I've just finished reading Philip Kitcher's new book, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith. I unreservedly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the issues mentioned in its sub-title. Kitcher is an outstanding philosopher of science, whose gifts include a knack for explaining why scientific inferences about unobservable things such as events in space, or in the remote past, can be favoured - overwhelmingly - by the evidence. His explanation of why the Darwinian picture was accepted in the 19th century, and should still be accepted, are as good as anything of the kind that I have read. It compares with Richard Dawkins' careful explanation of how complexity can evolve over evolutionary timescales, to be found in Climbing Mount Improbable, or with Kitcher's own account, in The Advancement of Science, of how Galileo was able to convince his contemporaries of such phenomena as the moons of Jupiter, even without a theory of the telescope or an instrument so user-friendly as any modern designs.
Kitcher's analysis of genesis-based accounts of life's variety and the fossil record is a joy to read. In vivid prose, he examines the details of the creationists' arguments, showing just where these must go wrong, and how they became untenable back in the 19th century, even before such advances as radioactive dating techniques.
He also depicts the intellectual difficulties for providential forms of religion, and for all varieties of supernaturalism (though his case against providentialism is the more impressive aspect).
Over the years, Kitcher's views have hardened, and he now takes the stance that providential religion is almost impossible to reconcile with a Darwinian picture of life's history on Earth. He is so firm about this, and so persuasive, that we could just about include him among the so-called "New Atheists", but he makes an effort to distance himself from them, specifically mentioning Dawkins ... whom he obviously admires, but not for his passionately-expressed attacks on religious faith. In one interview that I've listened to on the net, Kitcher was at even greater pains to distance himself from Dawkins, who responded sharply on his website.
Kitcher is conciliatory towards what he calls "spiritual religion" and sympathethic to the emotional needs of religious believers in general; he clearly believes that Dawkins is insufficiently sensitive to the latter, particularly to people for whom belief in a providential deity is a source of comfort as they lead lives that are pretty tough, circumscribed, and insecure. I'm not convinced that Dawkins does fail to appreciate this, but as far as it goes the point is well worth emphasising.
I've made a similar point in the past when writing about the vision offered by Camus in his great essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus": as I stated then, the vision of an authentic, zestful life that Camus offers may well be attractive to a successful intellectual like Camus himself, involved in uniquely creative work that gives his life a sense of meaning. It may not be enough for people whose lives offer far less genuine freedom and unique creativity. This does not entail that Camus was wrong (or that Dawkins is, or Kitcher for that matter), but it should mute any scorn that any of us might feel for people who appear to be living inauthentic lives by the rigorous standards of French existentialism ... if, indeed, Camus is to be counted as an existentialist. Many goodhearted people might discern the bleakness of Camus' worldview, when it is explained to them, without finding anything liberating, or otherwise beneficial, in it. The same applies to the rigorous philosophical naturalism that Kitcher and Dawkins share.
Kitcher is very sensitive to this issue, and he explores how society, particularly US society, would need to evolve before such a naturalistic view - and reinterpretations of mainstream religion along lines that are compatible with it - could become psychologically acceptable to more people.
He expresses disagreement with less conciliatory Enlightenment apologists (though the only one he mentions by name is Dawkins) about two specific things: (1) we cannot categorically deny that we will ever find something that matches the claims of the transcendent, and, more importantly, (2) there is a possibility of "spiritual religion" (which sounds a bit like the "Einsteinian" kind that Dawkins discusses sympathetically in The God Delusion and elsewhere) that treats the Christian (say) teachings symbolically and rejects supernatural elements. I'm not sure that these really are disagreements with Dawkins, since the latter seems to acknowledge them both (as do I, if it comes to that). There is certainly a difference of emphasis, but Kitcher seems to think it is something more. Perhaps the real difference is that, despite the area of agreement between Dawkins and Kitcher, one of them (the British scientist) would actually like to see religion disappear entirely, while the other (the American philosopher) would be content to see it transformed.
Overall, Living with Darwin gets high marks from me, and I recommend it to the same people who would buy The God Delusion or Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. Even those readers who are more sympathetic to the providential and supernatural elements of religion that Kitcher opposes will be interested by his observations about religion's possible future. At the same time, his careful analysis of the creation-evolution debate will be invaluable to anyone who wants to be able to explain just why the case for biological evolution is so overwhelming, and how the Intelligent Design movement fails to provide any sort of viable alternative.