Why you shouldn’t make naturalism a tenet of secular humanism

gse_multipart24046by Stephen Law


I recently wrote a blog post titled “Secular Humanism: DON’T define it as requiring naturalism” [1] in which I suggest that it is a strategic mistake for secular humanists (such as myself) to make naturalism a tenet of secular humanism, so that signing up to naturalism is a requirement, rather than just an option.

Massimo Pigliucci was kind enough to write a response to my post in this magazine last week [2]. Massimo disagrees with my view that naturalism should not be included as a tenet of secular humanism. Here I respond to his response.

Don’t get me wrong: naturalism might be true. Secular humanists like Massimo should be free both to embrace and argue for naturalism if they wish. Many do. Personally, I’m agnostic about naturalism (though I lean towards it). I just don’t think naturalism should be built into secular humanism as a tenet in such a way that anyone who rejects, or is even just agnostic, about naturalism is thereby excluded from the secular humanist club. And I’d still think that even if I happened to be as committed to naturalism as is Massimo.

How do I characterise “secular humanism”?

In my book Humanism: A Very Short Introduction [3], I sketch secular humanism (or, as we say in the UK, humanism) like so:

(1) 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 favor an open, democratic society and believe the State should take a neutral stance on religion.

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

Notice I make no mention of naturalism in characterizing secular humanism. And that’s deliberate, as I explain in the book. I certainly don’t think we should add as a further tenet:

(8) Humanists sign up to naturalism.

Now some may think (8) is rendered redundant by my (2). Surely, atheism entails naturalism, right?

No. Atheist aren’t necessarily wedded to naturalism. Indeed, many non-theists reject naturalism (a PhilPapers survey of professional philosophers shows that while less than 15% of philosophers are theists, less than 50% sign up to naturalism: so over a third are neither theists nor naturalists).

There are various reasons why many philosophers remain less than fully convinced by naturalism. Classic philosophical objections to naturalism tend to focus on phenomena such as consciousness, moral value, and mathematical truth. Take mathematical truth. Many mathematicians are mathematical Platonists. They suppose mathematical assertions such as “2 + 2 = 4” are made true by non-natural, mathematical facts. Similarly, there are philosophers who suppose that moral claims are made true by non-natural moral facts, and also philosophers who suppose that consciousness exists, but not as part of the natural world. All these philosophers reject naturalism.

Others, even if not convinced that naturalism is false, are at least undecided about whether it is true. They might lean towards naturalism, say, but remain non-committal given their awareness of the range and depth of objections raised against naturalism and the complexities involved in dealing with them effectively. Such philosophers can sign up to principles (1)-(7) above and so qualify as “secular humanists” as I characterize the term. But were we to add (8), any such philosopher would automatically be excluded.

So here’s my first worry about adding (8): we will inevitably exclude a good many otherwise sympathetic individuals who are committed to the other secular humanist principles (1)-(7), which are it seems to me, the principles that really matter (I’ll expand on this later). Why define “secular humanism” so as to exclude someone who happens to think “2 + 2 = 4” is made true by a non-natural, mathematical fact?

I also suggested in my blog post that defining “secular humanism” so that it entails (philosophical) naturalism creates an unnecessary hostage to fortune. If secular humanism entails naturalism, then all critics need do to refute secular humanism is refute naturalism. And there is, as I say, a cupboardful of stock philosophical objections to naturalism on which those critics can now draw (objections raised by pressing questions such as: “How can the naturalist world view accommodate consciousness, or mathematical truth, or moral value?”).

Even if none of these objections actually is fatal to naturalism, dealing with them is obviously a very complex matter, far too complex to allow the objections to be properly dealt with within, say, the context of a public debate with a religious apologist. And so, by making naturalism a tenet of secular humanism, we allow such religious apologist to at the very least get us secular humanists needlessly bogged down in that sort of irrelevant philosophical sideshow. Many in the audience to such a debate are likely to conclude: “Hmm, well secular humanism certainly does seem to face some very significant objections here — objections that the secular humanist has struggled to deal with.”

