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).

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Currently reading: Philip Kitcher's "Militant Modern Atheism" (Part 7)

This post is intended to be the last in the series, and it will focus on a reply to Kitcher by Daniel Dennett - made available by Dennett via Jerry Coyne, over at Why Evolution is True.

Having re-read Dennett's response, I actually wonder whether he and Kitcher disagree about anything of substance. The issue that gets a fair bit of discussion is one that I haven't even mentioned, because I think it's something of a red herring. It's the question of whether we should look at the world's religions as the by-products of cognitive biases, in which case we may be inclined to doubt that they have any value, or as memes which have persisted because, historically, they produced social benefits, in which case we may be inclined to think that they still produce social benefits. Kitcher sees things more in the latter way, and he thinks that some of the strength of "New Atheist" opposition to religion comes from seeing things in the former way.

It strikes me that both stories may be correct. It may be that we come to have religious thoughts as a result of cognitive biases ... but once these thoughts are in play the ones that persist do so partly because they produce social benefits. While more work needs to be done on this, such a synthesis appears to me perfectly coherent and prima facie plausible. Kitcher may be correct that (some?) "New Atheists" are reinforced in their hostility to religion by their use of a "cognitive biases" model. But both writers admit freely that neither model can be proved to the exclusion of the other. (Nor is either able to exclude the kind of synthesis I've sketched in this paragraph.) It's all very speculative.

If reliance on a "cognitive biases" model - to the exclusion of a "social benefits" model - were an important part of New Atheist critique, then New Atheism would be in trouble. Kitcher is correct to point this out and to suggest that the cognitive biases is not proved. But Dennett is also, surely, correct to point out that what matters for current debates is not whether particular religions had social benefits at the time they developed and became entrenched; what matters is whether, on balance, they have social benefits now.

In the end, I don't think that the truth of any particular theory of the origin and persistence of religion plays a critical role in motivating New Atheist critique. It may be worthwhile getting a better idea of these things, but the New Atheists can fall back on other good reasons for arguing against the truth claims and moral authority of religion. Conversely, to be fair to Kitcher, I don't think this issue is critical to his argument either. As long as he can show that some forms of religion as they exist now are innocuous, and even beneficial for individuals and communities, he has worthwhile points to make.

So yes, let's study the origin and persistence of religion(s), but let's not think that this, in itself, will be decisive of how we should respond to religion now.

Dennett concedes the point that religion provides many people with a sense of meaning and that it may be difficult to replace this for everybody:

I discuss this in Breaking the Spell (pp286-92), where I note that religion has the unparalleled capacity to give people a chance to be, in Kitcher’s good phrase, important participants in the world they were born into.

But he questions how much of this is worth the current downside of religion:

But as I go on to discuss there, nobody has yet estimated what price we should be prepared to pay—in xenophobia, violence, the glorification of unreason, the spreading of patent falsehood—for that wonderful sense of importance religion gives to many people who would otherwise lead lives without drama, without a point. 

Then comes an important passage in Dennett's response:

Kitcher wants to preserve religions (at least for the foreseeable future, I gather) but I think it would be better to work constructively on secular institutions that can provide alternative structures of meaning for everyone. Still, we might accomplish this most practically by encouraging existing religious institutions to evolve into . . . . former religions. Some have already done so, but they are not yet competing very well in the marketplace of allegiances. Who knows what the near future will bring? Religions have changed more in the last century than in the last millennium, and perhaps they will change more in the next decade than in that last century.

By this stage, I'm really not sure that they are disagreeing about anything of substance. I'm sure that Kitcher would join Dennett in seeing merit in working "on secular institutions that can provide alternative structures of meaning for everyone" ... though, for myself, I'm a little unsure just what form those structures would take. Presumably they would involve such things as good healthcare for all and the widespread availability of education (things that I support) - but what else? Philosophers can offer secular philosophies, but presumably we are talking about more than that. In any event, there's room here for plenty of debate about intellectual and political goals. As I've said in previous posts, that might lead to some fine-tuning of "New Atheist" efforts, but it can't, logically, lead to us abandoning the ongoing critiques of religion. And nor does Kitcher say that it should.

I expect that reading and absorbing Kitcher's ideas will, in fact, have effects on how I act. I certainly don't think his contribution was a waste of time, or that it was a waste of time trying to understand the concepts and arguments that he's introduced into the debate. But I don't see any reason for dramatic changes or for repudiation of the "New Atheist" work so far. I get the feeling that Kitcher thinks the practical implications are more dramatic than are apparent to me, although I do get the idea that we should not end delusions and break spells come what may. But is anyone really doing that? If so, perhaps they do need to take a more surgical approach to what they're doing, but I certainly don't see the two obvious targets of Kitcher's criticisms - Dennett and Dawkins - as doing anything so reckless.

Dennett concludes, on a conciliatory note:

Kitcher and I agree on so much. We agree that “Public reason must the thoroughly secular” (p12) We agree that the belief model of religion is indefensible. We agree that the first spell must be broken—we have both broken it. We differ, apparently, only in our assessment of how to ease the people of the 21st century into a more reasonable and socially benign form of orientation. But even here, I think, we should both admit that we haven’t figured that out yet.

As I said, I'm not even sure they disagree on that much, as both seem happy to work on alternatives to whatever benefits are provided by religion and both seem happy for criticisms of supernaturalist doctrine to be published. The difference may be more one of emphasis and priorities, though, once again, obviously something is worrying Kitcher about the "New Atheist" approach, and it's not just that he thinks the strongest arguments are not getting enough play.

In all, this ongoing discussion seems to me to be worthwhile and potentially illuminating. At this stage, though, I can't see any reason for anyone to make dramatic behavioural changes or to engage in mea culpas about the past. The discussion will continue, since Kitcher has more to say, but I'll take that up at a future time.


Jambe said...

This series of posts has been great. I'm a relative neophyte in the world of philosophy but you communicate very concisely and your thoughts are easy to follow. Very interesting stuff, the lot of it. Thanks for your insights. I don't comment often, being something of a lurker, but I appreciate your writing!

Also, I got around to finishing 50 Voices last Friday. The spectrum of opinions was impressive and the essays were thoughtfully organized. I find myself referring to it whenever somebody asks me about "atheist morality" or anything of the sort; it strikes me as a great book to spur people on to further reading. A few friends echoed my impression that it's very enjoyable and approachable (one of us has had formal philosophy schooling, three haven't).

Ben Finney said...

(OpenID authentication still not working on Blogger :-/)

A better URL for Coyne's relaying of Dennett's response is a direct link to Coyne's article.

Chris Lawson said...


I'm not convinced that there is any meaningful separation between a "cognitive bias" approach and a "social benefit" approach since it is quit plausible that a cognitive bias would persist *because* it confers some social benefit. It seems to me that both approaches are saying the same thing, i.e. that religious beliefs are based on fallacious thinking but have survived because they confer some benefits; the only difference is whether one wants to be blunt or delicate about how one puts it.

Russell Blackford said...

URL corrected - not sure what went wrong the first time.

Mark Waser said...

I'm currently reading Roy Rappaport's Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. It's tough to start but once you get into it, it really flies and offers a lot of insight into the topic.

Highly recommended.