About Me

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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).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Currently reading: Philip Kitcher's "Militant Modern Atheism" (Part 2)

In this post I want to concentrate on where Philip Kitcher agrees with the people whom he's thinking of with his "Militant Modern Atheism" phrase - he seems to have in mind primarily the core "New Atheist" writers, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens ... especially Dawkins and Dennett.

In his opening paragraph, he sets out a potted version of what he takes to be the "New Atheist" or "Militant Modern Atheist" manifesto:

In times when violence carried out in the name of religion abounds, when many groups of people seek to interfere with the private lives of others because those targeted are allegedly violating divine commands, and when important discoveries about the world in which we live are questioned, or even denied, because they are supposed to be incompatible with authentic messages from the deity, it is easy to think that things have gone too far. Polite respect for odd superstitions about mysterious beings and their incomprehensible workings might be appropriate so long as the misguided folk who subscribe to them do not seek to convert, coerce or eliminate outsiders, but, when the benighted believers invade the public sphere, it is important that they not be earnest. Further, respect should not extend to the deformations the faithful exert upon the minds of the young: just as children deserve to be protected against parents who refuse to allow them to receive medical attention, so too they are entitled to defence against forms of religious education that will infect and corrupt their abilities to think clearly and coherently.We no longer inhabit the arcadias ofWaugh andWodehouse, in which fanatic believers and their aggressive challengers who ask where Cain found a wife are equally figures of fun. Because of religious belief, our world is an oppressive and dangerous place, and it is time for those who value reason, justice, tolerance, and compassion to do something about it.

That could certainly stand as the message that Udo and I were attempting to get across with 50 Voices of Disbelief - it encapsulates our motivation quite nicely. Kitcher makes clear that he agrees with it up to a point. On the one hand, he think it's a comprehensible response to our historical situation. On the other hand, he thinks that there are many people who have more reasonable religious views that don't so easily fall under this critique. On the third hand, he acknowledges some of what the "Militant Modern Atheists" can say to that:

They can point out, reasonably, that the most prominent, and probably the most prevalent, forms of contemporary religion are not the subtle ideas cherished by their critics, but the cruder doctrines they directly attack. They 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 would probably stop there, but Kitcher thinks not only that all the stuff I've put in italics is pretty much correct but also that more must be said and that the "militant" critique forecloses certain options. I.e., he takes the points made in the last long quotation, but still wants to go on and say that the "Militant Modern Atheist" attack misses some kinds of religiosity, or is in some sense beside their point. More of that in a later post.

Kitcher ends up with two other points where he thinks (more or less correctly) that he is in agreement with the "Militant Modern Atheists". Before I get to the first of these points, it's worth remarking that much of what Kitcher has to say in his article involves forms of religion where belief in the supernatural has either been refined out (religion has become demythologised) or is at least not primary. His sympathy towards these kinds of religion is the main thing that separates him from Dennett, Dawkins, and so on. Against that background, the first point that he ends with is that public reason must be thoroughly secular. Religious believers of whatever kind must not rely upon a supernatural grounding for their claims about the conduct of public policy. Rather, like everyone else, they must rely on considerations that could be shared by people of different faiths and by non-believers.

Second, Kitcher is not opposed to bringing up children in religious environments, but he argues that these environments must not involve indoctrination in a single religion. The kind of enlightened religion that he is prepared to countenance should enable children to be exposed to, understand, and choose from a range of possibilities. The same, he thinks, should apply to the nurture of children by secular parents - they should not seek to indoctrinate children in a naturalistic worldview but expose them to the range of options.

There's more to say about the second of these points, but I'm prepared to accept that it's at least approximately right. Perhaps we can come back to the difficulties and complexities here, but for the purpose of this post I'll move on (the "Militant Modern Atheists" would probably all agree that it's at least approximately how things should work).

Overall, Kitcher is in almost full agreement with Dawkins, Dennett, and other "New Atheist" figures insofar as they attack supernatural belief. Most of his disagreement will be about how we should regard religious people for whom supernatural belief is not primary. He notes that many of the points made by the core "New Atheists" are not especially original and can be traced back through Bertrand Russell to Enlightenment figures such as Hume and d'Holbach. However, he thinks that the writings of Dawkins and Dennett contain "cogent arguments and genuine insights". Insofar as those insights owe something to earlier figures such as Hume, d'Holbach, and Russell, it is, Kitcher thinks, "important to have them restated, eloquently restated, in the context of contemporary human conditions and in the light of current knowledge." I think that's exactly right. It's not as if Dawkins and company necessarily claim great originality - I'm sure they'd acknowledge that they stand on the shoulders of Hume and others - but it's important to put the points in an up-to-date form and to draw conclusions that make sense for our current circumstances.

