(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, June 26, 2014)
I would like to summarize and comment on the May 15, 2014 New York Times interview of philosopher Philip Kitcher by the philosopher Gary Gutting on the topic of “The Case for Soft Atheism” It is closely connected with the issues in my previous post, “Modern Cosmology Versus Creation by God.” Here is an abridged version of the conversation.
G – You “take religious doctrines to have become incredible.” Why do you say that?
K – “The most basic reason for doubt about any of these ideas is that … nobody is prepared to accept all of them.” They are often contradictory and can’t all be true. Moreover if you had been brought up in a different culture you would probably have different beliefs, so how can you say that your views are the correct ones?
G – Perhaps it’s not doctrines but religious experiences that are important, and many of these experiences are similar across cultures.
K – Experiences, even if they are similar, are not independent of doctrines. Moreover so-called religious experiences are easily confused with all sorts of psychological experiences that have psychological or biological causes.
G – So you reject all religious doctrines but “resist the claim that religion is noxious rubbish to be buried as deeply, as thoroughly and as quickly as possible.” Why ?
K – I advocate a soft atheism which recognizes that religious doctrines are not literally true but that some religious practices and concern for social justice are worthwhile.
G – So you think that atheists like Dawkins only refute unsophisticated religious claims?
K – Yes. Religions based on promoting humanistic values reject a literal interpretation of many of their doctrines are immune from much atheistic criticism. And by not considering the stories and metaphors of other religions literally either, you don’t have to choose between them, since they all may have some values in common.
G – So you will tolerate this refined religion?
K – Yes but eventually I would like to religion morphing into, and being replaced by, a kind of secular humanism. I don’t ignore religion, but I do want it to gradually disappear.
G – You don’t believe religious accounts of a deity but you don’t exactly say they are definitely false either. Why don’t you just say you’re an agnostic rather than an atheist?
K – Conflicting religious doctrines show that we can’t describe this supposed reality so we should “reject substantive religious doctrines, one and all, even the minimal ones …” I think theism is false, hence I call myself an “a-theist.”
G – But just because we can’t describe deities it doesn’t follow that they don’t exist. We can’t completely describe what a banana tastes like or what being in love is like but we don’t conclude that they don’t exist.
K – I think we know a lot about bananas and love. I reject theism rather because”I start from the idea that all sorts of human inquiries, including but not limited to the natural sciences, have given us a picture of the world, and that these inquiries don’t provide evidence for any transcendent aspect of the universe.” Of course our picture of reality is incomplete, but when people make fantastic claims about the existence and actions of ghostly beings without evidence, it isn’t dogmatic to reject such assertions.
G- What of religious experience?
K – There are adaquate scientific explanations them thus “referring such experiences to some special aspect of reality is gratuitous speculation.” These experiences testify to the religious ideas in a culture, not to any transcendent reality.
G -But there are respectable arguments for the existence of gods.
K – The arguments are all deeply problematic and at most are supplements to faith.
G – “I agree that no theistic arguments are compelling, but I don’t agree that they all are logically invalid or have obviously false premises.”
K – I believe that religion at its best should not defend dubious metaphysical doctrines but focuses on human problems. Let us then be inspired by the humanism in religion. “The atheism I favor is one in which literal talk about “God” or other supposed manifestations of the “transcendent” comes to be seen as a distraction from the important human problems — a form of language that quietly disappears.”
Commentary – Kitcher’s position is reminiscent of Dewey’s view that religion must disappear but the religious attitude is worthwhile, an idea I first encountered more than 40 years ago. I’ll let Dewey speak for himself while silently nodding my agreement.
If I have said anything about religions and religion that seems harsh, I have said those things because of a firm belief that the claim on the part of religions to possess a monopoly of ideals and of the supernatural means by which alone, it is alleged, they can be furthered, stands in the way of the realization of distinctively religious values inherent in natural experience. For that reason, if for no other, I should be sorry if any were misled by the frequency with which I have employed the adjective “religious” to conceive of what I have said as a disguised apology for what have passed as religions. The opposition between religious values as I conceive them and religions is not to be abridged. Just because the release of these values is so important, their identification with the creeds and cults of religions must be dissolved.
As I have stated many times in this blog the replacement of religious superstition by scientific rationalism will benefit us and our descendants. In the end such considerations lead to the promulgation of secular humanism and eventually to transhumanism. Looking around the world today, a better future can’t get here fast enough.