'Life After Faith' author Philip Kitcher. Photo by Patricia Kitcher.
'Life After Faith' author Philip Kitcher. Photo by Patricia Kitcher.

Philip Kitcher: 'New Atheism' hasn't supplied anything to replace religion

'Life After Faith' author Philip Kitcher. Photo by Patricia Kitcher.

'Life After Faith' author Philip Kitcher. Photo by Patricia Kitcher.

A recent court ruling has reignited a long-running debate among Humanists: Is Humanism a religion?

Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, suggests that whether or not you call it a religion, secular humanism can function like religion at its best—and perhaps even replace it.

Earlier this year, Kitcher spoke with Gary Gutting at The New York Times’s The Stone about this kind of Humanism. Now he’s published a thoughtful, thorough, and approachable book based on his 2013 Terry Lectures at Yale on the subject: Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism.

The first part of our conversation—on his disagreements with “New Atheism,” how secular humanism is similar to religion and how it is different, and what Humanists can learn from religion—appears below. Check back tomorrow for the second part of our discussion, where Kitcher explores how to disentangle ethics from religion, the connection between Humanist values and community, and why doubt is just the beginning of Humanism. (Update: it's now online.)

Chris Stedman: In the introduction to Life After Faith you say that you “resist the now dominant atheist idea that religion is noxious rubbish to be buried as deeply, as thoroughly, and as quickly as possible.” Why?

Philip Kitcher: For my entire adult life, I’ve been trying to figure out what I should say about religion. It came to a head for me in the wake of the resurgence of “New Atheists” in the early part of the century. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris—there’s much that I agree with in their books and presentations, but all of them seem to be missing some important things.

[tweetable]I think that the “New Atheist” critique has a very narrow view of religion.[/tweetable] For people like Dawkins, religion is all about people having false beliefs—and they think that when people have false beliefs, it’s better to correct their beliefs. I think in general that’s right, though having a misguided belief isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. [tweetable]But you can’t just leave things with “Well, we’ve now shown you why your traditional beliefs are false, enjoy yourselves and get on with it!”[/tweetable]

Dawkins would also rightly say that the forms of religion he attacks are the ones that cause the most violence and suffering in the contemporary world. But there are many people who practice less problematic—even socially valuable—forms of religion. It isn’t the end of the story to wipe out religious doctrine and say that’s the end of it. [tweetable]One must come to terms not only with religion's history of problems, pain, and suffering, but also with its achievements.[/tweetable]

My perspective aims to widen the critique of religion, be more sympathetic to religion at its best, and strive towards finding a positive position that could replace religion. Some suggest that people never give up a perspective, however bad it may be, until they’ve got something to replace it. [tweetable]My fundamental difficulty with the “New Atheism” is that I don’t think it has supplied anything to replace religion.[/tweetable] Secular humanism tries to fill that gap. I wrote Life After Faith because I wanted to put the focus back on the positive: on secular humanism as a positive perspective on life.

CS: You argue that a secular perspective “can fulfill many of the important functions religion, at its best, has discharged.” How does secular humanism function in ways that are similar to some expressions of religion? How is it different? What can Humanists can learn from religion?

PK: [tweetable]For some religious people, religion is really all about values and not about specific doctrines.[/tweetable] By values I mean that they are genuinely concerned with human wellbeing and make great sacrifices to try to promote it. That’s a very important part of religion at its best. I grew up in Britain with a church that was much less interested in doctrine and dogma, and much more interested in social reform—in trying to help people live valuable lives. I respect that.

Practically, secular humanism can learn a lot from the ways in which religious communities have looked after the poor, looked after those who are suffering, tried to create a more humane world, and in general involved themselves in ethical projects. I think that’s admirable, and it’s something that the secular community is going to have to learn how to do as well.

CS: I love the book's concluding lines: “A secular worldview ought to be forged in dialogue, even in passionate interaction, with all that has been most deeply thought about what it is to be human—including whatever can be refined out of religious traditions. [tweetable]For secular humanism is only secondarily secular; it is primarily humane.[/tweetable]”

'Life After Faith' by Philip Kitcher

'Life After Faith' by Philip Kitcher

PK: In a sense, that’s the credo of the entire book. Humanism is all about values—located in human beings, not in anything beyond us. [tweetable]We’re not important because we are the children of a divine being; we are just important.[/tweetable] And our lives matter when they connect with others, when they matter to others.