In my opinion, in response to the Christian apologist’s standard debate-tactic question: “But how does your atheistic, naturalistic worldview accommodate consciousness, and mathematical truth, and moral value?” we secular humanists should not attempt to defend naturalism, but just shrug and say: “Straw man fallacy. Even if your objections successfully establish that naturalism is false, that leaves 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 conceivably lose, and that you certainly don’t need to win, in order successfully to defend atheism and secular humanism.

An aside: woo skepticism

I suspect that what most of those non-philosophers within the skeptical community who describe themselves as naturalists really mean by “naturalism” something like rejection of belief in woo — in fairies, ghosts, angels, gods, psychic powers and other supernatural beings and phenomena. Now of course, a majority of professional philosophers who reject or are at least undecided about “naturalism” are probably no less skeptical about woo. What philosophers mean by “naturalism” is not equivalent to rejection of belief in such spooky stuff. We would be well-advised to distinguish philosophical naturalism, on the one hand, and woo-sceptic naturalism on the other.

So should we define secular humanism so that it at least requires, if not philosophical naturalism, then at least woo-sceptic naturalism? Actually, I’m not sure I’d recommend even that. Suppose it turns out that some people really do have psychic powers. Suppose that’s scientifically established. Would such a discovery establish that secular humanism is false? That strikes me as an odd conclusion to draw. Of course many secular humanists would be mightily surprised if it turned out that psychic powers are real (and also non-natural). But I don’t think such a discovery would spell doom for secular humanism per se, because I think secular humanism’s proper focus is elsewhere.

Massimo’s disagreement

So now I turn to Massimo’s disagreement with me. His view is that naturalism should be included as a tenet of secular humanism, and that this is unproblematic so long as “naturalism” is understood correctly. Massimo suggests that “what secular humanists mean by ‘naturalism’ is actually a rather ‘thin’ concept, one that [philosophers] could (indeed should) happily subscribe to.”

Massimo correctly rejects the thought that naturalism = physicalism, where physicalism (as Massimo characterizes it) is “the idea that everything that exists is made of matter.” Numbers and moral values obviously aren’t made of matter, so they can’t be accommodated by physicalism, thus understood.

But naturalism, as Massimo understands the term, is a much weaker thesis than physicalism. Though he does not spell it out for us, Massimo’s conception of naturalism seems to be (something along the lines) that everything there is can be accommodated entirely within the causally-ordered universe. Massimo suggests that, armed with this less austere conception of what counts as “natural,” mathematical objects and concepts can now be accommodated. He supposes the same is likely to be true of minds and moral values “so long as one doesn’t think that mathematical objects, minds or moral values somehow violate the laws of nature and/or originate from a deity of some sort.”

Now maybe Massimo is right. Perhaps, given his less austere conception of what is to count as “natural,” naturalism can indeed accommodate minds, morals, and maths. But my point remains. Whether or not naturalism can accommodate these things, why should we be obliged, as secular humanists, to take a position on this matter? No doubt naturalism can also accommodate ice cream, Paris, and The Wiggles, but I see no reason why we, as secular humanists, should stake our position on that being the case. And even if Massimo is himself convinced that naturalism, thus understood, can accommodate minds, maths, and morals, the fact remains that many professional philosophers, me included, remain unconvinced. So my concern remains: is it wise for us, as secular humanists, to be staking our position on issues that are, at the very least, controversial?

I grant that the answer to this question would clearly be “yes” if it was important that naturalism (Massimo’s preferred variety) be included in the secular humanist portfolio of commitments. After all, non-belief in God is also included in that portfolio of commitments, and that too is at least somewhat controversial. Yet, as Massimo points out, I don’t suggest we drop non-belief in God. So why don’t I advise we also drop that commitment as an unnecessary hostage to fortune?

