It sounds as though the Darwinian biologist is confusing “religion” with “theism”:
The latest false analogy between religious and nonreligious belief systems is John Staddon’s essay “Is Secular Humanism a Religion?” for Quillette. Staddon’s answer is “Yes,” but his reasoning is bizarre. One would think that it should be “Clearly not” for, after all, “secular” means “not religious,” and secular humanism is an areligious philosophy whose goal is to advance human welfare and morality without invoking gods or the supernatural.Jerry Coyne, “Secular Humanism is Not a Religion” at Quillette
If Jerry Coyne thinks he is advancing human welfare and morality at all, he is involved in some kind of religion. The word means “to tie together,” that is to tie people to the universe, to each other, to their ultimate fate, etc. He spends so much time attacking other people’s religion, he can only be doing it on behalf of his own; a genuinely irreligious person does not care.
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See also: Jerry Coyne on hwo mathematician John Lennox embarrasses himself
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37 Replies to “Jerry Coyne insists that secular humanism is not a religion”
I agree with Jerry Coyne. Of course, you can define “religion” so broadly that it encompasses almost anything. But what would be the point? And if there is a category of world-views or belief systems that we cal “religion”, doesn’t that imply that there is another category called “not-religions”? And if that is the case, why shouldn’t atheism or agnosticism or secular humanism be not-religions?
I agree with the quote from Coyne (although I haven’t read either Staddon or Coyne’s essay) and Seversky. Having philosophical beliefs about the nature of things, and even vague “there’s something out there” beliefs about what there might be beyond the world we empirically experience does not rise to the status of religion.
I offered the Wikipedia introduction on religion. Taking that all into consideration, I don’t see how secular humanism (however one defines it) qualifies as a religion.
For the sake of discussion, I would be curious to hear various people’s succinct descriptions of what they think secular humanism is, and what religion is.
I read Coyne’s essay. In general, I think it’s good. My 2 cents.
The vast majority of the time I hear it used, “religion” primarily refers to belief systems that themselves include the supernatural. I prefer the term “belief system”, because _everybody_ has one of those. I.e., the latter term includes both theistic and non-theistic, religious and secular, etc.
Maybe it depends on which humanist you ask.
From The Religion of Secular Humanism by Diane Dew (http://www.dianedew.com/seculhum.htm):
“Although some would deny that secular humanism is a religion, even the Supreme Court has recognized it as such. In Torkoso v. Watkins (1961), the Supreme Court said that “among religions … are Buddhism … and secular humanism,” etc.
Humanism has its own organized belief system, publications and preachers. Like other religions, it also has a goal: the supplanting of all other religions with its own. It also receives a religious tax exemption. (Free Inquiry, winter 1986/87)
In their own words:
It even calls itself a religion. (The Humanist, Sept. 1984). The title of an article in The Humanist, Feb. 1983, for example, describes the movement as “A Religion for a New Age.” In the article, teachers are charged with the role of “preachers … ministers of another sort.””
Paul Kurtz, in the preface to Humanist Manifestos I & II (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1973), p. 3: “Humanism is “a philosophical, religious, and moral point of view. “These affirmations [in the Manifestos] are not a final credo or dogma but an expression of a living and growing faith.”
From The Humanist, 10 Nov. 2014 (https://thehumanist.com/commentary/humanism-is-a-religion-why-even-anti-religion-humanists-should-celebrate):
“As such, I understand that a large portion of the secular community rejects not only the notion of theism, but the larger concept of religion itself. In fact, I consider myself part of this group, as I would never self-identify as “religious.” Nevertheless, there are those within the humanist community who, though as godless as they come, consider humanism to be their religion. And while we could easily spend hours debating which approach is right, most of us realize that, at the end of the day, it’s simply a matter of personal preference.
Funny thing is, having circulated in the secular movement for a decade, I can tell you that beyond the semantics, there are very few differences between those humanists who embrace the term “religion” and those who reject it (and let’s not forget the third group, which is probably the largest: those who are indifferent to the term).”
I agree with EDTA: “Belief System” is more appropriate.
In my understanding, the word “religion” has its root in the Latin verb “ligare” – to fasten or bind. (Hence words such as “ligature”.)
