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Secular Humanism: DON'T define it as requiring naturalism

What does secular humanism (or, as we say in the UK, humanism) involve? In Humanism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2011) I suggest that most of those who sign up to secular humanism sign up to following:

1. Secular humanists place particular emphasis on the role of science and reason.

2. Humanists are atheists. They do not sign up to belief in a god or gods.

3. Humanists suppose that this is very probably the only life we have.

4. Humanists usually believe in the existence and importance of moral value.

5. Humanists emphasize our individual moral autonomy and responsibility.

6. Humanists are secularists in the sense that they favour an open, democratic society and believe the State should take neutral stance on religion.

7. Humanists believe that we can enjoy significant, meaningful lives even if there is no is a God, and whether or not we happen to be religious.

Now some readers may be thinking, ‘But hang on, you haven’t mentioned naturalism. Surely secular humanists also sign up to naturalism, right? They reject belief in the supernatural. So why no mention of naturalism here?

Well, let me say at the outset that of course a good many secular humanists do sign up to naturalism. And perhaps rightly so. Secular humanists should be free to embrace and argue for naturalism if they wish. And perhaps a good case can indeed be made for naturalism. What I am suggesting is that it is a strategic mistake to define secular humanism so that it entails naturalism. So far as secular humanism is concerned, signing up to naturalism should be an option, not a requirement.

Why do I suggest it’s a strategic mistake to define secular humanism so that it entails naturalism? For two main reasons:

1. because it unnecessarily excludes many from the secular humanist club who could and should be invited in.

2. because it creates an unnecessary hostage to fortune.

To illustrate the first point first, note that naturalism is pretty controversial even amongst atheists. Take the professional philosophical community. The 2009 Philpapers survey of the opinions of professional philosophers and graduate students revealed that less than 15% of professional philosophers and graduate students are theists. Yet only a little less than half of them sign up to naturalism. That leaves around 35% who are neither theists nor naturalists. Why bar them all entry to the secular humanist club, particularly when many of them will be fully in agreement with points 1-7 above (which are, it seems to me, the points that really matter)?

Why are some philosophers sceptical about naturalism? Not because they have much time for belief in gods, angels, fairies, goblins psychic powers, telekenesis and other spooky phenomena about which naturalists are, of course, rightly sceptical. Most atheist non-naturalist philosophers are no less sceptical.

Philosophical doubts about naturalism tend to spring, first, from concerns about whether naturalism is a well-defined concept. What is naturalism (or metaphysical naturalism, to be precise)? A sceptic’s usual first port of call is to say that naturalism consists in the rejection of belief in the supernatural. But what is the supernatural? Why, it’s that which isn’t natural, of course! But now notice that these explanations of naturalism and supernaturalism are, as they stand, entirely circular and uninformative. So far, no significant meaning has been attached to either term. It’s harder to define ‘naturalism’ than you might think (though note I don't say it can't be done).

Second, some reject naturalism because they suspect that, for example, mathematical Platonism might be true. Many mathematicians believe mathematics describes a non-natural mathematical realm. They suppose that ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is made true by how things stand in this external, non-natural, mathematical reality. If such a mathematical reality exists, then naturalism is false (though it strikes me as odd to describe this reality as ‘supernatural’ given that term’s ‘spooky’ connotations).

It is also philosophically controversial whether minds, or moral value, can be accommodated with the natural realm. There are, notoriously, all sorts of philosophical objections to naturalism. I am not entirely confident all these objections can be dealt with. So, though I personally lean towards naturalism, I’m by no means committed to it. I’m one of the 35% of professional philosophers that’s neither theist nor naturalist. So if ‘secular humanism’ is defined so that signing up to naturalism is a requirement, rather than just an option, then I’m excluded from the club. And so are very many other sensible folk who nevertheless tick all seven boxes outlined above. So far as the secular humanist movement is concerned, excluding such individuals is, it seems to me, a strategic mistake.

I said that a second reason it’s unwise to make secular humanism entail naturalism is that it provides an unnecessary hostage to fortune. Why so? Well, if secular humanism entails naturalism, all a theist has to do to refute secular humanism is refute naturalism. And, as I say, there are all sorts of philosophical arguments against naturalism ready to hand. If we define secular humanism so that it entails naturalism, critics will rub their hands together with glee knowing we have just provided them with a cupboard full of stock philosophical objections. Whether or not any of these objections are good, many are troublesome enough to get secular humanists needlessly bogged down in a philosophical quagmire.

