I see that my fellow bloggers have not been idle during my absence. Matt Nisbet has another one of his Dawkins bashing posts up. This time his champion is philosopher Phillip Kitcher.
Nisbet quotes Kitcher as follows, from a recent podcast of Point of Inquiry:
DJ Grothe: Did you write the book to sell secular humanism, or maybe in a more limited way atheism to the public? All these anti-God books are the real rage right now, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens…your book is addressing some of the same topics, are you addressing the same audience…
Kitcher: Well I’m actually not happy with any of the books you mentioned, I haven’t read all of them. The ones I have read and the parts I have read of others, suggests to me that there is a biting tone about them, which is of course being picked up in the press. They are in many ways unremittingly negative books, they want to get rid of this stuff, they want to sink it, they want to throw it away.
DJ Grothe: Without providing much of an alternative, they are attacking…
Kitcher: Right, and without seeing that while religion has in so many places and at so many times given rise to extremes of human unhappiness and suffering and continues to do so today. On the other hand, it has also provided a lot of consolation, a lot of meaning, a lot of genuine uplift for people. I think to simply snatch this away, and in effect say, in the voice of a very commanding doctor, “Oh read a couple pages of the origin, and you will feel better in the morning,” Um, that’s simply not enough. I think there has to be something more about the contribution of secular humanism than we see at the moment.
Later in the interview, Kitcher describes the central question of his book as “How do we make sense of human values and how do we move forward in a post-religious age?”
In part, he says his book addresses “why the kinds of things that you get from Dawkins and Dennett and so on, really strike people as shrill, unfeeling, and unsatisfying.” According to Kitcher, even if the critiques of religion are true, there is no reason for atheists to gloat, instead they should be actively exploring alternatives and replacements to religion. He says he is skeptical that you can tell people that religion is a myth and believe that the public will respond. Instead, Kitcher views the persistence of religion as a product of threat and unease in life and society. Without offering a positive vision and alternative to religion, supernatural beliefs will always exist.
There is so much to criticize here. Since Nisbet makes this complaint so often, perhaps he can give an example of what he means as an alternative or replacement to religion. The only alternative to religion of which I am aware is the one where you find comfort and satisfaction in your life through some combination of work and family. If something more than that is required I fail to see how atheism can provide it.
And I hardly think it is a fair criticism to say that Dawkins has some obligation to write books that satisfy people’s emotional cravings. His interest was in presenting certain facts and arguments regarding the existence of God in a way that people would find readable and understandable, and in that task he succeeded admirably. Books such as his play an important role in gaining acceptance for a secular view of the world.
But the most important point is that Kitcher’s now book Living With Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, offers precisely nothing in the way of comfort to people who see evolution as a threat to morality and religious faith. Quite the contrary, he mostly just confirms their fears. His book is even more devastating for Christianity than those of his predecessors.
Unlike Dawkins and Dennett, who argue primarily that evolution menaces religion indirectly by refuting the argument from design in biology, Kitcher argues that evolution per se is a threat to Christianity. The final chapter of his book lays out his argument. After first describing the familiar argument that God and Darwin need not be in conflict, Kitcher writes:
I agree with some parts of this account. With any major piece of science, it is possible to idenitfy unsolved problems, and to conjure up a “case for balance,” a case that would require significant work and attention to expose for the charade it is. Present the “case for balance” in evolutionary theory to people who are already worried about the impact of Darwinain ideas on their children, people who lack the tools to identify its chicanery, people who don’t have the motivation to probe it as they would other heterodox claims, and it’s highly likely that you’ll success in rallying them to the cause. Where I demur, however, is in the thought that the worries about Darwinism are themselves unfounded, that the supporters of intelligent design have misguidedly erected a non-existent opposition between Darwinism and the religious doctrines central to their faith. (121) (Emphasis Added)
After briefly discussing a handful of famous people in history who have found Darwinism and faith to be incompatible, we get this:
Perhaps this is overwrought, even neurotic? I don’t think so. Romanes, like James, like the evangelical Christians who rally behind intelligent design today, appreciate that Darwinism is subversive. They recognize that the Darwinian picture of life is at odds with a particular kind of religion, providentialist religion, as I shall call it. A large number of Christians, not merely those who maintain that virtually all of the Bible must be read literally, are providentialists. For they believe that the universe has been created by a Being who has a great design, a Being who cares for his creatures, who observes the fall of every sparrow and who is especially concerned with humanity. Yet the story of a wise and loving Creator who has planned life on earth, letting it unfold over four billion years by the processes envisaged in evolutionary theory, is hard to sustain when you think about the details. (122-123)
More like impossible to sustain, by the time Kitcher gets through with it. After devoting the next ten pages or so to a cogent argument for why reconciling traditional Christianity with Darwin requires some serious mental gymnastics, he next turns to supernaturalism generally. He also devotes quite a few pages to a discussion of why the claims made in the New Testament can not be taken at face value.
