Betteridge’s law of headlines, part 1



Betteridge’s law of headlines, according to Wikipedia,

…is an adage that states: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” It is named after Ian Betteridge, a British technology journalist who wrote about it in 2009, although the principle is much older. As with similar “laws” (e.g., Murphy’s law), it is intended to be humorous rather than the literal truth.

A recent article by John Staddon at Quillette gives a lovely example. It also exemplifies an amazing lack of self-awareness, as Dr. Staddon contradicts his own argument by setting criteria for what qualifies as a religion, showing that secular humanism does not meet these criteria, and concluding that it’s a religion anyway. Dr. Staddon makes his thesis clear at the beginning:

It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion.

and reiterates it later:

…It [secular humanism] is therefore as much a religion as any other.

He sets out to support this contention exactly the way I would: by defining the criteria of religion and evaluating whether secular humanism meets those criteria:

What is religion? All religions have three elements, although the relative emphasis differs from one religion to another…

The first is the belief in invisible or hidden beings, worlds and processes—like God, heaven, miracles, reincarnation, and the soul…

The second element are claims about the real world: every religion, especially in its primordial version, makes claims that are essentially scientific—assertions of fact that are potentially verifiable…

The third property of a religion are its rules for action—prohibitions and requirements—its morality.

Reasonable people might disagree about whether or not those are the right criteria, but this is the way a rational argument is built: now that Dr. Staddon has defined what he means by religion, he can begin to evaluate whether secular humanism fits the description. Here’s his evaluation of the first criterion:

Secular humanism lacks any reference to the supernatural and defers matters of fact to science.

So, no. Secular humanism fails to meet the first criteria of religions. This is the point at which an intellectually honest writer who was not committed to his thesis would reconsider his position. Dr. Staddon chooses another route: ignore the contradiction and stay the course.

I’ll have more to say about this article in part 2. It’s a hot mess of unsupported assertions, innuendos, and self-contradictions. I’m stopping here for now because I don’t want to dilute this first point: Dr. Staddon completely ignores that he has contradicted his central thesis. Imagine sitting down to write an essay and realizing partway through that you’ve demonstrated the opposite of what you set out to show. You could change your thesis, as I did here. Alternatively, you could plow ahead, ignoring the contradiction and hoping no one notices, which is apparently what Dr. Staddon chose to do.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    I liked this, from the comment section:
    “The way the author “proves” Secular Humanism is a religion relies on this logic:

    Bears are (1) large, powerful animals (2) that can be dangerous to humans and (3) are good swimmers. Obviously ducks are good swimmers, therefore they are bears.”

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