In response to these sorts of objection (‘But how does mind, or moral value, or mathematical truth, fit into your naturalistic world view?’), those who sign up to secular humanism as outlined above should not attempt to defend naturalism but should instead simply shrug and say, ‘So what? Even if your objections successfully established that naturalism is false, that would leave both my atheism and my secular humanism entirely unscathed. What are your arguments against atheism and secular humanism?’ The moral is: don’t get bogged in unnecessary battles that you might lose, and that you certainly don't need to win, in order successfully to defend atheism and secular humanism.


S Johnson said…
2. Wouldn't "reject superstition" work better? Atheism implies the position there is a positive good in denying the possible existence of gods, while many think all we really need is to simply ignore all the folderol, except maybe at weddings and funerals.

4. Why just "usually?" Is this a big divide between those who believe humanity is fundamentally evil (whether they regard it as original sin or not doesn't matter,) and those who think that people's desires and needs can define moral treatment of their equals?

5. Many times moral responsibility and autonomy are secularized versions of the good old fashioned "soul," complete with libertarian free will. By this standard, can a humanist get on board with locking up a significant fraction of the population on drug charges, holding addicts morally responsible?

6. Might it be preferable to advocate that humanists rejects bigotry, either racial or religious insofar as you can actually distinguish them in practice?

7. Or might we say that humanists believe that nonbelievers can be good and even happy people?

Or maybe it's just that I'm not a humanist?
John Robinson said…
‘Naturalism’ is one of those terms that I find pointing me in a general direction rather than providing a specific set of ideas. The general direction is that what there is, and the properties and behaviour of things that there are, is established by working within the methodology of science.

A naturalist would (given my understanding of the term) have no objection to abstract objects providing the methodology that led to the argument for their existence was compatible with the natural sciences.

So I don’t think that ‘naturalism’, regarded in this general way, refuses to acknowledge the reality of abstract objects as a matter of principle.

Given this, and the definition of humanism above, which is only for ‘most humanists’ who ‘very probably’, ‘usually believe’, ‘emphasise’ and ‘favour’ various propositions, I don’t see reason 1 as a problem.

Properly drafted a clause on naturalism needn’t exclude those who are realist but humanist. One could even argue that naturalism is already included within clause 1 of the definition.
Philip Rand said…
Well chaps, the problem with 1 and 2 is that it requires a humanist to polarise between objects in the world and concepts of the imagination which have no objective counterpart.

This requires a humanist to polarise aspects to distinguish things in the world from products of the imagination...

Therefore, the humanist is forced to take up this position:

man/God, mortal/immortal, imperfection/perfection, impotence/omnipotence

And then by use of analogy...they polarise impotent-imperfect-mortal-man against omnipotent-perfect-immortal-God.

BUT...the problem with this is that this is exactly a relation which a humanist would REJECT as SUPERSTITION!!!!!!!!!!

They also have to believe in a private language on account they have privatised human morality.

Humanism is an interesting "concept"...It is simply an intellectual position...and therefore is illusory (but it makes it proponents feel better)...just like a private language (which is after all the good-feeling illusion that a belief in a private language gives one).
Philolinguist said…
Part I

Have to commend your courage in recognising, as a self-professed secular humanist, that philosophical naturalism is a slippery notion. However, some of the other tenets of humanism you mentioned seem to be equally problematic. To pick just one, the idea that "the State should take a neutral stance on religion." Are you assuming there is an ahistorical, universally valid, and easily recognizable 'neutral' standpoint from which to take such a stance? If so, the world awaits your defence of that assumption, because no one appears to have succeeded in making a sound one.

All the historical, sociological and psychological evidence seems to show that human mores are historically contingent, in that they change in response to socio-economic forces and other vagaries, in ways that are not entirely transparent to the actors (especially since the actor's mores can shape her conclusion as to their origin). This isn't a problem for the theist, who assumes that God intervenes providentially in history (at the very least, though not exclusively, through religion).

However, it is a problem for anyone claiming privileged epistemic access to a 'neutral' perspective exclusively via a secular humanist paradigm. This problem (and why theism is exempted via the divine providence 'loophole') is succinctly and plainly explained in Stanley Fish's interview on 'Deconstruction' in Ideas and Issues at

Basically, Fish argues that the role of historically contingent factors in shaping our judgements are largely opaque to us (particularly at the time those factors are in effect). So we are not in a position to arrive at a universally valid, ahistorical and transparently 'neutral' epistemic standpoint via a secular mode of enquiry.