At times, dogma has inflicted massive, unnecessary suffering on many unfortunate people. That’s religion at its worst. But religion at its best is when other human beings, with all their faults and flaws and needs, come first—and when people work together to try to build a situation in which as many people as possible can live as well as possible. That’s secular humanism at its best, too.

Check back tomorrow for part two of our discussion.(Update: it's now online.) This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Comments

  1. “strive towards finding a positive position that could replace religion”
    I am all for optimism, and men and women of good will, mutual respect and all that, but the “universal” religions, have been aggressive, exclusive, and divisive for so long, I am in favor of a long breather to allow these old attitudes to die, before adopting replacements that will most likely take the most familiar form. American Buddhism’s emphasis on “practice” rather than belief seems like a good test case to me, and the jury is still out on whether it will slip back into superstition and magic. In the meantime, I prefer outright skepticism – and a benign sense of humor.

  2. Religion is boring; finding a replacement for it is like getting rid of your hemorrhoids and worrying about what you’re going to do with all those special seat cushions now.
    It’s a waste of time, money and trouble.

  3. As you know, Chris, the congregation I lead in Toronto, Canada, West Hill United, has been evolving from a traditional, liberal congregation into a theologically barrier-free community over the past many years. There are Sunday Assemblies sprouting up in large centres across the States, the UK, and down under. Some UU congregations are poised to transition beyond theism. And I, personally, am doing my best to try to create safe space for other mainline clergy to own the human construction of religion they were taught in theological college.
    I think it is crucial that we seek out those who are carving out a new kind of community that does not exclude theists or atheists, that is aiming high toward the ideals we once pasted on an image we named “God”, and work together to support one another in the ways that are appropriate to the contexts in which each community is found. It will do humanity no good for us to continue to lament that this group or that didn’t do enough. I hope we can find ways to pool our wisdom, get over the illusion that we were each the first person to clue in to the bad effects of religious dogma and figure out what to do about it – get over ourselves, basically – and support and continue to create the communities that will strengthen those working to save humanity from the culture of greed and planetary exploitation that threatens to consume us all.

  4. This is a great interview. For our own good, I think we need to realize the importance of acceptance, cooperation, and co-existance. Whether or not Secular Humanism can be a replacement for religion, it will be a long while before it does so. Looking beyond our differences and seeing our similarities can bring about many benefits.

  5. “Man” is a religious animal. The world is full of people who attempt to fill the God shaped vacuum with philosophy, good works, self-deification, self-realization, rituals, liturgy, spiritism, humanism and the like. Ultimately, they become unfulfilling when they are substituted for a personal awareness of a personal God who desires a personal relationship with those he made in his own image. God is real. If you doubt it, invite Jesus into your heart and see what happens.

  6. The biggest single problem with “secular humanism” and for that matter “New Atheism” a la Richard Dawkins, is that it is mostly an academic exercise for those in academia. It has little or no values that resonate with ordinary people. For better or for worse, thats precisely where religion has been successful. It has found a way to map unintelligible higher complexity of the physical universe into controllable and manageable albeit meaningless concepts. Secular humanism makes another monster of a mistake….by criticizing religion for being, chaotic, irrational, contradictory etc. But in reality thats precisely how religion should be because it is attempting to map a much more complex higher “dimensional” reality onto our simple reality. There is no way to do that consistently or coherently…otherwise it would not be a higher complexity domain of reality. Imagine yourself as a 2D being living in on your 2D flat plane. You will never see the trajectory of a 3D particle until it intersects your plain, and , except for the rarest of cases, you will be completely unable to explain why it intersected your 2D plane the way it did because you don’t know its more complex trajectory. Thats how religion is for us. We are trying to map something more complex into something less complex , and that will lead to chaos and apparent inconsistency. It is completely irrational to assume that we can perceive reality in all its total complexity. No other species on the planet can do that. For example, does your dog even perceive, let alone understand, the Internet…or the banking system…..or planetary orbits. It doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know anything about them. Its a complexity and structure of reality that it does not even know exists.
    Religion also has an important role for us. From its earliest days, religion actually had more to do with human beings attempting to to see themselves in the context of some higher meaning or value, rather than a deity. Even the Neanderthals did this with burial rites in the Shanidar Caves, and other early hominids did very similar things as can been by cave and stone art in places like Lasceaux , Altamira and Lausell. A deity concept emerged a lot later, but the initial role of religion was simply to attempt to depict a higher level of value that transcended the bare physical world.
    So in summary, I think secular humanism is destined for spectacular failure if it persists in trying to view religion as a pseudo -scientific activity on the level of fact without understanding that it is in fact nothing other than the ability of the human mind to use myth and symbology to help us attempt to understand and control a world that is in reality beyond our understanding and control.