Hence “religion” is “re-ligare” – to bind again; to join two things together that have become separated.
To me, this means re-linking humanity with the spiritual or transcendent aspect of our existence.
In secular humanism, the worldview is a materialist one: existence is nothing more than subatomic particles and forces doing what Nature obliges them to do.
There can be no ‘transcendent’ or ‘spiritual’ aspect to materialism as these aspects of existence are totally absent from the worldview.
(I have to smile when I hear materialists claim to be ‘spiritual’ but not religious. What ‘spirit’ do they refer to? It doesn’t even exist according to their definition of reality!)
However, Secular Humanism is a proselytising belief system; its goal is world domination. This could be seen as a religious goal, but to me it has more in common with ‘reality-tunnel’ political movements such as Communism.
(I’m old enough to remember my classmates waving their Little Red Books, and the young guys on street corners proclaiming the Good News as they tried to sell copies of “Socialist Worker”. (Most of these individuals now seem to be working as accountants, bankers and venture capitalists.)
So yes, Secular Humanism: a belief system not a religion, but ultimately a militant system aimed at converting the masses to “The Truth”.
Well, even though I don’t agree with what Charles thinks is true about humanism, I agree that “belief system” is a better word that encompasses both religious and non-religious ways of looking at big issues about the nature of human beings.
Of course ‘belief systems’ are just another name for religions.
Of course atheism is a religion fully dependent on the theism on which is built and which it tries to combat.
“Supernatural” is of course a made up name for that which you don’t yet know or understand, like nuclear energy circa 1900. It is indeed an artificial distinction that FAILS to separate belief from religion.
Like all religions, atheism has a strong Belief System, transcending the Observable, about the origin and organization of the universe – the primary matters concerning any Religion. It is not the first, the last, or the only Religion that rejects God.
Like other Religions, atheism has idols (“science” and “mother nature”), dogma (Evolution), prophets (Darwin is the main one), priests and high priests lecturing in the sacred “temples of science”, rituals (often invocation of Evolution), martyrs, and proselytism.
There are advantages to denying that atheism is a Religion. It is easier to restrict freedom of existing Religions from a “common good”, “secular” position than from the position of one Religion (atheism) fighting another. “Separation of church and state” sounds a lot better than “Union of atheism and state”. Incidentally, it is easier to focus initially on separating “church and state” while foregoing separation of synagogue, mosque, or temple… and state.
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck… even though it tries to look like an ass.
And btw, who the heck is Jerry Coyne?
Hey News, are you extremely bored to mention such nobodies like Jerry Coyne and the BBC???
Definitely a belief system that worships mother nature, father time and some unknown processes. I.e., it’s a religion that has deceptive and deceitful followers
I have noticed that the frequency and intensity of claims that atheism (and more specifically Darwinism) are religions increased after the Dover decision where it was concluded that ID was just a repackaging of religious creationism. If I were a cynic, I might think that after failing to convince people that ID was a scientific theory on a par with evolutionary theory, that the strategy was changed to trying to convince people that evolution was a religion on a par with ID. 🙂 Good luck with that.
LoL! The people who “concluded” that were delirious. And the claims that Darwinism and atheism are religious have been made for many, many years.
LoL! ID makes testable claims and there isn’t any scientific theory of evolution precisely because it doesn’t.
All IDists have to do is get high school students to challenge their teachers with respect to evolution. Then, once the teachers understand it is untestable BS, the rest will be easy.
I’d be interested to know where we disagree on humanism.
If humanism involves no “re-linking” (re-ligare) with the transcendent, then humanism is not a “re-ligion” in my definition. (I go right back to the etymology; dictionary definitions may differ.)
OTOH if humanism is attempting to re-link humanity with Nature, then it would be a Nature Religion of sorts.
I also feel that humanists wish to ‘convert’ others, rather than leaving religious and ‘spiritual’ types to their beliefs. The message from humanist books and blogs I have studied, definitely implies that humanism is considered to be Truth, rather than one possible belief system amongst many.
Hi Charles. First, I like your etymological emphasis on religion “re-linking humanity with the spiritual or transcendent aspect of our existence.” Following this, I think religion generally assumes that there is interaction between people and some transcendent: some being which can influence the world, provide us guidance, and otherwise enter into relationship of some sort with humans.