Because, as a campaigning organization dedicated among other things to giving a voice to non-believers and fighting for their rights, it’s appropriate that a secular humanist organization should include non-belief among its tenets. There is a similarly good reason for including secularism among the tenets of secular humanism. But now why is it important to include amongst the tenets of secular humanism a commitment to the belief that philosophical naturalism (appropriately understood) can accommodate mathematical facts? It very obviously isn’t important. That issue is a largely irrelevant sideshow so far as secular humanism is concerned. Let’s drop the commitment as both an unnecessary hostage to fortune and obstacle to recruitment.

Massimo says (about committing secular humanism to naturalism):

And if, as Law writes, “critics will rub their hands together with glee knowing we have just provided them with a cupboard full of stock philosophical objections,” then secular humanists should equally be worried about their rejection of, say, belief in gods, since there too they may one day be proven wrong (as unlikely as I think that is). Well, you don’t get to stake any interesting position if you don’t run the risk of being wrong, so I’ll bite the bullet.

Of course, given Massimo is a convinced naturalist, he is entirely free as a secular humanist to bite the bullet and commit to naturalism. What I’m objecting to is the suggestion that, as secular humanists, we are required to bite the same bullet and commit to naturalism. I can see no justification for that requirement.

Here’s a final bit of clarification from me. Actually, I condensed the seven-point characterization from my book a little for the blog post. In the book, what (2) actually says is this:

(2) Humanists are either atheists or at least agnostic. They are skeptical about the claim that there exists a god or gods. They are also skeptical about angels, demons, and other supernatural beings.

Now perhaps some readers are thinking, “Ah, well expanded in that way, (2) now expresses what I mean by naturalism. What I mean by ‘naturalism’ is rejection of belief in such supernatural beings. So it turns out my kind of naturalism doesn’t need adding to (1)-(7); it is, in effect, already included in the unpacked version of (2).”

However, I don’t think Massimo can say this. That’s because Massimo seems to want to commit secular humanists to a stronger, philosophical form of naturalism that has something to say, not just about gods, angels, and demons, but also about minds, morals, and maths.

Massimo says that different theories allowing for the existence of minds, mathematical truths, and moral values can easily

fall within the broad umbrella of naturalism — so long as one doesn’t think that mathematical objects, minds or moral values somehow violate the laws of nature and/or originate from a deity… a position I would hope, that no secular humanist ought to hold onto.

But why should a secular humanist be obliged, by virtue of their secular humanism, to embrace a position on such questions as whether or not mathematical objects violate the laws of nature? What’s that got to do with secular humanism? Not much, I think.

True, Massimo’s conception of naturalism is much thinner than a crude, full-blown physicalism. Massimo says,

naturalism really is to be contrasted with supernaturalism, setting aside delightfully intricate, but largely beside the point, philosophical debates. And it certainly ought to be one of the tenets of secular humanism that one rejects the supernatural. Which makes one, therefore, a naturalist.

But while Massimo makes his conception of naturalism sound pretty thin (for it’s just rejection of the “supernatural”), it’s still not thin enough. Not if he thinks secular humanists should be required to sign up to it. For as we saw above, Massimo’s version of rejecting the “supernatural” involves more than just rejecting gods, angels, demons, and other supernatural folk. It also involves signing up to controversial philosophical theses regarding minds, morals, and maths that, it seems to me, are of little direct concern to secular humanism per se.

In short, Massimo seems to want to commit us secular humanists to a brand of philosophical naturalism that does still require that we embrace controversial verdicts in delightfully intricate philosophical debates that are largely beside the point. Which is what I’m warning against.

A “family resemblance”concept?

But perhaps I have misunderstood and Massimo is suggesting not that signing up to naturalism be a requirement, but merely that it be on the list of characteristics that can qualify someone as a secular humanist.

