Matheson: A Humanist’s Invitation to Peaceful Science

Former Christian turned atheist, Stephen Matheson, invites fellow secular humanists to join the growing conversation at Peaceful Science.


Hi all, as you can see, the piece is not much of a commentary but an invitation to secular people to check out Peaceful Science and perhaps join the conversations. But I’m glad to answer questions.


Thanks for this excellent article @sfmatheson. In many ways, but in a different way, it follows what @Nlents began in Upcoming science book reveals that 'Adam and Eve' could have existed..

@ccreyes and I are hoping to include and feature more secular voices as we move forward. I hope that this invitation resonates with them, and I look forward to hearing the response you hear from them.


On Facebook, somewhat predictably, there are questions about the meaning of “humanist.” These are not aggressive questions, but perhaps puzzled. As you know “humanist” carries some negative connotations, because it can be used to exclude the religious. This is not what you mean, because you write,

any secular (or religious) humanist

I understand you to be saying that Peaceful Science is humanistic in that we are seeking the common good together. Is that what you mean? How would you explain the meaning?


It’s true that the term is frequently assumed to exclude believers and belief, but I think that is unnecessary and why I think “secular humanist” is a useful phrase. There are Christian humanists and Muslim humanists and all kinds of humanists. Humanism is basically a set of beliefs and commitments centered on humans and their moral significance. It need not exclude belief. However, it does define its commitments separate from gods and the supernatural. I suppose a Christian humanist would affirm those commitments but then add God as their source. This is something I’m very comfortable with, but it’s fair to say that plenty of secular humanists would disagree with me. You will find my humanism best described in the first two entries on this page at the American Humanist Association.

Yep! Compare for example this description of humanism (from the AHA page linked above) with the goals of Peaceful Science:

Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.


I thought it might be fun to provide an addendum, because there is a story behind my little post.

I changed my mind about PS, over a period of several months. My endorsement of @swamidass’ book was tepid at best, and my initial stance toward the book and its arguments was not very friendly. I have denounced the motivation for the book in pretty vivid terms. And in fact my opinions about that goal have not changed–I think that taking the whole Eden story as anything other than a fictional fable is ridiculous. And those who have read (perhaps through gritted teeth) my opinions about Christianity know that I am a thoroughgoing apostate, not merely an atheist or skeptic. Hence my intro in which I list all the reasons that PS (and especially this forum) are not often my cup of herbal tea. In short, I came to PS with skepticism, suspicion, and even hostility.

But you see, I was wrong about some pretty important facets of PS. For one, the prime directive of PS is not to make converts or even mostly to make Christians more comfortable with their myths. I’m sure the Christians here would be overjoyed to make a convert or two and I am certain they all want their fellow believers to move away from dangerous commitments to obvious falsehoods. But that isn’t the main goal, and I think this is starting to become clearer (look at the kinds of conversations that we’re having and how they compare to those just a few months ago). More importantly, I see a culture of transparency and patience. Transparency about lots of things, but especially about errors and error correction. And patience with the inevitable challenges of managing a forum that includes plenty of ignorant people bringing the tedious baggage of science denial into conversations with real scientists, but also patience with grouchy scientists who should take more time with the Headspace app before responding to confused faux skeptics. (Yeah, it’s me.)

I would never want to hang around a discussion group about genetics and the garden of Eden, nor would anyone else want that. That’s just not what this thing is about. It took me months to figure this out. If you’re reading this and you’re still wondering about that, I hope you’ll give it some time. IMO, if Joshua and the rest of the team can convince me, then they will probably convince you, no matter how much you share my disdain for the gods and their books.



Pretty impressive concluding paragraph!


This is exactly right.

So is this.

Patience is one of our core values, and we practice it here on the forum all the time. Personally, I see value in even our harshest critics. To the frustration of some, I’ve erred in tolerating what seems bad faith actors, but I still want to exercise patience with all I can. Whether we like or or not, we live in the same society, and we need to find ways to bear with our differences, to understand them. In that act of understanding, we might all be changed.

Honesty is another of our core values, and transparency is one way we practice it. One aspect of science that deeply influenced me is that we expect errors and have have clear standards for how to manage them with transparency. The honesty and transparency of the public record of science is sacrosanct and the sacred. We learn this early as scientists in training, as it is part of our culture to which all scientists are enculturated. It is also codified in rules and expectations like the COPE guidelines on publication ethics.

For me, transparency isn’t nebulous ideal easily moldable into something else that, in fact, lacks transparency. Rather, it is the foundational culture of science, part of the scientific way of thinking, and it serves the common good.

To illustrate what I mean by this, would it not be a better society if politicians followed the same standards of transparency as does science? I think it would.

Would it not be a better society if on questions of race we were patient with one another? I think it would, immeasurably so.

That better society, deeply connected to the culture of science, which we aim to practice here, is a better way, and it is what we aspire to bring forth here.