1. How did James characterize fervent unbelief?
2. What is the "core of secularist doubt"?
3. What's a sensu divinitatis?
4. Religious epistemologists neglect what?
5. What was Clifford's position on the ethics of belief?
6. What's "soft atheism"?
Kitcher on YouTube... Terry Lectures...
- Do you agree with James's characterization of fervent unbelief?
- Do you think transcendence can happen within the "mundane physical world"? 3
- If you're religious, how would you describe your own "doctrinal profile" (5)? If you're not, what's your attitude towards believers whose profile is literalist, or indefinite?
- Do you agree that nobody thinks all religious claims can be accommodated? 7
- Why do you think so many religious people are credulous with regard to "privileged witnesses in a remote past"? 8
- What doesn't it give everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, more pause to realize that if they'd been brought up in a different culture they'd "now affirm a radically different set of doctrines"? 8
- Is "sophisticated" theology and "advanced" religion more likely to be rationally justified or true? 9
- Do you agree that religious experiences always invoke familiar categories? 12
- Are religious experiences more likely to happen to people who are psychologically disturbed or under the influence of substances that impair perception? 14
- Do you think James's mountaineer and suitor (17) support a religious "leap of faith"?
- Should secularists admit the possibility that we'll someday discover something "deep about the universe" that vindicates religion? 20
- COMMENT: "The proper secularist attitude is agnosticism." 22
The Case for ‘Soft Atheism’
By GARY GUTTING
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
This is the sixth in a series of interviews about religion that I am conducting for The Stone. The interviewee for this installment is Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University and the author of the forthcoming book “Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism.”
Gary Gutting: You have said that you “take religious doctrines to have become incredible.” Why do you think that?
It is possible to reject all religious doctrines as false without dismissing religion itself as noxious rubbish.
Philip Kitcher: An opening clarification: I don’t think focusing on religious doctrine, as opposed to religious experience or practice, is always the best way of considering a religious perspective. Nonetheless, most religions do offer doctrines about aspects of the world that go beyond the things of everyday experience. They tell us about gods or spirits or ancestors who return or special forces or sacred qualities of particular places.
The most basic reason for doubt about any of these ideas is that (when you understand words in their normal, everyday senses) nobody is prepared to accept all of them. Even if you suppose that Judaism, Christianity and Islam share some common conception of a divine being, the Hindu deities are surely different, the spirits and ancestors of African and Native American religions different again, and that’s before we get to Melanesian mana or the aboriginal Australian Dreamtime. It’s very hard to think that every one of these radically different conceptions picks out some aspect of our cosmos.
So asserting the doctrines of a particular religion, or family of religions, requires denying other contrary doctrines. However, when you consider the historical processes underlying the doctrines contemporary believers accept, those processes turn out to be very similar: Long ago there was some special event, a revelation to remote ancestors. Religious doctrine has been transmitted across the generations, and it’s learned by novice believers today. If the devout Christian had been brought up in a completely different environment — among aboriginal Australians or in a Hindu community, say — that person would believe radically different doctrines, and, moreover, come to believe them in a completely parallel fashion. On what basis, then, can you distinguish the profound truth of your doctrines from the misguided ideas of alternative traditions?
G.G.: But as you yourself suggest, doctrines aren’t necessarily the most important thing about religions. Many believers see doctrinal pronouncements as just halting ways of expressing experiences of a divine reality — experiences that are largely similar across the varieties of religious doctrines.
P.K.: The trouble with this proposal is that such happenings aren’t independent of the religious ideas available in the surrounding culture. Yes, people who grow up in quite different traditions have similar experiences — experiences they take to be religious — but they characterize them using the categories of the religions with which they’re familiar. Moreover, as people who have studied religious experience, from William James on, have understood very clearly, an experience someone takes to be an encounter with the divine might have all sorts of psychological causes — and, of course, such experiences are often claimed by people who are psychotic, or who are under the influence of drugs, or who are experiencing severe stress. The point has long been appreciated by the major religions of the world, which have taken pains to distinguish “genuine” experiences from those that might promulgate heresy.
Further, scholars studying the evolution of religious doctrines have learned that important ideas of major religions have been introduced in response to the political requirements of some historical situation — even though Jesus received a Roman punishment (crucifixion), it would not have been a bright idea, in a Rome-dominated world, to pinpoint the Romans as responsible, and the problem was resolved by finding a way to cast blame on the Jews (preparing the way for centuries of prejudice and hostility).
Further still, religions today adapt their doctrines so as to recruit particular types of people as converts — proselytizers often target people who have just moved to unfamiliar surroundings and who lack close friends (to cite just one example). The historical route to contemporary religious doctrines is full of transitions that have very little to do with the identification of truth. If you’re concerned to believe what is true, you should find all of these doctrines incredible.
