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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Currently reading: Philip Kitcher's "Militant Modern Atheism" (Part 6)

In previous posts, I've explored Philip Kitcher's idea, which is, I think, largely true, that religious folks come in a range from the true, full-on religious believers, whose goals and values are genuinely shaped by their supernatural beliefs, through to the mythically self-conscious, who are much more like cultural Christians or Jews, or Muslims, or whatever. Perhaps calling them "cultural X's" is too strong, as they are not entirely secular - they use religious writings, take part in ceremonies, and so on. But they have no supernatural beliefs. They find this-worldly benefit in participating in "their" respective sets of traditions and practices. They have no problem with the idea that people much like themselves benefit from participating in other traditions and practices, if that's their heritage.

For secular people, and especially for atheists who see their atheism as part of their identity, participation in a religious tradition may appear alien, though some of us may actually be happy to do it in a slight way, such as attending Carols by Candlelight. We may be able to take aesthetic pleasure in some of the religious legacy of our culture. But in any event, we shouldn't see the mythically self-conscious people as suffering from anything like a delusion or as wishing to impose ideas that make no sense without supernatural support.

Kitcher goes further, though. Although he argues against supernatural doctrines, he wants us to take a fairly soft approach to people whom he'd class as doctrinally indefinite or doctrinally entangled. Other things being equal, he says, it would be better if they moved to being mythically self-conscious, but, he adds, "things are not always equal." He elaborates:

Under some circumstances, the only psychologically and socially available ways of supporting a life that has any sense of worthy goals at which it aims, or any capacity for working with others to attain those goals, involve participating in traditions that cloud the messages Dawkins and Dennett want to deliver. Secular thinkers can regret that fact, but they should see it as a stimulus, not to break spells and abolish delusions, come what may, but to work towards an intellectually articulated and socially realized version of secular humanism that will permit satisfying orientations for the many people whose opportunities are currently limited.

So, he asks for a degree of tolerance even of the doctrinally entangled, and certainly, a fortiori, for the doctrinally indefinite. As to the former:

Within the actual social environments in which contemporary people grow up, doctrinal entanglement can be expected to persist, not because the arguments directed against the doctrines are incomplete or because the people who hang on to belief in transcendent entities are too stubborn or too stupid, but because enlightened secularism has not yet succeeded in finding surrogates for institutions and ideas that religious traditions have honed over centuries or millennia. Until those surrogates are widely available, we need respect and tolerance for the doctrinally-entangled. True enough, it would be better if their religion evolved to a state of mythical self-consciousness, but the costs for them — and sometimes for important social causes — that would attend the simple removal of false belief outweigh the benefits. Only those who approach these issues with the conviction that these matters are, from beginning to end, purely epistemic, who suppose that the belief model fits all religious lives, who think an evolutionary account will show how we’ve been had, will insist on breaking spells and ending delusions come what may.

This is rather vague, so it's a bit different to be sure of exactly Kitcher wants us to do. He goes on to talk about extending "secular tolerance" to the doctrinally entangled, but that's a slightly odd thing to say. As I understand secular tolerance, it means a lack of persecution by the state. But surely secular tolerance in this sense should even be extended to the full-on religious believers! Or at least it should be if no special circumstances apply - so long, for example, as they're not acting in a way that is dangerous to us or cruel to their children, or whatever. If Kitcher thinks that secular tolerance should not be extended to full-on religious believers but it should be to other categories, surely he must mean something else by secular tolerance, but I'm not sure what. Does he just mean that we are entitled to express a degree of hostility towards full-on religious belief, but that we shouldn't do so towards people with more attenuated beliefs?

So, there's something not entirely satisfactory about Kitcher's analysis at this point. I agree with this much of it, though. First, it's important to do positive work to offer non-religious philosophies of life and to make them accessible to ordinary people. I deliberately say "philosophies", not "philosophy", because I think the last thing we need is a new comprehensive system that could end up becoming a new totalitarianism. I'd like to see the development of a range of views that have in common that they embrace political liberalism and what I understand (above) by "secular tolerance". Obviously a lot of this work was already going on before the "New Atheism" appeared, and the New Atheism is partly a reaction to the efforts by many conservative religious people to oppose politically liberal viewpoints. There was a sense, a few years ago, that "enough is enough" and it was time to go on the attack, questioning the fundamentals of the conservative religious worldviews themselves.