As mentioned above, this isn't a problem for the theist, who doesn't claim such a standpoint for himself. At least, it is not a problem for the theist who accepts the historical contingency of his own theism as an outcome of divine providence (and sees merit in interpreting the world theistically, finding no good reason to reject his foundational beliefs).
Philolinguist said…
Part II

Judging from contemporary historical trends, it seems fair to say that secular humanism is approaching a crisis stage in its engagement with the more aggressive forms of religion, which have become adept at exploiting the vacuity and hence, instability, of secular 'neutrality'.

The best-case scenario for Western humanism is that it is saved by recognizing the historical contingency of its own most cherished values, by rejecting secular 'neutrality', and embracing its particularism as a gift of divine providence intended to bless the world. From a position of strength and self-confidence, the West could then help other nations in a spirit of goodwill, without erasing its own unique identity (from which that strength arises).

The only alternative is surrender to the most aggressive, organized and powerful lobby (whatever its agenda) which will continue to exploit secular 'neutrality' until the vacuity of that notion becomes all too apparent, and whatever the humanist finds appealing in humanism is altogether lost, because its deep roots in the West (both literally and figuratively) have been torn up.

A particular danger is that in reacting to aggressive external cultural forces, while continuing to cling to secularism, the West will embrace its deep roots without an accompanying sense of divine providence and mission (the 'blessing to the nations' aspect). This is already happening, in the emergence of an inward-looking, thinly-veiled secular racialism (i.e. Fascism) in Europe, a medicine just as lethal as the disease it claim to cure.

It seems fair to say that given what can go wrong (and is going wrong) along the way, the best-case scenario can only happen through divine intervention. From a secular perspective, the more probable outcome is even now unfolding, where the wolves (either Fascists or those they claim to fight) are in the sheepfold and the sheep are busy conspiring in their own extinction in the most orderly fashion possible, blinded by the soporific vapors of 'neutrality'. I believe the best-case scenario will eventually prevail, but not without much tribulation, and no thanks to secular humanists.
Rabbie said…
@Philolinguist, which of these twain counts as divine intervention: the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, or the revelation of the Koran to Mohammed? What gives us secure epistemic access to the truth among the competing revelations?
Philolinguist said…
"What gives us secure epistemic access to the truth among the competing revelations?"

What do you mean by 'secure'? How do you know you're not dreaming right now? Religious judgements are no different from other judgements, in the sense that you make them with the epistemic and cognitive resources available to you, reflecting your own personal history. Whether those resources are ultimately adequate is a matter for posterity to settle. Even a fool has to make decisions. You have no choice but to decide where you stand, right or wrong. It woudn't hurt to ask "the Supreme Being" for help, even if you don't believe He exists.
Rabbie said…

It hasn't hurt to ask the Supreme Being for help, but it hasn't been a great help either. Perhaps He does not wish to trample over my free will.

Sacred scriptures are what they are, and the fact that you have access to the same texts as I do renders the "How do I know I'm not dreaming?" approach beside the point. The theological disharmonies between the Jesus of the synoptics and the Christ of the Fouth Gospel would still exist even if one of us, or both of us, had dreamed them. So would the irreconcilable differences between the Christ of Christianity and the Isa of Islam. I noticed you did choose to respond to the first of my questions in a direct manner.

So how do we choose what product to buy from the supernaturalist bazaar? If the Supreme Being gave you His help,what form did it take?
Philolinguist said…
@Rabbie "So how do we choose what product to buy from the supernaturalist bazaar?"

Your reply shows that you are drawing on the epistemic and cognitive resources available to you, to draw conclusions about the merits or otherwise of competing 'products'. What grounds do you have for labelling some 'supernaturalist' and others 'natural'?

After all, in this very post, Stephen Law admits that the distinction looks "circular and uninformative":

"A sceptic’s usual first port of call is to say that naturalism consists in the rejection of belief in the supernatural. But what is the supernatural? Why, it’s that which isn’t natural, of course! But now notice that these explanations of naturalism and supernaturalism are, as they stand, entirely circular and uninformative. So far, no significant meaning has been attached to either term. It’s harder to define ‘naturalism’ than you might think (though note I don't say it can't be done)" [Although, as far as I know, Stephen hasn't done it, and it hasn't been done incontrovertibly by anyone else].

As for your last question, my belief in a Supreme Being isn't premised on the assumption that He has helped me. Any such assumption would be tentative at best, and easily contestable (I assume that was the point of your question). It is arguable that belief in God has an element of wishful thinking, but the same could be said for atheism. After all, wouldn't it be convenient if we don't have to answer for our sins? So perhaps, it's a question of which kind of wishful thinking makes more sense?