Insofar as the debate is about the truth of supernatural doctrines, Kitcher's main criticism of the "Militant Modern Atheists" is that they don't rely (or rely sufficiently) on what he considers the strongest line of argument. This involves looking not at, for the example, the evidence of supernatural beings currently working in the world, but at the evidence of the religions' claims for the reliability of their respective revelations. The question is whether any religious tradition can demonstrate, with any real plausibility, that it has succeeded in handing down - with some integrity - actual supernatural revelations received at a time in the past.

In considering this, we can note the enormous diversity of contradictory religious claims and the futility of attempts to establish a robust historical basis for any of them in particular. Demonstrating the latter requires a lot of hard, detailed work, but what we find is that all the religions fail to establish any plausible claim to historical truth. Viewed from outside, whatever religion you choose ends up failing to establish a credible claim that its originators received a genuine revelation of such-and-such supernatural agency or principle, and that the revelation was then passed down in its original form or something adequately close:

There is no reasonable way to break the symmetry, to declare that one — or some — of these supposed processes of revelation and accurate transmission has matters right, and the others are sad examples of primitive confusion. Moreover, when scholars study the processes through which the doctrines of major world religions evolve, and the ways in which those religions recruit converts, it becomes evident that they are shaped by causes we standardly view as unlikely to lead in the direction of truth. Nobody who recognizes the political considerations that have figured in the construction of the world’s most celebrated religious texts can regard these scriptures as reliable indicators of past events. Nobody who reflects on what sociologists have to say about the ways in which people become attracted to particular religions will suppose that the spread of a creed has much to do with its truth.

I think Kitcher is correct that these sorts of arguments are very powerful, though they need to be developed in considerable detail before their full power becomes apparent. Historically, the loss of faith in supernatural religion among the educated classes of Europe probably owes more to the detailed work of textual-historical scholars approaching the Bible than to the arguments of Hume, the satirical writings of Voltaire, or the success of Darwinian theory. All these things played their part, but it was the research into Christian origins that made it clear that Christianity is a human construction rather than something divinely revealed. Moreover, it's likely to be this kind of knowledge that is most likely to lead to loss of faith for deeply religious people such as seminarians and ministers of the church. All that supports Kitcher on this issue.
I'm not sure, though, that Kitcher is entirely fair here to the "Militant Modern Atheists". They don't seem to me to ignore these considerations entirely, as Kitcher appears to imply, and this sort of thinking seems to inform the critique of Christopher Hitchens in particular. Moreover, it's not clear what considerations are most successful in getting people to abandon belief in the supernatural under current conditions. One person may be led to abandon a particular conception of God when she concludes that a key doctrine of her faith, such as that of sacrificial atonement, does not make sense - or at least not in the terms in which she was taught it (some sophisticated revisionist version of the doctrine may be more coherent but have no emotional attraction for her). Another person may be unable, after many sleepless nights, to see how this world could be the creation of a loving and providential deity (and the idea of a deity that is not loving and providential may, again, have no attraction). Others may decide that the normative claims of familiar religions are just too implausible to be consistent with those religions' claims to have received genuine revelations. In short, there are many ways in which people come to reject supernaturalist belief.
The conclusion that I'd draw from this is that, yes, the considerations adduced by Kitcher are very important. It's possible that the core "New Atheist" writers have given them insufficient attention - but that's more a reason for people who are experts in such areas as anthropology and textual-historical study of the holy books to become involved in the current debates. As Michele Onfray has emphasised, religious belief should receive sceptical scrutiny from all viewpoints.
Perhaps, too, it's unfortunate that so much emphasis is placed on the work of the "Four Horsemen" - Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens - when the reality is that these four don't all say the same things, are not all focused on producing primarily a critique of the truth of supernatural religion, and have other important points to make. Thus, Harris, in The End of Faith, is most interested in making the point that beliefs matter, since they motivate people, so there is some urgency about interrogating religious belief. Dennett's key point is that we should investigate religion as a natural phenomenon. Hitchens does actually place much emphasis on the appearance of religion as a human construction, but his main points involve a moral critique. Dawkins has a number of emphases, but direct critique of religious claims is not his main concern, e.g. he discusses the traditional arguments for the existence of God quite quickly. All four authors produce criticisms of religious truth claims, and all four draw on points that have been made in the past by Hume and others, but they all have specific concerns that take them away from developing Kitcher's preferred arguments at any great length.
The moral of the story should be that the work of many other people should also be given attention, and that more people should get involved in contributing to a more rounded and complete popular atheology. Dawkins and the others deserve applause, but perhaps more attention should be focused on, for example, Bart Ehrman's efforts in bringing textual-historical scholarship to a popular audience (though Ehrman is more interested in doing this for its own sake than in "deconverting" people). And of course, to Kitcher's credit, he is actually making his preferred arguments at some length, not merely complaining that others are not doing so. If there's a gap to be filled, the thing to do is to fill it, and it's all to the good that Kitcher is doing some of that.
In any event, Kitcher does not disagree on all that much with the "Militant Modern Atheists" - at least not when it comes to critique of religion's supernatural truth claims. He does not allege that these are consistent with what we know through rational investigation of the world, or that we should give up on a critique of supernaturalism. His concerns are rather different, and I'll come to them in part 3 of this series. As I've previously stated, I share some of his concerns - I think that he overstates them to an extent, but they are important and deserve our attention.