G.G.: So you reject all religious doctrines, but you also say that you “resist the claim that religion is noxious rubbish to be buried as deeply, as thoroughly and as quickly as possible.” Why is that?
P.K.: The past decade has seen some trenchant attacks on religion, and I agree with many points made by people like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. (Dennett seems to me clearly the most sophisticated of the “new atheists”; much as I admire Dawkins’s work in evolutionary biology and in enhancing the public understanding of science, he is more often off-target in his diatribes against religion.) But these atheists have been rightly criticized for treating all religions as if they were collections of doctrines, to be understood in quite literal ways, and for not attending to episodes in which the world’s religions have sometimes sustained the unfortunate and campaigned for the downtrodden. The “soft atheism” I defend considers religion more extensively, sympathizes with the idea that secularists can learn from religious practices and recommends sometimes making common cause with religious movements for social justice.
G.G.: So on your view, Dawkins and company don’t refute all forms of religion, just unsophisticated literal assertions of religious claims.
P.K.: Yes, I think there’s a version of religion, “refined religion,” that is untouched by the new atheists’ criticisms, and that even survives my argument that religious doctrines are incredible. Refined religion sees the fundamental religious attitude not as belief in a doctrine but as a commitment to promoting the most enduring values. That commitment is typically embedded in social movements — the faithful come together to engage in rites, to explore ideas and ideals with one another and to work cooperatively for ameliorating the conditions of human life. The doctrines they affirm and the rituals they practice are justified insofar as they support and deepen and extend the values to which they are committed. But the doctrines are interpreted nonliterally, seen as apt metaphors or parables for informing our understanding of ourselves and our world and for seeing how we might improve both. To say that God made a covenant with Abraham doesn’t mean that, long ago, some very impressive figure with a white beard negotiated a bargain with a Mesopotamian pastoralist. It is rather to commit yourself to advancing what is most deeply and ultimately valuable, as the story says Abraham did.
G.G.: And so, since they don’t regard them as factual, refined believers don’t have to deny the stories and metaphors of other religions.
P.K.: Right, they don’t have to pick and choose among the religions of the world. They see all religions as asserting that there is more to the cosmos than is dreamed of either in our mundane thoughts or in our most advanced scientific descriptions. Different cultures gesture toward the “transcendent” facets of reality in their many alternative myths and stories. None of the myths is factually true, although they’re all true in the sense that their “fruits for life” are good. Prominent examples of refined believers include William James, Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, and, in our own day, Karen Armstrong, Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor. When refined religion is thoroughly embedded, religious tolerance thrives, and often much good work is done.
G.G.: Are you, then, willing to tolerate refined religion as a morally and intellectually respectable position?
Perhaps I’m a more insidious foe of religion than Dennett and Dawkins. For instead of ignoring important species of religion, I want to prepare the way for their gradual disappearance.
P.K.: I see refined religion as a halfway house. In the end, a thoroughly secular perspective, one that doesn’t suppose there to be some “higher” aspect of reality to serve as the ground of values (or as the ground of assurance that the important values can be realized), can do everything refined religion can do, without becoming entangled in mysteries and difficult problems. Most important, this positive secular humanism focuses directly on the needs of others, treating people as valuable without supposing that the value derives from some allegedly higher source. The supposed “transcendent” toward which the world’s religions gesture is both a distraction and a detour.
To sum up: There is more to religion than accepting as literally true doctrines that are literally false. Humanists think the important achievements of religions at their best — fostering community, articulating and supporting values — should be preserved in fashioning a fully secular world. That secular world ought to emerge from a dialogue between humanism and refined religion, one in which religion isn’t thrown on the rubbish heap but quietly metamorphoses into something else.
I’m a humanist first and an atheist second. Because I’m more sympathetic to religion than the prominent new atheists, I label my position “soft atheism.” But perhaps I’m a more insidious foe than Dennett and Dawkins. For instead of ignoring important species of religion, I want to prepare the way for their gradual disappearance.
G.G.: I wonder, though, why you say you’re an atheist at all. You find incredible the specific accounts of deity that doctrinal religions assert. But does that mean anything more than that you don’t believe any of these accounts? Why take the next, atheistic, step of saying that the accounts are all false? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to describe yourself as an agnostic, at least about some doctrinal claims?
P.K.: The clear message of all the conflicting doctrines of the world’s religions, when treated nonmetaphorically, is that, even if a “transcendent” should exist, all our categories for describing it are woefully inadequate. To borrow a phrase from the late, great philosopher Bernard Williams, any modestly literal thought about it is “one thought too many.” We should therefore reject substantive religious doctrines, one and all, even the minimal ones (“an intelligent source of the world’s order,” “a creator”).
