Clarifying the Relationship between Naturalism and Secular Humanism

Civitas Humana is a website dedicated to exploring and advocating secular philosophy, metaphysical naturalism, and secular humanism. However, I would like to make a point of clarification about the interrelation between these terms.

Naturalism is the metaphysical/ontological view that the natural world is a closed system, in that nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it. In other words, “nature” is all that exists and nothing supernatural or non-natural either exists or affects the natural world (for further elaboration about the definition of naturalism, see here). Often times the naturalist metaphysical view is paired with the secular humanist ethical view, as is the case on this blog.

In Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, philosopher Stephen Law defines the core beliefs of secular humanists as follows:

  1. Secular humanists place particular emphasis on the role of science and reason.
  1. Humanists are atheists. They do not sign up to belief in a god or gods.
  1. Humanists suppose that this is very probably the only life we have.
  1. Humanists usually believe in the existence and importance of moral value.
  1. Humanists emphasize our individual moral autonomy and responsibility.
  1. Humanists are secularists in the sense that they favour an open, democratic society and believe the State should take neutral stance on religion.
  1. Humanists believe that we can enjoy significant, meaningful lives even if there is no God, and whether or not we happen to be religious.

Notably, naturalism is not included in the beliefs of secular humanists outlined above. As Law explains in his recent blog post, “Secular Humanism: DON’T Define It as Requiring Naturalism,” one does not have to sign up to metaphysical naturalism to still be a secular humanist. In fact, Law himself is a secular humanist who does not identify as a naturalist (although Law does state that he “leans towards” naturalism).

Law lists two reasons why secular humanism should not be defined as requiring naturalism:

  1. Because it unnecessarily excludes many from the secular humanist club who could and should be invited in.
    • In other words, atheists who are not naturalists will seem excluded from secular humanism, if it is defined as requiring naturalism. If it is not defined as such, then more atheists can be welcomed into the secular humanist movement.
  1. Because it creates an unnecessary hostage to fortune.
    • Law explains that, if secular humanism is defined as requiring naturalism, then all a critic of secular humanism has to do is attack naturalism in order to refute secular humanism. This should not be the case, since there are many plausible forms of secular humanism that do not necessarily require naturalism.

I would like to state, as one of the editors and contributors to Civitas Humana, that I fully agree with Law’s argument. Secular humanism should NOT be defined as requiring naturalism, even if many secular humanists subscribe to a naturalist version of secular humanism. There are other non-naturalist versions of secular humanism that are held by atheists, and they are welcomed here on Civitas Humana!

Why then does Civitas Humana advocate BOTH naturalism AND secular humanism? The reason why is that the version of secular humanism promoted on this blog is a naturalist secular humanism. As Law notes, naturalism can be paired with secular humanism, and this is not in the least an awkward combination. Naturalism is a secular metaphysical view and secular humanism is a secular ethical view, both of which nicely go together. But the two do not necessarily have to go together.

As such, when naturalism and secular humanism are associated on this blog (as is the case in my metaphysics series), please understand that this is only the version of secular humanism promoted on this blog. This blog acknowledges that there are also non-naturalist forms of secular humanism, and we also welcome ideas and feedback from non-naturalist secular humanists.

I hope this clarifies the positions discussed here on Civitas Humana! If you have any further questions or comments about the relation between naturalism and secular humanism, let us know in the comments below!

-Matthew Ferguson

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2 thoughts on “Clarifying the Relationship between Naturalism and Secular Humanism

    • Hey Ratamacue0,

      As Stephen Law discuses in the article that I linked, there are many atheists who do not identify as naturalists. Only 15% of professional philosophers are theist, but only about 50% of philosophers are naturalists. That means that a good 35% of the non-theists do not identify as naturalists, and I think that they can still qualify just as much as secular humanists.

      What’s important to understand, I think, is that “non-naturalism” is not the same thing as “supernaturalism.” Someone who is not a naturalist simply does not hold to the view that our metaphysics/ontology can be fully accounted for by “natural” explanations. It does not necessarily mean that the person believes in the supernatural. In fact, often the main objections made by atheist non-naturalists have to do with the usefulness of terms like “natural” and whether they can be adequately defined. It doesn’t mean that these atheist non-naturalists believe in ghosts and stuff.

      In fact, this is why I am presenting a conference paper this Fall at the PAMLA 2014 conference about defining the “natural,” so that I can contribute to the discussion about articulating naturalism as a metaphysical worldview.

      But, to be a secular humanist, all one has to minimally do is not believe in the existence of god and also believe that morality can be meaningful without god and based solely on human concerns. That does not require that one be a naturalist. If one does not believe that everything about reality can be reduced to “natural” processes and explanations, she can still believe that morality is important, god does not exist, and that morality can be based purely on human concerns without god.

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