In recent years, there has been no shortage of books arguing against religion. But do any of these address the lived experience of atheism, and how human needs like the desire for meaningfulness can be met in a "godless" life? In his new book, Life After Faith, academic Philip Kitcher sets out the case for secular humanism, and explores potential replacements for the sense of identity and community that religion currently provides for many people.
Your book sets out to establish secular humanism as a “positive position”. Do you think that it has often been negative? In what ways?
I want to distinguish secular humanism from atheism. Atheism is plainly a negative position: it consists in denying the existence of God (or of gods). Many atheists, especially the “new Atheists” (of whom Richard Dawkins is the most prominent) concentrate on amassing arguments for the non-existence of supernatural beings. They believe (correctly) that it’s a bad thing for people to believe false doctrines – and consequently engage in a crusade to eliminate a particular style of false belief from the face of the earth.
I see secular humanism as a positive perspective on life, one that enables people to live full and richly rewarding lives without embracing any religion. So secular humanism has to go beyond atheism in two dimensions. First, it must question those religions that don’t commit themselves to deities, or that don’t conceive their central doctrines as literal truth. Second, it can’t stop when doctrinal beliefs have been swept away, but must offer something to replace the guidance, help, and comfort that many people find in religious life and religious practice.
Believing falsehoods is typically bad. Yet worse things can happen to people. Leaving them adrift and vulnerable may not improve their lot. So secular humanism must go beyond blunt – and often aggressive – atheistic denial.
(continues at New Humanist)