However, I disagree on two parts of this statement of yours: “In secular humanism, the worldview is a materialist one: existence is nothing more than subatomic particles and forces doing what Nature obliges them to do..”
First, not all humanists are materialists. One can believe, and many do, that non-material mind exists, with its capabilities of rational thought, free will, etc., but that there is no transcendent being with which our minds relate.
(I have had long discussions about this here in the past, as I fall into this category. Let me note very well that my goal in this thread is NOT to re-open a discussion about whether these humanistic beliefs are true are not. The point of this discussion is whether humanism is being accurately described.)
Second, most materialists would disagree, I think, with the statement that humans are “nothing more than subatomic particles and forces doing what Nature obliges them to do.” They would say, I think, that such a reductionistic description doesn’t take into account the ways properties have emerged in complex systems.
Again, the main issue I am addressing is accurately describing the beliefs of others. I know most people here are quite convinced that materialism can’t be true (and as I’ve pointed out, I don’t think it’s true), but if one is going to describe someone else’s belief system, one should describe it as they see it, and not build one’s own objections into the description.
Also, you write, “However, Secular Humanism is a proselytising belief system; its goal is world domination.”
I don’t see that at all. Humanism is a very decentralized, general viewpoint, without any consolidated dogma and organization, and which varies extremely widely among people. I can’t even imagine what evidence you have of humanists aiming at “world domination.” Those humanists who are interested in sharing their views are going to argue for their principles, of course. But the humanist ideal is for people to freely choose what to believe based on reason and evidence and their own sense of values, so even if more people become humanists, there will still be a wide variety of beliefs about all sorts of things, which is as it should be. To think that there is some goal of “world domination” is, to be frank, a paranoid misconception of the first order.
And last, you write, “So yes, Secular Humanism: a belief system not a religion, but ultimately a militant system aimed at converting the masses to “The Truth”.
I think humanists don’t believe in Truth with a capital T. Humanists believe, I think, that each person searches for what truth that they can find, as best fits their being, and that there will be a wide diversity in the many kinds of truth that people find. Furthermore, that diversity is not only to be expected, but is to be accepted as a source of overall strength in society.
For reference, here is the Amsterdam Declaration from a conference on humanism in 2002, I believe. I had never heard of this, but I like it:
Thanks for your eloquent and well-reasoned reply; I may have to revise my understanding of humanism based on what you have written.
Clearly I am wrong to believe that all humanists are materialists, although those I’ve talked to so far have been such. (You’re the first exception I’ve encountered.)
I just wish to note that religion is not equal to theism, or to priestcraft or to prayers etc.
It does take in theism but there are pantheistic religions, there are non theistic religions [e.g. varieties of buddhism], there are animist religions and much more. The point is, that a religion is a manifestation of a worldview in ways that gather adherents around core views and values, often connected to placing oneself in the world and somehow guiding conduct.
Religions can form implicitly, by alienation from dominant forms, creating an inadvertent mirror image.
Such can then find leadership in some elite group in the community that confers prestige.
If it serves as substitute for God and is not merely a philosophical seminar that’s forgotten once one walks out the door, it can be a de facto religion.
Especially as they become anti-theistic and as they become ideological at personal and community levels, darwinism [remember social darwinsism and eugenics, the self direction of human evolution], marxism, scientism, naturalism, atheism and humanism can and do thus become religions or at minimum functional de facto religions. I particularly note how political messianism (often connected to radical secularism and to statism these days) is a de facto major Christian heresy.
Such can even find themselves de facto established as state cult, individually or collectively.
For historical reference, contemplate the French Revolution and how it once enthroned an actress in Notre Dame as the goddess Reason. Contrast, here, Jn 1:1 – 5.
Complete with grand ceremonies, symbols, mythology, eschatology [utopianism or often self-described as “idealism”], scapegoats, and more.
To see that, look for who has the blasphemy law power and who are so protected as privileged groups.
Never mind what adherents say, watch what they do and how they function.
Thanks, Charles. Here are a few more thoughts.