  7. I am trying create that replacement for a religious congregation, because the reason most people join a religious group is the sense of community that a tribe provides. The religious leaders that hijack the people with good intentions and manipulate them to create an organization for their own profit or ego are the problem. Unfortunately they wrap their theology into that package and the theology is based on feudal ideals (monarchies, non-representative governance). Its written right in the rules to not question authority or the status quo. But if you knock those legs out from under the stool and offer a better tribe…

  8. Larry, I think what you’re missing is that god man made.

    God is not real, but when people are born with no knowledge and have to learn how to walk, talk and then be an individual, along the way people start asking questions. It’s the lazy/easy route to listen to your religious parents or friends that you trust who say all the answers are in the bible and from Jesus, who if he even existed, has not a single contribution to the bible, yet you suggest people find him? He’s dead, or was never more than a fable. There’s not a single thing that can be read from the bible that couldn’t be learned through personal experience and good will.

    So, what you suggest here is that people give up their soul, their individuality, their experience and their curiosity for a 2000 year old dead guy and a book of stories that is grotesquely controversial and has to be interpreted with every read despite being rewritten by kings and poets in a grandiose prose?

  9. So, what you’re saying is, religion is only for the non-intelligent, and that religion is trying explain something so complex that the non-intelligent don’t have the ability to grasp? And then compare the non-intelligent to having the same traits/values/comprehension level as neanderthals and early hominids? Then you state religion as fact and uses myth and symbology to explain itself, but is too complex to even do that in the first place?

    Using your example, I can see why religion appeals to you.

    For everyone else in the world, there will always be things you don’t understand, but that does not mean it can’t be understood. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable wish to simply educate people to “academia” (college) so they may see for themselves all the things we know and do not know. (and we know a lot more than you think)

  10. And that’s really it. Religion started as a group, wrapped around a community. Typically worshiping things that were real, but unknown and powerful, like the sun or stars. Then people got smarter and used it for power with intangible things and rules (like life after death, heaven/hell, god/devil and zombies).

    Go join/start a Meetup community group in your area. People are social and want to be a part of a group working towards something better.

  11. Romans 1:18-32 tells us who created the world. Creation is proof that
    there is a creator. To look at the world/universe then say that this is
    all just random chance is just being blind. Bible prophecy that came
    true about Jesus Christ like Psalm 22:16-18/Isaiah 53:3-7 both show
    that Bible prophecy is real/Jesus is the Messiah/only way to heaven!

  12. Hi David,
    “It (“secular humanism” ) has little or no values that resonate with ordinary people. For better or for worse, thats precisely where religion has been successful.”
    Yes, this is my observation as well. The success of Mormonism (irrational and transparently derivative) is a convincing illustration of this. Religion draws together the unholy alliance of those who crave to command and those who crave to be commanded.

  13. @ Karla,
    I created the world. When I was born I opened my eyes and zap – the world was created.

  14. “I think that the “New Atheist” critique has a very narrow view of religion. For people like Dawkins, religion is all about people having false beliefs—and they think that when people have false beliefs, it’s better to correct their beliefs.”

    Perhaps it’s not that New Atheists have a narrow view of religion, but that we have a narrow view of TRUTH. We think truth is important. So we feel a natural antipathy toward religion, which generates false ideas by the ark-load, disseminates them, and encourages (even extorts) people to fight for them long after they’ve been proved false.

    Do all religious people behave stupidly? No, of course not. And not all alcohol drinkers drive drunk. We regulate the alcohol industry and the use of alcohol to reduce the number of people who abuse liquor. But there are no equivalent safeguards on religion. No minimum age to indulge, no government licensing of pastors, no truth-in-advertising restrictions.

    Religion is a license to lie with impunity. You can literally tell a gay teenager, “You would be better off dead than being gay”, and if he kills himself not only won’t you be charged with child endangerment or sued for malpractice, you’ll probably be hired to conduct the kid’s funeral.

    It doesn’t take a lot of respect for the truth to be offended by the behavior our society indulges as “freedom of religion” and to think claims about religion should be criticized the same as any other claim about reality.

    “My fundamental difficulty with the “New Atheism” is that I don’t think it has supplied anything to replace religion.”

