Deriving morality

A student who took an internet quiz and got diagnosed as a “secular humanist” emailed me, asking me what I thought secular humanism was all about. Good question.

I said that “‘Secular humanist’ is most often a label adopted by people who are skeptical of supernatural entities, and who identify with political and moral views deriving from the tradition of the European Enlightenment.” I added that “Secular humanists are less interested in finding a unified functional substitute for religion,” and that “Agnosticism and atheism are positions regarding the existence of some sort of God. Most secular humanists are, indeed, doubtful about the reality of any God. But they also do not think a position on God is such an important thing as to tell us a lot about a person. Many humanists put as much emphasis on the ethical aspects of living without gods.”

Now, thinking about it, I didn’t add something that bothers me about some morality-talk by people who identify as secular humanists. And that’s the notion of having a moral outlook that is in some sense derived from rejection of the supernatural. It strikes me that closely linking morality to ones stand on gods and demons is (or should be) more of a theistic preoccupation.

I’d say that secular humanists—or whatever you want to call religious skeptics with roots in the Enlightenment tradition— don’t derive their secular liberal moral outlook from any metaphysical principles or such nonsense. This is a tradition of political and moral reflection, and much of what goes on with it is a product of a particular historical and cultural experience.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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