Suppose for example that secular humanism is a “family resemblance” [4] concept. For example, suppose we stipulate that to qualify as a “secular humanist” one must possess at least three of six listed characteristics, one of which is a commitment to naturalism. Then that commitment would not be a requirement (you would still qualify as a secular humanist if you weren’t a naturalist but did tick three of the other five remaining boxes), but it could still contribute to qualifying someone as a secular humanist. A commitment to naturalism would still be built into the concept of secular humanism.

The above suggestion is less objectionable, I think, because it does deal with one of my concerns: signing up to naturalism is no longer a requirement.

However, I see no good reason to include a commitment to naturalism even on such a “family resemblance” list, given (i) the somewhat controversial character of even Massimo’s version of naturalism plus the fact that whether or not naturalism can accommodate e.g. mathematical objects/truths is, so far as secular humanism is concerned, surely largely beside the point, and (ii) the fact that religious apologists are going to seize on naturalism’s presence on that list and use it is a rhetorical bludgeon with which to cream us in debates.


Stephen Law is Provost of Centre for Inquiry UK and Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. His books include The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking and The Complete Philosophy Files (for children).

[1] Secular Humanism: DON’T define it as requiring naturalism, by S. Law, 9 September 2014.

[2] Stephen Law on humanism and naturalism, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 19 September 2014.

[3] Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, by S. Law.

[4] The concept of family resemblance.

110 thoughts on “Why you shouldn’t make naturalism a tenet of secular humanism

  1. Hi Labnut,

    I agree, seems clear that there are Muslim humanists, Jewish humanists, Christian humanists, Agnostic humanists, Atheist humanists, Buddhist humanists, etc. There are plenty of clubs, associations and social movements whose members are believers, agnostics and atheists, so what?

    Which is the reason to segregate the people depending on their feelings as long as they don’t break the civil laws? At least in the Western societies where the tendency is the separation of Church and State, which means the State has to be neutral and shouldn’t impose neither a religious metaphysic nor an atheistic one, this debate has to be conducted under ethical premises.


  2. Dear Massimo,

    Unfortunately your reply to Stephen Law does not really help me. The only sentence coming anywhere near the matter is: “if it involves miracles, i.e., the suspension of the laws of nature, then it is supernatural”. But that simply moves the issue one step further back instead of solving it. What is the criterion for calling one law natural and another law (e.g. god rewards piety, or people get reincarnated) super-natural?

    There may be an implied statement here that supernatural stuff doesn’t follow any laws/regularities whatsoever, but I don’t really know what such a statement would mean either. There are many natural things that don’t work as simple cause-effect, but stochasticity is just another form of law-like/regular behaviour.

    What is more, supernaturalists generally don’t believe in capriciousness anyway: see above, god reliably rewards piety, everybody gets reincarnated until they achieve enlightenment, demons can be exorcised with this or that act, etc. I am seeing basically one exception, trickster gods, but they don’t seem to make up more than the tiniest fraction of what is called supernatural.



    Gravity is also immaterial; would you call it supernatural?


    Sorry, that is begging the question.

    “zero evidence”

    Whether there is evidence for something is irrelevant for the question whether it would be natural or supernatural if it did actually exist.


  3. SocraticGadfly,
    Sorry for the late response. I did want to say that I agree with you about re-incarnation, and think it was a mis-step on Stephen’s part to include it as ‘borderline.’ It is not simply that there is no evidence for it, the problem is that there can never be any evidence for it. Whatever ‘it’ is that might re-incarnate is never going to come back and tell us about it (unless one believes Shirley MacLaine, and I don’t), and there isn’t any measurement we could conceivably make of it. Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn’s remark comparing it to gravity misses this point – we can measure gravity; but what is this ‘it’ we should measure in the process of re-incarnation?