    Perhaps I have more respect for the rest of humanity than Kitcher does. I don’t think people really NEED anything to replace religion. I don’t think you need to lie to 90% of people to make them behave morally and constructively. Indeed, I think people would be *more* moral if they didn’t have authority figures teaching them God will forgive them no matter what they do, while teaching inconsistent moral values distilled from ancient myths.

  15. “Ultimately, they become unfulfilling when they are substituted for a personal awareness of a personal God who desires a personal relationship with those he made in his own image.”

    Absolute, utter nonsense.

    Obviously, you don’t know anyone except people who attend your church. Those is no god-sized hole in the heart of so many unbelievers.

  16. “It has found a way to map unintelligible higher complexity of the physical universe into controllable and manageable albeit meaningless concepts. Secular humanism makes another monster of a mistake….by criticizing religion for being, chaotic, irrational, contradictory etc. But in reality thats precisely how religion should be because it is attempting to map a much more complex higher “dimensional” reality onto our simple reality. There is no way to do that consistently or coherently…otherwise it would not be a higher complexity domain of reality.”

    So religion is the way the unintelligent attempt to explain the unexplainable to the uninformed.

    You certainly don’t seem to think much of religion or people.

  17. Do you know these Romans? Creation is not proof because there’s no evidence that proves everything didn’t exist in some way before. The Law of conservation of matter states no matter can be created or destroyed. Mapping the CBR proved to us that the big bang even started with an object of size. There’s not a single scientist that will say that the universe is random. If they do, they are blind i diots. Everything in the universe happens according to certain repeatable behaviors that we’ve observed and is the “scientific knowledge” that everyone talks about. It’s incomprehensible for the tiny brains we have, but still, it’s an immeasurable amount of small interactions that make up the big ones.

    JC, by the way, never rose from the dead according to the oldest bible in existence, the Sinai bible. “Someone” added that later among the man “translations.” Translations according to bible history means rewritten for a different purpose. The KJB was written by a poet and is nothing like the original ones. Prophecies are BS. Anyone can say anything is going to happen. Then, it’s real easy to say it came true when you make up a story that’s a lie.

    Go get run over by a bus and tell me if there’s an afterlife.

  18. Nice cliched response. Yeah, I tried that (the life of religious belief) for about 30 years, until I could no longer abide all the stresses of magical thinking. Massive relief in finally letting go, in seeking and valuing truth over comfort.

  19. God is so real that it can I be demonstrated in any way. God is as real as leprechauns. When you have any evidence for your deity, it will be the first. Then, and only then, will your deity not be a leprechaun’s equivalent.

  20. What Prof. Kitcher says about religion could just as well be said about patriotism. (Which in many respects is communal morality, what religion is alleged to be.) If you think of it that way, though, I don’t think what Prof. Kitcher says is very compelling at all.

  21. This is just nonsense!

    Exactly the kind of bad reasoning we need to get away from.

  22. Bravo…Here’s to your discovery of your spirituality whether it includes Christ, Buddha, Yahweh, or not.

    Bishop John Spong says God is not a Christian, Buddhist or Hindu…Religions are just man-made institutions created by man to help us walk into the mystery of god.

    He also said that people don’t understand that the church has dangled us between their imaginary heaven and hell as a control tactic and that it has been in the guilt producing, control business.

    It’s high time we broke free and found our own spirituality.

    Joseph Ratzinger quit his first seminary because they conceded that there were two separate and opposing Christianities in the second century. One was the Jewish Christianity of Jesus. The other was the Roman gentile Christianity of Paul. They noted that “Paul was indifferent to the teaching of Christ, and was the opponent of the religion of love Christ came to announce to the world.” Catholic Encyclopedia

    The crisis for the church is that people are more educated than ever before. They doubt the church because of this double standard of Christianity. Is it Christ’s religion of love and brotherhood or the church’s Roman Christianity of judgment and consequences?

    According to Parade Magazine, “What Americans are doing today is separating spirituality from religion, with many people disavowing organized practice altogether. In fact, 24% put themselves into a whole new category, ‘spiritual, but not religious.” Parade (10/4/09)

    I wish people who are leaving the church would re-consider Christ in the context of His original Jewish Christianity…It’s nothing like Roman Christianity! If you check it out, you’ll find that His teaching was nothing like what the church has presented…

    It was only a religion of love that He came to announce to the world. Not the religion of judgment and consequences as taught by the church…

    Please watch video… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fuwmi2EWAD8

    Since Christian Spirituality is a personal faith experience and more like original Christianity, it has replaced church for one fourth of Americans…

    Truly, Brad O’Donnell
    wheretonowstpaul.com

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