This is a long post, but if you’re interested in strategies for combatting religion, you might find it valuable—not for my lucubrations, but for a thoughtful discussion between two prominent atheists and philosophers, Philip Kitcher and Daniel Dennett.
I’m a big fan of Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia who’s also something of a polymath (he teaches courses on Joyce and has written an introduction to Finnegan’s Wake). He’s also written groundbreaking critiques of creationism (Abusing Science) and of evolutionary psychology (Vaulting Ambition). Philip and Ned Block were valuable allies in the attacks on Jerry Fodor’s and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s anti-natural-selection nonsense. And I enjoyed (and blurbed) Kitcher’s most recent philosophy book, Living with Darwin, a trenchant critique of intelligent design. In that book’s last chapter, Kitcher warns against too-strident critiques of religion, arguing that faith provides a lot of social benefits to people, and that replacing faith means finding a humanism that dispenses those benefits. That seemed reasonable to me.
But in “Militant modern atheism” Kitcher’s new piece in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, he’s taken his criticism of atheism a bit further (access is free, and you can download a pdf). His main point is that New Atheists, while attacking the truth claims of religion and demanding that the faithful adduce evidence, are completely ignoring what may be the most important aspects of faith: its function as a form of social glue and as a community that meets a human need for participation and interaction.
Kitcher distinguishes what he calls the “belief model”—the form of faith that is initially built on truth claims about God, Jesus, Mohamed and the like—from three other forms of what he calls the “orientation” model: the forms of faith that begin with a person identifying secular goals and beliefs that he shares with others, and then choosing a faith that properly frames these goals. Kitcher calls the three religious forms of the orientation model the mythically self conscious, the doctrinally-entangled, and the doctrinally-indefinite. I’ll leave you to read about their differences in his article.
Kitcher contends that New Atheists, by concentrating solely on the “belief model,” don’t realize that adherents to the other three models don’t care that much about specific truth claims of faith. Therefore, the Gnus are attacking faith at a place where it’s not that vulnerable. As he says, “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.”
Kitcher concludes that for most people the benefits of faith outweigh any problems of believing in falsehoods:
. . . it is a fallacy to think that, for any religious person who currently fits the orientation model, that person can attain a cognitively superior position by rejecting the beliefs militant modern atheists discern as false. The cognitive gains can simply be outweighed by other forms of psychological and social loss.
He seems to think that its social benefits portend that religion will be with us forever, or at least until atheists find a way to associate those same benefits with humanism. And he takes prominent Gnus like Dennett and Dawkins to task for suggesting that the contemplation of science and the universe can provide psychic benefits that can replace religion. After quoting Dawkins on the wonders of science, Kitcher notes:
There is much to agree with in these passages, but they seduce readers—and Dawkins and Dennett too, I suspect, into thinking that anyone can orient a worthwhile life, one that will survive reflective probing, on the basis of contemplation of the cosmos as the sciences have revealed it.
Ouch! Well, I’m not sure whether Richard and Dan would agree that they’ve prescribed a diet of science to replace a gluttony on Jesus, but never mind.
My own comments on Kitcher’s piece (Dennett’s much longer take is posted below) are these:
- Kitcher concentrates on the “orientation model” because that’s the one he finds most “interesting.” But I’m not sure that it’s the most common. Surely the orientation model is the one held by liberal believers, but is it adhered to by most believers throughout the world? Kitcher doesn’t discuss this. Do remember that a large majority of Americans profess belief in a personal God, in Satan, and in heaven. Now that doesn’t mean that they’d stop believing if these ideas were falsified, but it does give one pause. And do other religions like Hinduism and Islam adhere to the orientation model? It seems as though Kitcher, while decrying the New Atheists for a form of intellectual arrogance, is also suggesting a model of faith that’s also quite intellectual.
- Kitcher seems to think that replacing religion with a socially-entangled humanism will be a very tough task, like teaching a cat to walk on a leash. He notes that “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.” Yet this is exactly what has happened in much of Europe, where religion is largely ceremonial and other institutions serve the social functions that religion used to have. (I believe Kitcher mentions this in Living with Darwin.) And this happened over only a few centuries. Moreover, it happened not through atheists suggesting humanistic replacements for faith, but through the erosion of faith after the Enlightenment and perhaps a greater reliance of Europeans on family and community.
- I don’t think that Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have largely ignored the social benefits of religion. I can’t recall specific passages, but I know that Sam dealt explicitly in The End of Faith with Zen Buddhism as a replacement for more conventional religions, and that the other three do discuss the real social benefits of faith.
Despite their disagreements, Kitcher, Dennett, and Dawkins agree on much. They all agree, for instance, that the “belief model” of religion is not only untenable but absolutely vulnerable to scientific attacks on religious truth claims. And they agree that indoctrinating children with religious dogma is a terrible thing to do.
Dennett, whose ideas are a major issue in Kitcher’s piece, has written a response to it. Although this will ultimately appear elsewhere online, Dan has kindly given me permission to post it here. It’s longer than our usual posts but well worth reading. (Quotes in italics below are from Kitcher’s article.)