    As to Coel’s use of Mill, I’m unpersuaded of it. Mill’s use of the ‘moral feeling’ is actually more complex than Coel makes it out to be, and sanctions more than value judgments (its primary realization is in a sense of duty). Also, in its social context, we must remember that for Victorians all moral development was ‘onward and upward’ – but where are these ‘onwards’ and ‘upwards’ coming from? Some expectation of what it ought to mean to be a decent human being, obviously. Finally, it should be remembered that Mill has a social constructionist theory of the personality, and that’s important. The moral feeling is something learned.

    As for the issue of the “view from nowhere,” I would agree, but I find the matter most problematic. All thinkers on ethical theory – indeed on any sort of theory – tend to adopt such a view, even if only occasionally or completely unwittingly. We are always trying to step outside of our skins; and it’s not clear we can claim access to objectivity otherwise.


  4. ejwinner,

    Painfully aware that this is perhaps wasting one of my five posts, I just have to stress: If you can’t measure anything in any way whatsoever, that that is an indication that the stuff in question does not exist. It is not an indication that it is supernatural. Perhaps a matrix gets the point across a bit better:

    Evidence No evidence
    Natural Gravity, squirrels Luminiferous aether, Bigfoot
    Supernatural ? Reincarnation, demons

    There is lots of stuff that does not exist but that would be considered natural if it existed. Consequently, that you can’t measure anything or that there is no evidence cannot be a criterion for calling something supernatural. The term you want instead is “non-existent”.

    Of course the cell of supernatural stuff that actually exists is empty, but that is not the relevant point here because it could hypothetically be that the things people call supernatural existed. If they did, however, science would study them, humanists would accept them, and they would be considered part of nature.

    So why is a distinction made among the stuff that doesn’t exist? What is the criterion for differentiating between the upper right corner of the above matrix and the lower right corner?


  5. It seems (from the points above) that neither Barry Lynn (Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church, UCC minister) nor George Will (self-described “amiable, low voltage atheist”, libertarian free-market conservative) are secular humanists. But I would think that Barry Llynn is still more aligned with secular humanists.


  6. Some missing of my point above. Yes of course there is also a use of ‘humanist’ going back to the Renaissance on which the religious can qualify (obviously!) But, as the term is used by the BHA, the IHEU, the Swedish Humanists, etc. etc. it has a different meaning. And telling them they’re using the term wrongly is too late – it’s an established meaning.

    As I say, this is exactly like people saying “oh but ‘gay’ only his this meaning, on which I qualify as gay cos I am happy though I am not a homosexual”. It has that meaning too, yes. But it no longer has only that meaning. In the UK ‘secular’ is entirely redundant in front of ‘humanist’, as the term is used by the BHA, for example.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Why the heck do we need to be atheists in order to be a secular humanist. I lean towards atheism, but I’d describe myself as an agnostic, because I am a radical skeptic.

    My only certainty with regards to deism is that, IF God exists, it can only be described accurately in a fluke, thus no description of God should be believed in, specially if this claims IT took ‘time’ to reveal Itself to a bunch of disgraceful and confused apes.

    So, why should it be necessary to reject the notion of an undefined and non-interventionist God, in order to be a secular humanist… Fucking dogma, I tell you.

    The likes of Dawkins and you are doing a disservice to Secular Humanism making us look like another bunch of dogma-tied fanatics. Your dogma may be closer to reason than that of a Baptist, but you are (nearly) as gregarious and defensive as they are.

    While I would agree that it makes no sense to ‘welcome’ followers of institutionalized religions, as this is indeed an affront to reason; in the same way that you consider strict naturalism to be excessive a criteria to ascribe to secular humanism, I so think of atheism.

    Also, please clarify this: one has to be an atheist to be a secular humanist, but needs only be an agnostic about reincarnation. This seems like inside out reasoning to me.

    (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.

    I believe that allowing doubt in the existence of something undefined, whose only known attribute is that it has a special importance in the scheme of the Universe’s (cause, medium, IT…), is more reasonable than believing in reincarnation of consciousness. Are you a freaking dualist or something???