From a purely scientific point of view, I think there is substantial evidence for a Supreme Designer [from the Anthropic Principle and the extreme improbability of Darwinian evolution]. You may evaluate some of the evidence on either side in this video debate:
Rabbie said…
@Philolinguist sorry ,there was a typo in my last post. The last sentence of the second para should have read "I notice that you did not choose to respond to the first of my questions in a direct manner".

Yes, well we all draw on the cognitive resources available to us, especially if divine help seems unforthcoming. You seem to have misread what I wrote - I am simply repeating the claims of various religions that their presiding deities created natural law and therefore are able to impose their transcendent sovereign will on it as and when they choose in a super-natural way. I repeat that the same creator cannot have resurrected Jesus and delivered the Koran to Mohammed. Either one of these alternatives is true, or both are false. Even if intelligent design were true, it cannot possibly resolve this. It is odd that a supreme being with the power to juggle all sorts of irreducible complexities is incapable of producing a clear unambiguous revelation - the sort of text which gives rise to the query "How can we tell which revelation is the true one?" These competing revelations, far from being examples of God's providential contributions to history, seem more likely to bring about the end of history in the present century.

I didn't imagine that your theism was predicated on the belief that God has communicated to you, but your advice to me strongly implies that you believe He has.

You do make some points I agree with about the weaknesses of secular humanism in your second post. I myself am not neutral when it comes to evaluating the influence of various religions - I have no axe to grind against Anglicanism, and would not wish to lessen or increase the influence that Christianity has in Britain, seeing as the complete removal of that faith from all influence will simply lead to a power vacuum in which a more ruthless pre-Enlightenment ideology will simply trample all the others.
Otavio Magnani said…
To add to your point, another reason why a philosopher might reject naturalism is belief in the existence of universals. Russell, who seems to be one of the greatest influences on modern secular humanists, did hold such a belief.

By the way, I do not think it is strategically useful to define secular humanists as necessarily having to be atheists, for it is perfectly possible to be a religious believer while signing up to the other six of the seven points you mentioned. Why should we exclude some people from the group just because they believe in God, even though they might agree with all the rest?

Anyway, I don't really see the point of establishing such a well-defined concept of secular humanism, to be honest. It seems to me that it's only good for creating ideological affiliations which are neither useful nor beneficial. Christians don't have a strict, rigorous concept of what it takes to be a christian, and yet they seem to be doing pretty well, unfortunately.
HH said…
Hi Philolinguist

"From a purely scientific point of view, I think there is substantial evidence for a Supreme Designer [from the Anthropic Principle and the extreme improbability of Darwinian evolution]."

The Anthropic Principle is usually deployed as a refutation of a designer. With the excveption of the wildly assertive strong AP.
Why do you suggest this as evidence of a designer, I am not familar with that approach.

Also, extreme improbability of Darwinian evolution? Do you mean improbability in the origin of life (this has unknown probability). If you do mean Darwinian evolution, what makes you think it has extreme improbability. The greatest strengh of the theory is that it explains complex life in a manner that removes chance.

On these questions there is often a lot of confusion on the subject of probability, particularly the probability of any instance of something and a particular instance of something.

An example of everyday clash between the inevitable and the improbable would be any hand of poker. If you are dealt a hand in 5 card stud, the probability of you getting that particular hand is (if I am remembering correctly) somewhere in the neighbourhood of .0000004. Despite the improbability of you getting any specific hand, the probability of you getting a hand is obviously 1.
Philolinguist said…
Here comes the backlash, from the humanists:
Anonymous said…
how about spelling -ise with an 's' and not a zed?

so emphasise, realise, organise etc...
michael fugate said…
>From a purely scientific point of view, I think there is substantial evidence for a Supreme Designer [from the Anthropic Principle and the extreme improbability of Darwinian evolution].<

Too funny! You would think wrong. Darwinian evolution is not improbable - it happens every day. It is ignorance like this that makes everything else you say suspect.
Jon Wainwright said…
I share the late, great Victor Stenger's commitment to
methodological naturalism, the self-imposed convention of science that limits inquiry to objective observations of the world and generally seeks natural accounts for all phenomena: "Methodological naturalism can still be applied without implying any dogmatic attachment to metaphysical naturalism."

Is this having one's philosophical cake and eating it?

On a rather more important point, to Anonymous, who complained about -ize spellings: it may come as a surprise, but these are actually the preferred spellings in many British dictionaries, including the OED.
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