I went to some lengths in Breaking the Spell to distinguish two spells one might consider breaking: the taboo against looking “too closely” at religion, holding it up to the same harsh light of rational probing to which we subject all other important phenomena, and the spell of religion itself. In my book I declared my intent to break the first spell and my agnosticism about the wisdom of breaking the second—citing the very considerations that Kitcher advances more positively. Kitcher ignores my distinction but in fact is in nearly perfect harmony with my positions on them. His essay is an example of breaking the first spell: he writes with unflinching candor about the shaky status of any religion adopted on what he calls the belief model, and uses that spell-broken perspective to look hard at the prospects for keeping the second spell unbroken, by relying on what he calls the orientation model, supposing that this is perhaps the only surviving mode of religion that can provide the benefits he wants to preserve, which may just be a necessity of meaningful life for many people. As I noted in my book, there is a reasonable fear that breaking the first spell will inevitably break the second as well, which fear is the (obligatorily) tacit standard justification for not breaking the first. Kitcher vividly illustrates that problem in his essay, trying to walk the tightrope without falling into patronizing on one side or uneasy complicity with unacceptable nonsense on the other.
The point of Kitcher’s introduction of the orientation model is to give him a way of reversing—most of the time—the otherwise standard dependence of serious commitments and aspirations on grounded beliefs. The orientation-type religionists put commitments first, as the fundamental landmarks of their lives, and let the expression of (what take the place of) grounds for these commitments wander somewhat opportunistically between “mythically self-conscious” metaphor at one pole and “doctrinal “entanglement” (flirting with the belief model) at the other, with convenient vagueness in the middle. (The “doctrinally indefinite” folks “take refuge in language that is resonant and opaque, metaphorical and poetic, and deny that they can do any better at explaining the beliefs they profess.”) Whatever floats your boat, as one says. And indeed, if maintaining a religious orientation is the only way for you to have a meaningful life, you should rely on whatever floats your boat. But then it will just make matters harder for you if you have to confront Kitcher’s trio. Tell me, sir, have you decided to go with mythic self-consciousness, doctrinal entanglement, or doctrinal indefiniteness? Don’t ask! Don’t tell! That’s why many think the first spell should not be broken, but Kitcher and I have both ignored that admonition.
Kitcher is at pains to express his defense of these delicate options sympathetically:
I’ll suggest that doctrinal indefiniteness can be a reasonable expression of epistemic modesty, and that even doctrinal entanglement can be justified when it is the only way of preserving, in the socio-cultural environment available, a reflectively stable orientation. (p6)
but a somewhat less diplomatic version hovers in the background: kid yourself if you have to. And, I am happy to say, Kitcher firmly draws the line at letting any of these options abrogate a commitment to reason when deciding ethical matters.
Someone who makes decisions affecting the lives of others is ethically required to rely on those propositions best supported by the evidence.
In a felicitous phrase he notes that “there ought to be no ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’,” but then just what is the positive role of Abraham as a “knight of faith” supposed to be, when he so clearly violates this principle? Kitcher says that Abraham’s “sort of trust is not legitimate”—you can’t put it much plainer than that—but how, then, does Kitcher find a way of endorsing Abraham’s (mythical) story as any sort of talisman for a meaningful life?
Kitcher sketches a speculative account of the evolution of religious phenomena that is, as he says, an alternative to my own speculative conjecture—it sees the predominance of religion as explained by its being (socially) adaptive, not a byproduct of other evolutionary selection pressures—but he then draws a misleading contrast:
If you start with the thought that the predominance of religion in human societies is to be explained by a cognitive deficiency, you will tend [my italics] to see your campaign for the eradication of myths in terms of a return to intellectual health. . . . By contrast, if you suppose that the social factors towards which I have gestured have played a non-trivial role in the spread of the world’s religions, you will wonder [my italics] if there are psychological and social needs that the simple abandonment of religion will leave unfulfilled. (p9)
There may be such a tendency, pulling in opposite directions, but Darwin long ago showed us that it should be resisted.
It is in perfect accordance with the scheme of nature, as worked out by natural selection, that matter excreted to free the system from superfluous or injurious substances should be utilized for [other] highly useful purposes. (On the Various Contrivances by which Orchids. . . . 1862, p266—quoted in DDI, p461)
So Kitcher’s wonder is just as available to me, and, similarly, however socially adaptive religious phenomena may have been in the past, their utility may have expired. It is simply a mistake—but a very common one—to seek a theory of the evolution of religious phenomena that would provide some imagined warrant for your view of the value of religion today. I worked hard to keep these issues distinct in my book, and Kitcher should acknowledge that his preferred speculation is logically independent of the main point for which he is arguing: that religion is valuable today, all things considered.
It may well be. I find his most compelling point to be his observation that Dawkins and I should not extrapolate glibly from our own immense good fortune to find ourselves in a position not only to understand and appreciate the glories of the scientific world view but to have the thrill—no other word will suffice—of playing significant roles in the spreading of this vision.
. . . the vast majority will never be able to recognize themselves as important participants in any impressive joint enterprise that contributes to knowledge and enlightenment. (p11)
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 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. 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.
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.