  8. Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn,
    One way to look at the problem is, what would be the process that would get the consciousness of one body into another body?

    Gravity itself explains processes, e.g., relations between masses in motion in measurable proximity to one another. Salamanders exist through known biological processes

    If Big Foot exists, it does so in the way any mammalian life form would, consequently we know what evidence to look for, and we haven’t found any.
    As for aether, it should be noted that this was originally intended as a scientific explanation of certain processes involving light, and was disqualified through experimentation and replaced with better explanations.

    If demons exist, they would likely do so in the way that much theological literature asserts, created by god or gods for such and such purposes, etc. This process is supernatural by definition, and the theological texts emphasize this, as the creating god or gods themselves are asserted to be ‘beyond nature.’

    But we don’t really have any idea how re-incarnation could possibly occur. Even the religious texts assuring us of its occurrence can not give us an idea of how it happens. Hence, we do not know where to look for any evidence of its occurrence.

    Further, we do know that if it happens, apparently the consciousness involved has no memories of its previous existence, or none we can verify through reliable report. So it is unclear what is to be gained through re-incarnation, beyond meta-explanations such as ‘karmatic recurrence.’

    That suggests that the kind of consciousness that could do this is probably not the consciousness that we have right now while living, and in fact calling it a ‘consciousness’ is misguided. It must be something else: a disembodied spirit-thing, itself remaining undefined. So we don’t even know what it is we want evidence of.

    Finally, if it is not this living consciousness, which has a natural origin that can be explained; if instead it is a disembodied spirit-thing, this would alone define it as ‘beyond nature,’ i.e., supernatural.

    It should be obvious that your matrix is unraveling into a spectrum of degrees of verifiability and resources for such, and that re-incarnation is coming out the worse for it. The answer to your point is, that it is probably supernatural, but we haven’t the resources even to determine this, let alone its existence. It just doesn’t seem to do anything in the natural world. (Perhaps it is not supernatural, but it is certainly non-natural.)

    (Of course, the Tibetan Book of the Dead does give us a strong description of what it might look like, but one has to be dead to test this description, and I’m willing to wait a while before I get around to that.)

    And yes, of course, if any evidence for supernatural or otherwise unnatural phenomena could be produced, that would change our perspectives completely, in which case most of these distinction would be trivialized or nullified anyway.


  9. ejwinner,

    Your last paragraph is exactly right, and it is precisely the reason why lack of evidence cannot be used to define supernaturalness. Everything else you wrote is, I am sorry to say, continuing to spectacularly miss the point.

    what would be the process…

    Irrelevant; people 5,000 years ago would not have known what the process for oxidation is either but we still don’t consider it to be supernatural today.

    Gravity itself explains processes

    And reincarnation or clairvoyance, if they existed, would explain other observations – precisely those observations that would be evidence for their existence.

    Salamanders exist through known biological processes

    And if demons existed they would exist through known processes once they had been studied by demonologists for some time. Or at least as known as we now know why precisely gravity exists.

    As for aether, it should be noted that this was originally intended as a scientific explanation of certain processes involving light, and was disqualified through experimentation and replaced with better explanations.

    As were special creation and the idea that diseases are caused by demonic possession. Just saying.

    This process is supernatural by definition, and the theological texts emphasize this, as the creating god or gods themselves are asserted to be ‘beyond nature.’

    So what you are saying here is that some processes can simply get the label ‘supernatural’ slapped onto them because some religious people say so. Of course that is what happens; generally the intention is to mark something as beyond the reach of reason, so that one can go on believing nonsense. But how does that provide a justification for calling these things supernatural? What is the criterion?

    I could go on through your reply, but the rest is just variations on the above.

    So what I have now as possible criteria for supernatural are “non-existent” (which doesn’t work because there are many natural things that turned out to be non-existent) and “whatever theologians arbitrarily call so”. Actually, the latter is just about what I think myself, only I don’t consider it an acceptable answer…


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