Eamon Knight said...

On behalf of those of us without access to this paper: thanks for doing this, Russell.

Robert N Stephenson said...

All well explained thus far, but and this is a disturbing but and something I have noted before:-

some parts of this belief system is developing mannerisms not all that disimillar to religious dogmas.

Now, I know this isn't deliberate, nor even planned, but some caution does need to be kept in mind when it comes to positions here.

I will still hold my understanding that some parts of the atheist psotion border religious nature anbd methedology. Dawkins, rightly or wrongly, is often sighted in a manner Catholic would site the workings of Saints --

Can this problem be avoided? Maybe but it will take something greater than we have witnessed thus far to bridge this enormous gap some are willing to deliver us into.

That Guy Montag said...

I'm not sure where you get your religious dogma claim from RnS, feel free to quote what raises your suspicions.

I'm wondering about the line of argument that focuses on the moderate religious or the more "subtle" theologies that he hints at though. Take any particular dispute between the moderates and the fundamentalists and the religious side of the dispute is the same. Both the tamest of Anglicans and the vilest of Evangelicals will appeal to the exact same text for their authority. The only grounds on which we have to call one side moderate and the other extreme is therefore outside of their respective religious doctrines. These people, these moderates, are piggy backing on the secular work of ethics and it merely confuses the issue to pretending that this is a dispute between two sides on the religious spectrum.

Anonymous said...

Kitcher is essentially articulating the EXACT same message that Paul Kurtz has throughout his entire career. The last paragraph of his article abstract is especially telling:

"I argue that militant modern atheism is incomplete (and likely counter-productive) so long as it fails to attend systematically to the roles religion fulfills in human lives. Yet it is important to achieve public clarity about the literal falsehood of the doctrines on which fundamentalists rely. The challenge is to develop a well-articulated and convincing version of secular humanism. Meeting that challenge is, I claim, one of the central problems of philosophy today."

This is Kurtzian all the way: In fact, when Kurtz argued the same points in his recent "Neo-Humanism Statement," (signed by Kitcher) in response to the new emphasis on atheism in the abstract, he was attacked for criticizing the new atheists and, further, accused of abandoning his earlier aggressive anti-religious posture. The leadership at the current CFI refused to sign it. Yet Kurtz's position on this issue has remained the same throughout the years. His central point (and core reason for founding CFI and the Council for Secular Humanism) has always been the need to move beyond atheism by articulating and defending a positive and constructive humanist eupraxsophy capable of fulfilling the functional elements often associated with religion (though independent OF religion) and, more importantly, the distantly human need for a sense of meaning and value. This represents a comprehensive humanist worldview, drawing on ethics, science, and philosophy. While thoroughly naturalistic, atheist polemics is not central to this project. One might find this essay from 1991 quite illuminating: :


Robert N Stephenson said...

Interesting -- I advise that when you do attack Christians as some kind of homgenous entity tnhat you do take time to actually lean about what many believe in.

Only the atheisy relies on the bible as a foundation and working text in order to construct its anti religious arguments. More and more Christians understand the context of the stories and lessons in the bible, and also understand the representations based on archiological and scientific discovery around even, and non events.

As one small part - Christians are devided on elements, and the bible is clear on meaning in context, though the vision has been used out of context by the Catholic Church, Fundamentalist Churches and a number of old mainstream.

It is well understood tnat after the Roman guard killed Jesus with his spear he probably said nothing. The man was buried in a tomb and later moved. He did not raise from the dead in any physical form and nor did he say he would. The whole thing is about people having a spirit, a life force of their own - one not reliant on the appeasement of the old Roman god network.

When you apply developing understanding of history and events, of how religions were formed around the old testament - which was meant to have been dropped and replaced by the new testament by the way you get a wonderful understanding of the development of the human race through time.

I am a moderate Christian with hard scientific links and an almost Darwinistic approach to the world -- and there are more of us than you think - you could perhaps find 1 in 4 christians have this moderate view.

Russell Blackford said...

I do not attack Christianity, or any other religion, as monolithic - never have.

Rob, Rob, I bet I know a lot more about theology, philosophy of religion, religious history, and comparative religion than you do. I don't know why you'd assume otherwise given that I have taught philosophy of religion at Monash University, was once a Christian leader on my university campus, have done a PhD on the return to myth in modern fictional narrative, have co-edited a leading anthology of critiques of religion (from a makor academic publisher), and am currently writing a book on secularism for which I gained a contract only after extensive peer review of material that included three chapters.

When you make claims about what I know or don't know it doesn't make you more credible in my eyes, or the eyes of many of my readers who know that I actually know stuff. It makes me think that you just make stuff up. Not only that, but comments such this latest one by you on this thread actually appear a bit arrogant.

You think maybe you could tone down the personal accusations a bit?