece was pretty bad. It’s like any website where there is a particular line that’s rarely challenged: the people commenting there tend to be bad at arguing their case simply because they don’t get challenged on it very often. And the site tends to attract people who _don’t want_ to be challenged.

      As you say, this site has slightly spoilt me.

  10. David Evans
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    It occurred to me (very belatedly) after reading your piece that the logic of Rawls’ veil of ignorance is similar to that of the classic way of dividing a cake between 2 people so that both are satisfied. You let A divide the cake and then let B choose the piece he wants, so A has to perform the division in ignorance of which piece he will get.

    • Posted May 11, 2019 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      In our family that worked really well. “you cut, I’ll choose”. “Not fair, I had to cut last time”

    • Posted May 11, 2019 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the cake-cutting is a good analogy. It would be even better if you tossed a coin as to who did the cutting, as then it would be a complete veil of ignorance.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 12:26 am | Permalink

      In primary school I learned that that was the way two knights traditionally devided the spoils of conquest. No idea if it is true though. Historian?

  11. Posted May 11, 2019 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    “Nevertheless, secular morality can be based on a rational and coherent set of principles,” says Jerry. Yes, why is this so hard to see for some? The bottom line for a secular humanist ethics lies in rational principles or other human capacities (though our inferences about them may vary over time). The bottom line for religion-based ethics lies in some transcendental (and thus inscrutable to reason) being or source, which can trump the inferences of our human capacities. Kierkegaard, by the way, works this out wonderfully in his analysis of God’s command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. But the initial distinction between a humanist-based and religion-based ethic seem pretty cut and dry.

  12. Posted May 12, 2019 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    “As I found before, the commenters on my piece, already active, are disappointingly unthoughtful”

    This is why I feel sometimes conflicted about Quillette. On the one hand, I’ve read great articles (though also really bad ones, or boring ones, with strange arguments.)

    On the other hand, I just feel annoyed by the comment section. Sure, the comments don’t necessarily reflect the readership as a whole (I’m sure lots of readers just don’t comment), but I find commenters in general to have very little of substance to say, to be rather aggressive and pompous, to miss the point of an article entirely (or just completely distort its meaning) and – most damning of all – to use ad hominem attacks against the authors, and other commenters, rather frequently. I don’t find the comment space to be a productive space for interesting conversation at all.

    Not really sure what to make of this, regarding Quillette.


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