Most of my friends and family are non-religious, and probably identify with most of the principles of humanism I listed in #15. My guess, based on my own perspective and what I know of them, is that most are agnostic and relatively unconcerned about whether materialism is true or not. Many of them, I think, would consider themselves “”spiritual” in the sense of accepting the experience of our feeling wonder, caring, love, social and intellectual responsibility, etc. while at the same time having no specific commitment to any ideas about the ontological source of those feelings.
I think I would characterize this as an experiential and existential perspective. A universe exists which obviously has produced human beings with qualities such as listed above, but that universe, as far as our experience goes, does not have some transcendental personal being that interfaces with those qualities: it is up to us to exercise those qualities.
How this has come about, or what its ultimate nature is, is an ontological mystery. We can feel spiritual awe and gratitude that it is as it is without feeling that any particular religious explanation is true, including whether “spirit” is anything beyond these feelings and qualities we have.
If the universe has in fact produced us from its monist material nature (assuming we understand this in modern terms involving quantum mechanics, relativity, cosmology, etc.), then that just puts the issue at why is the universe capable of that? If the universe contains both matter and mind at some level that underlies the universe, as is my current belief, than that also just leaves us with the mystery of why is it like that?
But whatever the case, humanists don’t see human religions which posit a transcendental connection, as you emphasized, as true. The primary humanist stance, as I see it (and the thing about humanism is that there is no centralized body of belief about these things), is that we don’t know the answers to these questions about why things are as they are – hence the agnosticism about ontology, but that we do know that it appears up to us as human beings to exercise our nature in a way that actualizes those qualities of caring, love, social and intellectual responsibility, etc.
Whether “materialism” is true or not is not a significant part of the issue for most humanists, I think. My guess is that many humanists identify with materialism, or with a vague, unspecific sense of there being “something out there”, because they see that presented as the alternative, which they reject, of believing in some specific religions notions about God.
Hazel@18, very well presented. Better than I could have said.
Thanks, BB. It was useful and satisfying for me to write that.
“most are agnostic and relatively unconcerned about whether materialism is true or not”
You’d think a science-minded person would be concerned about it, considering that discovering the truth is what the scientific enterprise is about. I think translated what you are saying is that most don’t care about truth at all. It’s pretty phoney-baloney to care about truth in some cases and not others. If it comes down to truth versus their preferred notions, truth loses. And THAT is the truth.
Typically in these discussions our interlocutors conflate “religion” with the concept of a philosophical world view. As they correctly point out there are thousands of religions (actually religious sects) in the world but what they apparently don’t understand is that there only a few basic world views. From my own study and research I have concluded there are three major ones: theism, pantheism and naturalism. If you think there is something else make a convincing logical argument and I’ll include it. Just saying you believe x is a world view is not sufficient to convince me or anyone else that x is a viable world view.
Most of the world religions are based on one of the three world views I have listed above, specifically theism and pantheism. For example, three so-called Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) basically agree that there is an eternally existing transcendent Mind (God) who is the creator and law giver. Hinduism, on the other hand, is basically pantheistic. Are there really any purely naturalistic religions? I’ll let others answer that question.
So how do we characterize humanism? Again from my personal study and research humanist typically embrace a naturalistic world view and as philosophical naturalists they embrace an irrational form of epistemological, ethical and moral subjectivism that results in latter more than a kind of self-righteous group think. I guess that’s technically not “religious” but it certainly resembles the type of religious thinking that so many of them are very quick to vilify and demonize.
re 22: I think that most humanists do not “vilify and demonize” religious thinking. That’s another stereotype based on generalizing from a small set of vocal anti-theists to the much larger set of average humanists who support and even embrace living well with people of diverse religious beliefs. I’d say the average humanist is much more concerned with how one acts as opposed to whatever religious or philosophical perspective one has about why one should act that way.
Asauber writes, “You’d think a science-minded person would be concerned about it, considering that discovering the truth is what the scientific enterprise is about.”
I don’t think that science has the ability to determine whether materialism is true or not.
Also, I think most humanists would say that it is impossible to ascertain whether many philosophical and religious issues are in fact true or not. It is not a lack of interest in truth to believe this, but rather a realistic appraisal of the limits of human knowledge. Thus, as I said earlier, I think humanism is based on our experience of human beings as we are without offering narratives about things we are actually not capable of knowing.
