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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Currently reading: Philip Kitcher's "Militant Modern Atheism" (Part 4)

Okay, yesterday we were considering Philip Kitcher's classification of people into the religious believers, the doctrinally entangled, doctrinally indefinite, mythically self-conscious, and secular. I suggested that these categories make sense as one way of cutting the cake, though there may be other ways. It seems to me to be possible to think of people who fall into these different categories.

You can probably see where this is leading: Kitcher, as we've seen, argues against all beliefs in transcendent beings and entities. He thinks that the correct view of the world will not contain these things, and he thinks we should say so. He doesn't think we should shut up about it or that what we know through reason and science is consistent with belief in any of the transcendent beings and entities that have ever been described by any religion. In that respect, he agrees with the "New Atheists", and his book Living With Darwin, in which he puts his own case against familiar kinds of religion, could even be thought of as a New Atheist book, part of the same publishing phenomenon. He's probably no more different from the core New Atheist writers than they are from each other - after all, Daniel Dennett does not read much like Christopher Hitchens and his concerns are rather different. However, he thinks the prominent Gnus go wrong in their approach, or some of it, because they more or less divide the world into secular people and religious people, perhaps with a further distinction between fundamentalists and moderates, and that this is an inadequate typology to work with. It can mislead us about how to communicate and prioritise.

I'll come back to that (in a later post) - I'm just foreshadowing it for the moment. At this stage, I want to say, first, that I think the typology offered by Kitcher is suggestive and we can use it to expand our vocabulary of terms and concepts. Even if it doesn't take us to precisely the same place as it takes Kitcher, it can give us some tools for thinking and talking about the issues.

Second, though, a word of warning. The model does seem to have weaknesses. One, of course, is that it tells us nothing about the proportions of people in these various categories. If most religious people were mythically self-conscious or at least doctrinally indefinite, the New Atheism phenomenon would never have happened. Surely the sheer number of people who fall into the various categories makes a difference. In particular, the US is well stocked with people who not only have a robust belief in supernatural doctrine but actually put their commitment to these beliefs ahead of their acceptance of what comes out of science - surveys show many people who say that, if a scientific finding contradicts some religious doctrine they hold, they'll reject the scientific finding. When it comes to the number of people in these groups, size does matter.

Another problem is that the model tells us nothing about what people believe. Note that even people who count as secular within Kitcher's typology may vary enormously. This category could include not just politically liberal humanist types but also revolutionary communists, followers of Ayn Rand, and all sorts of others with varied beliefs. Some of these people may have belief systems that are, for many practical purposes, as apocalyptic as those of any religious believer. Depending on the historical situation we find ourselves in, there might be an urgent need to produce critiques of some belief systems that Kitcher would label "secular".

There's also the issue of how pure any of these types are - e.g., couldn't there be a spectrum from secular to mythically self-conscious? After all, many people who are otherwise secular may be happy to participate in religious rituals on special occasions - perhaps going to a church service at Christmas or taking part in Carols by Candlelight. If you are secular but not actually hostile to religion, you may shade into the situation of the less active mythically self-conscious churchgoers. Conversely, as noted in the comments to my previous post, one might question whether the doctrinally-indefinite category is really needed. Might there not simply be a continuum from the more doctrinally entangled to the more mythically self-conscious? Again, is there a clear divide between the true religious believer and the doctrinally entangled - mightn't there be a spectrum of people who put greater or lesser priorities on (on the one hand) belief in transcendent beings and entities and associated doctrines and (on the other hand) certain beliefs and values. Given the way people are actually socialised into religion, as well as into morality and values, mightn't it be difficult to tell in any case which is primary?

These issues don't take away from the fact, if it is a fact, that Kitcher has offered us valuable concepts and some useful vocabulary. Some of the conclusions that he reaches may hold up, and they may follow from these concepts and this vocabulary being available. But the reality is that things are even more complicated than Kitcher suggests. When we consider his conclusions, we'll need to keep that in mind.

5 comments:

Russell Blackford said...

