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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Currently reading: Philip Kitcher's "Militant Modern Atheism" (Part 1)

As foreshadowed a couple of posts ago, I'm currently reading and thinking about atheist philosopher Philip Kitcher's article, "Militant Modern Atheism", which appears in the latest issue of The Journal of Applied Philosophy. Though not all that long (I'd guess that it might be about 6000 to 7000 words), the article is very closely argued, and presents some novel views that could easily be misunderstood if not explained carefully. Indeed, I'm not sure that I've totally understood them myself, but I'm doing my best ... and I'll also do my best to convey my understanding of them. As a result, I'm going to need a few posts to discuss this article properly and to draw some conclusions.

I understand from Kitcher that this is actually the second in a kind of trilogy of articles considering the nature of religion and its possible future. The first is his contribution to 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, entitled "Beyond Disbelief". The third has not yet been published, and although he has been kind enough to show it to me in manuscript form, I don't propose to discuss it until such a time as it appears publicly. However, I'll note at this stage that Kitcher argues throughout for philosophical naturalism as the best understanding of the world in which we find ourselves, and against the supernaturalist truth claims of all known religions. Indeed, I rate "Beyond Disbelief" as one of the most powerful statements in 50 Voices of the case against the supernatural claims of religion. I am careful to say "the supernatural claims of religion" because Kitcher is impressed, at least to an extent, by non-literalist forms of religion that make no such claims - though he is not so naive as to see these as currently triumphant in their struggle against more traditional or more radically literalist forms. In the end, his hope is not so much for the social success of non-literalist religion as for the forging and eventual success of a compassionate and intellectually well-developed secular humanism:

Those who have lapsed from the churches they once attended do well to recall the full range of experiences they enjoyed there, reflecting on ways to disentangle what is valuable from what is inevitably corrupted by falsehoods and absurdities. The residual places in which non-literalist religion still thrives can offer inspiration for a form of post-religious life that has greater chances of survival: a secular humanism that emphasizes the humanity as well as the secularism. (50 Voices, p. 96)

I have a great deal of sympathy for this, and I have always maintained that genuinely moderate Christianity should not be viewed as an enemy - though I have also emphasised the word "genuinely" and suggested that whenever we are confronted by something that purports to be (or is described as) "moderate" Christianity we should ask pointedly: "Moderate about what?" I don't, for example, find anything that can reasonably be described as "moderate" in the Vatican's teachings on homosexual conduct as a sin or on a homosexual orientation as disordered ... or on much else. Though the Vatican does not take the view that the Earth is only about six to ten thousand years old - as many evangelical Protestants do - that does not make it a moderate institution in any meaningful way (indeed, some progressive evangelicals are far more moderate in their social attitudes than the Vatican hierarchs).

Still, I understand when Kitcher says that those of us who have left the churches can do well to recall that some of what we experienced was valuable. I'll be examining the "Militant Modern Atheism" article from a perspective that is far from being out of sympathy with Kitcher's concerns. Not only that, I think he raises very important issues about how much can reasonably be demanded of religious people when they are confronted by the case against their respective religions. Can we expect them - all of them - to abandon either their religious orientation to the world or their specifically supernaturalist beliefs merely because they are presented with powerful arguments to the contrary?

As it happens, I do think that arguments can be effective. Many of the well-known anti-religious arguments touch only certain doctrines - for example certain concepts of God - but if a religious believer is led to think that her current set of doctrinal beliefs does not add up, intellectually, she may well abandon religion entirely, since any alternatives that she is viewing from the outside may have no emotional appeal to her. Since she is viewing them from the outside, she may even see them as absurd or at least lacking in anything that makes her take them seriously as options. Nonetheless, I agree with Kitcher that there is a limit to what can be achieved either by argument or such means as satire and mockery (though even here, it's clear to me that something can be achieved - I find it implausible to think that the satirical wit of Voltaire accomplished nothing).

This is going to get a bit complicated, so forgive me for taking it slowly. Tomorrow I'll get deeper into Kitcher's arguments. Today, I'm still setting the scene. As a final point for now, I'm not that keen on the title "Militant Modern Atheism", or on the use of this phrase throughout the article. I'm not as hostile to it as I'm sure some readers will be - after all, Richard Dawkins has advocated in the past that we should be "militant atheists", and the word "militant" here may simply mean "assertive" or "forceful" or at most "aggressive". Think of such expressions as "militant trade unionism", which suggests tactics of confronting management rather than seeking to improve workers' conditions merely through compromise and gradual change.

The expression "Militant Modern Atheism" could be a badge of honour, if it has that sort of meaning, and Kitcher certainly does not use it in a way that suggests violence is involved. Nonetheless, in a world that contains so much violence in the name of one religion or another, it is easy to use a word such as "militant" to imply a false equivalence between religious fanatics who use violence as a means to their ends and outspoken atheists who rely on persuasion or, at most, satire. I do wish that Kitcher had used another phrase, partly because of the possibility that he plays into a false moral equivalence and partly because I'm aware that the word "militant" alienates many atheists, and so guarantees that his article will not be read as sympathetically as it deserves. I suggest that we read it with the "militant trade unionist" sort of meaning in mind and not get too hung up about that cosmetic issue.

Tomorrow, I'll get further into the substance of Kitcher's theoretical approach and his actual arguments.


ColinGavaghan said...

Russell, is this an advance copy of the Kitcher article you've seen? The most recent edition to which we have e-access is 27(3), which doesn't contain it.

Russell Blackford said...

Colin, you can find it here if you have access: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-5930.2010.00500.x/full

The printed version is evidently not out yet. (I think I have access if I try via my uni library, but in any event I actually have a copy from Philip Kitcher who kindly provided me with a pdf of the galley).

Anonymous said...

great post thanks