My interest in Kitcher’s critique of the New Atheism began with this post over at Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. In response to that post — and it was much longer ago than I had imagined — I wrote the following (the first part is a quote from Jerry’s post):
- “Kitcher is guilty of assuming that most people are not sophisticated or educated enough to handle the burden of life without the crutch of religion.”
I think that is a mistake. I don’t think that’s what Kitcher is saying at all. I think what he’s saying is that, even those who don’t need the crutch of religion, those who have turned religious beliefs into mythical tales, still find sustenance in religious community.
It’s probably true that some people don’t have the intelligence or the ability to live without religion’s crutch, but this isn’t Kitcher’s point (although I seem unable to access a free version of Kitcher’s paper, so I can’t say for sure). Kitcher is in fact saying that the public use of secular reason is a requirement, and he doesn’t seem to see any problem with that requirement being conventionally enforced. In other words, religious believers are quite capable of dealing in purely secular terms with matters of public importance. However, he also seems to be saying that religion provides the kinds of social support necessary in order to live reasonably meaningful lives, lives that give individuals some sense of participating in historic events.
I tend to agree with that. If one were to ask me, “What do you miss most about life in the church?”, I would have to say the sense of community, the sense of belonging to a group of people whose purpose is greater than that of any individual member of it. Indeed, belonging to a church community, with a regular round of meetings and opportunities to socialise, provide a kind of structured time within which to live an individual life.
However, where Kitcher, it seems to me, goes wrong, lies in supposing that people who, in some sense, sit fairly loosely to the specific religious beliefs of their faith communities, will find no other points of conflict between their lives as members of faith communities, and their lives as members of secular society. The error here is in supposing that even liberal or non-realist faith positions have no implications for how things go in the secular world. This is manifestly untrue. All churches, even very liberal churches, take certain moral stands which are in basic conflict with secular morality, mainly because of a lack of consensus with the churches themselves. The acceptance of gay and lesbian people, for example, the role of women, and women’s reproductive freedom, the rights of those who are suffering unduly to decide regarding the time and manner of their own deaths: all of these are areas of conflict within even the most liberal of faith communities. To remain within the faith community is to (at least tacitly) endorse these moral stands, even though, within the faith community, an individual may be on the secular side of the controversy.
I think, if non-believers are serious about non-belief, and want to see non-belief extended to larger numbers of people, then they must somehow provide for the hunger for belonging and commitment that churches now satisfy. There are always going to be people who can function very well on their own, as strong individualists, but there are many people whose lives will be, without some sense of social belonging, ‘solitary, poor, nasty and brutish’ (to quote Hobbes), especially if they are long. What many religious feel about atheists is that they are striking at the very roots of social belonging, not of belief, and until atheists have learned the lesson that many people not only crave a sense of belonging, but need some way of publicly celebrating the stages of life, their successes will be limited by the number of those who can in fact live happily without any living connexion with a continuing community.
I suspect that what many people find threatening about the “New Atheism” is that it seems to them primarily negative, seeking to pull down, rather than to build up. If the numbers of people who are in moral conflict with their faith traditions could find a role to play in a community of non-believers, with a sense of moral purpose in the world, and some understanding of how life can be meaningful and flourishing in the absence of belief in supernatural friends, the course of unbelief would, I think, run more smoothly.
Of course, many atheists will think that this kind of community undertaking is religious and ideological, but it need not be, as some liberal Christians have made clear.’Theologians’ like John Spong or Don Cupitt are as unbelieving as the most earnest Gnu Atheist, though they dress their unbelief in the handmedowns of religious language. And, surely, explicit atheists can be no less imaginative and creative than they. Perhaps humanist associations provide the answer, or someone may come up with something even better and more convincing. But it does seem to me that Kitcher may have put his finger on the pulse of those people for whom unbelief might be an attractive option, if its social expression were more attractive. (However, I write this without having read Kitcher’s paper, and I may be wrong. This nevertheless expresses some of my own reflections on unbelief an the possibility of community.)