Actually, it was the usefulness of the doctrinally-entangled classification as a separate class that DEEN was querying. My mistake. I'll leave the post as it is with this little mea culpa.

And, yes, the query is consistent with part of what I'm saying in the post - can we distinguish clearly between the doctrinally entangled and the believer. I actually do think it might be useful to keep this separate class while recognising that the doctrinally entangled can shade into both the doctrinally indefinite (as the latter are prepared to be more specific about what they really believe) and the religious believers (as the latter are more oriented to values and goals and use belief in transcendent entities more as a rationalisation of these rather than their real reasons for them).

Anonymous said...

zackoz says (still can't register normally!):

Russell, your comment above does not seem to fit here - should it be in the earlier thread? And it looks to me as if your parenthetical references to the "di's" and the "rb's" should be reversed.

One point you might want to consider (and not having read Kitcher I don't know if he considers this) is whether this whole schema is designed to apply to Western societies - or at least to the Abrahamic religions - and may be less applicable to others.

Does it fit easily with Hinduism and hereditary castes? A man of the brahmin caste is automatically endowed with priestly status; is he doctrinally entangled or something else? Buddhism - or some forms of it - has no real transcendent beings. Many texts exist but no single Holy Book.

China, which has the Confucian tradition, might be seen as a predominantly secular society in some ways. There is much debate whether Confucianism is a religion at all, as it has little reference to an afterlife or heaven. Is there a sense in which a good Confucian is a "believer" or "entangled" in Kitcher's categorisation?

If you're trying to reach or persuade the religious in Thailand, Japan or Vietnam, do Kitcher's categories help you? Well, maybe his focus is simply elsewhere.

Russell Blackford said...

DEEN referred to it on the earlier post but I made fleeting reference in this post to that comment. Aargh, I hope that's not too confusing. If you just read the post without worrying too much about it, it should make sense. It's just that I realised earlier that I'd misunderstood DEEN and thought I should mention it. Nothing of substance turns on it.

Oh, I see what you mean about the references. Thanks for pointing this out. I meant to write what I wrote, but it's so badly expressed that it sounds like the opposite of what I was actually trying to convey. Gack! I meant that the more the di's firm up on their doctrines the more they become like the de's. Likewise the more the rb's are oriented to goals and values the more they are like the de's. The first bit in brackets should probably have been something like: "as the latter become more prepared to be specific about they really believe." And a similar change to clarify the second bit in brackets. Make sense now?

Kitcher certainly seems to think he's talking about religion generally, not just Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But I'll need to check what he says about Buddism and Hinduism before I write another instalment of this. While his typology is probably meant to apply to all or a wide range of religions, his focus is undoubtedly on Western societies because, after all, it's very much a critique of the "New Atheists".

Buddhism in its original form doesn't gods or a spiritual self, but it does have a concept of transcendence, however, exactly, it is to be interpreted. It also has rebirth, though it's supposed to be rebirth without transmigration, which is one of the famous paradoxical things about it. And popular forms of Buddhism do have gods, etc.

Confucianism is another matter. It's very difficult to fit into Western concepts of religion, though it does seem to play something of the same role. And that causes problems for people who'd like to come up with neat theories (including me).

Felix said...

You say:

"These issues don't take away from the fact, if it is a fact, that Kitcher has offered us valuable concepts and some useful vocabulary."

Surely, if it is not a fact then this sentence is redundant?
I think you should make up your mind!
:-)

DEEN said...

My quibble about the usefulness of the "doctrinally entangled" category has more to do with the fact that there is a whole spectrum between following a set doctrine, to having a completely undefined doctrine. In-between are the people who believe in some doctrines, and have no problem leaving others undefined. But where in that spectrum do you place the doctrinally entangled? Or are they the spectrum?

None of the other categories seem to have this problem - they seem to be more defined as endpoints of spectra, not as a position mostly defined by the two other endpoints it is in between.

A simple acknowledgement that people will often show traits from two or more categories would make the "doctrinally entangled" category pretty much redundant.