So, I agree with Kitcher that it's important to do this work. But I think he underestimates how much how much it was already being done (e.g. by Peter Singer), and why it became important to do something more in popular debate, i.e. to attack religious doctrine more directly. Putting this another way, if Kitcher is asking us to do "something more" in the sense of developing positive ethical and political philosophies, he's kind of getting things back to front. That's what we were already doing, and we were not making that much headway. The "something more" that was required was a more aggressive attack on the fundamentals of our opponents' positions, something we'd been treating as taboo during the 1990s (and for which, to be honest, there may not have been much of a market).

Still, many people have become involved in these debates for the first time, and it's perhaps worthwhile reminding them that atheism is not much of an end in itself, that aggressive, popular atheism is an add-on to the task of developing this-worldly ethical and political philosophies. In doing the "something more" of the New Atheism, we shouldn't stop doing the other stuff that was being done, and perhaps it actually is time for some extra focus on that.

Kitcher is also, I think, hinting that the real game in America is organising to take that country down a path more like that of the social democracies of Europe. If that's what he's getting at, I agree. The US will probably become significantly more secularised only when its less advantaged demographics have greater economic security. So there's some advantage in putting energy into such causes as universal healthcare, and perhaps showing some compassionate understanding that economically insecure people are likely to cling to religion.

That, however, is not a reason to stop challenging supernatural belief. Perhaps Kitcher thinks we should do so in a more compassionate way, given the circumstances of many believers. I can see some point in saying that. On the other hand, even in more secular societies than the US there is still a widespread sense that religious leaders have some kind of moral expertise, and this sense of things needs to be challenged. It's not so much a matter of kicking or mocking the ordinary believers, which is probably not such a good idea, as of stripping away the aura of authority enjoyed by the leaders and their organisations. And that does require pointing out that they have no supernatural source of authority. And that requires, in some cases, pointing out the absurdity of some of their supernaturalist claims.

All in all, if Kitcher's analysis is going to lead to any changes in our behaviour, then the changes may be rather subtle. It may involve a careful thinking about where our priorities are, who and what our scorn and indignation should best be reserved for, and so on. It's not immediately obvious to me what Dawkins and Dennett should be doing differently, though, even if Kitcher's analysis is totally correct. Again, maybe they should be doing something a bit differently - it's worth thinking about. But Kitcher seems to want some fairly dramatic change in tactics, and it's not clear to me exactly what it would be.

All this analysis cuts more than one way. For example, the mythically self-conscious and doctrinally-indefinite folks could learn something from it. They could understand that they are not automatically allies of their doctrinally-entangled or true-believing co-religionists. In particular, mythically self-conscious people from various faiths have more in common with each other than with true-believing co-religionists of their respective faiths. They may also have more in common with thoughtful secular people than with true-believing co-religionists: although they may find it valuable, for themselves, to be steeped in a religious tradition, they have no actual supernatural beliefs, so their actual worldviews are more like those of secular people than like those of true religious believers.

What's more, the mythically self-conscious and doctrinally indefinite should face up to the fact that they do not exhaust the categories of religious people. They are not even the majority. When "New Atheists" attack supernatural beliefs, they are not attacking a straw man. On the contrary, they are attacking orthodox, traditional, popular, and resurgent beliefs. It's no use Karen Armstrong, for example, complaining that the religion being attacked by Dawkins or Dennett is not her religion or not real religion. It may well not be her doctrinally-indefinite religion, but it is certainly real religion. It's here, it's popular, if anything it's growing, and it's socially and politically influential. She should concede this without hedging.