Thanks for your expanded views at 18. Very interesting observations and thoughts.
Three specific things you wrote are of particular interest to me:
In your comments at 15 you wrote that you included yourself as a believer in non-material mind.
At 18 you mentioned the ‘monist material nature’ of the universe.
Also at 18 you wrote that many humanists are probably materialists because they do not like, or resonate with, religious notions of God.
I would like to know your thoughts on the origin of a non-material mind in a universe with a monistic material nature.
My own view is that the universe may well have a monist MENTAL nature, which would account for non-material mind: it would be the substructure of all that exists. This is the view of philosophers such as Bernardo Kastrup, and some scientists such as the astrophysicist Richard Conn Henry, whose essay ‘The Mental Universe’ (published in Nature) was one of the catalysts for my own study of these subjects.
If the universe is monistically mental, not material, then our individuated consciousnesses would be part of one vast Mind which might have some sort of intention or purpose. (The sci fi writer Philip K. Dick referred to this Mind as VALIS – the Vast Active Living Intelligent System; a description I rather like.
But if such a system were both intelligent and active, and if it were the substrate of all that exists, and if it is in permanent interface with us (and if WE are part of IT, how could it not be?), then would it not be ‘God’ by another name?
This brings me to your point about religions. Most staunch atheists I have encountered were raised in devout Christian households, often being former evangelical Christians themselves. Their whole concept of ‘God’ is based on the jealous and irascible God of the Bible.
Maybe we need to propose the possibility of a ‘God’ who is not of this nature – and this seems to be the ‘God’ encountered by people who experience altered states of consciousness: all the mystics throughout the ages, near-death experiencers and DMT psychonauts all speak of a God who IS everything (including us!) and is infinite in love, compassion and awareness.
Just my two cents’ worth.
If that is so then all humanists should be against the teaching of evolutionism as the sole explanation for our existence.
So it would appear that humanists say that we don’t know the answers to those questions but we “know” (wink, nod) it wasn’t via Intelligent Design.
We should teach the young that we don’t know, this is the evidence and discuss the options as to how the evidence came to be the way it is.
That said, the way humanists act is very much tied to the religions they reject.
I would agree. I am an atheist/materialist, but I have no problem with what others choose to believe in as long as they do not force these beliefs on others or in any way cause harm to others. This being said, I am not reluctant in pointing out hypocrisies.
Humanist Manifesto III
The funny part is this:
Is directly contradicted by this:
Would make Karl Marx very proud.
As an a/mat your entire position is a hypocrisy and an aburdity.
You beat me to the punch.
Brother Brian needs to start with the man in the mirror and get one of those giant foam fingers and point it at himself.
JAD, indeed it is true that worldviews (often taken up by not just individuals but institutions and communities without serious critical reflection per comparative difficulties) shape the temper of the times and so also are central to religions and de facto religions (including ideologies, lifestyles and cultural agendas). It is also true that for the absolute core questions, there are few main live option alternatives. Dualism, henotheism and polytheism are not seriously on the cards today. Animism is not generally noticed, though it tends to blend in with other views. Secular and/or [somewhat?] religious humanism typically build on evolutionary materialistic scientism, ending up in its inherent incoherences, some of which are pointed out above. Grounding and credibility of ethics, knowledge and rationality come to mind as key challenges. Someone highlighted the matter of emergent mind in a materialistic world order, where the base forces are mechanical necessity and/or blind chance. This is where I noted with Ari that rocks have no dreams, i.e. computation on a material substrate is not rational, logic-based contemplation rooted in freely chosen logical choice under duty to truth, right reason, prudence, fairness etc. This is a fatal foundational crack. KF
Thanks, Charles, for your interest and questions.
You write, “Also at 18 you wrote that many humanists are probably materialists because they do not like, or resonate with, religious notions of God.”
I’d like to clarify here by quoting myself: “My guess is that many humanists identify with materialism, or with a vague, unspecific sense of there being “something out there”. I think identifying oneself with a label, in this case, “materialist”, is somewhat stronger than identifying with a perspective, in this case “materialism”, especially if you add the rest of my sentence as believing “something is out there”, which I think is probably as common as a more firm commitment to materialism.
