At Why Evolution Is True, biologist Jerry Coyne has a post about a Quillette article on whether secular humanism is a religion. John Staddon, an emeritus professor of biology and psychology at Duke and the author of the Quillette article, says yes, and Coyne disagrees.
Before examining Staddon’s and Coyne’s claims, let’s clear up the terminology. “Secular humanism” is a euphemism for atheism as practiced in modern Western civilization. All secular humanists are atheists (explicit or functional). “Secular humanism” adds a particular moral framework to atheist belief, and while there are certainly differences between atheists on some issues, there is an identifiable secular humanist moral code. You’ll find it repeated in faculty lounges and in various victimology departments in universities. It entails maximum freedom from constraint, except for people who disagree with atheism. Indoctrinating children in public schools in Darwinism is just one part of the deal.
“Goddess of Reason”
So, is atheism a religion? Historically, it has been as violent and repressive as any religious community. In fact, considering the record of the 20th century, atheism is the most violent ideology in human experience. Since its first appearance on the world stage in the 1790s in France (the Jacobins were the original secular humanists — they consecrated Notre-Dame to the “Goddess of Reason”), atheism has been a bloodletting of astonishing magnitude. Atheism began with the guillotine, and gave us the gulags, the Great Leap Forward, the Killing Fields, terrorism, and North Korea, with Venezuelan levels of prosperity. The euphemism “secular humanism” is just the latest segue to evade the historical record.
In what way does atheism resemble religion? That depends on how you define religion. There are two ways. Some academics define religion as a belief system about ultimate causes. Atheism is certainly that; it holds that there is no God, the universe wasn’t created, existence has no purpose imposed from without, there is no objective (externally imposed) moral code, Darwin explained biological complexity, humans have no souls, and there is no life after death. Atheist belief is every bit as doctrinaire as the Nicene Creed, albeit less rational. So if you define religion as a metaphysical belief system, atheism is a religion.
A Second Definition
Some academics define religion as a system of liturgical worship, complete with rituals, etc. While atheism certainly has its rituals (abortion, litigation, Darwin Day, and more…), it doesn’t really have a liturgy per se. So by the second definition of religion, atheism isn’t a religion.
It all depends on how you define religion. The salient point, in my view, is not to let atheism deny the sanguinary record of its faith. “Secular humanism” is atheism, with a patina of Enlightenment cant, which is shed like a skin as soon as it gains power.
Staddon’s article for Quillette is a good read. He argues (not to put too fine a point on it) that atheism has been intolerantly thuggish, imposing dogma, punishing blasphemy, and harboring an acute hatred for Christianity. He’s right.
Coyne Doesn’t Merely Disagree
Coyne’s reply is ironic. He seethes:
[T]he editors screwed up by accepting a piece that makes very little sense, and arrives at its conclusion by some risibly tortuous logic… Why did the editors of Quillette publish this odiferous serving of tripe?
Staddon’s piece is topical, well written, and carefully reasoned. Coyne is of course free to disagree with Staddon’s conclusions. But he does not merely disagree. Coyne rants that Staddon’s essay should never have been published. In other words, he responds to the observation that atheism is censoriously thuggish by… being a censorious thug.
That’s a perk to the article. Staddon wrote a good article, and he got atheist Jerry Coyne to confirm his hypothesis. It would be funny, but for the display of hate and malice.
Photo: Notre-Dame Cathedral (seen as it appeared about 1860) was consecrated by French Revolutionaries to the “Goddess of Reason,” by Édouard Baldus [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.