Philip Kitcher is interviewed about his new book, Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism. It sounds interesting, and I’ll probably pick it up…but two things annoyed me about the interview: the misrepresentation of the position of some New Atheists, and the religious apologetics. It’s nothing personal about Kitcher, but they’re just two things I bump into all the time, and it’s exasperating.
I think that the “New Atheist” critique has a very narrow view of religion. For people like Dawkins, religion is all about people having false beliefs—and they think that when people have false beliefs, it’s better to correct their beliefs. I think in general that’s right, though having a misguided belief isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. But you can’t just leave things with “Well, we’ve now shown you why your traditional beliefs are false, enjoy yourselves and get on with it!”
It always surprises me when people are chastised for telling others that they’re wrong about something — it’s an attitude that civility and getting along are more important than making the best possible effort to honestly address the truth. Of course there are worse things than having false beliefs — like being run over by a bus — but when we’re talking about differences in perspective on the world, the matter on the table is the truth value of our ideas, and it’s important to be forthright about your position at all times. There is no god. Let’s not dance around that point in order to be polite.
But further, this is a deeper difference than simply finding certain religious beliefs silly. It’s a question of epistemology. The New Atheists (and most atheists) differ from theists not just in details, but in how we answer the question of how we know what we know. We kick the props right out from under theism by rejecting the validity of faith, and presenting evidence for why faith fails. Kitcher mischaracterizes the fundamental message. It’s actually, “Your traditional beliefs are empirically unsupportable, but here’s a better, stronger, more intellectually robust way to think.” We do replace faith with something better, and it’s also something central to the humanist view. While some atheists do seem to push new dogmas, the best of them are giving people tools to think about how to live their lives.
Dawkins would also rightly say that the forms of religion he attacks are the ones that cause the most violence and suffering in the contemporary world. But there are many people who practice less problematic—even socially valuable—forms of religion. It isn’t the end of the story to wipe out religious doctrine and say that’s the end of it. One must come to terms not only with religion’s history of problems, pain, and suffering, but also with its achievements.
Different atheists have different views. I don’t target particular religions for bad conclusions — I detest them all for having bad methodologies. As far as the verifiable validity of their philosophies go, Episcopalians are as bad as Wahhabi Islamists. If all you do is criticize based on the immediate outcomes of their beliefs, sure, radical Islamists are far worse…but if you just look at their epistemological basis, they’re equally awful.
I’d also ask, “what achievements?” That question never seems to get answered, except with vague statements about how it makes some people feel better (atheism makes some people feel better, too, so what?) or that scientific and social advances were often made in a religious framework — to which I can only say, that those human accomplishments were made in spite of a stranglehold that superstition has had on society for centuries.
My perspective aims to widen the critique of religion, be more sympathetic to religion at its best, and strive towards finding a positive position that could replace religion. Some suggest that people never give up a perspective, however bad it may be, until they’ve got something to replace it. My fundamental difficulty with the “New Atheism” is that I don’t think it has supplied anything to replace religion. Secular humanism tries to fill that gap. I wrote Life After Faith because I wanted to put the focus back on the positive: on secular humanism as a positive perspective on life.
What parts of religion do we need to replace? Dogma? I’d like to see that gone. Ritual? Some people find that comforting, but even entirely secular people are capable of finding satisfaction in their own patterns, without some guy trying to tell them what they should be doing. Values? It seems to me that the churches have always been far behind the enlightened members of society, changing only in response to fairly intense pressure to accommodate — see anything to do with race or sex for examples of religion failing and humanist ideals having to first flatten the religious bullshit to get through to people.
I agree that secular humanism is a positive contribution. I don’t see it replacing religion, though, because it’s providing something religion never had in the first place.
PK: For some religious people, religion is really all about values and not about specific doctrines. By values I mean that they are genuinely concerned with human wellbeing and make great sacrifices to try to promote it. That’s a very important part of religion at its best. I grew up in Britain with a church that was much less interested in doctrine and dogma, and much more interested in social reform—in trying to help people live valuable lives. I respect that.
Again, I disagree. Religion is all about other people’s values — providing an institution from which one can snipe at other people’s values and reassure your co-religionists that you’re all perfectly correct. If religion were really about human wellbeing, than the churches would be at the forefront of the struggle for LGBTQ rights, for instance; they’d all be citing the scriptures that say that all human beings are equally deserving of happiness, and that you shouldn’t oppress or harm people for not behaving in private the way you want them to.
The problem is that there are no scriptures like that.