So here’s a very simple reason I call myself an “a-theist”: theism embodies a very specific way of thinking about the “transcendent,” accepted by some but by no means all religious traditions — namely that there’s at least one deity — and if you suppose, as I do, that all substantive doctrines about any “transcendent” are wrong, you have to think theism is false.
G.G.: I don’t see the logic here. Your premise is “all our categories for describing the transcendent are woefully inadequate,” from which you conclude that “all substantive doctrines about any transcendent are wrong.” There are all sorts of things that our categories are inadequate for describing, from how bananas taste to what it means to love someone. We don’t conclude that bananas have no taste or that there’s no such thing as love. In any case, I don’t see why you say we should deny that the transcendent exists rather than taking no stance on its existence.
P.K.: I don’t see the parallel. It seems to me that we can say quite a lot about love and at least a bit about bananas. Partly that’s because we have plenty of uncontroversial experience of both.
But let me try to be more explicit. Why reject the “transcendent” rather than simply taking no stance on the issue of its reality? I start from the idea that all sorts of human inquiries, including but not limited to the natural sciences, have given us a picture of the world, and that these inquiries don’t provide evidence for any transcendent aspect of the universe. Epistemic humility should incline us to believe that our picture is incomplete, but if someone proposes that proteins fold into their three-dimensional configurations with the help of an army of ghostly beings, I don’t think I’m dogmatic in rejecting their suggestion. So why should I take a different attitude toward the proposal that there’s a “transcendent”?
G.G.: One reason is that many people have what they take to be direct experiences of something that transcends the domain of ordinary and scientific experience.
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P.K.: To my mind, the experiences labeled “religious” come in two main types. There are some best understood in psychiatric terms. There are others, perhaps the overwhelming majority, that happen to people when they feel a great sense of uplift, often at the rightness of things. After all, experiences of this sort are felt by completely secular people who classify them without appeal to religious language. As Dewey pointed out, referring such experiences to some special aspect of reality is gratuitous speculation.
G.G.: I have in mind rather experiences people describe as of a transcendent reality — what William James calls experiences of a divine presence. But in addition to religious experience, there are respectable, even if not compelling, philosophical cases for the existence of a transcendent being — e.g., a first case of the universe, an ultimate source of value, a perfection that must exist.
P.K.: Even if people want to say that they feel a “divine presence” on these occasions, that seems to testify to the pervasive religious ideas that surround them, rather than to any reality beyond the mundane world. As to theistic arguments, some of the world’s religions have offered such arguments in support of their doctrines, although often different groups within a religious tradition will differ radically in judgments about the value of these exercises. Rational theology proceeds partly on the basis of principles also used in areas of rigorous inquiry (logical principles, for example) and partly on the basis of metaphysical additions, frequently varying across traditions. To my mind all these metaphysical add-ons are dubious. Indeed, many of them seem purpose-built to generate the desired conclusions. Concepts like that of a “necessary being” are problematic outgrowths of particular parochial traditions. We should think of the arguments of rational theology as supplements to a faith whose sources lie elsewhere (as, I believe, many theologians have always taken them to be).
G.G.: I agree that no theistic arguments are compelling, but I don’t agree that they all are logically invalid or have obviously false premises. I think the best arguments (especially, sophisticated versions of the cosmological argument) are dubious only in the sense that they use premises (e.g., any contingent thing requires a cause) that are not obviously true but that a rational person might properly believe. But settling our disagreement on this would require a thorough discussion of particular arguments.
P.K.: I agree that working that through would take a lot of words. But quite apart from that, I think religion at its best — the religion that prompts my admiration and sympathy — detaches itself from dubious metaphysics and from speculations about a “transcendent” to which our concepts are surely inadequate. It focuses on human problems, attempting to relieve want and misery, to provide opportunities for worthwhile life, and to deepen and extend important values.
Pragmatist that I am, I have little sympathy for strained discussions about whether God had to allow evil in order to create beings with free will, and even less for cheap gibes to the effect that religious faith is analogous to a child’s belief in the Easter bunny. Let’s be inspired by the world’s collection of religious metaphors insofar as they help us improve the human situation. Humanism first, atheism second. The atheism I favor is one in which literal talk about “God” or other supposed manifestations of the “transcendent” comes to be seen as a distraction from the important human problems — a form of language that quietly disappears.
This interview was conducted by email and edited. Previous interviews in this series were with Alvin Plantinga, Louise Antony,John D. Caputo, Howard Wettstein and Jay L. Garfield.
See also Michael Lynch's recent Stone essay "Googling is Believing: Trumping the Informed Citizen"...