I find Kitcher completely convincing in this. I agree that the picture of natural history depicted by evolutionary theory is effectively impossible to reconcile with the one found in traditional Christianity, and the problem goes well beyond a conflict with a literal interpretation of Genesis.
So where is the comfort in this? Where is the satisfying alternative to providentialist religion? Kitcher’s only nod in that direction is to conjure up something he calls “spiritual religion:”
Second, and more importantly, the critique of providentialism and supernaturalism leaves open the possibility of what I have called “spritual religion.” monotheisms can generate a version of spiritual religion by giving up the literal truth of the stories sontested by the enlightenment case. How can this be done? I shall illustrate the possibility by using the example of Christianity.
Spiritual Christians abandon almost all the standard stories about the life of Jesus. They give up on the extraordinary birth, the miracles, the literal resurrection. What survive are the teachings, the precepts and parables, and the eventual journey to Jerusalem and the culminating moment of the Crusifixion. That moment of suffering and sacrifice is seen, not as the prelude to some triumphant return and the promise of eternal salvation — all that, to repeat, is literally false — but as symbolic presentation of the importance of compassion and of love without limits. We are to recognize our own predicament, the human predicament, through the lens of the man of the cross. (152-153)
If you are inclined to favor this approach, rest assured that Kitcher very quickly proceeds to point out the two obvious problems with it. First, for anyone accustomed to supernatural religion, most people in other words, so watered down a conception of Christianity is unlikely to be very satisfying. Second, spiritual religion looks an awful lot like plain old secular humanism. Admiring at least some of the moral teachings of Jesus while denying his divinity is something most atheists are perfectly happy to do.
The remainder of the book offers some speculations for why providentialist religion continues to thrive in the US, despite the evidence against it. Kitcher offers much food for thought here, but he offers nothing to suggest how people are to find emotional comfort once they give up their faith in God.
So please, Dr. Kitcher, do not pretend that your book is any less biting or hard-nosed than those of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris or Hitchens. Do not pretend that you offer a soothing alternative to traditional religion, thereby filling a gap left by previous books. Do not think that you can lay waste to every substantive claim of traditional religion, and then mitigate the damage by writing:
Where does this barrage of arguments leave us? Darwin’s most militant defenders would insist that they take us all the way to secularism, even that they constitute a knockdown case for atheism. I dissent from that conclusion for two reasons. First, even though the enlightenment case demonstrates that, taken as literal truth, the stories and historical claims of all the religions about which we know are overwhelmingly likely to be mistaken, it does not follow that the world contains nothing beyond the entities envisaged by our current scientific picture of it. The history of inquiry shows that our horizons have often expanded to encompass things previously undreamed of in anyone’s natural philosophy. Whether inquiry will ever disclose anything that can satisfy the religious impulse, that can merit the title of “transcendent,” is itself doubtful, and we can be confident that, even if this remote possibility is realized, it will not approximate any of the stories our species has so fsr produced. It would be arrogant, however, to declare categorically that there is nothing that might answer to our vague conception of the transcendent — there is too much that we do not yet know. (152)
Of course, atheists do not declare categorically that there is nothing vaguely transcendent in the world. They argue simply that supernatural Gods are extremely unlikely to exist, on much the same basis as does Kitcher himself. But that’s a different post.