Kitcher represents the "New Atheists" as addressing reasonable religious people, which can probably be translated as the mythically self-conscious and doctrinally-indefinite religious participants, as follows:

[The New Atheists] can challenge those who believe in ‘reasonable religion’ to specify more clearly just what commitments such types of religion entail — to declare in public what has been abandoned, and to stick to the declaration. They can demand that those who profess a more enlightened religion no longer provide cover for fanatics who take a simplistic view of the scriptures they share with the sophisticated.

Kitcher seems to think that there's something inadequate about making this challenge, but I don't see why. If the mythically self-conscious and doctrinally-indefinite religious folks accepted all of Kitcher's analysis, why would they not conclude that the "challenge" Kitcher mentions is fair enough? Instead of defending religion and claiming that its essence is something this-worldly, such as compassion, why not agree that there's a lot of supernaturalist religion around, that it is false and often dangerous, and that it merits rebuttal? Why shouldn't they resolve that they'll "no longer provide cover for fanatics who take a simplistic view of the scriptures they share with the sophisticated"? The real moral of the analysis may be that the mythically self-conscious and doctrinally-indefinite religious practitioners should be more honest - and less hostile towards outspoken atheists.
There's doubtless a lot more to say about these issues, and I'll need at least one more post to comment on Dennett's reply to Kitcher. I continue to think that Kitcher has given us useful concepts, terminology, and insights. Exactly what we should all be doing with them is another matter. His paper is really addressed to fellow atheists/secular people, but it could make useful reading for others as well. In particular, the mythically self-conscious and docrinally-indefinite folk might also see things a bit differently if they took the analysis to heart. Outspoken atheists should not be looked upon as their enemies.


Hal said...

This is a tremendously helpful series. Your analysis lays out sharply the question Kitcher tries to unravel, and your comments have helped to understand his analysis. Thank you.

DEEN said...

"Within the actual social environments in which contemporary people grow up, doctrinal entanglement can be expected to persist"

But the whole point of "New Atheism" is that atheism must become a visible part of everyone's social environment too. We should create an environment where all beliefs can and will be challenged - and even ridiculed. In such an environment, the cost-benefit analysis of clinging to religious beliefs may very well shift.

"Only those who approach these issues with the conviction that these matters are, from beginning to end, purely epistemic, who suppose that the belief model fits all religious lives, who think an evolutionary account will show how we’ve been had, will insist on breaking spells and ending delusions come what may."

This seems weird - if doctrinally entangled peope hold on to some religious beliefs without epistemic support, then those beliefs should be fair game for attack - even if their indefinite beliefs aren't. In fact, I don't even see how you can attack the beliefs of people with a "belief model" without also attacking the beliefs of the doctrinally entangled.

Mark Jones said...

Yes, thanks again Russell; very helpful.

One does wonder about the 'discreteness' of the categories though, and it would be useful of theists addressed it. Not so long ago, Ken Miller (surely a moderate theist by any standards) objected to Sam Harris's attack on Francis Collins' theistic evolution slideshow.

To me, Collins clearly believes in the supernatural, and so, one assumes, does Ken Miller. So perhaps most moderates are religious believers? I guess doctrinally-indefinite is a possibility, but I don't think it fits here.

Not for the the first time, I call for believers to be very clear about what they believe, exactly.

That Guy Montag said...

[The New Atheists] can challenge those who believe in ‘reasonable religion’ to specify more clearly just what commitments such types of religion entail — to declare in public what has been abandoned, and to stick to the declaration. They can demand that those who profess a more enlightened religion no longer provide cover for fanatics who take a simplistic view of the scriptures they share with the sophisticated.

I agree very strongly with you that this is a reasonable challenge. A common rebuttal to say a secular attack on some great evil perpetrated by a religious believer continues to be as you point out "well that's not real religion" or "that's not my religion". Well, fair enough I say until we get to the "but" where all of a sudden it's the particular secular principle being attacked. These sorts of tactics aren't arguments they're attempts to shift the target. Given that, it's completely legitimate that we refuse to play along and hold these people to the commitments that they're making, that the doctrinally entangled and mythically self-conscious actually accept the positions they actually espouse and criticise the believers.