You also write, “I would like to know your thoughts on the origin of a non-material mind in a universe with a monistic material nature.”
Again, I think that is not quite what I said. I wrote,
Note that I contrasted my view with a monist material view. I didn’t say I thought a non-material mind arose from a materialist source: I said I thought both mind and matter were the products of some underlying something from which both arise.
I’ve tried to keep the subject of this discussion on what I think the basic position of humanism entails, not my own philosophical beliefs. With that said, I’ll point out that I’ve had quite a few long discussions about my views on this in the past view months, especially a long discussion with gpuccio on mind and consciousness back in December.
My basic view is that quantum mechanics has changed our understanding of the physical world, and there are some who hypothesize that the interface between mind and matter takes place in quantum mechanical ways, although no one knows how that might be possible. This leads me to think (and I know this is nothing but speculation) that there is some underlying oneness which manifests in quantum mechanical ways to produce mind and matter. Neither is primary, and both manifest together, in different ways, in our universe.
Furthermore, and I had an interesting conversation with William J Murray (wjm), who posts here at times, about this, my hypotheses is that the nature of that underlying oneness is totally unknowable, but whatever it is, it is not like a person. (By the way the view you mention, that our individuated consciousnesses might be part of one vast Mind, is similar in ways wjm’s perspective.)
I think there may be quite a few humanists who lean that way.
Thanks for your response; again some very interesting observations.
Apologies for not reading your earlier comments carefully. Your view seems to be similar to mine in many ways.
Yes, an alternative to monistic monism vs. monistic idealism is the notion that both mind and matter arise from something else entirely. This sounds very much like David Bohm’s concept of the “Implicate Order”.
That would solve the problem of mind-matter dualism because both would arise from “something else” whose nature is unknown. I believe Hameroff and Penrose have suggested quantum effects within the microstructures of the brain might provide the mind matter interface.
Alternatively, it may be that not only can matter and energy be considered as different expressions of the same entity, but perhaps matter AND energy AND mind are all manifestations of the same underlying “implicate order”. (As I write these words I’m a little disconcerted by the similarity of the idea to that of the Trinity….I think I’ll stop there!)
As far as my concept of ‘God’ or ‘VALIS’ goes, I tend to think that we are one of the ways in which this Vast Intelligent System learns. Maybe each of us is a new ‘experiment’ by the System/God; we live our lives and (hopefully) acquire wisdom from experience. At death we ‘download’ our mind into the System which slightly ‘upgrades’ itself as a result. Maybe this is why mystics and psychonauts encounter an all encompassing entity whose essential nature is love, because the System has learned that love is a problem-solving process, while hate and negativity create problems. Thus “God” is evolving along with its creation. I’m not sure that this would require strictly Darwinian mechanisms, though!
Thanks for pointing out David Bohm’s concept of the “Implicate Order”. I’ve read about Bohm’s physics, but not this philosophical idea. Wikipedia says,
I like all that, and will have to read more, I think.
Well, I just read, somewhere between skimming and thoroughly, the Wikipedia article on Bohm and Implicate Order.
Very interesting! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicate_and_explicate_order
And now the article on Bohm himself. Neat stuff to read: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bohm
Good stuff Charles – I the more that I have read and researched on physics the more i am convinced that the scientific advances are slowly circling back upon the spiritual aspect of our being …. yet if a purest view were applied then we would not know with certainty – (classical science that most here apply to finding knowledge)would not allow for things that are not fully testable… ie spirituality.
I think that the concept of non-locality has cracked holes in the old materialistic/agnostic position. Don’t get me wrong, it neither proves theism nor disproves atheism but it does throw some doubt on one of em. even as some would just reason away that the non-locality will be better understood at a later point..but that position is basically made on great faith.
My personal view is that Sec Hum is also a religion (not just due to the legal definition as stated above). but \one could interchange it and several other ‘termed’ religions in the definition and it would flow just the same. Personally I don’t think it matters much either way – if there are some that bet bent over the use of religion to describe Sec.H then so be it, it is therefore only and purely subjective at that point…. (unless viewing the legal defn)