As a consequence of this comment, which Jerry Coyne sent to Philip Kitcher – a philosopher he admires — I was briefly in contact with Professor Kitcher, who sent me his three papers, “Beyond Disbelief” (published in 50 Voices of Non-Belief), “Militant Modern Atheism,” and “Challenges for Secularism.” He also sent me a copy of his book Living with Darwin, whose last chapter deals with the same issues of the relationship between the New Atheism, secularism generally, and religious belief. This is an incredibly rich source of reflection on contemporary atheism, and especially the variety that Kitcher labels as militant and modern, or, otherwise, as Darwinian atheism. It is worth pointing out that Russell Blackford, in a seven part series of posts, has discussed Kitcher’s critique over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. This link will take you to the seventh, and that should get you to the rest as well.
Obviously, this is going to be only the opening round in a discussion which I hope will take us much farther afield. (I am already well past the mid-way point for an average length post.) I have chosen to begin with the idea of Darwinian atheism. Rather surprisingly, perhaps, not having read the paper, the above is a pretty good summary of what Kitcher has to say in the central part of the “Militant Modern Atheism” paper. It is a solid piece of thought, clearly argued. The most important point that he is making is that religion serves a purpose in society as we know it, and there does not seem, at the moment, anything to replace it. It is true that there are societies where religion does not play a large part in people’s lives, and where the church structures that exist are certainly underused. This seems to be the cased in Scandinavia. However, there also seems to be a sense, even there, that the church community plays an important cultural role, and this probably should not be ignored. Even if people stay away from the church, there is a church from which they are staying away. As Oriana Fallaci said so passionately in her equally passionate book, The Force of Reason (La Forza della Ragione), “I am a Christian,” even though she does not believe. She is an unbelieving Christian. She believes, as she says that
… men have invented Him out of solitude, powerlessness, despair. Meaning, to give an answer to the mystery of existence. To attenuate the insoluble questions that life throws on our faces. 
And then a moment later, she says,
In other words, I think we invented Him out of weakness, namely out of fear of living and dying. Living is very difficult, dying is always a sorrow, and the concept of a God who helps us to face these two challenges can bring infinite relief: I understand it well. In fact I envy those who believe. 
So, even though churches remain empty, they very often have the ghostly presence of those who are staying away from them, and would miss them if they were gone, because the church still represents for many that something greater than they in terms of which, even though they are not now an intimate part of it, they measure themselves, there, in the silences, where they meet with their fears.
Kitcher’s claim is that the Darwinian atheists — and he calls them that, not because of Darwin’s stance towards religion, but because many of them acknowledge a debt to Darwin — not only do not use the best arguments that are available against religious belief, but, more importantly, that “they pay too little attention to questions that might arise for erstwhile believers after the demolition is done.” (“Challenges for Secularism” CFS hereafter in this and later posts — on a Kindle Loc. 27/3%) This seems to me to be an issue not sufficiently addressed, and some of the concerns are expressed in my comment in response to Jerry Coyne’s post, “Kitcher versus Dennett: Is New Atheism Counterproductive” from Why Evolution is True (above and here). On Tuesday – I’m getting this out a bit earlier than intended, since I have to be away part of tomorrow) I shall take a closer look at Kitcher’s arguments against religion, arguments which he believes are better than the ones considered by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris (although I will say now that I think Hitchens does in fact use the argument from Symmetry to good effect). I’ll end by quoting what Kitcher thinks is the manifesto of the Militant Modern Atheist (with much of which he agrees, by the way):
In times when violence carried out in the name of religion abounds, when many groups of people seek to interfere with the private lives of others because those targeted are allegedly violating divine commands, and when important discoveries about the world in which we live are questioned, or even denied, because they are supposed to be incompatible with authentic messages from the deity, it is easy to think that things have gone too far. Polite respect for odd superstitions about mysterious beings and their incomprehensible workings might be appropriate so long as the misguided folk who subscribe to them do not seek to convert, coerce or eliminate outsiders, but, when the benighted believers invade the public sphere, it is important that they not be earnest. Further, respect should not extend to the deformations the faithful exert upon the minds of the young: just as children deserve to be protected against parents who refuse to allow them to receive medical attention, so too they are entitled to defence against forms of religious education that will infect and corrupt their abilities to think clearly and coherently. We no longer inhabit the arcadias of Waugh and Wodehouse, in which fanatic believers and their aggressive challengers who ask where Cain found a wife are equally figures of fun. Because of religious belief, our world is an oppressive and dangerous place, and it is time for those who value reason, justice, tolerance, and compassion to do something about it.
Next, we will consider what Kitcher thinks is wrong with this — although that is already sketched in in the response to Jerry’s post above.