I recently wrote a blog post titled “Secular Humanism: DON’T define it as requiring naturalism”  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 . 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 , 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.
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”  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).
 Secular Humanism: DON’T define it as requiring naturalism, by S. Law, 9 September 2014.
 Stephen Law on humanism and naturalism, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 19 September 2014.
 Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, by S. Law.
 The concept of family resemblance.